|© New York Times|
I must confess as a graphic designer and admitted collector of "Ponceabilia" the most attractive element of T.D. Allman's recent editorial in the Times is the brilliant pen and ink illustration by Johnny Sampson. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must also admit that I, unlike Mr. Allman was not born in the Sunshine State but have resided here for forty-six of my forty-eight years. But Florida is my home and I love her completely, warts and all.
I attended the commemoration of "The First Landing" in Melbourne Beach and Mr. Allman couldn't have known this, but no statue of Ponce was unveiled on this day. For some reason the statue was not ready and rows of folding chairs faced a statue-less podium on April 2nd. The chaotic event was much like what I love about Florida; diverse, surprising, and slightly surreal. I saw little "illusion" referenced by Allman; the reenactors put on their period armor in plain sight of the attendees; yet the folks still crowded them for photos like they were Mickey at Disney.
I never even got to see the reenactor who played Ponce – he was two hours late and by the time he arrived I had moved on. The real Ponce's biggest contribution was the discovery of the Gulf Stream, the current that allowed the Europeans to return safely back to the Old World – making it the first highway to return tourists home. As for his landing point, well that is subject of great debate, as any firsthand accounts of the expedition of his journey have been lost and we may never be exactly sure where Ponce first stepped foot in the land he named La Florida.
Mr. Allman points out Ponce's arrival ultimately led to the extinction of the state's original inhabitants, the hundreds of thousands of indigenous people known as the Timucua, Calusa, Ais, Apalachee and others. But he didn't point out that in the 18th century the surviving members of the tribes, along with former slaves, were given sanctuary by the Spanish and were ultimately driven from the state by the British and their allies, the Creek Indians from Georgia and the Carolinas. When the Creeks stayed in Florida, some of these original natives, as well as the former slaves, were assimilated into what we now know as the Seminole nation. Since the day Ponce arrived, Florida has been a melting pot of people of different colors.
Ponce's association with the Fountain of Youth, an archetypal myth with roots stretching back to ancient Greece, goes well beyond Washington Irving to 15th and 16th century accounts by Oviedo and Herrara. The century-old attraction known as the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine was not created by Walter Fraser but by "Diamond Lil" McConnell who claimed to have unearthed the stone cross created by the Spanish explorer on his initial landing.
My favorite statement by Mr. Allman is "if we took the trouble to understand the past, we might stop building our lives on sinkholes." The release of his book "Finding Florida" earlier this year has generated much publicity and kick started a conversation about our state's past. In the complex, multicultural Florida of the 21st century that in itself is an accomplishment. But our state's history is not as cut and dry as Mr. Allman claims and our perspective as Floridians is constantly evolving.
My personal journey to learn more about Florida's past has led me to become a champion of Florida's threatened natural resources including its most incredible wonders – its 1,000 artesian Florida Springs. Much of the indifferent attitudes of those in power in Florida expressed by Mr. Allman have put these real fountains of youth at risk. But instead of taking shots at those that got us here, maybe we should focus our energy on solutions. The challenges facing the state today are complex, as is Florida's rich past. Narrow definitions and incomplete portrayals of where we came from, can limit the creativity needed to go forward. For those of us who embrace Florida and all her blemishes, a more complete understanding of Florida's past than is presented by Mr. Allman is necessary to prevent our fall into the sinkholes of the future.