March 25, 2012
The gigantic oaks on Sarasota Bay spewed unprecedented yellow clouds of pollen, months early. Worst allergy season and hottest March on record. What’s happening? We laughed at Al Gore, maybe because he was Al Gore, but is this global warming or is it just the usual cyclical weather changes since recorded time? No one seems to know.
Perennial sunshine in perpetually blue skies, endless blue water under arching white bridges linking island after island, pink and peach stucco buildings, yellow hibiscus and yellow butterflies. A month in Florida promised heaven. Island fever. Must move here pronto. The tropics, land of millions of cranes, osprey, bald eagles, pelicans, an infinite variety of sea gulls, vultures, yes them too, roseate spoonbills, massing outside one’s window.
Florida, land of beautiful flowers, has lured the white man since the 16th century. The Seminole and Colusa have never forgiven us. Five hundred years after Ponce de Leon set foot the primordial swampland has almost 20 million residents, quadrupled in numbers since 1960. Over 2/3rds were not born here. Then there are the 80 million tourists every year, so at any one time about 27 million people inhabit the 4th most populous state which ranks 26th in size. The bloody place is crowded.
LA caliber traffic jams, oceans of trailer parks, revolting monotonous strip malls with all the usual big box suspects, and development after development, gated community after gated community, golf course after golf course. The ultimate development is Lakewood Ranch near Sarasota a master planned community, a new suburb wholly created from scratch since 1995 with everything included– schools, polo grounds, hospitals, 20 churches, recreational “wilderness” areas, the Ritz Carlton golf course and a downtown like a movie set.
Irresistible urge to re-read Brave New World , the bizarre vision of a writer horrified at commercialism and planned communities. Aldous Huxley’s turgid black comedy of a soma-drugged society didn’t age well however and failed to be anything but a curiosity from the 1930s.
Speaking of communities, if you know of a child anywhere from 8 to 18 who does not fit into the academic mold and who has some athletic talent look into the IMG Academies in Bradenton which combines academics with sports. Beautiful campus and facilities for tennis, (the Willliams sisters were students) baseball, basketball, soccer, lacrosse and of course golf, golf, now the focus of neuroscientists.
Quick tour of crowded Cancun-like Siesta Key voted #1 best beach in the world and only one of five in Florida allowing booze though that is soon to change after a drunk driver killed a local. Big local news item as was the trial of two Brits murdered last year when they strayed into the Newtown projects in Sarasota.
The Gulf Coast attracts Midwesterners, working class Brits escaping their roots and joining cricket clubs, Ontarians, and now thousands of Czechs. This area was settled in the 18th century by Scots but it was the indefatigable social engine Berthe Palmer who put it on the map creating a land development company and extending the railroad to Sarasota and Venice. But the real reason to visit is the Ringling Museum of Art.
John Ringling brought his circus here for winter headquarters in 1927 and built a Venetian Gothic mansion Ca’D’ Zan on 66 acres of Asian banyan trees and rose gardens. He bequeathed to the city of Sarasota a truly grand museum with a staggering collection of great Western European paintings, Titian, Veronese, even the rare Piero di Cosimo’s The Building of a Palace. French, Flemish, Rubens and more Rubens including 75 engravings, English masters, Lawrence and Reynolds, a Breughel and El Greco for God’s sake, five early Duchamps which were a revelation (he couldn’t really paint which is probably why he chose the other absurdist path) and the Astor mansion’s salon and library. When the Age of Innocence homes were being torn down in the 20s John Ringling bought their contents as well.
St. Armand’s Circle, once tony now T-shirt shoppes and Aussies selling blue “surrealistic” glossy paintings and Kilwins ice cream. It has undergone a startling change since 2007 when we were last here. The Age of Optimism and Plenty has passed. Empty storefronts signal the new reality.
Fifth annual Chill Out on Palm Avenue in Sarasota could have been Rush Street … tanned guys in pony tails and Hawaiian shirts, not the sockless loafers and Pink shirts of the Palm Beach uniform (Wilbur Ross should put his socks on and wear dark suits). And the girls in ubiquitous S&M bondage stilettos, with black tights and décolleté. No pastel Lily Pulitzer look anyway.
Florida has prairie, marshes, wetlands, a fabulous and unique ecosystem. At the Myakka River State Park a few miles down the road, a refuge. True wilderness or as much as one can expect today with scores of black alligators and blue herons, sand hill cranes and white egrets; when we pass by in the tour boat powered by a 1975 Cadillac engine on the freshwater lake one lone gator scout swam out to assess the danger, hissing and rattling. We didn’t see any of the wisely covert 2,000 resident feral hogs or the bobcats, wild turkeys and foxes but were warned that 300 local black vultures love rubber and might eat our tires. These fat fellows arrived after a massive fish kill two years ago and decided to stay, so stuffed with fish they could not fly away. Myakka River was only three feet deep in this drought year, and can rise to 15 in normal times.
St. Petersburg along the restored lakefront still rather patrician with the 1924 Vinoy Hotel a vestige of Old Florida before the Depression when Florida collapsed not to revive until the post War years. And then there’s the new Dali Museum. Yes however incongruous the city bid for the honor to house the Morse Reynolds collection of the strangely awful paintings of the surrealist poseur. We happily forewent the $25 admission fee and strayed around the grounds and lobby– would pay that much not to look at Dali. The HOK + Beck Group located the building above the flood plane with reinforced 18” thick concrete walls protecting the contents from Category 5 hurricanes and 165mph winds.
March is Seagrass Awareness Month in Florida. Like everything else from the world before man, it is in danger of disappearing– like the white sands of Venice which are eroding at a record rate. My God the Mexican iguanas are eating the leaves the Miami Blue butterflies lay their eggs on. Those damned Burmese pythons, pets released into the swamps are devouring many species in the Everglades and beyond.
Florida being invaded by alien species is nothing new of course but it is always threatened, mostly as we know from utterly mindless development of recent decades. Now late in the day many in the state are trying to manage the wilderness that remains.
Fifth Avenue Naples, our first time, very art-glassy and Italian bistro-y. Manicured concrete, manicured greenery, manicured everything. A bit like Oak Brook or Naperville with fine weather, though must say just a cursory glance since we quickly drove through it, anxious to board the Everglades Excursion bus at the docks for a long tour to the largest national park in the country. For some reason we remembered from our youth glass bottomed boats and clear blue waters with gorgeous fish but maybe we were thinking about the Caribbean and it got mixed up in the forge of memory.
Clear blue waters is the farthest thing from the muddy brown rivers and streams meandering in an infinite maze, a labyrinth in a million acres. If you got lost in the mangroves your body would be found years later half eaten by alligators or panthers or wild boar or whatever else are in this true wilderness.
A local lad acting and sounding like a Cajun cowboy (they overdo the Central Casting role a bit to impress the slickers) took us on an hour’s 30 mph joyride in a rickety plastic skiff through the narrow maze screeching through the shallow waters. He seemed to enjoy our terror but we gave him the requested tip anyway. Back on the bus through the dry prairie grasses we visited the Big Cypress Swamp with a few little alligators, and as it Myakka with the other animals hiding from view. Everglades City which was as bleak as can be imagined. The other Florida. Poor non coastal Florida of the past, a village after gas warfare or the A bomb. The driver said that 2/3rd of the men in the town had been involved in the drug trade and were arrested when the Feds cleaned things up a few years ago.
Sanibel rather Malthusian. The Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge takes up half of the island thanks to the Pulitzer cartoonist foreseeing the future from the 1930s preserved the northern half of the island for a bird refuge and created a moat and drawbridge to keep the visitors away. We rented a bicycle under the 90 degree sun and braved heatstroke until we fell off in Ding’s preserve and lost our camera. That was it – no Captiva to see Rauschenberg’s fish shack and 35 acre estate. Next time, maybe.
We read Barbara Rinella was Cleopatra in Bonita Springs, and that Leslie Hindman sponsored a lecture series at the Von Liebing Art Center on art appraisals. RED is all over the place, the play of the season temporarily replacing Hello Dolly; some Noel Coward always trotted out in southwest Florida, there are opera and symphonies and Charo, Lucie Arnaz, Debbie Reynolds, Tony Bennett and some of the Opryland commercial confections. (Shocker to see that place on the ride home).
Back at the rented manse on Sarasota Bay we discovered several 1959 American Horizon collections. PG Wodehouse’s “My World and What Happened To It” about the scourge of second sons, knuts, “a group of ornamental young men whom the ravens fed.” Such divine affectation from Long Island. Loved George Plimpton’s interview with Hemingway in 1958 Havana with the writer’s irritated replies and annoyed disdain at the exhausting and unanswerable questions. Hem always wrote at first light (he quotes himself amusingly) till he reached about 500 words then spent the rest of the day being a celebrity with famous friends and disdaining tourists.
On the 1,200 mile drive back to Chicago stayed the night in run down Chattanooga, Tennessee one place that hasn’t changed in 50 years and probably should have though entre nous it was rather refreshing after the rich dessert of Florida.