Monday, March 16, 2009

Preserve and Protect

It's an interesting time in Florida, still cool in the mornings but hot enough in the afternoons to demand the AC. The bulk of the Live Oak leaves have fallen and oak pollen coats everything and these little brown squiggles get in your car and on your clothes despite any attempts to contain them. As the pollen comes off, the trees seem to take on a new brighter shade of green and the light is still good because our humidity levels haven't approached their summer levels yet. And the Tabebuias (golden trumpet trees) are outrageous with their intense yellow blossoms contrasted against the bright blue sky.

In the lake behind my house, Tilapia have created dozens of beds for spawning. They crowd the shady shallow water around my dock, pockmarking the bottom with craters about 18 inches wide. These fish are not native to the state but have found conditions here to their liking and have been prolific, like so many of us transplanted Floridians.

The roads, recently clogged with motorcycles and snowbirds, are full of spring breakers and the life sustaining arteries that pump money into Florida's tourist-based economy flow again, but at a much reduced level. According to numbers in the Orlando Sentinel, state tax revenue for the first quarter of this year will be more than one billion dollars below the previous estimate. Next year lawmakers will face a budget deficit of more than six billion dollars. Which is not good for our schools, our state parks or the overall quality of life in the Sunshine State.

Revenue for the state has been generated almost entirely by a sales tax. We have no state income tax in Florida. Our economy has been based on attracting people down to our peninsula; as long as tourists were coming here in droves and thousands of new residents moved to the state every year, that was enough. Now it appears fewer people are coming and Tallahassee has less money to provide services for its residents.

There are some in our state government who wish to try to spur growth by making it easier for developers. That has worked successfully in the past. But unchecked development creates sprawl and has dire environmental consequences and ultimately reduces the quality of life for all Floridians. In the NY Times recently, columnist Thomas Friedman wondered if we were at point of inflection, where the world's economy and environment could no longer sustain growth. It's my belief that as a state we may be standing at such a crossroads.

I believe part of the problem is that many of the residents are not in touch with the place they are living. I live near Floridians who don't understand that you can't use harsh herbicides to kill plants to improve your lake view, or that watering your lawn at the hottest time of day in mid-summer is a waste of precious water. I love the Spanish moss hanging from the trees, looking like Gothic rock work on a cathedral, they think it is a eyesore and a parasite (it is actually an epiphyte, meaning it absorbs nutrients from the air and rainfall, not the tree it is attached to.) I mean no disrespect to my neighbors, they just happen to represent differing perspectives and I find it interesting that while we live in the same community, the way we look at our yards is completely different. I must admit, I'm relatively new in knowing of the benefits of native plants, but I have become more conscious that having a yard full of plants that don't require regular watering is a very good thing. I think that our lack awareness about the natural order of things in our state has been a huge factor in creating the challenges we now face.

I'm as guilty as anyone, of applying potentially harmful chemicals to my yard, leaving my sprinkler on too long, or buying plants that look cool but won't live with out constant care. But at this point we have to be better stewards of our state and step up and tighten our belts if necessary, because if we continue to behave the way we have in the past, no one will want to live here in the future. It will be like the insulated world in the movie wall•e where the people live in an artificial, isolated universe, completely unaware of the world from which they came from. I wonder how many of us are taking time to really take advantage of this wonderful time year, before we crawl into our air-conditioned summer bubbles, only to-reemerge when the weather gets cooler next fall.

One of my neighbors has an older house built in the 1930s with interesting features not found in today's homes, including a room paneled in Pecky Cypress. This rare wood is formed when a tree is attacked by fungus creating "lens shaped pockets" and is unique to the South. Much of the amazing Sam Stoltz house built in the 1920s that I recently visited was made of Pecky Cypress. My neighbor, however, has elected to drywall over this native, natural paneling in an effort to modernize his home. I think this is a fitting metaphor for what has happened to Florida.

My goal with this blog is to celebrate all things Florida, from our interesting history to our natural wonders, and encourage others to appreciate and help preserve this wonderful state. Before it is too late.

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