Should I stay or should I go? When growth chases Floridians away

by Santiago De Choch for the Gainesville Sun
We spent the first night in Suwannee sleeping in the bed of the truck. We parked it under the rusting roof of the pole barn, spread a tarp and set up our sleeping bags. 

The night was cold and dark, full of rustlings and grunts. Most of our new land is oak and pine forest, home to a tribe of barred owls that lulled us to sleep with their urgent question: “Who cooks for you?” 

Twenty years before, my wife and I had slept rough in a different piece of land. The scrub surrounding us then, in Southwest Florida, was mostly palmetto and cocoplum, Brazilian pepper and lone royal palms. But the labors of the next day were the same: dig a well, build dwellings for ourselves and for livestock, till a field, plant seeds and trees.  

It wasn’t easy the first time. Twenty years older, the work would be harder. But what could we do? We are the playthings of history, not its masters. 

Powerful economic, migratory and demographic forces had found the way to the gate of our farm, after pushing others like us out, one by one. The last gladiolus grower. The last citrus grove. The last cattle ranch. All gone to make room for the gated community, the strip mall and the golf course.  

Without bitterness, without regrets, we joined the trickle of Floridians migrating northward against the massive tide going the opposite way. There’s no point in being angry about what we cannot change. Charging the developers’ bulldozers, like Don Quixote against the windmills, would be pointless. Better save our strength for a new beginning. 

Florida is vast, diverse and contains many versions of herself. Who could judge those whose idea of “land” is many acres of suburban houses? 

“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are American rights. Everybody has their own version of happiness. A perfect lawn and a trip to the mall for many. Slowing down on a dirt road to smell the orange blossoms and hear the buzz of honeybees, for a few. The few cannot dictate to the many how to find happiness in the land; but the opposite is true as well. 

The land and her wards — hummingbird, tortoise, cypress, pasture, orchard — need strong laws protecting them, just like minorities have rights that majorities have to respect. Democracy and environmentalism are two sides of the same coin. 

What is land? How do some Floridians understand it, beyond the theme park and its parking lagoon? 

You never own the land. You’re the steward. She lets you raise chickens and rabbits, kill them, eat them, the ancient way. Lets you hunt the deer and swim the spring. Grow okra, collards, eggplants, berries, working your fields from sunup to sundown. 

Raise a family on the land. See your children grow up climbing trees, catching fireflies. You celebrate planting and harvesting, rain and bald eagles. 

The years pass. Sunsets and rooster calls, memorable seasons, bonfires, the sand of time inevitably trickling down the hourglass. On the land. In tune with it, noticing the subtle changes from week to week: bluebirds coming back, dragonflies feeding on swarms of just-born termites, gopher tortoises stirring up every spring. 

Then you move on. One cannot dwell forever on the land — or in the world. Once you understand that, it’s easier to move on

For some of us, land is not an investment. We want to live a long life in it, respecting and cherishing it, then die in it and have our ashes used to fertilize a lemon tree we planted. Our offspring may or may not want to live in it, someone else may, but the land itself will live. 

Our story, my wife’s and mine, is a happy one: We worked hard — again. We planted the trees and the seeds — again. Coops, greenhouses and beehives dot our property, but we left the woods intact, still full of owls that want to know who cooks for us. 

The day fades. We are ephemeral, but the land will live on . Photo by Santiago DeChoch

South Florida-style hyper-development seems remote in our neck of the woods, and we hope we’ll be left alone to our ways until it’s time to leave Earth. But I have something to say to my new North Florida neighbors and friends: Everybody needs to earn a living. That’s understood.

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