Category Archives: Florida

Keeping up with Florida’s trees

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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

If you live in Florida, you probably already know that–other than Hawai’i–the state has more species of native trees than any other. My easy-to-use tree guide was published in 1956, so I can only consider it as a starting point since some of the nomenclature has changed since then.

Chinkapin Oak – Wikipedia photo

For example, the Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) used to be mixed up with the Pin Oak and the Chestnut Oak. Confusing matters more is the fact that one of the popular names for a Chinkapin still is “Chestnut Oak” even though the Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) is another species. Both are in the white oak group. There are so many popular names for Florida’s trees, shrubs and flowers that it’s often difficult to be sure what another author is talking about, especially when names change from region to region. Many of those names figure into the state’s old stories.

I refer to trees a lot in my novels, so I’m constantly reading about them, looking them up, verifying habitats, and enjoying myths and legends about them. Florida has a lot of species because of its diverse habitats. That’s a lot to keep up with. Fortunately, there are plenty of sites available on line. When I first started writing, one had to call or send a letter to get the kind of information that can not be found with a few good Google search words.

There are 50 species of oak in the eastern U.S. and that means you’ll find a lot of them in Florida in addition to Tupelo, Cypress, Slash Pines, Longleaf Pines, and Palm trees if you know where to look. Longleaf pines are a sad story because the original forests covered so much of the southeastern U.S. (a 140,000-mile swath through nine states). Naturally, most were logged off and the land was converted to other uses or replanted with the faster-growing Slash Pines. Not the forest service and others are trying to re-educate landowners about the value of Longleaf Pines, especially their important wiregrass habitats that are sustained by fires that clear the unwanted and choking invasive shrubs and trees out of the forests. See the Longleaf Alliance’s page.

Florida Yew – Floridata Plant Encyclopedia photo

The Torreya (also called Gopher Wood) and the Florida Yew are endangered and may well disappear except in managed arboretums. That’s sad to see. Look for those still around on the Garden of Eden trail near Bristol in the Florida Panhandle.

According to exploresouthernhistory.com, Because the Torreya is one of America’s most endangered trees, a major effort is underway to save it. The Florida Park Service is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden in a commendable effort to grow new Torreya trees. Using seed obtained from living trees, the agencies are growing seedlings that are being planted in the ravine habitat at Torreya State Park. Perhaps over time, the Torreya will once again thrive along the Apalachicola.”

Always nice to see people using native trees in their yards rather than stuff that really doesn’t belong there. (If you’re not sure and there’s no native nursery when you live, check this link and this link for names and pictures.)

In case you were going to ask: no, I don’t hug trees. Yet, I agree with Hermann Hesse, who wrote: “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”

–Malcolm

My upcoming e-book short story “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom” obviously focuses on the dogwood (Cornus florida), not to be confused with the imported Jamaica Dogwood that’s often called the Florida Fishfiddletree or Florida Fishpoison Tree.

 

En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom

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Coming soon from Thomas-Jacob Publishing, a new Kindle short story in the Stories from Tate’s Hell series.

Background of the Story

Diddy-Wah-Diddy is, perhaps, the best known of Florida’s mythical places. The original story about a hidden-away town with unlimited food was among the folk tales collected by Zora Neale Hurston while working with the Federal Writers Project in 1938. Hurston wrote that Diddy-Wah-Diddy was “reached by a road that curves so much that a mule pulling a wagonload of fodder can eat off the back of the wagon as he goes.”

Bo Diddley further popularized the legendary town in his song “Diddy Wah diddy” recorded for Checker Records in 1955. You can find an unadorned re-telling of the original folktale in Kristin G. Congdon’s Uncle Monday and other Florida Tales. “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom” is a re-imagining of the town in modern times.

Description

Every spring, fast food junkie Peter Martin packs his wife, Mary, and son, John, into his SUV and crisscrosses the back country of the Florida Panhandle searching for Diddy-Wah-Diddy, a legendary town offering travelers all the free food they can eat. Mary thinks they’ll never find it. John draws maps to show where they’ve been in years past. John has more hunches than fleas on a hound dog about the town’s location. More often than not, they get lost.

This year, they find Diddy-Wah-Diddy. It’s better than they expected. They begin to eat more than they should. Then Peter has a horrifying accident and disappears. While the powers that be treat Peter’s fall from grace as business as usual, Mary and John wait for him, and while they wait they keeping eating all they can eat.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” both of which are magical realism enmeshed in Florida’s folklore and racial injustice.

 

Florida Swamps: no, ducks don’t smoke duckweed

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It’s easy to overlook this as well as the gators that might be hiding it it.

When you drive past a Florida swamp, it’s easy to see the duckweed without seeing the duckweed for it often covers the surface completely.

Swamp plants are classified as submersed, immersed, and free floating. As a group, they’re referred to as aquatic macrophytes to distinguish them from algae. All of them are large enough to be seen by the naked eye. Florida’s varieties of duckweed are included in the free floating group:

  • Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) the world’s smallest flowering plant is a duckweed variety
  • Duckweed (Lemna valdiviana)
  • Giant Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza)

Even though private property owners are often at war with the duckweed that covers the surfaces of their ponds, the plant has more protein in it than soybeans. It’s eaten by waterfowl, can be skimmed off the surface and fed to cattle, and humans consume it in some parts of the world. It also “cleans the water” of farm and industrial waste.

Water Meal and Giant Duckweed – wikipedia photo

Ansel Oommen writes in The Incredible, Magical Properties of the Ugly Duckweed “the common duckweed provides an almost magical solution [to water pollution]. Duckweeds are natural super-filters, sucking up minerals and organic nutrients from the water, which then accumulate into the plants’ biomass. This process, called bioremediation, is not only safe, but effective. Central to the duckweeds’ success is their ability to grow at a rapid rate and hence, their ability to consume large quantities of contaminants such as ammonia, lead, and arsenates. In fact, duckweeds can double their weight in one to two days under ideal conditions.”

It’s often hard to convince those who see duckweed as a habitat-choking, invasive pest that there are benefits to it, including potential use as a biofuel.

Why do I read about duckweed? It’s in the Florida Panhandle swamps where I grew up, and Eulalie and Lena, two of the characters in my Florida Folk Magic series of novels see it and (in the work in progress) have to contend with it.

I love tromping around in the swamps and leafing through the stack of reference books that remind me what everything is–and whether it will attack me. As far as I know, ducks don’t dry it and smoke it in order to fly.

Malcolm

 

Review: ‘Parade of Horribles’ by Rhett DeVane

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The people in Rhett DeVane’s new novel Parade of Horribles are the kind of folks, foibles and all, that most of us wish we knew, wish we could call kin, and when danger and hatred intrude into our lives, wish we had looking out for us. Chattahoochee is a real town in the Florida Panhandle and, as the book’s back cover description tells us, it really does have a “state mental institution on the main drag.”

Do Elvina Houston, Hattie Lewis and Jake Witherspoon really live there? Probably not. But they are so real in Parade of Horribles that–in telling their story–DeVane has seemingly conjured them out of the cosmos and placed them there, 37 miles west of Tallahassee as the crow flies, alongside the Apalachicola River. A notable feature in the town, the river is a figurative and literal feature in DeVane’s well-told story. It’s both a haunting reminder of old wounds and a restful escape from the 24/7 preparations for the upcoming harvest festivals and a growing number of signs there may be a dangerous serpent in this Garden of Eden.

DeVane hints at the danger early on the way Hitchcock would show a trace of something wrong near the beginning of his feature films. But the townspeople’s attention and the reader’s attention are drawn to the mix of daily life and harvest festival duties. The horribles, as Jake thinks of them, steep like tea half forgotten on a back burner and, as the story moves toward its unexpected ending, grows all the stronger and more foul tasting for the wait.

Parade of Horribles is the seventh book in the “Hooch Series.” As we saw in earlier novels such as Cathead Crazy and Mama’s Comfort Food, this very Southern author deftly captures the way people in her panhandle world think, talk, work, support each other–and, yes–gossip about what’s in plain sight and what’s not yet apparent to everyone else. Residents of the Florida Panhandle know that in many ways it’s a country unto itself, not like south Georgia and even further and farther removed from the snowbirds and tourist destinations of the peninsula.

Reading DeVane’s Hooch Series is an immersion into this country; Parade of Horribles is wonderful mystery/thriller and a highly recommended addition to a body of work that makes “the other Florida” and “Florida’s forgotten coast” altogether real and impossible to forget.

Malcolm

 

 

Florida: it’s like living in an asylum and loving it

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“The deal with Florida is the charlatans and lunatics and Snapchat-famous plastic surgeons. It is the Ponzi schemes, the byzantine corruption, the evangelical fervor and the consenting-adult depravity. It is the seasonless climate. The lack of historical consciousness. The way in which this nation’s unctuous elements tend to trickle down as if Florida were the grease trap under America’s George Foreman grill.” – Kent Russell in a tongue-in-cheek review of the book “What Makes Florida So Weird”

Shug, I’m not a Florida native. That means I’m not allowed to psychoanalyze the state, as Kent Russell says natives are inclined to do. I will say that time has ground away some of the state’s weirdness, the alligator wrestling and jungle petting zoos that once lined major tourist arteries from the Georgia border to Key West like dead skunk roadkill.

gatorgirlSad to say, most of the real jungles and pristine beaches have been paved over by the grease trap of a million condos and bikini-clad bodies per square foot enjoying nature in a former natural setting. I know this will offend some people, but when I saw what was happening to the sunshine in the sunshine state as a kid, I frankly hoped a badass hurricane would clear away all the crap in the peninsula part of the state like a giant flush in a huge toilet so that “we” could start over.

God knows, Mother Nature has tried, but there’s more work to be done before the seas rise and the state slides down into the Bermuda Triangle with the missing ships, squadrons of military aircraft, and maybe Atlantis. Word is, Atlantis sank because its movers and shakers abused their power. By the time I graduated from college and left home, I thought Florida would go that route, compliments of rogue developers more prevalent than palmetto bugs and equally able to slither away out of the light.

When my fiance came down to Florida to meet the family, she decided one afternoon while we were tip-toeing through the alligators at a nearby wildlife refuge that we were crazy. “What about those gators?” she asked. “No worries, Sugar, they’re in the swap and we’re here on the road through the swamp.” That made her feel about as safe as a can of tuna in a room full of cats.

But here’s the thing. When one moves into the state, one usually starts out sane. But things happen. Maybe it’s the water or too much sun or a million mosquitoes per square foot no matter how many times Mother Nature tries to blow them out to sea. Nobody knows because the people who’ve been there long enough to judge are no longer competent to judge.  With more data, people could get out before they’re involuntarily committed.

Looking back on it all–chasing stingrays, sinking speed boats, teasing copperheads, crawling into dark caves, camping in the piney woods, getting addicted to boiled peanuts, dining on bait fish–I truly think the large blue welcome signs on I-75 and I-10, need to say “No exit,” meaning once you drive into paradise almost lost,  you become lost and can’t leave. You won’t know any better.

If you figure out how to leave, you’ll miss it fierce. If you’re a writer, you write about it. If not, you’ll look at your summer vacation  slides on an old Carousel projector and tell people that in those days, you had it bad and that wasn’t good. Of course, if you’re an FSU Seminoles fan, you’ll still hate the U of F Gators while you watch every game on ESPN. You’ll watch folks boarding of their windows with plywood on the Weather Channel during hurricane season, and you’ll remember the good old days when you road out all the storms because you didn’t know any better.

(Fact of life: people buy new plywood every year when the first big storm approaches because they threw it all away last year, thinking they wouldn’t need it again. If this isn’t a clue to something or other, I don’t know what is.)

Here’s a tip. If you’re planning a Florida vacation, keep it short because if you stay there long enough to start believing the Swamp Booger is read–maybe even in your closet–then you’ve gone native, lost in the swamp, so to speak.

–Malcolm

In a continuing search for sanity, former Florida resident Malcolm R, Campbell is the author of the following stories and novels set in Florida: “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” “Carrying Snakes Into Eden,” “Cora’s Crossing,” “Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Snakebit,” “Dream of Crows,” “College Avenue,” “Emily’s Stories,” and “The Land Between the Rivers.” Learn more on his Amazon page.

 

 

Those beautiful, sometimes risque and sometimes racist orange crate labels

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A long-time favorite of mine.

A long-time favorite of mine. Seald Sweet was Florida’s answer to California’s “Sunkist.”

If you visited a farmer’s market or walked into a grocery story stockroom in Florida up through the 1950s, you’d find oranges, grapefruits, and kumquats stacked in wood crates with colorful labels on each end. As kids, we used leftover orange crates for storing all kinds of things until they suddenly disappeared in favor of boring cardboard boxes. While the use of orange crate label art began in California in the 1880s, the practice soon moved to Florida which still has a near-monopoly on U. S. citrus production.

If you Google “orange crate labels” or “vintage orange crate labels,” you’ll quickly find many of the major labels. If you stop by Florida Southern College in Lakeland, you can look at the digitized collection of labels at the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. (Many of these can be viewed on line.) Labels, and related post card advertising, are almost always for sale on eBay

While the artists were popular names at the time, their work on the ends of those utilitarian crates was seldom signed. For one thing, its purpose was identifying a grower or a shipper to grocery store chains and distributors, not the general public.

banjobrandIn his 2015 review of Florida’s First Billboards: Florida Citrus Crate Labels, Kevin Bouffard wrote, “A new book stands for the proposition that Florida citrus crate labels played as much a role in the development of the state and its signature agricultural industry as Anita Bryant, beaches and Walt Disney.” No doubt, the book’s limited printing meant that most copies ended up with those who collect and/or sell orange crate labels. Two earlier books are long out of print and hard to find.

When my wife and I set up a general store shelf exhibit for a Georgia museum, we enjoyed purchasing old orange crate labels as well as the labels used on canned goods to add to the ambiance and realism of our displays. The “Belle of Crescent City” was one of the labels we chose.

buxomI mention a few of the racially pejorative labels in Eulalie and Washerwoman when my conjure woman protagonist borrows some crates from the local general store. She was quick to notice the “Southern charm” of labels featuring happy African Americans–many of whom were forced to pick the oranges just as others were forced to work in turpentine camps–as though they were in change of the orange groves and personally selected the oranges in the crates. Labels from Indian River featured Indians, some in skimpy dress. Others featured women in bathing suits or were purposefully racy.

bluebird

When we used orange crates for hauling and storing things, we noticed the labels, but never made an attempt to salvage them. Now I wish we had. We might make a few dollars on eBay or donate them to the Citrus Hall of Fame for its collection. Even the sexist and racist labels are part of our history, something we hope never to repeat, but generally speaking, most of the labels are advertising works of art. I’m sorry to see them gone.

–Malcolm

ewkindlecoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the 1950s-era novel Eulalie and Washerwoman, a story of kidnapped men, stolen houses, and a conjure woman’s magic.

Visit his website here.

 

 

Florida Legends: The man who could turn into an alligator

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One of my favorite stories out of the Federal Writers Florida Folklore project, is the one about Uncle Monday collected by the author Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s. Among other places, it appears in “Uncle Monday and Other Florida Tales” by Kristin G. Congdon.

Uncle Monday was a powerful conjure man who brought his magic from Africa. He was sold into slavery. When he escaped, he joined up with the Seminole Indians to fight against federal troops. He vowed that he would never be taken captive and enslaved again.

ewgatorDuring a ceremony at Blue Sink Lake in central Florida held by Africans and Indians, Uncle Monday danced and transformed into an alligator and plunged into the lake with all the other alligators. He is said to live there even now and to change into a man again when it suits his fancy. At the end of the day, though, he returns to the lake and, as Congdon writes in her rendition, folks “feel more comfortable with Uncle Monday home in the waters with his reptile family.”

If you search on line, you’ll probably find a number of tales about the alligator man, one of which relates the story of one Judy Bronson of Maitland who claimed she was a more powerful conjure doctor than anyone else. One night when she was fishing at Blue Sink, she saw Uncle Monday walking across the water in a beam of light with an army of gators.

She tried to escape, but her legs wouldn’t function. Uncle Monday told her she would stay right there until she admitted that her magic wasn’t as powerful as his. This was the last thing she wanted to do, but she had no choice. When she confessed she could not do such magic, she was carried back to her house. Soon, she threw away her conjure bottles, candles and herbs and claimed that she fell ill on the shore of Blue Sink and that Uncle Monday cured her.

As Congdon writes, “Folks will try to tell Judy that she only suffered a stroke and fell in the lake, but she knows better.”

Since I’ve read more than one story about this man, I couldn’t resist mentioning him in my Florida folk magic novel Eulalie and Washerwoman, along with other legends such as the giant gator named Two-Toed Tom, the Swamp Booger, and the ghost from Bellamy Bridge near Marianna.

Malcolm