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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

From Northwest to Southeast

Stanley Park, Timothy Taylor’s first novel, is set in Vancouver. That was not a problem for me: I enjoy reading books that also serve as travel. Also, Canada, yea! Who doesn’t like Canadians? It was the relentless focus on food that I feared might wear thin. The whole “foodie” preoccupation with preparing and combining ingredients and presenting and consuming meals, the notion of bad food as crime and good food as salvation, is beyond me. Taylor’s short stories, in his book Silent Cruise, offered a series of short visits to the diverse narrow, esoteric worlds inhabited by his characters, and each trip left me breathless, but would I have the stamina for a novel-length immersion in restaurant kitchens? Thought not, but in fact I was up half the night finishing Stanley Park. So go read some Timothy Taylor and thank me later for the tip. You’ll be very astonished at the places he will take you.

Now I’ve turned to a 1973 novel by Patrick Smith, Forever Island, set in the Florida Everglades and the small towns of Copeland, Imokalee and Everglades City. Since there are few roads in that part of Florida, and to spend any time there at all is to become familiar with the roads and towns, if not the mysterious Glades, I’m able to picture much of the locale described. For the rest, my mind dredges up memories of the Fakahatchee Strand and mixes with them (geographically and botanically, this is hardly legitimate, but imagination does what imagination will do) with memories of swamps and “cricks” off the Suwannee River, another wild, trackless country where alligators lurk beneath subtropical flowers.

Smith’s writing isn’t particularly subtle. He has a lot of the crusader in him, and he wears his heart on his sleeve. The character Albert Lykes, editor of the Everglades Gazette, probably comes closest to speaking the author’s heart:

He was old enough to remember what the country once looked like from Big Cypress to Lake Okeechobee when most of the area was undeveloped and was the natural watershed for Big Cypress and the Everglades. He thought of the lush tropical growths and the clear lakes and springs and the woods teeming with animals and birds. Then came the drainage canal to trap the water and carry it off to the Gulf on the west and the Atlantic on the east, stopping this natural flow that was the lifeblood for hundreds of square miles to the south; and then the dike around Lake Okeechobee so that no more water flowed south; and then more and more draining canals, more and more dikes, then the thousands and thousands of vegetable fields, each surrounded by a small dike and a drainage ditch; and when the rain came it flowed from the fields and into the drainage ditches, carrying with it the pesticides and the fertilizer, the phosphates and the overflow from thousands and thousands of septic tanks, seeping slowly into the drainage canals and poisoning the land. Great areas of the drained land became bone dry, and the marshland muck dried up layer by layer and blew away, leaving only bare limestone rock, and the muck fires raged over hundreds of thousands of acres, some burning downward for years, ruining the land as a home for the birds and the animals and the reptiles and the men who tried to live there; and then came more land developers with their concrete block houses and St. Augustine lawns, moving northward from Homestead, westward from Miami and Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, draining and building right out into the River of Grass, moving eastward from Fort Myers and Naples, and now it was coming from north of the swamp.

The question is not, as I see it, how any writer should tell any story, but how different writers tell their own stories. This is Smith’s story. He lays his cards on the table, and readers are free to draw their own conclusions, but it’s clear where he stands.
"It means more people and more jobs and more businesses and more tax money for the county and more money in circulation. It means progress."

For a moment Lykes just shook his head, then he said, "It means more drainage canals and more streets and more garbage to dump somewhere and more sewers flowing south and more animals retreating. Is that what you call progress?"

More people, therefore more canals and streets and garbage and sewers. More businesses, therefore more money. The real estate man was telling the truth as far as he saw it. He didn’t want to see the rest. Or maybe he thought the garbage and sewage and loss of habitat would be worth the financial gains. Every step forward, he might have, comes with a price tag, after all. And even Charlie Jumper’s wife, back in the swamp, wants to bring electricity back to their chickees so she can sew in the evenings and keep meat and fish in a refrigerator.

Here are two things I believe. One is that everything in life is a double-edged sword. Nothing is purely and absolutely good or bad. That doesn’t mean we stop dead in our tracks (life doesn’t allow that), but it does mean, for me, acknowledging (second thing I believe) that our lives are lived on the slippery slope and that we have to be careful where we put our feet down. And sometimes we have to dig in our heels and cling to where we are, because the alternatives are bad bargains in the long run—not just for alligators but for us, too.

David and I see some of the same qualities in Florida, but we describe them differently. I call it “very young, geologically,” while he says it seems “very old, practically prehistoric.” But you see, that’s the same. He says old because he’s looking back from today, and I say young because I’m imagining the infancy of North America. Either way, newborn or ancient, this is fragile land. And so beautiful.

The sun was beginning to set, and brilliant hues of red and orange and yellow were streaking through the clouds and downward into the hammocks, making the tops of the palms sparkle and glisten like tiny bits of rainbow. Even the somber sawgrass was changing color as the sun dropped lower into the west. There was a quietness about the marsh that made it seem not part of this world, a land and time completely unto itself.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip on "Stanley Park." It happens to be a gorgeous place, and heavily enjoyed (a good thing for any park!) and Vancouver is perhaps my favorite city in the world -- like Paris, but Canadian. Go Canada!

P. J. Grath said...

Be sure to read the short stories in the book SILENT CRUISE, also. Every one is a jewel.