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.

References:
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.

Cypress Dome Swamps and Pine Flatwoods of Florida!

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

“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.

References:

Beever, Jim and Thomas, Daryl. 2006. “Immokalee Rise/Pine Flatwoods Conceptual Ecological Model.” Evergladesplan.org. May 22. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://www.evergladesplan.org/pm/studies/study_docs/swfl/swffs_cems_immokalee.pdf.

Christian, Hugh J., Blakeslee Richard J., Boccippio, Dennis J., Boeck, William L., Buechler, Dennis E., Driscoll, Kevin T., Goodman, Steven J., Hall, John M., Koshak, William J., Mach, Douglas M. and Stewart, Michael F. 2003. “Global frequency and distribution of lightning as observed from space by the Optical Transient Detector.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres Volume 108, Issue D1, pages ACL 4-1–ACL 4-15, 16. January 3. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2002JD002347/full.

Earth Observatory. Shaded Relief and Colored Height. 2000. Shaded and colored SRTM elevation model. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=4818.

Ecology.com. 2014. “Florida Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources.” Accessed November 18, 2014. http://geology.com/lakes-rivers-water/florida.shtml.

Encyclopedia Britannica.1998. “Distribution of Southeast American Indian cultures.” Accessed November 18, 2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/667914/Southeast-Indian.

Estevez, Daunier. Corkscrew Swamp. 2014. Photograph. Accessed November 24, 2014. http://daunier.com/myportfolio/photography/panorama-photography/.

Firescience.gov. Burning Flatwoods. 2011. Photograph. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.firescience.gov/JFSP_funded_project_detail.cfm?jdbid=%24%26Z34T%20%20%20%0A.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection. 2011. “Wetland Communities  – Bayheads.” Last updated September 21. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://www.dep.state.fl.us/water/wetlands/delineation/wetcomm/bayhead.htm.

Froelich, P.N., Kaul, L.W., Byrd, J.T., Andreae, M.O., Roe, K.K. 1985. “Arsenic, barium, germanium, tin, dimethylsulfide and nutrient biogeochemistry in Charlotte Harbor, Florida, a phosphorus-enriched estuary.” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science Volume 20, Issue 3, March, Pages 239–264. Accessed November 23, 2014. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0272771485900411.

Larson, Ron. 1995. Swamp Song, A Natural History of Florida’s Swamps. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

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. http://magnusonkimball.photoshelter.com/image/I0000JomgTlGXukU.

Martin, Katherine L., Kirkman, L. Katherine. 2009. “Management of ecological thresholds to re-establish disturbance-maintained herbaceous wetlands of the south-eastern USA.” Journal of Applied Ecology 46, 906–914.

Myers, Ronald L. and Peroni, Patricia A. 1983. “Approaches to Determining Aboriginal Fire Use and its Impact on Vegetation.” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America Vol. 64, No. 3, pp. 217-218. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20166351?uid=3739600&uid=2134&uid=2486516203&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=2486516193&uid=3739256&uid=60&sid=21105246592083.

Noles1984. 2012. “Peace River Formation (Florida).” Last modified April 28. Accessed November 18, 2014. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peace_River_Formation_Florida_map.png.

Our Phosphate Risk. 2008. “Peace River Basin.” Accessed November 18, 2014. http://www.thephosphaterisk.com/issues/peace-river-basin.

Reticulated Flatwoods Salamander. Pine Flatwoods. Photograph. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://drakehs.org/academics/seadisc/endangeredspecies/2010/Sophie%20and%20Rosie/references.html.

Ricky, Donald B. 1998. Encyclopedia of Florida Indians. St. Clair Shores: Somerset Publishers, Inc.

River City Grotto. 2014. “Karst Geology of Florida or…Where’d all them dang caves come from?” Last updated October 21. Accessed November 18, 2014. http://www.rivercitygrotto.com/geology.html.

Seng, Kim. 2012. Cypress Tree at Fish Eating Creek Palmdale, Florida. September 2. Photograph. Captain Kimo. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://captainkimo.com/cypress-tree-at-fishing-eating-creek-palmdale-florida/.

Tihansky, Ann B. and Knochenmus, Lari A. 2013. “USGS: Karst Features and Hydrogeology in West-central Florida — A Field Perspective.” Last modified January 3, 2013. Accessed November 18, 2014. http://water.usgs.gov/ogw/karst/kigconference/abt_karstfeatures.htm.

USDA Agricultural Research Center. 2012. “USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.” Accessed November 18, 2014. http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/#.

USDA Forest Service. 2014. “Chapter 21 Ecological Subregions of the United States.” Accessed November 18, 2014. http://www.fs.fed.us/land/pubs/ecoregions/ch21.html#232D.

USDA Forest Service. 1995. “Description of the Ecoregions of the United States.” Accessed November 18, 2014. http://www.fs.fed.us/land/ecosysmgmt/index.html.

US EPA Western Ecology Division. 2012. “Lake Region Characteristics.” Last updated August 28. Accessed November 18, 2014. ftp://ftp.epa.gov/wed/ecoregions/fl/fl_lkreg_back.pdf.

USGS. 2013. “South Florida Information Access: Lithostratigraphic Units.” Last updated September 4. Accessed November 18, 2014. http://sofia.usgs.gov/publications/maps/florida_geology/units.html.

USGS. 2014. “Feature Detail Report for: Sugarloaf Mountain.” Last updated November 18. Accessed November 18, 2014. http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=gnispq:3:0::NO::P3_FID:291784.

Wiley, Rod. Ghost Orchid Blooming in July 2010. 2010. Photograph. Audubon Florida News. Accessed November 23, 2014. http://audubonoffloridanews.org/?p=4607.

Story of an Elusive Paradise: The Deep History of Southwest Florida

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

“The place of understanding is not necessarily kind. Heaven and earth meet there, and they will crush you if you do not hold them apart… Nature is fire and ice and gravity, falling rocks and rushing streams, but it moves well through myth and poetry: voices, sounding through the smoke.” – C.L. Rawlins

The deep history of southwest Florida comes, like its opalescent beaches, in waves. Only the capricious ocean currents and epochal sea level fluctuations could create conditions unique enough to form crushed coral underbellies, quartz sand shorelines, and cavernous wonderlands. Here, the tides play the architect. Over the millennia, waters come and go, followed by sea creatures and land dwellers, migrating and layering and leaving their bodies in humble fossils, a cryptic note from the past to all who call this place home of its sirenic and inconstant character.

As part of its mystical past, Florida was, curiously, once a part of northern Africa, at a time when two ancient supercontinents collided to form the well known grandmother landmass, Pangea. Geologists have gained more evidence for this theory by measuring magnetic characteristics in rock from Florida and matching it to that of northern Africa – they have found more harmony there than in rocks present in surrounding North America (Lane 1994, 11-14). Years passed; continents drifted apart. Sometime between the Miocene epoch, twenty-three through five million years ago, and Pleistocene, about 1.8 million through ten thousand years ago (Lane 1994, 22), Florida had reached relative tectonic stability (Scholl and Stuiver 1967, 444). Once the continents were in their near-contemporary places, other changes, as a matter of course in our dynamic world, continued. Several features contribute to the basins and elevations shaping the region we see today. Rising down the spine of the peninsula is the Lake Wales Ridge, summiting with Sugarloaf Mountain at 308 feet above sea level (USGS 2014). The Ocala Platform, a limestone formation, hugs the region to the north, and the Peace River Formation traverses the center of southwest Florida (Tihansky and Knochenmus 2013). The Peace River Formation begins at the southern end of the Ocala Platform stretching south to the Okeechobee Basin. Interbedded sands, clays, and carbonates constitute the Peace River Formation, which is rich in phosphorus (2013).

Next to leave its mark on this canvas was temperature via its reign over water levels. Several ice ages came and went throughout the Pleistocene epoch. Due to planetary temperature’s command on glacial activity, sea levels surrounding lowland shoreline varied dramatically throughout these times. Across the peninsula, sea levels varied from one hundred fifty feet above today’s level, to four hundred feet below contemporary shorelines (see figure 1).

FIGURE 1: Pleistocene shorelines in Florida. Illustration b y Frank R. Rupert. Reproduced from Lane 1994, 22.

FIGURE 1: Pleistocene shorelines in Florida. Illustration by Frank R. Rupert. Reproduced from Lane 1994, 22.

During the times when high sea levels swallowed up earth, the Florida shelf was an ideal shallow temperate zone for tropical corals to grow and develop extensive reefs. As the waters slowly crept in on lands, at their highest, reaching just more than three hundred feet above sea level, peninsular Florida became an ephemeral coral reef (see figure 2, submerged Florida platform). As the waters retreated during the times when the ice was frozen, coral reefs on higher lands, now exposed, died off, compacted, and became limestone. This repetitious cycle formed the layers of the soft limestone bedrock of Florida (Lane 1994). The lower water table also contributed to the formation of one of Florida’s most interesting geological features: caves and freshwater aquifers. As rain collected carbon dioxide in the air and filtered into the ground, it created a mild carbonic acid, which over centuries dissolved the soft limestone forming caverns. Streams caused erosion over time (termed “sinking streams”) and eventually connected with the caverns to open them up and form the surface springs we see today (Gulley et al. 2013, 1211). Currents and waves allowed phosphorus to collect in Central Florida; it would become a lucrative but environmentally dangerous industry in contemporary times (Lane 1994, 19; Froelich et al. 1985). Another architect of the soft limestone, phosphorus-loving plankton, settled here. Through their lifecycles they deposited organic matter over Florida’s surface, especially contributing to the mucky soil of the Everglades region. Incoming waters via the Gulf Trough (see figure 2, emergent Florida platform) deposited siliciclastic sediments, or quartz sand, on top of the limestone bedrock, which eventually resulted in award-winning fine-grained white sand beaches (Lane 1994, 18; Scholl and Stuiver 1967, 440).

FIGURE 2: Florida bobs above and below the surface of the ocean as waters freeze into and out of glaciers through the ice ages of the Pleistocene Reproduced from Lane 1994, 19.

FIGURE 2: Florida bobs above and below the surface of the ocean as waters freeze into and out of glaciers through the ice ages of the Pleistocene Reproduced from Lane 1994, 19.

During the times when Florida rose up over the low sea levels, in the late Pleistocene, the region was much like a dry savanna, open prairie and scrub grasslands covered southern Florida and much of the global freshwater was trapped north in Canadian glaciers (Hoppe et al. 1999, 441). Dry tolerant flora such as oaks, grasses, and Asteraceae (ragweed) dominated the landscape (Lane 1994, 23). The Pleistocene was also the time of the megafauna: mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, dire wolves, saber-toothed tigers, and others roamed the earth (Lane 1994, 26). The fossilized remains of these and other megafauna can be found in central and north Florida springs, rivers, and sinkholes. Their remains date back before the last major ice age, about twenty to forty million years ago, which was likely the cause of their demise (Larson 1995, 31). Scientists speculate that as the climate changed, mammoth, who require extensive territories, lost habitat and fewer food resources were available, contributing to their extinction (Hoppe et al. 1999, 442).

Not to be overshadowed by mastodon bones, intriguing tiny invertebrate fossils are prolific in southwest and all over Florida. It was this constant influx and retreat of waters over Florida which trapped many of them. E.H. Sellards wrote, in his 1919 account of his explorations in Florida, that “nowhere in the United States do the Tertiary and Quarternary [sic] formations contain a more abundant, more varied, or better preserved marine invertebrate fauna than in Florida. In the study of the fossils, Florida is in many respects a state of exceptional opportunities” (286). Not only have ancient marine fossils been an ongoing treasure hunt to Florida’s past, but the earliest Florida human remains were found at Little Salt Springs in Sarasota County. The specimen dates from at least 10,000 years ago, around when humans first arrived on the Florida peninsula. Some scientists speculate that these may be the oldest human remains in North America east of the Mississippi River (Clausen, Brooks, and Wesolowsky 1975, 204). After the last ice age, as the earth warmed and sea levels continued to rise, freshwater became more prolific, and Florida evolved into the tropical climate and plant life we see today.

The plentiful water and tropical climate helped support the Tocobaga Native Americans among other tribes, who inhabited the bioregion near the Tampa Bay area. They utilized the floral resources, such as the palm thatch for roofing material as well as hunting and foraging local edible plants (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 foraged Florida native plants, and they also used palmetto leaves for thatched roofs and created dugout canoes from cypress timbers (Ricky 1998, 178-179). Early Everglades inhabitants hunted, fished, created marine shell tools, used fire; they may have been the first in North America to make fiber-tempered pottery (Schwadron 2006).

The swamps and flatlands which supported humankind’s evolution in this region are the two natural ecosystems found most abundantly in southwest Florida. In the lowlands, true Florida swamps evolved about five thousand years ago, and cypress trees, which characterize Florida swamps, have existed here since about twenty thousand years ago (Larson 1995, 31). The Peace River Basin contributes to many of the southwest Florida cypress swamps, fed by a kaleidoscope of streams, rivers, and lakes. This 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). Ferns, another living fossil, (see figure 3) are a common inhabitant of Florida swamps; more species of fern grow in Florida than any other state in the continental United States (Larson 1995, 75). 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 are also home to today’s 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).

osmundastrum-cinnamomeum-ha-gmittelhauser-b

FIGURE 3: Osmundastrum cinnamomeum “Cinnamon Fern,” a common Florida fern. Reproduced from gobotany.newengland.org.

As elevation rises inland, the pine flatwoods take over. Various types of pine trees, like slash and longleaf, and saw palmetto dominate the landscape. The understory of this ecosystem, saw palmetto, produces a berry which is a food staple for the Florida black bear and other wildlife (Beever and Thomas 2006, 8). The pine flatwoods are also home to the endangered Florida panther, 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 drier than the swamps, the flatwoods do experience an intense wet season. It entails dramatic tropical thunderstorms that whip the tall thin pines and flood the landscape with rainwater. 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 ground flora biodiversity as the forest floor recovers from the flames (Martin and Kirkman 2009).

White pioneers began farming in Sarasota County in the nineteenth century. They grew sugarcane, sweet potatoes, corn, collard and turnip greens and farmed mostly for subsistence. As they settled in, citrus, corn, and cattle became major crops. To prepare the land, pioneers cleared and burned out the pine and palmetto stumps of the flatlands. Next they used a horse or an ox to pull the plow and till the soil and remove roots, but they found that in the sandy soil the nutrients to feed their annual crops did not last long (Esthus 2003, 3, 25).

In contemporary times, these unique ecosystems have continued to be put at risk due to human actions. The root cause of the disappearance of the natural environment 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 laid down millennia ago by ancient waves has been mined for agricultural use in chemical fertilizers, which has caused “catastrophic” phosphate pollution in the Peace River (Froelich et al. 1985). Scientists 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 (Beever and Thomas 2006, 9-10).

As was the case in times past, Florida continues to face sea level fluctuation today, and as our planet warms, the seas are rising due to the melting of polar ice caps and warmer waters’ molecular expansion. Experts predict that Florida’s coastline will rise twenty to forty inches by the year 2100 (Lausche 2013). As we know, sea level changes are part of what made Florida everything it is today. This time, however, communities are much less mobile than in years past. Hotels and homes are built on barrier islands which naturally move like desert sand dunes. Accelerated global warming is putting Florida, once again, at the mercy of the ocean tides. Sarasota, a coastline community, dependent on the tourism and hospitality of its barrier island resorts, has begun to consider what the effects of sea level rise may be on the population, economy, and way of life. Mote Marine Aquarium and Laboratory, a prestigious local research center, released a report earlier this year recognizing the threat of sea level rise to the seventy-eight percent of Florida’s population who live coastal communities. Their report recommends early planning, building community support, and broadening local planning as we continue to witness southwest Florida’s changing surface (Lausche 2013).

As the shallow mild submerged Florida shelf lured corals to grow on it millennia ago, it has now drawn humankind to build concrete reefs on its balmy shorelines. Will they too someday be bedrock? Will we someday become fossilized memories of a time long past? As we have learned from those before us, this is but a fleeting climate, an elusive paradise.

References:

Beever, Jim and Thomas, Daryl. 2006. “Immokalee Rise/Pine Flatwoods Conceptual Ecological Model.” Evergladesplan.org. May 22. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://www.evergladesplan.org/pm/studies/study_docs/swfl/swffs_cems_immokalee.pdf.

Christian, Hugh J., Blakeslee Richard J., Boccippio, Dennis J., Boeck, William L., Buechler, Dennis E., Driscoll, Kevin T., Goodman, Steven J., Hall, John M., Koshak, William J., Mach, Douglas M. and Stewart, Michael F. 2003. “Global frequency and distribution of lightning as observed from space by the Optical Transient Detector.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres Volume 108, Issue D1, pages ACL 4-1–ACL 4-15, 16. January 3. Accessed November 22, 2014. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2002JD002347/full.

Clausen, Carl J., Brooks, H. K., and Wesolowsky, Al B. 1975.  “The Early Man Site at Warm Mineral Springs, Florida” Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 191-213.

Esthus, George I. A History of Agriculture of Sarasota County Florida. Sarasota: Sponsored by Sarasota County Agriculture Fair Association and the Sarasota County Historical Commission.

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Gulley, J. D., Martin, J. B., Moore, P. J.,  and Murphy, J. 2013. “Formation of phreatic caves in an eogenetic karst aquifer by CO2 enrichment at lower water tables and subsequent flooding by sea level rise.” Earth Surf. Process. Landforms 38, 1210–1224.

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Larson, Ron. 1995. Swamp Song, A Natural History of Florida’s Swamps. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

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Martin, Katherine L., Kirkman, L. Katherine. 2009. “Management of ecological thresholds to re-establish disturbance-maintained herbaceous wetlands of the south-eastern USA.” Journal of Applied Ecology 46, 906–914.

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The Color of Food

Up in frigid Vermont for my Master’s residency at Green Mountain College, our visiting scholar, author Natasha Bowens, encourages mind expansion around racial diversity and inclusion and appreciation within farming and the food movement. It is amazing to me to realize the ways in which privilege and the dominant paradigms frame the food movement, encouraging homogeny in our movement. As in our gardens, diversity means life. I’m excited to learn more from her forthcoming book, The Color of Food.