The Warning of the Bear

Illustration by Alfred Basha.

This morning I woke up to a dream an hour before my alarm was set to stir me. In the dream I was sitting atop a tall clay outlook, a humble throne. I looked down from my perch in horror as a bunch of white people, adults and kids, threw rocks at a white mama bear in a clearing at night. The bear was angry, roaring and standing upright. They had been throwing rocks for some time, and her patience was wearing thin. Suddenly, the bear ran through the crowd circling, moving more quickly than I thought possible, a warning. I feared she might hurt one of the smaller children, toddlers, standing innocently in the crowd. As she completed her loop back to her original position with her back against the trees, I began yelling, “Hey!” I knew that if she did hurt one of the people it would mean her life too, no matter whose fault. As I tried to get the people’s attention to stop tormenting the bear, for their own safety and for hers, I realized my technique was ineffective. My screams drifted into the din in vein as the people too were yelling “Hey!” and throwing rocks at the mother bear, my screams drowned out by the chaos of the scene. I was too distant, my approach too easily drowned out. And then I woke up.

I will be speaking at the Southeast Farm to School Conference in Greenville, SC, Sept 24, 2016!

Southeast F2S Conference Speakers

I am honored and excited to get the chance to speak with these amazing people and sharing the session with Beverly Girard of Sarasota County School Board.

Our session will be on Farm to School procurement of Florida produce in the school lunch program as well as the collaboration between UF/IFAS, local FNS office, and community partners.

“Partnering for an Amazing Farm to School Program” (intermediate)
Beverly Girard, Sarasota County Schools, FL
Malory Foster, University of Florida IFAS Extension
Learn how Sarasota County Schools have developed ambassadors for farm to school, both within the school district and in the greater community. Local chefs, health care professionals, school board members, local farmers, the local food bank, gardeners, Cooperative Extension – all are taking part in F2S, and making the long-term success of the program a priority in our community.

Usually held as the ASAP Growing Minds Farm to School Conference in Asheville, NC, this larger regional conference was supported by a USDA grant to grow to the Southeast US. Info and registration is here at the Growing Minds site.

Systems Thinking at the Florida Local Food Summit, September 9-10, 2016

I am honored to be presenting at the Florida Local Food Summit 2016 about a passion of mine: systems thinking. Here is the workshop description:

Knowing about the pieces of the food system and having a vision for improving it is one important tool; however, an imperative skill set that can help elevate our results is systems thinking. Systems theory helps us look at problems holistically, avoid unanticipated consequences, and target small successes that lead to the long-term goal instead of astray. This presentation will cover the key concepts of systems theory through the work of MIT systems theorists, Peter Senge and David Peter Stroh. It is the hope that this interactive workshop will encourage attendees to recognize the ways they contribute to the problems they are trying to solve, think long term, recognize discrete relationships, create concept and systems maps, and move forward with a clearer vision in their work with complex problems through systems thinking.

If you are a farmer, gardener, eater or otherwise involved in the food system in Florida, please consider attending the Florida Local Food Summit. Summit Info:

The Local Food Movement is alive and kicking in almost every urban and rural center around our state. Yet, there have been few opportunities for collaboration, learning, networking and sharing in order strengthen our movement and have a greater collective impact at a statewide level. The 3rd annual Florida Local Food Summit does just that. The event is a weekend gathering September 9th & 10th our state’s top food and farming entrepreneurs, policy makers, chefs, foodies and local food fans. The Summit is your one stop shop for all things local food and farming. With on-farm workshops, panel discussions, farm-to-table dining, farm hack demonstrations and so much more, you aren’t going to want to miss it.

Energy Producers of the Future

The dietary preferences of populations play an important role in the energy efficiency of food systems. Several times per day we decide whether or not we will eat something nourishing to our bodies, but there are always so many factors that can play into that decision: cost of food, time available for preparation, one’s mood, and present company just to name a few. Perhaps not so surprisingly, yet again, that which is good for us is also better for the planet. When we choose whole foods instead of processed foods like candy bars, fast food, and anything that comes in a box or bag, we make a healthier choice for our body and also choose a product with a smaller carbon footprint. Processed foods require more fossil fuel energy to produce, process, and transport than whole locally-grown foods, and they also create non-recyclable or compostable waste such as plastic wrappers (Pimentel et al. 2008, 468).

Unfortunately, currently the food system in the United States is powered “almost entirely by non-renewable energy sources,” and only two percent of the population works to produce energy in the form of food (Pimentel et al. 2008, 468; Fridley 2012, 75). Contrast that figure to the year 1870 in which seventy percent of the population were farmers (Fridley 2012, 75). The recent trend is bent toward more people living in cities, globalization, and demographic changes which lead to fewer people living as energy producers and more people consuming energy at a faster rate (Pelletier et al. 2011). On average through our food system, Americans burn through 2,000 liters per year in oil equivalents, nineteen percent of America’s total energy use (Pimentel et al. 2008, 459). In order to create thriving local food systems, we need to train and recruit at least forty-five million more farmers (Ackerman-Leist 2013). Among many school garden initiatives and farm to school activities which encourage students to steward the land and grow up food literate, the USDA (2015) also launched its beginning farmer programs to help support new farmers. The National Young Farmers Coalition is working to support young farmers in overcoming the barriers to entry into farming such as land acquisition and student loan forgiveness (National Young Farmers Coalition 2015). It is my hope that these cross-disciplinary collaborative efforts will help Americans to become the energy producers of the future.

Eating less processed food, more fruits and vegetables instead of animal products, and locally produced foods all help to reduce energy inefficiency in our diets (Pimentel et al. 2008, 468). When we choose local, that economic impact has a ripple effect in our community by staying many times longer in local hands. “Whenever possible, taking advantage of locally grown foods and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs will conserve energy” (Pimentel et al. 2008,468). We can support the budding farmers (energy producers) in our area by being regular customers for fresher produce. Not only is this food healthier for our body and healthier for the planet; it’s healthier for our body because it’s healthier for the planet. Healthy food comes from healthy food systems. You don’t need to read a label to know it is nourishing.


Ackerman-Leist, Philip. 2013. Rebuilding the Foodshed. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Fridley, David. 2012. “Alternative Energy Challenges.” In The Energy Reader Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, edited by Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner, 69-76. Sausalito: The Foundation for Deep Ecology.

National  Young Farmers Coalition. 2015. “Our Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles.” Accessed December 13.

Pelletier, Nathan, Eric Audsley, Sonja Brodt, Tara Garnett, Patrik Henriksson, Alissa Kendall, Klaas Jan Kramer, David Murphy, Thomas Nemecek, and Max Troell. 2011. “Energy Intensity of Agriculture and Food Systems.” Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 2011. 36:223–46.

Pimentel, David, Sean Williamson, Courtney E. Alexander, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Caitlin Kontak. Steven E. Mulkey. 2008. “Reducing Energy Inputs in the US Food System.” Hum Ecol 36:459–471.

USDA. 2015. “New Farmers.” Accessed December 13.

Time and a Turning In

Whenever I begin thinking about sustainable food systems, I can’t help but deduce that we won’t reach a sustainable food system until we reinvent a sustainable society. You really can’t have one without the other if we’re staying true to the ultimate meaning of sustainability. Sustainability does not mean “green.” Many times when my mind wanders down this rabbit hole, I come to the conclusion that Americans are currently simply too busy to create and close nutrient loops, to make the time to garden, to walk places instead of drive, to ask big enough questions and find real answers (Houle and Rummage 2015). And too busy is just not a good enough excuse to sanction the destruction and inequity we witness today.

These are just a few examples of where human energy can save fossil energy… if only we had the time. Making the time for using human energy instead of fossil energy would not only reduce carbon emissions, it would make the space for us to actually create real solutions instead of techno fixes. It would, in many cases, improve public health by reducing sitting hours, increasing physical activity, and, I would guess, improve mental health by opening opportunities to stop and talk with one another instead of the isolation we inhabit in our single-occupancy cars and cubicles. The idea I’m reaching for is about quality of life. How can we grant permission for people to have the luxury of time? Time to spend on gardening, creating wholesome meals with your family and community, time to talk… and listen. For me these days, time is the utmost luxury; I spend way too much time in the car and way too much time alone in front of a glowing square. But that is the society we live in. Jobs that demand human energy are generally thought of as second-rate. This has got to change. Communication is done virtually. It would be quite interesting to begin considering ways in which to more highly value careful human labor, quality time with others, and a handmade aesthetic that is kinder to our planet.

But this is an elusive dilemma. Busyness is ubiquitous, efficiency worshiped. Almost no one who is alive today knows how to live completely sustainably in ways that would be acceptable to the masses. So, it is the project of our time to imagine and enact a way in which to live that is not only kinder to the earth, but kinder to ourselves. Some call it creative descent; some call it intentional aesthetics; some call it quality of life; some call it permaculture. We need it all, and it begins with astute critical thinking and turning inside. Once again, the outer world finds its activation switch inside ourselves. How can I create the time to do good? How can I make the effort to really listen to my friend, spouse, child? How can I find the time to think critically about ways to practice my values instead of my routine? How can I have empathy?

Houle, David and Tim Rummage. 2015. This Spaceship Earth. USA: David Houle & Associates.

You Can Affect Change, If You Reach

While all sectors of the US food system are in need of energy use improvement, there is one sector, the household level, that has a unique power. There are several reasons for this strategic angle. According to Canning et al. (2010, 20) households are consistently the number one energy user in the food system. Households consumed twice as much energy as the agriculture and the wholesale/retail sectors and about eight times as much energy as the transportation and the packaging sectors in 2002 (Canning et al. 2010). Successful education geared toward household level energy consumption would probe residents to reduce their household’s consumption in a variety of ways: reviving the old fashioned ways via human labor or purchasing smaller and/or energy star appliances if new ones are needed, switching to more renewable products, and practicing energy saving techniques (like using proper fridge temperatures and reducing food waste) are just a few examples.

Demand could also spur change in people’s interest in finding out more about the products they touch in their daily lives. Residents acting on this curiosity helps build a community’s value chain. Value chains “are strategic collaborations and business relationships between farms, processors, distributors, and retailers that operate on the basis of explicitly conveyed values – shared values that create a collaborative business opportunity and, ideally, customer allegiance” (Ackerman-Leist 2013, 190). However, people only maintain the power of the purse if they are not living in poverty and have food access and energy choices. So, targeting the household sector also should ensure that people have adequate affordable housing with which to leverage choices (Jon Thaxton pers.comm.). Per capita use of water drops by over half in apartments and condos compared to single family homes (Pierce Jones pers.comm.). These types of resource savings are yet another reason affordable community enhancing housing can affect value chain improvement.

Now, I am no proponent of the “CFL light bulb solution to climate change,” or so they say in reference to household level changes. Policy and industry have a major hand to play in systemic positive changes in our society. The bridge is this: citizens influence policy and industry… if we decide to. So, in order for a household targeted approach to be effective, it must go beyond the ways in which residents treat the area directly under their roofs. We must also take our place in the drivers seat by acting as catalysts toward greater change in our communities through activism, political engagement, improving access, and ultimately affect cultural change of acceptable standards for the types of products and practices available or not available to us. Let’s hope we see ones with stories.

After today’s Sustainable Communities Workshop in Sarasota County, I am, more than ever, thinking about the holistic change that needs to happen in order to reach a renewable energy, equitable, accessible, healthy food system. It exists in cultural change. It exists on all levels and in all sectors. It affects all types of people. Mainstream demand at the individual and household level for better food is vital… and I think it’s happening.

Ackerman-Leist, Philip. 2013. Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Canning, Patrick, Ainsley Charles, Sonya Huang, Karen R. Polenske, and Arnold Waters. 2010. “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System.” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service Economic Research Report Number 94, March.

Jones, Pierce. 2015. “Built Environment.” Presented at the annual Sustainable Communities Workshop, Sarasota County, Florida, December 3.

Thaxton, Jon. 2015. “Planning for a Sustainable Future: A Local Perspective.” Presented at the annual Sustainable Communities Workshop, Sarasota County, Florida, December 3.

Urban Resilience and Energy

On my 30-minute commute to my office, I often think about energy. The regrettable drive drags on, during which I listen to podcasts about permaculture and the many energy-related stores on the morning news. The cognitive dissonance is thought provoking. One day, while passing the some of the many stip malls that pock the surface of Florida, I thought, What are we going to do with all this concrete? My internal question was quite literal, as if I were planning for a next week when cheap abundant energy is no longer available. It surprised me.

I participated in a recently held webinar by the International Urban Food Network (IUFN 2015) called “Toward a Climate Resilient Urban Food Systems.” The speakers covered the various aspects about the typical urban built environment which are not resilient in the face of flooding, winds, storms, and heatwaves caused by climate change. One of the speakers, Marielle Dubbeling, was from the Resource Centres for Urban Agriculture & Food Security, and she shared case studies from various cities around the world that have implemented urban agriculture and forestry as mitigation responses to the effects of extreme weather caused by climate change (Dubbeling 2014). I imagined permaculture-inspired ponds, berms, swales, green spaces, and rain gardens throughout cities that could soak up floods, filter water, act as windbreaks, and reduce urban heat island effects. Howard Odum (1973, 225) discusses the need to utilize ecosystem services instead of mimic them with technological gadgets because this results in a waste of energy. 

Odum’s statement that “growth promoting policies and structures become an energy liability because their high energy cost is no longer accelerating energy yields,” exemplifies the vision of a future in which concrete becomes a burden on society. We have paved too much of our urban areas due to the main transportation method in the United States being the automobile. Without the ability to drive everywhere on a whim when cheap energy in the form of gasoline is not available, there is no other purpose for the roads that dominate the urban landscape. We are left with non-arable, toxic, heat-collecting, flood-vulnerable tarmac. Quite the liability indeed.

In contrast, creative descent from fossil fuels would prescribe the relocalization of our lifestyles and deem car transportation obsolete. We should convert the many roadways into bike paths, walking paths, energy-efficient mass transit, and arable or wild lands to better adapt to the weather that anthropogenic climate change has inevitably caused. As Odum (1973, 227) concludes, “Use available energies for cultural conversion to steady state.” Odum’s advice is forethinking. Dave Jacke (2005) warns that the social and economic sides of permaculture are the hardest to address and change in our society. How can we promote a culture that is not causing extreme harm to the planet (Jensen and McBay 2009)? We can start by implementing school and community gardens to teach a love of growing food, bring food security, increase green space in urban environments starving for it, and increase overall resilience. 

Fortunately, I observe people naturally responding to green spaces in cities. They want to see trees and other natural features. The fact that urban agriculture projects would increase resilience to climate change, provide food to urban residents, reduce transport costs and infrastructure, improve urban aesthetics, provide shade to cool the city and reduce the need for cooling, accomplish other ecosystem services, and other means to decrease fossil fuel energy consumption in cities makes taking steps to implement green space in the urban environment a very strong case.  

Dubbeling, Marielle. 2014. “Integrating urban and peri-urban agriculture and forestry (UPAF) in city climate change strategies.” RUAF Foundation, June.

IUFN. 2015. “International Urban Food Network. Accessed November 12.

Jacke, Dave. 2005. Edible Forest Gardens: Vision and Theory Volume I. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Jensen, Derrick and Aric McBay. 2009. What We Leave Behind. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Odum, Howard T. 1973. “Energy, ecology, and economy.” Ambio Vol. 2, No. 6, Energy in Society: A Special Issue: 220-227.

To Find Your Path, Look Under Your Feet

I still remember a funny interaction that took place when I worked in the Thomas G. Carpenter Library at the University of North Florida. Because I was a student employee, when I would request books to be purchased by the library, they usually arrived. I ordered books like Food Not Lawns, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, and The Urban Homestead; they were books about food, gardening, and permaculture. One time, my boss who processed the requests asked, “Is this your major?” I was confused, “What?” He searched his mind for an explanation to encompass all of the foodie-gardening books I was requesting. After a pause, I said, “I wish!”

Now, I’m glowing to declare that sustainable food systems is my major at Green Mountain College. The program has been impressive beyond belief, and there are more and more out there each year. Here’s a recent review of food systems programs in higher education from Civil Eats.

I waited five years after graduating from my undergraduate degree in nutrition to begin my master’s degree. I knew when I graduated from undergrad that if I were to go on to grad school, I wanted to specialize and not get another degree in general nutrition, which is what my major really was. Through those five years I learned so much. I worked for the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program and began to understand why it is people choose to have kids. I did my internship at Virginia State University, lived outside Florida for the first time, and became a dietitian and a barista who appreciated the quirky independent coffehouse. I quit my first job post-internship to become a wwoofer, one of the best experiences of my life so far, and I got plenty of mountain dirt under my nails that somehow worked its way into my heart. I told myself I was in the school of life. I went to herbal classes and completed a special yoga teacher training to learn about true preventive health. I sold some homegrown vegetables at a farmers’ market, moved to a new city, worked at WIC again, and finally got a job I could sink my teeth into as the farm to school liaison. I have endless gratitude for all those who helped me on my path.

As I’ve told my wonderful boss, my job as farm to school liaison has been a life changer. The opportunity gave me the confidence to finally begin my master’s program, which has shaped my life tremendously. I finally feel the purpose in my work that I felt in that drive to order all those books from my college library, an unquenchable desire to learn more and more about not only food and sustainability, but humans’ place in the world and “how we ought to live” (to quote Daniel Quinn). Somehow, being patient and authentic has allowed me to find a bite of sustenance on the path I’ve been walking for so long without knowing I was on it. Nature’s forms of efficiency are not usually straight lines, and the path of authenticity can be quite curvy.


This is just my story so far. As a wise person once told me, the way to move forward is one foot in front of the other. If the next step brings you closer to who you want to be, it’s the right one. And if it doesn’t, you can take a step back and you’ll probably learn even more about yourself in the process.

Aesthetics of Sustainability, A Call From Within

The aesthetics of sustainability is an unsuspected guiding light. The way our surroundings look, feel, are organized or not, and function is a molder of our interest, comfort, motivation, acceptance, and so much more. I believe our surroundings affect how we feel, our outlook, mental health, physical health, and values.

Many people in western society have very little to do with actively creating their surroundings. Our homes are generally built by strangers in preplanned neighborhoods, the plants in our yards prescribed by HOAs, our furniture and accessories bought at big box stores, identical products available nationwide. What if we had a more participatory role in creating our surroundings? How would we feel surrounded by a home our family built from bioregional resources? What stories would would be cultivated and passed on in working a potter’s wheel to make bowls with our grandmother? We might decide not to fill our houses with meaningless stuff, and choose instead a simple lifestyle infused to the core with meaning and stories.

Not only is the industrially-made aesthetic boring, but every stage of production and transport is not sustainable. Uniformity is not a principle of resilience. Even though most of our disposable products are made in China and Bangladesh, the emissions created in those places effect us all. If there’s one good thing about globalization, it’s realizing that we’re all in this together. And even though we’re all in this together, maintaining bioregional cuisine and seasonal living is just another part of the aesthetics of sustainability.

As John Dewey (1947, 45) writes, one cannot form an experience fully without an intellectual aesthetic to “stamp” to be complete. However, on a tangible level, my sense is that aesthetics draw people in, make them feel inspired, at home or alien, and motivate them to action. Aesthetics can be a manipulation tool; think of any tv ad or the decor Whole Foods chooses.

Attention to aesthetics is not and should not be applicable only to those with enough disposable income to “decorate.” Part of the appeal of simple living is that it’s an affordable way to become a radical homemaker. Everyone is affected by aesthetics.

The aesthetics of sustainability are simple, minimal, useful, and handmade; they are bioregionally different and appropriate; they possess a “satisfying emotional quality” and an “internal integration and fulfillment” (Dewey 1947, 45). Many stores are trying to market and sell the aesthetic of sustainability such as Whole Foods, Crate & Barrel, Anthropologie, Etsy, World Market, ad nauseum. The problem is that these are still outlets for the “consumer” and do not contribute to sustainability, but perpetuate consumerism.

My sense is that these businesses are doing so well because people are yearning for the aesthetics of sustainability, and they intuitively know what to look for, but they are either too distracted, busy, uninformed, and overwhelmed with marketing that they don’t realize that they are not achieving what their inner desires seek through their purchases.

Often in pondering issues of sustainability and “how we ought to live,” (Quinn 1995) my mind settles on the lack of quality time. We, myself included, busy ourselves too much to take the time to make things, grow food, and cook by hand. Why do we do this? We do this to put a roof over our heads, eat, and maybe get an education; it’s a capitalist system. I imagine a cooperative system would help us toward a better aesthetic of sustainability. It may be idealistic, but perhaps beginning with an aesthetic of sustainability can help inspire us toward regenerative practices.


Dewey, John. 1947. “Having an Experience.” In John Dewey The Later Works, 1925-1953,edited by Jo Ann Boydston, Textual Editor, Harriet Furtst Simon, 42-63. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

Quinn, Daniel. 1995. Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit. A Bantam/Turner Book.

Cypress Dome Swamp Florida Pine Flatwoods Bioregion

The following post was originally written for my class at Green Mountain College, Bioregional Theory and the Foodshed, in December 2014.

Cover photo: “Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary Boardwalk.” Source: Daunier Estevez.

“Where land and water intermingle, something magical occurs: a landscape both luxuriant and alluring. Gleaming lily-covered ponds are nearly everywhere, dotted with white egret silently stalking small fish. Along winding, cypress-lined rivers, stately blue herons wade amid aquatic gardens profuse with scalloped pennywarts and blue-flowered pickerelweeds. In the dark recesses of remote swamps, canary-yellow prothonotary warblers build their nests in the hollows of cypress and tupelo trees whose strangely swollen trunks rise from midnight-black water.”           – Ron Larson, Swamp Song

The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion is a tale of antilogies: wetlands alongside drylands, muck juxtaposing sand, fire compliments water, thunderstorms trample drought. Extremes coexist in the forms of cypress swamps and pine flatwoods ecosystems, which sometimes neighbor each other in a tacit solidarity. Such is the case at Corkscrew Swamp (see cover photograph), where pine flatwoods give way to marshy grass and finally dip into a large cypress dome.

The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion hugs the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to the west and is bordered by the Lake Wales Ridge to the east and is contained within the plant hardiness zones 9b to 10a. (See figure 1.)

FIGURE 1: Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion, Adapted from Earth Observatory. 2000.

FIGURE 1: Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion, Adapted from Earth Observatory. 2000.

The US Forest Service creates designations for ecoregions from a geographically large scale to very small zones. From broad to specific, The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion falls within the USFS-designated Eastern Humid Temperate Domain, Subtropical Division, and Outer Coastal Plain Mixed Province (1995). Within Florida, USFS would specify down to the Southern Coastal Plain and the Southwestern Florida Flatwoods. (See figure 2, below.)fig 2 3While these ecoregions are helpful indicators about where this bioregion exists, a more specific designation should be made, hence the identification of “Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion.” This bioregion has climatic and biotic differences that make it unique from the closest Ecoregion designation. Consider the plant hardiness zones map as a prime example. (See figure 3.) This bioregion’s boundaries stay within the 9b to 10a zones, unlike the Ecoregions map which encompasses zones 8b through 10b. Personal experience underscores the definite change when traveling from the plant hardiness zones 9a to 9b: the plant life becomes very tropical due to lack of frequent frosts in the wintertime. The spirit of the mango resides in these more tropical hardiness zones, a member of the community the bioregion could not exist without.

The designation made by the EPA’s Lake Regions map, the Southwestern Flatlands, (see figure 4) is more accurate than the Ecoregions map when considering the actual experience of the biodiversity in this bioregion, but it does not include Lake Region Immokalee Rise which is also within plant hardiness zone 10a and of which the biota are true to this bioregion. Therefore, both the Lake Regions Southwestern Flatlands and Immokalee Rise are included in the Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatlands bioregion. Figure 5 depicts the overlap of the 10a plant hardiness zone with the Southwestern Flatlands and Immokalee Rise Lake Regions, a helpful determinate for this bioregion.fig 4 5This changing and dynamic landscape gives rise to many interesting characteristics and species. Cypress “domes,” the term referring to their shape from afar, are biologically rich lowlands due to the abundant water flowing through their tributary and creek systems; other wet ecosystems include the wide freshwater marshes and wet prairies. In addition to cypress domes, which are typically swampy year-round, ephemeral, or seasonal, wet areas abound. In ephemeral swamps, hardwood tree stands, bayheads (boggy areas with mucky soil) (Florida Department of Environmental Protection 2011), and grassy marshes grow (Beever and Thomas 2006, 1). Ephemeral ponds are a critical home to wildlife in Florida, especially wading birds like herons and egrets. Wetlands in this bioregion are also home to manatee, American alligator, little blue heron, Audubon’s crested caracara, roseate spoonbill, snowy egret, river otter, and many others (Beever and Thomas 2006, 7, 24). (See photos 1 and 2.)

PHOTO 1: Cypress Tree at Fish Eating Creek Palmdale, Florida. Reproduced from Kim Seng. 2012.

PHOTO 1: Cypress Tree at Fish Eating Creek Palmdale, Florida. Reproduced from Kim Seng. 2012.

PHOTO 2: Alligator submerged, cooling in mud and water lettuce; Corkscrew Swamp National Park, Florida. Reproduced from Barbara Magnuson. 2014.

PHOTO 2: Alligator submerged, cooling in mud and water lettuce; Corkscrew Swamp National Park, Florida. Reproduced from Barbara Magnuson. 2014.

In contrast, the pine and scrub oak flatwoods, which are higher in elevation, are where various types of pine trees, like slash and longleaf, and saw palmetto dominate the landscape. (See photo 3.) The understory of this ecosystem, saw palmetto, produces a berry which is a food staple for the Florida black bear among other wildlife (Beever and Thomas 2006, 8). The threatened pine flatwoods are also home to the endangered Florida panther, the fox squirrel, bald eagle, gopher tortoise, Florida long-tailed weasel, bobcat, white-tailed deer, red-cockaded woodpecker, and eastern indigo snake among many others (Beever and Thomas 2006, 10-12). Though host to a variety of wildlife, these regions are typically dry with sandy soil that is low in organic matter. Dry grassy prairies, also known as tropical savannas, stretch across the landscape or hide among the pines. However, even the flatlands have a summer wet season, June to September (Beever and Thomas 2006, 1). The wet season in this bioregion entails dramatic tropical thunderstorms that whip the tall thin pines and flood the landscape with water. The characteristic lightning storms makes this area the lightning capital of North America at ninety-one thunder days per year, occasionally inciting forest fires (Christian et al. 2003). The flatwoods ecosystem is highly adapted and dependent on regular fire for its lifecycle functions (Beever and Thomas 2006, 8). Every two to four years, the fires rage through the landscape, preventing shrubs and hardwood sprouts from growing, ensuring a “highly diverse herb-dominated ground flora” as the forest floor recovers (Martin and Kirkman 2009). In fact, there is evidence to suggest that native people routinely set fires in the region since about 12,000 years ago! (See photo 4) (Myers and Peroni 1983).photo 3 - 4Though it has not been determined whether they were one of the fire-setting tribes, the Tocobaga Native Americans inhabited the Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion near the Tampa Bay area. (See figure 6.) They would have had an interest in maintaining the flatwoods, though, because they used the palm thatch for roofing material as well as foraging local edibles (Ricky 1998, 242, 258). Another influential tribe of the Everglades is the Miccosukee, who were forced south from the Carolinas by white expansion in the 1800s. The Miccosukee utilized Florida native plants, and they also used palmetto leaves for thatched roofs and created dugout canoes from cypress timbers (Ricky 1998, 178-179).

FIGURE 6: Distribution of Southeast American Indian cultures. Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica. 1998.

FIGURE 6: Distribution of Southeast American Indian cultures. Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica. 1998.

The unique geology beneath the earth’s surface created the waterways and watersheds characteristic to this region. Ancient rock formations created the foundations on which other qualities of the bioregion depend. Geologically speaking, several features contribute to the basins and elevations shaping the region. Rising to the east is the Lake Wales Ridge, summiting with Sugarloaf Mountain at 308 feet above sea level (USGS 2014). The Ocala Platform (figure 7), a limestone formation, hugs the region to the north, and the Peace River Formation (figure 8) traverses the center of the bioregion (Tihansky and Knochenmus 2013). The Peace River Formation begins at the southern end of the Ocala Platform stretching south to the Okeechobee Basin. According to the USGS, the Peace River Formation is made up of interbedded sands, clays, and carbonates and is rich in phosphorus (2013).fig 7 8The Peace River Basin fills the center of this bioregion and contributes to many of the cypress swamps. (See figure 9.) The watershed covers 2,300 square miles, and the Peace River runs through the center of the basin, beginning in the Green Swamp Lake Region and emptying into Charlotte Harbor (Our Phosphate Risk 2008). Other water features of note include the Gulf of Mexico to the west, Charlotte Bay to the Southwest, and Caloosahatchee River to the south (See figure 10), framing the bioregion on three sides. These many lakes, rivers, and swamps create habitat for the cypress ecosystems. 
fig 9 10The Cypress Dome Swamp, Florida Pine Flatwoods bioregion’s unique qualities provide the only habitat in the world for much of its native wildlife (Beever and Thomas 2006). Unfortunately this beautiful land is at severe risk due to human actions. The root cause of the disappearance of this region is development. By 1970, only half of the historic flatwoods still remained, and far less exist today. People have over-harvested the saw palmetto berry for medicinal use, which is a part of the Florida black bear’s food supply (Beever and Thomas 2006, 8). Fecal coliform bacteria from agriculture, neighborhood septic system overflow, and spreading of biosolids on the landscape often contaminate this precious ecosystem. The phosphorus here has been mined for agricultural use in chemical fertilizers, which has caused “catastrophic” phosphate pollution in the Peace River (Froelich et al. 1985). Beever and Thomas predict that unless strict measures are made to protect the flatwoods, they will soon be totally decimated for use by humans alone: cities, suburbs, and food production (2006, 9-10).

We, as members of this bioregion, should do all we can to protect what is left of our natural ecosystem. Fragile biomes everywhere are being choked out by unwise development. If we wish to experience the delight of such creatures as the endangered ghost orchid (see photo 5 below), as well as recognize their prerogative to exist, we will engage in smart development to preserve the cypress domes and pine flatwoods and all their inhabitants for years to come (Wiley 2010).

PHOTO 5: Rare Ghost Orchid “Super Ghost” Blooms at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Reproduced from Audubon Florida, Courtesy of Rod Wiley. 2010.

PHOTO 5: Rare Ghost Orchid “Super Ghost” Blooms at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Reproduced from Audubon Florida, Courtesy of Rod Wiley. 2010.


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Magnuson, Barbara. Alligator [Alligator mississippiensis] submerged, cooling in mud and water lettuce;    Corkscrew Swamp National Park, Florida. Photograph. Copyright Barbara Magnuson / Larry Kimball. Accessed November 19, 2014.

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Wiley, Rod. Ghost Orchid Blooming in July 2010. 2010. Photograph. Audubon Florida News. Accessed November 23, 2014.