Undisturbed by the murmur of voices and the activity of half a dozen canoes paddling purposefully to clean up Salt Creek, a Brown-Crowned Night-Heron observed from branches of Brazilian Pepper and White Mangrove. When not expected, nature often delights. Prepared for the inner city, being suddenly surrounded by nature’s beauty and unexpected sunshine was a surprise. Not one of the popular city parks or nature trails, but an overlooked, neglected waterway in downtown St. Petersburg offered this glimpse of unsuspected nature. This can’t be a pastoral scene according to Greg Garrard. Where is the retreat to the country? Where the contrast between pristine nature and evil urban sprawl? Where is the hidden reality of nature’s relentless toughness? We are able to discover a peaceful, quiet scene of simple beauty within the city with harsh realities of floating garbage in the creek and trash entwined in the Mangroves.
Jenny Price, in “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A,” challenges writers to look beyond presenting nature as “the wonders of wildness” (2). A school of dolphin at a Florida beach, the aroma of a grove of blossoming orange trees in Seminole, deer nibbling at foliage in one of the state’s preserves are natural states of beauty, recognized and written about routinely. Price challenges us to look beyond the obvious and “tell us far more about our everyday lives in the places we actually live” (2).
Can we change our perception of what nature is? Not simply somewhere we visit on the weekend to getaway or escape after work to relax, but as a part of our everyday lives where we work, play, and learn.
As a child growing up in the country, my siblings and I played in fields, creeks, and on old railroad tracks, making peanut butter sandwiches and hiking to our destinations. A generation later I drove my kids ten blocks to Crescent Lake to have a picnic and enjoy the playground equipment. They spent the whole time playing tag, and hide-n-seek in the huge, old Cypress tree roots. Their imagination helped them see the real fun and natural beauty of the trees. Most of my friends took their kids to Sea World, the more adventurous camping at Ft. Desoto. Having been raised in my own backyard, or maybe because I was lazy, my children experienced nature as something they lived and played in, not a weekend destination. Price challenges us to do the same thing. Take a fresh look at what is conventionally considered nature and expand the scope to include the overlooked, commonplace beauty in the communities we live in, even in the city.
Now living in a gated community in St. Petersburg, my experience is a drive home in my air-conditioned SUV. I view sunlight filtering through the Live Oaks hanging with moss, glimpse the sunning turtles, scampering rabbits, waddling ducks or daintily stepping cranes. When the air conditioning is off and windows are open, I am crooned to sleep at night by a frog chorus, and wake to a Mockingbird scolding our cat, or a Cardinal’s whistle. Seldom do we take the long way home to walk over a bridge on Salt Creek to see an old pylon functioning as a perch for fishing pelican, or spend a few minutes watching fish jump or ducks dive in our neighborhood retention pond. How much of nature is unappreciated because it is unmarked or unrecognized? Is nature worthy of our attention only if named or designated as a recreational highlight? How can we become more aware of the nature which is part of our daily lives?
Salt Creek is an example of a waterway unrecognized as recreational. There is a functional boatyard, successful industry, a restaurant and bar, and leased studio space for artists in a restored warehouse, and residences. The creek is traversed by main thoroughfares, bridges, and drainage pipes. It joins several larger bodies of water in Bartlett Park and Lake Maggorie. Flowing through neighborhoods not routinely recognized as “recreational”, the south side of St. Petersburg is associated with low income housing, high crime rate, and a transient business community. Is it the location, the history of being a working river, or the residential and business community that surround it responsible for Salt Creek’s beauty being overlooked, neglected, and not sought out as a community treasure? Price reflects about this nature writers’ missing the boat in regard to socio-economic differences in L.A. Nature writers need to connect with the communities directly affected by the particular natural source, resources available, and community involvement. Salt Creek needs to be recognized as relevant, and useful to people who work and live in south St. Petersburg.
The city has opened bicycle friendly roadways, neighborhood parks, and landscaped intersections to bring nature into the city dwellers daily lives. Efforts are made to clean up neglected waterways, vacant lots, and restore abandoned buildings.St. Petersburgprobably doesn’t need another artificially constructed park to visit nature. The diverse Salt Creek landscape, neighborhood, and community contain their own value and beauty. Residents, business owners, and visitors need to recognize the topographical and cultural distinctions, but appreciate the diversity so it can once again become an alive, working part of the community. Recognizing nature in our city, being able to appreciate birds in the city streets, flowering Brazilian Pepper, and scrub growth fighting its way through old pavement reclaiming the soil, requires that we look closer and take more time to appreciate the ordinary places in our community.
After an hour long paddle and thirty eight pounds of garbage later, Salt Creek’s potential began to be revealed. It became easier to envision a cleaned up creek with caring community involvement. The mangroves, birds, and water community are obvious signs that the creek is a vital (though slightly blighted) waterway in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg. An overlooked creek had a chance to shine in the sun on a Thursday afternoon that previously had not received much notice. Ideas and a purpose to give a chance to the underdog were born. Salt Creek had an opportunity to rival Weedon Island, Clam Bayou or Ft. Desoto. Not a touristy park, but a waterway with a history and a chance to tell its story. A nature writing class gathered around an idea of rediscovering Salt Creek’s worth, and convincing a community to see its value.