Nature & Community on a St. Petersburg Stream

Author: Friends of Salt Creek (page 2 of 4)

Nature Talks Back (Maribel Giusto)

Nature has a really funny way of speaking to us.  I think back on our Salt Creek canoeing adventure, and I can’t help but remember the way we were being attacked by nature. Maybe it was our overconfidence in thinking that we had a grasp on our surroundings, then nature tells us that we don’t. For instance, we reach the end of our canoe trip and we all have to turn around now. Sarah, Resie and I decided that if we wanted to get the most of this trip, we would have to stay back and paddle slower, so that we would be better able to take in our surroundings without the disruption of our fellow classmates. So, this means that we were the first canoe to turn around, and both Sarah and Resie did an amazing job turning our little canoe in the water.

Then it happens, “Oh no! Oh no!” is all we hear from Sarah, who is guiding the front of the canoe and before we know it the three of us are eating fresh mangroves for a little snack out on the water. Once we got through the nature in the form of a mangrove knocking down our confidence and reminding us that we were merely visitors in their home, we laughed hysterically and started picking pieces of leaves out of our hair.

“That was an adventure!” I exclaimed once we were in the clear. The three of us continued to laugh as we let other canoes advance ahead of us. “What did we learn today ladies?” I asked. “That mangroves are dangerous.” Sarah answers. Resie laughing behind me, “that was so funny, that tree came out of nowhere!” she says. I will never forget this little trip taken up Salt Creek and the way that I learned to find nature everywhere, not just in a forest or a state park that is reserved for such a thing as “wilderness” or “nature.” These are both things that can be found in our everyday lives, looking out into our backyards or even into a retention pond nearby. Nature is not elusive one bit, we see it everyday mixed into what we have made it. It may contain the things that we have so carelessly let fall by the wayside, but nature is all around us nonetheless.

Seeking the Natural in an Unnatural Age (Victoria Mello)

I recently set out on a canoe trip that took me and my companions directly into Salt Creek, located in the heart of St. Petersburg, a lasting remnant of our past. It gave us firsthand experience with the waterway and how it has been neglected and left forgotten over the years.  We cruised past wharfs and moored boats, and, unbelievably, a waterside bar where the sound of music and companionable voices drifted out to us. It was an odd juxtaposition between the natural and the unnatural, the cross-section of what ought to be considered nature, and the workings of civilization infringing upon its borders. Perhaps the saddest part of the trip was seeing how we have allowed this historic creek to become a dumping ground of our waste and trash. Bottles and plastic bags floated along in melancholic rhythm beside our canoes, and there was an overwhelming feeling that this was a place deemed unimportant to society, and therefore not worthy of our attention.

I have always thought of myself as adventurous and willing to try new things, but I have come to the realization that we as a society are trained to perceive only a certain kind of nature as being beautiful. We look at a picture of a mountain range with snow tipped peaks and we marvel at its grandness, its magnificence. We see wide beaches and blue oceans and blooming flowers: these images have become synonymous with the natural world, with our perceptions of beauty.

I learned the astonishing truth that if something is not necessarily “beautiful” by our polished, unrealistic standards, it is discarded. The plastic reality we have created for ourselves shows nature to be this wonderful, beautiful place with dazzling sunsets and exotic smelling flowers. True nature, however, is a wild beast. It does not always cooperate. If there is one thing that I have learned is that nature is unpredictable, and nearly every time you may try to make a plan, nature simply shakes her head and laughs. Yes, Salt Creek is not fully natural. The machinations of humanity have continuously worked their way like a tangled web across and through its borders, but Salt Creek remains unaffected by our false construction of reality. We don’t have to look for images of nature to be immersed in it. We are forfeiting these small areas of the natural world in favor of our projected ideals of beauty.

I believe that this is what prevents people from seeing the waterway, because we are so stuck in the mire of fake aesthetics. We fail to recognize the real from the unreal. With technology the way it is, we have grown so accustomed to seeing rain forests, mountains, deserts, seas, all at the touch of our fingertips, and yet all through the screen of a manufactured image. I believe that everyone who considers themselves a nature lover ought to step back and ask what it is about nature that they love. Is it because they think of it as being pretty and vibrant? Is it because it is a place where they feel at one with the earth? And what exactly classifies the natural? Salt Creek is worthy of our time and attention because it represents the past that we have left behind. It is a small sliver of nature that has managed to persist through the years, impervious to the rise and fall of civilization around us.

Bag in the Tree (Hailee Leonor)

Salt Creek is ugly. Beyond ugly. And not a place I would ever pretend to care about. Even though it’s about five minutes from one of the most beautiful college campuses in Florida—my campus, I’d never even heard of it before a month ago.

My indifference started to change when I saw the white plastic Dollar Tree bag flitting innocently in a mangrove tree. Its red bold letters reading ‘THANK YOU’ were jumbled from the tears, and its original purpose as an inanimate object would never be fulfilled again. It reminded me of a bird with clipped wings, unable to attain freedom from its captor. The stark whiteness of the bag sharply contrasted the rich green of the tree, and as I watched the pathetic flutters of the destroyed trash, I wondered if the tree minded being a host to humanity’s waste. Eh, it was probably used to it. In the middle of my personification of the tree, I realized that if I saw a plastic bag on a sidewalk under an oak tree or something, it probably wouldn’t spark as much thought or pity.

Why is this? Don’t trees provide life everywhere? Whether they exist in a shitty creek or a swanky sidewalk in a neon downtown? Further, why would most of us at first glance view the creek as sad or a waste, instead of viewing it for what it is: a dark, murky waterway teeming with life and waste and possibility.

Most of us are raised to respect nature, mainly the kind of nature that is sealed off—the preserves, the botanical gardens, even the nurseries. The kind of place where littering or yelling or touching a tree to roughly is expressly forbidden. But the natural world itself—our world, takes a much rougher beating. Salt Creek runs through an urban and industrial area, but is so wild still that it seems to take the litter in as its own. To me, this is the epitome of the complex struggle that Floridians especially, have with nature.

Directly under my bag in the tree, on the littered grassy bank, were several sardine cans with holes punctured in the top and black strings tied tight around them. From my experience, (talking about fishing with my boyfriend’s dad, who exudes wildness himself), this would exhibit that someone was recently fishing for crabs in the murky waters of the creek.

Sardines are cheap and oily. The fisherman like the cheap, the crabs like the oily. See, crabs are scavengers who search the bottom of the creek floor for dead animals to eat, so sardines are the perfect bait because the fat in the oil doesn’t mix with the water and makes a long term ‘scent’ for crabs who think the sardines are dead fish rotting innocently at the bottom of the creek.

It struck me as ironic that someone would think to fish for food, for literal sustenance, and then litter the very area they are gaining that sustenance from.

My plastic bag could have met an accidental landing upon the tree and thus gotten stuck and that would explain its placement there. However, the contrast between this potential accident and the purposeful deposit of waste where food was found, sharply juxtaposed each other in my mind. I walked around the empty sardine cans like a rookie detective looking for clues, hoping to mentally be shown the image of the crab fisherman through some divine osmosis, and maybe gather more information about his catch that day, and why he left his bait for me to stumble upon.

It got me thinking about The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, where she says that in Florida, nature seems to be consistently trying to take back what humanity has taken for themselves, and how it’s pretty evident everywhere, despite industrial or commercial growth. Could the actual destruction of nature through the propagation of littering be a subconscious attempt by humanity to keep fighting this natural force, so the threat of its overtaking seems just a little more distant? Could Salt Creek be caught in the cross fire of this struggle?

At the end of it all, I realize that my relationship with Salt Creek is a complex and not fully finished one. And my experience of viewing the creek for what it is: with open eyes, nose, and ears, has left me with more questions than with answers. But this is a good thing, and its original ugliness turned out to just be an unconventional kind of beauty, despite the paper and plastic bags, sardines, and smells of rotting fish, it might be the perfect embodiment of the twisted and complex relationship that Florida folk have with nature.

Trash Talk (Resie Waechter)

Do not pick up any of the trash.  My professor’s words echoed through my head as I paddled my canoe down Salt Creek alongside my fellow Nature Writing classmates.  The creek was completely polluted.  Styrofoam cups bumped against my oar and the shine of old Doritos bags caught the sunlight as they bobbed up and down in the waves of the mangroves.

My first reaction, upon being instructed by our professor to leave the trash alone, was one of shock.  I wanted to protest: but it’s litter!  And also: isn’t this a Nature Writing course?  Dr. Hallock informed our class that he wanted us to look at the creek without any judgment; he wanted us to go into the creek and explore it without trying to “fix” it or “save” it somehow.

This brought me back to a volunteering trip I took to Central America last spring.  A small group of students and I traveled to Guatemala to build stoves for indigenous Mayan families.   Everyone we met was living in absolute poverty.  As we traveled through the villages, many of us were surprised to see that there was trash everywhere in the huts.  I remember that even the nicest of residences had giant piles of garbage in them.  When we brought this up with our professor at the time, he asked us to think about why that was so shocking.  It made me question, what is so different about their trash from ours?  We also have piles of trash in our homes in the States; they are simply hidden in opaque plastic bags contained in stainless steel bins so we can’t see them, lids closed tightly so we can’t smell them, and foot pedals so we don’t even have to think about our hands going anywhere near them.  Our trash is tied up with little knots and bows to keep the smell down and the appearance tolerable—some trash bags actually come scented now—and then our perfumed garbage is placed on the curb and picked up by a giant, gas-guzzling semi-automatic.

And then we can feel better about it, because we do not have to look at it anymore.  We don’t have to smell it rotting in our house and we don’t have to think about it being burned, rancid clouds filling the sky with stench.  The more affluent parts of the city have beautiful lakes and parks; city employees are paid to clean up the litter on a regular basis.  And until a few weeks ago, I thought that that was what real nature was: obvious, beautiful, untouched.


Here on Salt Creek, though, we are in a different part of town.  We are paddling through the water alongside the lower-income neighborhoods.  There is more culture here, more diversity.  And less money.  Nobody is paid to come here and clean up the trash.  The postcards of St. Pete don’t have pictures of this area, and it is not listed in the brochures of places to go—even though it is just blocks away from the heart of the city downtown.

The trash in this creek is similar, in a way, to the piles of trash I saw in Guatemala.  It is a reminder that Nature is different for everyone.  We separate ourselves from each other, and from Nature, at the same time and in similar ways.  The garbage in Salt Creek points to a certain truth about the people that live nearby—and those that choose not to.  We could have picked up the litter along the creek that day in class, sure.  We could have picked it up and carried it out, taking pictures of our “good deed” and feeling better about ourselves as we climbed into our cars and drove down the road.  But then we wouldn’t have seen a thing.

Great Blue (Hannah Gorski)

A classmate says to me she’s going for a paddle up Salt Creek. My eyes shift from the paper I’m reading to squint over the harbor. This opportunity, I know, cannot be passed on a day like today. She says she wants to retrieve the dead heron our class found on the last trip. I remember the bird, a Great Blue Heron, the largest of the species in North America. I had not expected that blue, tangled mass strangled by skeins of fishing line. The bird’s sodden feathers spread with the pulse of the current and his neck, devoid of any muscle tension, hung on the water. The clear membrane over his eye, used to clean his vision during life, reached from the corner socket but never fully rinsed his death-sight. I remember imagining his final hours, caught in a line so carelessly discarded, and not able to understand the reason why he lost his flight—and that’s when nature caught me in the throat. My classmate says she saw the heron on her last outing on the creek, and she and my professor think it would be good to preserve the bird for future students. I agree and together we load a canoe with a forty gallon bin, grabbers, and work gloves. Our professor meets us prepared and says, a colleague in the science department gave instructions to preserve the bones. He said, “Wrap the body in chicken wire and put it on an ant hill for a couple days.” We set out to find the heron, and we all feel a little uneasy.

We don’t find the bird, and I’m a little relieved. Then, at the Fourth Street Bridge I see a scarlet flash from the aquatic dun. At first, I think it’s a tackle box, but it’s not. It’s a sewing box. I take it home. I separate the unruly strings and place the spools upright on a cookie sheet. I find an envelope of twelve sewing needles that cost ten cents. Manufactured in England by a company called Milward’s, the long eye needles have started to oxidize. Everything looks old. I read different button companies: Genuine Pearl, Quality Button, and Lansing. The spools are from Clarks and Talon and range from thirty-five cents to sixty cents. My mind wanders to the exchange at the sewing shop; and now, somehow, the bobbins and buttons survived their history to land in my living room.

I take the weekend to clean a box and preserve its history. I take an old toothbrush, dip it into the vinegar, and scrub the fabric. I scrub the hinges and the supports. I scrub the screws and connectors. The lock and key, I scrub, until they shine. It’s easy to focus on small objects. However, the creek is a living system and it requires direct care. The numerous species who make the creek home deserve better than the Great Blue Heron. I wish we could have saved his body from the muck and the pollution and dignified his bones with preservation. Display his insides, the structure of his bones and the way they fit together to show us how to take flight.

Dead Animals are Tasty (Chloe McCrea)

Kelley whips past us in her canoe, taunting that she will win the race.

My academic brain demands that I take the sights in, to absorb some sort of inspiration from the clichéd beauty that surrounds me; my natural behavioral tendencies are itching to canoe faster and dominate that purple haired punk by putting her in her proper place: eating my waves as I take the lead. But as I watch her enthusiastic battle with nature, one thought overpowers the rest: I could really go for some cheesecake right now.cheesecake

My stomach is competing with the birds overhead for loudest disturbance. Hunger is the ultimate reality and our most intimate connection to nature. In a way, my day dreaming about: an oversized  s’mores cheesecake slice;  melting bits of chocolate ganache helping slide the fork through graham cracker crust; shades of brown on the homemade toasted marshmallow topping adding a hint of cold summer nights around the camp fire….

is completely appropriate for a nature trip. The most intentional connection we will ever have with nature is hunger; it is literally taking our outward surroundings into ourselves. Our survival relies on outward connections. My survival relies on cheesecake.

Fantasies about dessert are interrupted by the sight of a predatory looking bird standing on top of a pile of litter, as if on a throne. I dub him “The Trashy Bird”, a way for me to use language to put his disturbing stare into condescending perspective. The only favorable sensation that I can put into birds’ favor is that they taste awesome with Sriracha.

As fast as Kelley was in beating everyone to our destination, her canoe does not seem to be moving, trapping the rest of our canoeing brigade in the tiny space next to the bridge. She has managed to find an object in the water that interests her enough to stall the race. As she lifts up her paddle, I get a better look at her prize: the surprisingly fresh corpse of a white bird. Our canoeing group looks on unable to move, unable to look away, as she spreads its wings out on the water like a macabre center piece, its beady eyes turned into shining marbles, unseeing. Kelley says: I think dead animals are funny.

I think I just lost my appetite.

Silver Bullet (Michael Sadler)

sadler - imageMy wife gasped on the phone. She saw a hawk with a fish clutched in its talons. “I’m not used to seeing nature like that in the city,” she explained. She grew up in rural Colorado, the Rockies, so I understood what she meant. A common sentiment: nature is out there, the city is here.

A belief I’ve only just abandon as of late.

I had never thought about nature in the city before. I separated them in my mind. The Appalachian Trail and Florida reefs are considered nature; the roads to my school, my house, and the restaurant I frequent, city. I admit. I would look at grey and brown striped lizards scuttle across concrete paths and climb up palm branches in my front yard. I’d see Tropical Orb Weavers weave webs between my live oaks and Jeep Wrangler. I’d see nature, but it wasn’t really nature … at least that is what I thought. Yet it was. City and nature aren’t separate at all. They are one. There is nature in the city.

We have moved in on nature’s turf and built our city here.

I cast aside my separateness lately. I encountered nature retaking city on a large scale at Fort Dale on Egmont Key, and the city splintering into nature through my exploration of Salt Creek.

If you look at the creek on the surface, you will see pollution, trash and not much more. But if you look deeper, if you look at the heart of Salt Creek, you will see multiple natures.

My first time on Salt Creek, I noticed beer cans reflected the sun through the murky water. Metallic buoys, bouncing up and down in the waves. Faded and crushed aluminum, submerged like a watery tombstone memorializing what was God’s beautiful workmanship. The first can I see in Salt Creek is a Coors Light.

Cold as the Rockies, I hear the commercial in my head. The company uses nature to advertise beer; it is the backbone of their marketing. It is refreshing, sweeping shots of the ice and snow covered caps of the mountains; climbers breaking away a six-pack. But they do not have to worry about beer cans scattered across their peaks and cliff sides. Instead their cans end up in rivers, oceans, and creeks. The can travels nearly the length of the country to end up in Salt Creek.

Then again, when did an aluminum can stop being nature? Was it when we pulled the ore out of the ground? When we shaped it, molded it, filled it with a concoction of natural ingredients? That can is still nature, even though we shaped it. That sun-bleached faded can bobbing in the creek tells a story about city and nature. The beer can tells the story of how we encroached on nature and over time, forgot about it.

We fragmented a creek, built around it, and walled up parts of it. Salt Creek had been invaded. Forgotten and neglected over the decades, Salt Creek is overgrown with mangroves, Brazilian pepper and trash. Even though the creek is broken, however, it is no less nature. Nor is it even ugly. The beauty is in its wildness and juxtapositions, its blending of nature and city.

It is interesting to me how we “make” nature sometimes. Take barge reefs, the ultimate blend of city and nature and a place of wildness. I’ve gone diving many times in the gulf and down in the Keys. And many of those dives revolved around a man made object — a retired with no use, except to become nature again. It is no different in Salt Creek. What we view as trash, nature can reclaim. Salt Creek represents nature fighting back and reclaiming the city.

My last trip to Salt Creek required some clearing to get through the overgrowth; it was like an exploration into wild lands. Yet I was smack-dab in the middle of the city. No more than a hundred feet to either side of me cars zoomed by. We reached Bartlett Pond and as I looked into the water, just from looking at it I felt I needed a Hepatitis Shot. I was in nature even though it became murky and foul. And as I start my journey back I pass a group of traveling snails, perched on the back of a floating styrofoam cup.

Wild Salt Creek (Ariel Ringo)

Ariel RingoTaking the corner like an Indy 500 racer, Cathy whipped into the makeshift parking spot and jumped out of her car, already apologizing. We had been waiting on her to arrive, our very own Clam Bayou tour guide. Introductions were said. Life vests were put on. Cathy quickly unhooked her single passenger kayak from the roof of her small car and slipped it into the mouth of the inlet. On our tour she took us around the hidden trails of Clam Bayou and brought us to an area where the city had dammed up part of the water so that it wouldn’t affect the traffic on — what I am pretty sure is — 22 Avenue South.

Weaving in and out of the legs of the mangroves, Cathy had her camera close by and would take snapshots of the scenery. Between shots of the ibis and the bayou she told us a story of how she always hoped to see a dead body along the water.

A dead body is not something I would want to find paddling through the swamp on a Friday afternoon. But Cathy explained that if a cadaver were found, people would start to take notice.

This area is a lot like Cathy, a little rough around the edges, intimidating, and even a bit wild. Both these waters and Cathy have a purpose: to bring attention back to this body of water. Hope for the wilderness has not been completely lost, even though some may only see it as a garbage pit, trash on the banks at least means there are people actively coming down. The beer bottles and old Styrofoam cups are part of the charm.

At first glance, the waterway does not look like it can be successfully navigated. But look harder. Salt Creek goes from Bayboro Harbor to Clam Bayou. A good portion of the creek can be paddled, depending on the tide. When I had gone through Salt Creek the first time, we loaded into our canoes at Bayboro Harbor, then headed south. We passed Fish Tales; I could smell the fried food and see the people having ice-cold beers on the deck. If only I could have a beer while doing this, clearly I would have to come back and canoe Salt Creek again, but next time with proper provisions.

Along the side are a fishermen bringing in their daily catch. The banks have lush mangroves, with beer cans for decoration. Some lucky groves have old grocery bags tangled in the hair of their branches. Paddling on, the fishermen and marinas fade; it’s just the creek and her used accessories.

The further one goes, the harder it becomes to continue. The branches are too thick to get across, and cutting down the mangroves are not always part of the option.

If this creek were in a different part of town, there would have been a board meeting by now: people bringing the creeks “issues” to light, the creek is unsafe for their children to play around or, the degradation decreasing property value … the mangroves growing too wild, I can’t see the water from my back yard.

But south St. Pete is associated with a lower economic class, and meetings like this are not as common as in a typically white, upper middle class neighborhood. Imagine the same exact creek just moved up a bit. Economic standings and perceived notions of respect on nature, directly affect the cleanup of Salt Creek.

Moving the creek is not going to happen, so how can we get the motivation and awareness to help clean it up?

Or is this dingy creek fine the way it is?

There is no doubt that Salt Creek has its own charm about it. I think part of that charm is the influence that south St. Pete has imposed on it. If this creek were in a wealthier neighborhood it would more than likely become just another cookie cutter canoe trail. There would be no adventure in going through the waterways. As it stands, the creek has its own voice, from the many characters that ride their makeshift boats down it, to the socioeconomic graph left by beer cans.

Landscape designer Ann Whiston Spirn might agree with me. It’s about the water and keeping it protected, without changing it all together. As she writes in her essay “Restoring Mill Creek: Landscape Literacy, Environmental Justice and City Planning and Design: “To read landscape is also to anticipate the possible, to envision, choose and shape the future: to see, for example, the connections between buried, sewered stream, vacant land and polluted river, and to imagine rebuilding a community while purifying its water.”

The community has been built around Salt Creek. Raise awareness in the community and that will have a direct effect on the waterway. There is no need for large clean up crews and state legislators to come in and try to set projects into motion. Let the community take care of the creek. People had originally set up homes around it so they could use it as a source to get food, now I don’t think anyone would really eat out of Salt Creek. But that same thought, that same notion of wanting to live from the water needs to take place.

If finding a dead body in this waterway is what it is going to take to get Salt Creek on the map, I’m not sure I want Cathy to ever find one. Let’s keep Salt Creek for ourselves. Keep Salt Creek for the community. The people who enjoy it now for how it is, there are no reasons to change the way it looks. Cut back the mangroves, give it a trim. No. Pick up the trash sparking in the water, like sea wreckage. Yes. That we can do. We need to leave this water system the way it is intended to be experienced. Embrace Salt Creek for everything that it is, and everything that it isn’t. I don’t want a big dredge coming through pulling back the mangroves, and making enough room so that a small-motorized boat could get through. There is no fun, no adventure in that creek. Leave me with the creek that is there now. The creek that, if I fell into the water I might want to get a tetanus shot.Ariel Ringo

Living Years Old (Abagail Mills)

South from Thirill Hill - Hallock - 2011First of all, the yellow life jacket was too small. The cute, young athletic intern had to loosen the straps on the sides, so that it would fit, just in case I fell out of the canoe, which my instructor said was not going to happen. Instructors reminded the rest of the class, all the 20-year-olds, and the two marines who are taking the class for advancement in their field, and me the novice, how to enter the canoe. Well, I didn’t think I was to plop down into it. “Just hold both sides of the boat with each hand, and lower yourself into the canoe.”

Now those instructions were backwards. They should have said, ”crouch all the way down to the pavement of the dock, and almost kneeling, grab both the sides of the boat, whilst praying that you don’t throw out your lower back, or worst, push the boat out, by mistake, and fall headfirst into the water.” With two athletic department instructors I managed to maneuver my tush into the seat, whilst holding on to either side of the boat, and not fall into the water. Actually, once I found my equilibrium, seated, it felt fine!

I was in the front of the canoe, and the instructor, who sat in the back, might have been holding back a fit of laughter from that activity, but I could not see him, and I dared not look back. Make that, I couldn’t look back, without my neck swiveling around like the kid in The Exorcist.

The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the breeze as mellow as a summer’s day on Narragansett Beach in Rhode Island. All the other kiddies were rowing along, smiling, and soon, given the oar, was told to grab the top and row with the bottom; I, too, was rowing and humming and smiling. We paddled through a narrow passage. There were mangroves on the sides, overgrown, and crowding into the water. As we paddled along, it became necessary to duck the overhanging branches. I started to feel like I was an intruder in the House of the Mangroves. I was ducking under, pushing aside, and paddling away from the over-hanging branches. At one point, we had to row, with one hand, and lift a branch with the other.

Soon we came to the fun part. The first of two concrete bridges that were on the streets above. We were in the boats below. The first was the Fourth Street Bridge. Innocently, I asked if we were going under this bridge.

Everyone just giggled. I knew they were giggling, I could hear them. I felt like I was about to undergo an MRI, and not an open MRI. I thought … this was the claustrophobic nightmare that many people feared when having an MRI. But in we went, and I lay backwards, hoping that at one point, I would be able to sit up again without being airlifted to All Children’s Hospital and put in traction until the end of the semester. I wondered if they admitted older ladies to All Children’s. The mental image of me walking around with a full back brace for the rest of my life flashed though my brain.

The ride under the bridge was in reality about four minutes. It seemed like four hours. The next bridge was a higher one. I could sit up. I am five feet tall, but my head almost touched the bottom of the bridge, and I had that exhilarated feeling that I was at least five and half feet … a veritable giant!

As we paddled further, the branches of the mangroves completely blocked further passage, and we had to turn around. By this time, I could almost maneuver the turning around, and the paddling home seemed a relief, until we came to that obnoxious Fourth Street Bridge again, and I had to lean backwards. I underestimated my flexibility. Once again, I did it. We rowed up to the dock again. And the last obstacle surfaced as I tried to get out of the canoe. “Just hoist yourself up,” said the merry and limber 20 year old athletic department intern.

I looked her with a smile that said only one thing, ”are you kidding?”

She wasn’t. But I grabbed a hold of her skinny lithe arm, and almost pulled her into the boat like an old Van Johnson comedy, where the young lovers are having some “clean fun.” She was strong, however, and I managed to climb up on the deck, on all fours, and walk away from the dock.

I was feeling very snarky, sure of myself, and happy oh, so happy that I had gone canoeing, on this lovely sunny winters day, with the rest of my graduate class at USF, the nature writing class. It felt so good to be alive, and so much fun to be 73 … or, as I think of it … LIVING!

Looking (Hugh Tulloch)

How shall we look at Salt Creek?

First of all, who cares?  Isn’t this just another little stream which turns into a commercial/industrial creek, leading to a nondescript harbor?  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s just not particularly special.  There are hundreds of creeks just like it all over Florida.  Only the most rabid ecologist could make a case that it is specially deserving of protection.

Or is that really true?  I paddled up the creek not long ago with low expectations, only to discover that it holds a few special treats for a careful observer.  First of all, the creek is home to many of the birds, large and small, which make Florida really special.  No one can ever forget the sight of a great blue heron landing in a longleaf pine, as we saw on this trip.

That graceful feathered dinosaur came flapping in at considerable speed, pulled up at the last minute to a perfect stall, grabbed a branch in his talons, and let out a querulous squawk to announce his arrival.  Never mind that the pine tree was between a marina and a warehouse; the memory is brilliant.

Or, how about the fat pelican perched on the roof of a warehouse?  That big, goofy clown of the airways looked down at us splashing our way up the creek – he must have had a laugh as we snatched plastic bottles and other trash out of the mangroves.  Why bother with that on Salt Creek?

Nature can be less than Garrard’s Wilderness or even Pastoral.  Of course, it’s wonderful to walk in the forest primeval with the leaves crunching underfoot, the smell of pine needles in your nose, and the sound of a mockingbird in your ears, looking over the ridge for the sight of a panther.  But that’s not next door for all of us.  We can’t all jump in our kayaks and paddle out on the flats of the Crystal River as it flows into the Gulf, with the baby nurse sharks lying sluggishly on the bottom and the rays flapping lazily along the riverbed.

But if Laura can walk to work over Thrill Hill and look down into Salt Creek to see a pelican working over the baitfish, that’s not a bad nature fix.  An osprey diving for his lunch is still a thrill whether you see it in the Everglades or from the dock at your local marina.

That’s what makes Salt Creek worth saving.  We shouldn’t aspire to take it back to the Tocobago times. Let’s just keep it clean, so it can support the plants, the fish and the birds which make it so much fun for us all.  Even Thoreau in his Walden cabin wasn’t waiting for Squanto to show up with a handful of corn and the drumstick of a turkey he had just shot with his bow and arrow.  He planted his beans and made other improvements to accommodate Nature to his needs and desires.  Let’s take a leaf from his book and just improve the little corner where we are.  That’s how I look at Salt Creek.

Too many ecologists and nature writers get so wrapped up in their romantic vision of Nature (with a capital N) that they lose sight of what’s practical, and lose their followers at the same time.  The perfect is the enemy of pretty-damned-good.

Instead, they should learn to spell nature with a lower case n, accept the fact that it’s never going to be as pristine as they might like, and make the best of it.  Introduce the changes (hopefully improvements) which a majority of people can live with, avoid the really stupid stuff like straightening the Kissimee River or draining the

Everglades, do your best to keep the corporate developers at bay, and build a consensus. By now, most of the general public is tired of hearing about the snail darter and the spotted owl; they want to find a compromise which will avoid mass extinctions and still let the loggers earn a living.

Consensus is not going to be possible on all the issues, so they’ll have to select a few issues very carefully and cleverly, nail their colors to the mast and fight the good fight but do that in a spirit of comity and not burn every bridge in the county.  Jenny Price seems to have a good message for us in her “Urban Denizen”.  I would summarize her theme as “Nature is where you are – make the best of it.”

Her five questions can help us to look at nature with a purpose.  Her first question – “What and where are the wild things?” is probably too global, but let’s zero in on a local application and say, “Salt Creek is marinas and warehouses, bridges and dams, garbage and pollution, but it is equally birds and fish, mangroves and palmettos, blue sky and flowing water.”

It’s too facile to focus too much on either side of this equation.  Both sides have their value or at least raison d’être.  The marinas and warehouses add value to the creek at the same time they lead to the pollution and garbage.  You can’t live in a house without tracking in mud occasionally and eventually wearing out the carpet.

That leads us to her question two, “How do people use nature as resources?”  Salt Creek’s marinas and warehouses are money-makers, and that means that they help pay the taxes which support our ecological efforts.  We can welcome commercial and industrial activity along the creek, while protecting it with appropriate regulations to limit dangerous effluents and other damage.  That doesn’t mean that the oil tank farms of the ‘20’s and 30’s were blameless – I’d bet that they leaked all sorts of nasty stuff into the creek now and then.  However, we’ve learned a few lessons since then, and can learn to stop that, too.

That allows us to get in our kayaks and paddle up the stream to see what we can find.  And what do we find?  Healthy mangrove thickets are providing a habitat for all sorts of fish and other marine life, even among the plastic cups and bottles.  There doesn’t appear to be much liquid pollution, although an occasional glimpse of petroleum’s rainbow sheen on the water tells us that we’re not in a pristine environment.  The herons, egrets and even ospreys soar overhead, along with the ubiquitous seagulls, confirming that there is food on the menu here in the creek.  And it’s all there for us to see if we’ll just get out and look.  This confirms to me that we’ve probably reached a sustainable balance; one which could be improved, certainly, but nonetheless sustainable.

Price’s third question asks how we transform the landscape we live in and how does nature act back?  In addition to all the examples above, perhaps the single most striking example for Salt Creek is the dam which turned Lake Maggiore into a freshwater lake in the 1930s. The first thing which happened was massive fish kills on both sides of the dam.  The salt water fish in the lake turned belly up, and the freshwater fish trapped downstream gasped and died.  Sea grass in the lake died and smothered marine life all around.  Later, when public works opened the dam to release excess fresh water in the lake, they killed mullet in the creek “… by the ton”.

“How do different people encounter nature differently?” asks Price in question 4.  There are so many examples.  Kayakers have a typical nature experience, but people having a beer along the rail at Fish Tales can also watch the birds.  The boaters may take a minute to look around as they putt-putt into their berths, and even the warehouse man may glance around while he smokes a cigarette on his break.  Who’s to say that any of these experiences is more valid than the others?  Which of these people is more virtuously attuned with nature?  An objective answer might surprise us.

Finally, Price wants to know how people imagine and understand nature.  This can cover the entire gamut, from enchantment at the flight of the egret to Totch Brown’s appreciation for egrets served as Chokoloskee chicken.  No matter how we may romanticize it, nature is still out there, red in tooth and claw.  Given a chance, the alligator will still eat your poodle, and the osprey will snatch the mullet out of the water for lunch.  And if the osprey has his perch on the top of your condo, your balcony will be covered with blood and fish guts.

If you can’t find nature in the city, you must be willfully blind.  Get out and enjoy it!

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