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.