Highlands Hammock

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: Macroinformation.org & Knatz.com / Teaching / Society / Order / HierCon /
@ K. 2006

Highlands Hammock State Park: A Little History

First: Highlands Hammock is roughly a million years old. It borders the only part of Florida that has been above sea level for more than ten million years. The original spine of Florida runs north and south roughly from Lake Wales to Lake Placid. Plant development has achieved scrub land: that’s it. The Hammock in contrast is the highest stage of plant succession reached in Florida.

Do I need to tell you what “hammock” means in this context? No, it’s not a swing that you lie down in, not this hammock. Hammock here means hardwood forest. In which-ever Indian language it means shade: a shady place, a place where evergreen oaks and palm trees grow together. Of course there are other hard woods too, also growing among the pithy, far-from-hard-wooded palms: hickory, sweet gum, red maple … a few elms …

This northerner loves hammock as much as any environment he’s ever been in. In summer, it’s cool. At noon, it’s dark. Man, those live oaks with their great oblique-to-horizontal branches, their epiphytes, their bromeliads, surrounded by sabal palms … are spooky!

Unfortunately, the most spectacular sideways growing oak branches in Highlands Hammock have been falling down, the great examples are gone: within the last couple of decades. I blame life, I blame civilization, and partly I blame the Park Service. Service policy protects the native life from alien species, at least its supposed to, but it hasn’t protected it from the alien life which poses the greatest danger to it: that’s human beings; except of course to make sure that the forest hasn’t yet been cut down and sold for development. But even the rangers, even the cops, park their cars, their trucks, under the oaks with the engine running. [note]

Second, buying the land for development with plans to cut the forest down was exactly what happened in the 1920s. One white colonist had owned land in the hammock by the Nineteenth Century, and though he certainly felled some trees, and planted some aliens — an orange grove — he was living in the hammock mostly as it was. But in the ‘Twenties the whole thing was slated for leveling.

As the sea level receded over the last ten million years the exposed land became scrub. Pine forests proliferated, covering between 50% to 60% of the Florida peninsula. Other environments developed: bay heads and other wetlands, cypress swamps …

My favorite part of introducing the Hammock to people is to explain how the various environments work together — as good neighbors as it were — to protect the hammock. Fire starts naturally and easily in the pine flatwoods. But slash pine are evolved to burn easily at low temperatures before most fires can damage the living part of the tree. Fire clears the junk wood (any growth not normally part of a pine flatwoods). The flatwoods retains its nature: and keeps fire from reaching the hammock. The other environments have their own ways of resisting fire: the bay trees grow in muck, the bald cypress stand in water for roughly half the year …

As it was the hammock had been lucky for a million years. With development its luck was about to run out.

As I was saying, the soil is young. Florida doesn’t have anything like the deep rich top layer of the older parts of the continent. Thus, the hammock soil, almost as much as bayhead soil, was at a premium for farming: destroy what’s there to grow more food for more humans: and make money. But some Sebring citizens got alarmed at the thought that their natural wonder would disappear. The speculating businessmen, the developers, agreed to back off their plans IF the community bought them out at at least the price they had invested. The concerned citizens came up short: until Margaret Shippen Roebling heard of their plight. She, daughter-in-law to the great John Roebling, inventor of steel wire, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, had fallen in love with Highland Hammock flying over it in an airplane. Mrs. Roebling told Sebring that if they’d come up with $5,000 she’d come up with $25,000. $30,000 would stop the cutting. It happened. A significant portion of the hammock was purchased for preservation. Highlands Hammock became a public park in 1929.

A bit more money came in, and the Roeblings, really getting into it, forked over another couple of hundred thousand in the decade which followed. The state and fed got into it too. When the Florida Park Service was founded, Highlands Hammock was donated to the state, making it one of the original Florida parks, and when Roosevelt formed the CCC — Civilian Conservation Core — FDR that is, important park infrastructure was undertaken.

Me, I would rather have left it alone, unmolested — no roads, no buildings — but no one has ever listened to me: and I wasn’t around at the time (born 193x).

pk was passing through Sebring in 1989. I’d heard of Highlands Hammock State Park and its vast hammock. (Oh: another word about hammocks: look at pictures of the Everglades, you’ll see hammocks: three, six trees in a group? That’s a hammock. Most hammocks are modest. The further south you go, the smaller they get: as I just illustrated with the Everglades. The large hammocks are few and far between. In the north, hardwood forests had spanned much of the continent; not in Florida. Highlands Hammock is the oldest and biggest hammock.) (But it’s not the only beauty: visit lots of Florida parks and see.) (Jacksonville, Saint Augustine, Sarasota, Naples … there are some beauties.)

2006, I’m still there. Right in the neighborhood. I never left. Still, it was a year or so before I saw much more than a corner of the hammock. (10% of the Florida state park is developed for visiting by the public; the bulk is left alone: except for the rangers and their machinery. But then the guy I bought my Honda 250 cc from invited me riding. After scouting around Wauchula he brought me around to back home via the back side of the park. We rose over some wooden bridges, through cypress swamp, In Hardee County, then back through the park on its dirt country road. We stopped at Little Charlie Bowlegs Creek and walked in to see the damn there. Man, I was in love. First, the hammock, now the cypress swamp.

There was one problem: I noticed that Charlie Creek, from the county road, was so full of trash, it was like the Sargasso Sea. Junk weeds choked its surface: water hyacinth (very pretty when in bloom, but an alien strangler of the native environment) carpeted the current, and nestled in each hyacinth was a beer bottle, or a cigarette pack, or a discarded bait container.

I rode out to the park, introduced myself to Captain Pete Anderson, the park boss, told him that I’d clean out the creek for him. Pete warned me that the creek was deeper than I might guess, that a canoe would be needed, that he’d be getting a canoe, that if I gave him my number, he’d call me when he had the canoe. I also asked Pete to keep me in mind if he had any part time work. (The starving writer needs to make a dollar now and then, but can’t afford the time to make two dollars. Between living and writing, I take the writing.) Pete said I’d have to fill out a form, then he’d have my number. I told him that I already had a printed resumé that would have all that information on it, and more. So a day to two later I dropped one off.

Time passed without word of a canoe — gee, I’d think he’d be anxious to get the creek cleaned up — but Pete did call me. He saw from my resumé that I’d taught college: maybe I’d like to give the park tours for the public, introduce the public to the ecology … Boy, would I!

Unfortunately, if the state runs it, it’s complicated. He wanted me to work full time. I already work full time: just with no income. I work ’round the clock. My brain is on slow-perk while I’m asleep. I could be drunk, chasing a skirt, and an important idea could come to me. My first novel blasted full-blown into my head while I was driving down I 95! Pete also warned me that they couldn’t pay much: it was like a penny “better” than minimum wage.

Of course I didn’t know the local ecology; but I do know ecology in the abstract. Indeed, I taught it: at Colby College in 1968. (But that’s a different story.) But why should ignorance stop me? I’d learn it over night: in order to give the tours.

Finally I agree to work full time for one season: half a year. Then I’d have to get back to my real work: whatever the cost to me.

And so it was arranged. Pete explained that he had to stick his neck out to get me $5 per hour. Oh boy. (Selling art, if I didn’t make $100 an hour, at least once with a customer, something was seriously wrong. I’ve made thousands of dollars in an hour: $72,000 once in one day! $25,000 once in a couple of hours.)

Notes

Engine Running Under the Oaks:
AP, 2006 07 13 A cop left his police dog in the cop car, engine running, AC on. The dog put the car in automatic! drive, the copmobile rolled forward, ran over a woman!

Could we add up the damage cops do, could we then argue for then having any possible net advantage? I’d rather have chaos. That is, a more natural order.

Also:

Highlands Hammock
Highlands Hammock Litter
Hammock Scrapbook
SNAFU at Wrede’s Wildlife
Butt Patrol
Season Visits
pk Stories Social, Hierarchical
by Age by Theme by Others Institutional Stories
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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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