Nature & Community on a St. Petersburg Stream

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Mini Lights: The Myth and Mural (Mackenzie Hatcher)

“Mini Lights, Mini Lights, come out tonight. Mini Lights, Mini Lights, come out tonight. Mini Lights, Mini Lights, come out tonight,” we chanted in unison. Three times, just as the legend said we were to do. We waited for little green men to show. Nothing. Maybe it wasn’t dark enough yet; maybe they were somewhere else.


Ask any long-term citizen of St. Pete and they could tell you the tale of the Mini Lights. The Mini Lights were short, green creatures that would go after people if they were out past dark. Their location is ambiguous; some say they live under the Booker Creek Bridge, some have seen them under Thrill Hill, and some have seen them in the Campbell Park neighborhood.


I wasn’t familiar with the Mini Lights story, regardless of the fact I had been attending school in St. Pete for the past two years. My nature writing class, namely our reading of The Salt Creek Journal, was what introduced me to the story of the Mini Lights. I found the story to be a little “out there,” but the superstition made me laugh nonetheless. You don’t need to buy into the myth to appreciate the sentiment and cultural history behind it. But then again, if you don’t buy into it, I dare you to say the line three times in a row.


When our class got the opportunity to walk Booker Creek, we were fortunate enough to come across a mural dedicated to the myth of the Mini Lights. The mural may not fit the narrative of “nature” in the typical sense, but you could tell that the it blends right in with its surroundings, since the mural is painted in a spot where the Mini Lights are rumored to live.


The man-made world and the natural world have been intertwined with one another for quite some time. Who is to say what constitutes as nature? Is it “pretty?” Is it untouched by man completely? If you would have asked me at the beginning of the semester, “Where is the nature in St. Pete?”, I would have told you that it was nonexistent. But through this course, by walking Salt Creek, visiting Boyd Hill, visiting Dell Homes Park, and walking Booker Creek, I’ve had a change of heart. Nature doesn’t have to be in pristine condition to be “true nature.” The natural world and the animals in it learn to adapt to their surroundings. Nature is nature, whether pristine or polluted. Nature will find a way to survive, even in the city.


You can find nature in the city, you just have to be willing to look.

The Litter Double Standard (Elise Hummel)

Ecocriticism is the idea that culture mediates the relation with land and nature.  Pastoral land, or man-made parks and gardens, are somehow from a simpler past. This land — or simpler past — of course never existed.This effects the way that we see nature in books, the way we talk about nature and the way nature is reflected in our everyday life. This relationship between man and nature can be seen very clearly by paddling up Salt Creek right outside of the bay area on the USF St Petersburg campus.

Paddling down the river, it is clear that this place is a dumping ground for most of the trash in the area. Boats surrounding the bay could care less whether or not their oil, beer cans or empty trash bags gather among the trees on the shoreline. Not one care is given about the rights of the natural world. This habitat obviously does not matter as much as that of the “holy pastoral lands of the past.”

Pastoral lands of the untouched. Our language, the way we speak of these National Parks and “holy grounds” gives way to the way that we treat them. No one can live on these grounds, nor can they take anything from it, nor can they eat any of the “naturally” grown foods. Someone in a uniform may reprimand you for these things.

But what’s the difference in Salt Creek? The difference is culture and our relationship with land and nature. National parks and forests are not treated in the same fashion as the little ol’ creek that leaves people on the south side little access to the ocean or boat docking. There is no one in uniform, standing on the side of the creek to say “Hey, don’t throw that bottle in there!”.  Will everyone decided to throw their beer bottle into the creek? Probably not. But, would someone choose to throw their beer bottle into one of the Yellowstone National Forests springs? Never.

I say we stop throwing things in Salt Creek, but hey, that’s just an idea. Maybe we would have to go as far as turning Salt Creek into a National Park to do that. Or maybe we could just call it a protected area have volunteers yell at people for doing things they already shouldn’t be doing to nature .… Anyone up for putting on a uniform and reprimanding people for throwing beer cans in the water?


Post Script: Check out the extensive rules on littering at Yellowstone National ParkI say we enforce some of these rules for protection of plants and animals everywhere!


Agee House Family House Boat Saga (Summer Carnley)

It’s a sweltering August day in 1960, and you’re out on a routine patrol on the streets bordering Salt Creek.  It’s the dog days of summer in St. Petersburg, Florida, and although the air is cranked up and the windows are sealed, you’ve already sweated through your uniform in the seat of your ‘52 Ford Mainline.  The paper says the high today is 91 without even the slightest chance of rain, and you can tell.  The sky is blue and the water is fine, though, and maybe you’ll hear Marty Robbins’ new song “El Paso” on the radio today.  You slowly meander along the downtown St. Petersburg area and find yourself at the Gandy Bridge.  As you cruise closer, however, you notice a boat sticking out of a cove near the bridge.

It looks unseaworthy, and on closer inspection appears to be a houseboat in serious need of restoration.  No, you think, tapping on your breaks.  Denial rises up quickly.  It’s just some out-of-towners who got lost on Salt Creek.  It’s just a local who forgot to bring in an abandoned boat he’s found on the water.  It couldn’t be.   A sunburned, mustachioed man in his early thirties walks out onto the deck of the boat, and waves cheerfully at you.  Your heart sinks, but you wave back, pretending that the fella on the boat is a stranger.  He’s a tourist.  He’s with the Coast Guard and he’s here to haul this junk in.  But you’re Patrolman Homer Allen, and you know better.  Agee is back in town, and he’s brought the bottom half of his houseboat with him.

When you’re done hearing Agee’s latest tirade about the Bill of Rights and the inevitable Ice Age that’s going to make everyone sorry they ever doubted him, you’re going to have to fill out another dadgum police report.   Vernon Agee—

You can already see it now—wife, five children, unseaworthy craft and another sewage dump on Salt Creek.  Tomorrow’s paper will get right to the point: “AGEE RETURNS WITH FAMILY, HALF OF BOAT”.  If that isn’t enough, Agee wants to be Navy war buddies, attempting to swap stories with you while you fill out his multiple citations.

You used to have nice, quiet patrols through these neighborhoods and over the bridges bordering Salt Creek.  A couple good tunes on the radio and maybe a couple of kids setting up a lemonade stand down past Thrill Hill.  Sure, every couple of years the paper runs a blurb about a big fish kill, or an update on page four to remind everybody around town that the city’s dredging and filling project is still going on— otherwise it’s a sleepy old creek.  Ever since Agee showed up a few years ago, though, that sleepy old creek keeps sneaking its way up to the front page.

Used to be a man could sit down for his breakfast with a cup of coffee and the paper and see the score or read the word around town.  Now it’s all “SEA OF WOES ROCKS AGEE’S BOAT,” or “SALT CREEK SQUATTERS TROUBLE CITY AGAIN.”

After you finish your paperwork and your conversation, you tip your hat to the missus and the little ones and slide behind the wheel again.  As you pull away, the shirtless, sunburned figure energetically tossing junk into the water slowly disappears around the bend in your rearview mirror and you breathe a sigh of relief.

Blockage (Michael Sadler)

My deadline approaches. To my dismay, I cannot think of a single thing. I rack my clogged brain. I sit in front of a computer, a notebook, anything, nothing.

It’s odd. Writer’s block never happened to me before. It is as if my mind has a blockage that prevents the flow of ideas. Time to do some menial tasks.

I received new filters for my turtle tank, shipped same day Amazon Prime. The pump needs a good scrubbing; it’s covered in turtle crap. I pull the pump out of my Lou’s aquarium and scrub the foul slime I find and tell myself it’s not turtle crap I’m scrubbing.

My mind wanders and I think of my trips to Salt Creek and Bartlett Pond.

The water is slow and the sediment looks slimy and sludgy, like turtle crap. Except I have never seen a turtle before in my close to a dozen trips up and down the creek.

The muck makes the creek appear foul. A greasy layer of filth under the water tells the history of south Saint Petersburg.  The creek is a dumping ground, a sacrificial piece of nature. We should strive to not sacrifice nature. Salt Creek is a bad choice for sacrifice. The accumulation of trash, sludge, and fecal matter is proof. But, every now and then humanity needs ritual slaughter.

The blockages go farther than just the sludge and crap. The creek is like a splinter hanging off tree bark. A dam blocks Salt Creek and Bartlett Pond from Lake Maggiore, and beyond that, a highway fragments the natural swale of south Saint Petersburg, disconnecting Clam Bayou from Lake Maggiore. The various blockages and breaks of the creek are the wounds that resulted in the death of the area. The area was sacrificed for the good of the northern residents and progress.

Most people don’t think of a filthy creek like that, and even those who do care about nature and perhaps nature writing will most likely only see the creek one way – as humans destroying good nature. However, there is more to the story of Salt Creek than just it’s gradual death over the past century.

Trash litters the mangrove roots, murky waters, and is spread across foul looking muddy shore; several bottles of cleaners and soaps emerge into view as we paddle down the creek. A newly deceased great blue heron hangs from the mangrove branches tangled in fishing strings like a marionette for the mangrove tree and wind to play with.


How did the items and resources make their way into the creek? The how, is the story missing in Salt Creek, and in most nature writing. The journey of the empty Tide jug took to become the home barnacles at the bottom of Salt Creek tells the story of nature and how we use it.


My back aches as I bend over my tub and scrub my turtle’s pump. As I scrape gunky grime away, lightning strikes.


My own blockage is gone and my brain is no longer on the sacrificial block. I think of the water I am using and how it is a resource and the journey it will take once I contaminate it with my turtle poop.

Perhaps I’ll write about the resources we use, like my turtle and water, and writer’s block.

I’m free flowing.

I’m supposed to be a hippie. Why can’t I feel anything? (Chistrian Delgado)

Salt Creek is dirty. Everyone knows that. As I laboriously handled the paddle, having never manned a canoe before, I was significantly more concerned about appearing capable at the task than about absorbing my surroundings and arriving at some ground-shattering conclusion.

I have become numb. As we wade through a cocktail of empty soda cups, mysterious bundles, and lifeless birds, I know not how to construct the persona of the alarmed environmentalist. We duck to avoid the menacing branches aimed from above, and find solace in sensing, at least for a moment, that we all sit in this space of guilt and exertion.

What have I done to contribute to the thick, dark slosh that has become the essence of this creek? Or rather, what haven’t I done to assuage this?

On my way to the classroom on this vibrant winter afternoon, I nonchalantly strolled past the extended hand of a homeless human. “I don’t have any cash,” I blurted thoughtlessly. And like him, a dozen others stood about, placing their hopes on the brittle, passing characters that deny them eye contact.

To be in this canoe, then, and observe first-hand the effects of neglect of a part of our history, of a part of our natural space, is hardly a novel idea. We have been relentlessly trained to overlook. I am relieved to have to address the direction of this vessel, and to rest the unease on a few jokes at my expense. It would be difficult to confront the reality of this moment. I try to trivialize the muck with a lighthearted comment about my general incapacity for steering. I can’t feel a thing; or rather, I am afraid of what it would mean for me to feel.

… Or How I Found Nature in a Dead Heron (Brennen Pickett)

In our canoe, Kelly and I paddled ahead of the others. We stroked heavily across the Bayboro Harbor and into the hot breath of lingering gasoline at the mouth of Salt Creek. Since I choose to sit in the back end of the vessel, I found myself periodically sprayed with a salty mist from Kelly’s careless thrusts–a savory mixture of seawater, runoff, and oil coated my lips and found its way to my palate.

While I wondered if hepatitis had a taste, I sat conflicted in soft wind and surf as we glided upstream. In between sun-bleached seawalls and gutted fishing boats, I held my expectations tight in my chest. All of us knew what to expect, but to consider it as a trip into nature stumped me. What is naturally denoted from a variety of plastics laminating over a stream of blue-green but nature’s war against the industry surrounding us? The water faded to dusty gray as we passed the complexes along the land. The water stunk.

What is this place, Salt Creek? As the name implies, there is indeed a slither of brackish water flowing outward into the harbor. From the streets and parks connected to Lake Maggiore, day drinkers and factory workers alike share the shoreline. What’s more hip than perceiving nature through the means of production–even through the end means? I engorged myself with life’s resilience through urbanization. Are we unable to escape nature’s takeover? Still, life flourishes through our neglect, through death and rebirth.

Musky humidity soaked my clothes under the mangrove’s shade past the boat graveyard as we approached our final destination. Together, the expedition left us condensed in the innards of a bacterial sausage casing filled with canoe, trash, vegetation, and a dead heron–wait, a dead heron?

A new addition, a Great Blue Heron rested between the roots and eroded concrete debris of the maritime foliage. Wilderness took over again, but within its urban influence.

The carcass knocked off the side of our metallic ships. As the majority of us had resorted to the screaming and laughing and squealing, I focused on the bird. The eyes were black. Although intact, maggots and flies crawled over the body and into the available orifices. Indicators of small fish picking away through the feather threshold tell the story of life thriving in an artificial pocket of nature.

We decided to return home in the middle of the thicket, death, and bacteria. After a closing statement our trip down the creek adjourned. I pushed away the dead bird and began to turn the canoe around. And within a matter of minutes, we left.

The sunlight driven from the seaward sky solicited the sensation of a snowy whiteout. We dredged the same path back full of sweat and stench, gliding within the glow of a sunset. After hours in the Tampa Bay, we were still reluctant of the unknown ahead.

Straight Lines (Sarah Hierl)

Everything in nature is constantly in motion. Nature stops for no one, and nowhere is that more evident than on a sailboat. During our sailing trip, I learned many things that set me off balance from the illusion of our perfectly balanced world. From the rocking of a ship on the ocean swells, to the sporadic and playful movements of our native dolphins, I was able to see the world in a way I hadn’t previously been able to.

David Gessner says that “The world is on the move and so we build things with straight lines.” I understood more clearly what he meant while standing on the rocking deck of our sailboat, Boogans, as I repeatedly tripped over a cleat or step whenever the boat dipped into the wave troughs. I spent as much of the trip as I could sitting, and left with many bruises on my ankles and shins, but I was also able to better appreciate the constant movement that keeps our planet going.

I sat with our captain, Garrett on the starboard side of our boat, discussing different aspects of sailing. I hadn’t really gone sailing before, though it was something I had always wanted to try. He was explaining the method of turning into the wind in order to change the sails, since otherwise the sails are so taut that it’s impossible to do anything with them. I came to understand in this moment just how much we were at the mercy of the wind and waves, only able to make a movement as long as they allowed us to. Moving in a straight line is nearly impossible on a sailboat, as you are forced to turn in whichever direction the wind is going, unless you want to putt along with the engine at a snail’s pace. I glanced in some wonder at the sails above us, appreciating more their impact on our sail and the speed at which we were able to move. Though sails themselves comprise straight lines, the best way to sail is when they are curved out and filled with the Gulf sea breeze that kept us moving at a brisk pace. At the same time that I was admiring the neatness of the sailing craft, Garrett was explaining the impact that the ocean really has on a sailboat.

Boogans had just left dry-dock recently before our trip after having her keel and some other small things repaired. Garrett was explaining just how detrimental salt water is to anything humans try to place in it. “You want to rot wood? Salt water. You want to break concrete? Put it in salt water. Salt water destroys everything.” He said, smiling ruefully as he gazed ahead to gauge the direction of our companion boat, Wanderer. When he said this I was able to understand what Gessner was saying about the groins and sea walls that are placed to stop the movement of the shoreline, and the minimal effect that they have in preventing it. In fact, these manmade inventions usually just cause more problems in the long run. The humongous expense to maintain them, on top of the long term damage to our shoreline, creates compounding problems that we eventually won’t be able to fix.

Overall, though I was booted quite far out of my comfort zone, I couldn’t help enjoying the lack of organization present on the waves. The leaning heel of a sailboat, the constant change of direction in order to keep at an angle to the wind, all of these things left me mesmerized. Even though I left with wicked sunburn and quite a few bruises, it gave me a new perspective on nature’s impact and just how little we humans truly understand her.

Kayak (Jasmine Larson)

Driving up to the a dog park in Asheville, North Carolina, “The French Broad River Park,” I was in a moment of delirium“van lag” of sorts, having changed my environment so fast, still not entirely able to comprehend that I was in a place very different from the flat land of palm trees I had left behind only hours ago. Yet, while in a completely new environment, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels to my home’s humble waterway, Salt Creek — my vision, forever altered with a critical lens from studying it over the last semester.

Asheville creekTo my right, the river tumbled along, a kayaker on the beast, paddling up stream, making a monthly gym subscription seem like a total joke, and to my left were what looked like a number of old warehouses who shared their ground with silos of equal height and rust build up, the silos surely have seen better days. Now, mostly looking abandoned or just in place for aesthetic purposes rather than something used for actual production. It makes me think back to a time now past. I wondered, what could have once been produced on this river? 

After some research I learned that in the 1920s these buildings were once the local cotton mills and leather tanneries but now through the most recent wave of gentrification became a place where the wealthy older weirdos all retire to go on hikes and feel cultured. The mills reflected such progressive artsy revamps to the town, one being covered in a (commissioned, not simply graffiti) spray painted mural and looked like it was converted into a boozy brewery of sorts. This tale of industrialization was similar to that of Salt Creek which was surely just as developed in the 1920s as people started to inhabit the waters as their home. As with Salt Creek, the people who lived on it were typically marginalized groups, and the water way being ignored and unpatrolled lead to an increased amount of crime in the area, including many suffering from a number of hen and frying chicken thieveries.

Sounds of Salt Creek (Emily De La Paz)

The sounds of the creek are spellbinding. There is the howling of the wind, a wondrous, whooshing symphony in my surrendering mind. There is the sighing sound of the waves, the gentle lapping conjuring romantic notions that have inspired a million poets throughout history.

But there is also the sound of aching.

There is so much life that inhabits the creek, an endless chain of revival and renewal, but there is also an overwhelming amount of death that plagues the water. I feel the souls of all that have perished in the depths of the water. They haunt me as they swim in the swirling swells, and I find myself murmuring a prayer on their behalf.

The pull and push of the ever-changing tide are full of pleading. The water is never satisfied, always churning, never ceasing. It is on a perpetual quest for satisfaction and peace, and I feel its restlessness and frustration as it rocks the boat from side to side. The breeze kisses my cheek and whispers a gentle reminder to not forget this moment when I return home to my daily routine. Life on land may be monotonous at times, but Salt Creek certainly is not. It is not stagnant. And just as so many women and men have succumbed to its captivating calls, I too know that I am hopelessly enchanted. The creek possesses the power to be our savior, our enthrallment, our retreat and our destruction.

It shows me that I am alive.

Reifying Salt Creek (Michelle Sonnenberg)

The wind sweeps the surface of the water and whips my hair into my mouth, but it’s not strong enough to move the deeper undercurrent in the harbor. I move in that space. Turbulence from my paddle slaps the underside of my kayak. I consider it a shark, or a gator, before I remember the feel of a careless stroke and relax. I can relax. It’s at least 70 feet to the bottom but I can swim. I am capable. I paddle into the flux of the tidal flow; not quite in, not quite out, not quite stagnant. Everywhere, life is possible, brisk, and contagious.

In a watershed everything flows to the lowest point, and this is it. This is a culvert to the harbor, the slide of trash into our oceans. The whole south side of the historic city limits flows through here. It is easy to tell that access to fresh food is low, that Styrofoam is the currency of convenience, and that trash cans are a waste of space. The litter is so dense it heaps up on itself and decomposes in place, making a new sediment of chemical particulates and plastic liners that settle through the water column, becoming the basis of the food chain. Pneumatophores bob up and down seeking root. Brazilian pepper trees mixed in the mangroves burst with red berries. Two green herons are resting in a tangle of branches. Three white herons roost in the protection of the creek’s canopy. I wonder if I opened their stomachs how much plastic they would contain.

This part of St. Petersburg is no different than any other city. All cities have back doors and alley ways. One thing is made shiny while another is destroyed. It is easy to see how there is a shelter in this margin, to accept this new identity for Salt Creek, to normalize this particular marginalization of space. But this is no justification. There is no right path for excusing what has been done here.

I follow the water as a vein of life through the land. If you take a map of any physical space and strip away everything but water, the imprint left behind resembles veins in the human body. This visible network is like an endless refraction of a necessary life force not because it is like that but because it is that. Nature reuses ideas that work, and these marginalized channels – whether vein or creek or river or back alleyway – carry life in all its forms to its farthest reaches.

Up the creek the water is still. There is no perceptible current. My paddle disappears beneath the creeks surface with each stroke, pushing back the unknown. I will push my way up this creek, out of sight and imprisoned by the mangroves that shelter it. I will pause in this margin and breathe through it. It exists with or without me, and I revel in its being, no matter how filthy it may be. Even here, there is pasture enough for my imagination.

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