We need a better tomorrow

I’m closing in on four months of self isolation at Roaring Creek Farm.

It’s now July, and in the Big Bend of Florida that means the weather is hot and humid and occasionally interrupted by thunderstorms.

The farm is most definitely located below the gnat line, and anyone familiar with South Georgia and this part of North Florida knows what that means. Professor Google says that the gnats disappear at the end of June, but I can testify that not all of them got the message.

The tomatoes in the garden are hanging on despite the heat, but the squash is done and the purple hulls and black-eye peas are all but finished although they were bountiful in their prime. And much to my surprise I actually picked lima beans this year, a crop I’ve never had any luck with.

My wife has been here some, but I’ve been alone much of the time. There are lessons to be learned in isolation. Patience and faith are two of them.

Another is that in all of the craziness surrounding us during this time, the wonders of the natural world haven’t missed a beat.

The cardinals welcome the sunrise each morning, and the chuck-wills-widows serenade throughout the night.

Eastern bluebirds dart and hover as they search for insects, and the crows carry on with their spirited debates.

On my early morning walks, before the temperature climbs into the 90s, I notice little things I would have missed in the city.

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The dandelions follow the sun, and the morning glories — or bindweeds, I’m not sophisticated enough to know the difference — welcome each day.

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Each day offers a blessing. Be glad and rejoice in it. There is no room for hatred. There is no room for discrimination. As a nation, we have been on that path for far too long and we suffer because of it.

We must chart a new way forward, or we will perish.

 

 

It’s past time to act, Jacksonville

If I were still writing a newspaper column, which I’m not as I’ve retired, this is what I would write.

I’ve been in self-isolation at my farm since March so I’m pretty far removed from the goings-on in Jacksonville, where I worked at The Florida Times-Union for almost 40 years.

But in 28 years of writing a column, I attended countless meetings, hand-holding sessions and soul-baring conversations about how to overcome racism in the city and the inequities facing the African-American community.

Reports were written, recommendations were made and, boy, did  we all feel good.

Nothing has changed. It’s gotten worse.

Now is not the time for more talk. Now is the time to do something.

The racists among us will never change their stripes, but the city can do something it should have done decades ago.

It can begin by spending money, lots of it, to improve low-income neighborhoods that never received the promises of Consolidation. It can get serious about creating jobs throughout Jacksonville. It can fix the city’s crumbling public schools.

It can insist on a police department that builds up instead of tearing down.

It can begin by scrapping plans to spend hundreds of millions of city dollars to appease a billionaire NFL owner who wants new fancy digs around the football stadium and instead spend the money to provide needed help to low-income neighborhoods.

You want to send a message? Another nicely bound volume on confronting the problems of race in Jacksonville won’t do it.

That would.

Five years into Lenny Curry’s time in office, we are far from being “One City, One Jacksonville.”

Make a difference. Demand change. Now.

 

 

 

 

The grasshopper and the crow

A few days ago, they tend to run together during this time of self isolation, I was plowing a field to prepare for planting peas.

During the winter, rye and wheat had served as cover crops, and the remnants left behind included a lot of straw.

Let me say upfront that I like crows. A group of them — a  murder is a more precise term — hangs out around the field, and watching their antics and listening to their constant chatter is entertaining.

Grasshoppers, on the other hand, are not my friends. They have a nasty habit of dining on what I plant before I get a chance to.

On this day as I turned the tractor, a  lone crow swooped down in front of me just as a grasshopper rose from the rubble of straw.

The battle was joined.

The maneuverability of crows in the air is admirable as I’ve often witnessed when mockingbirds, an irritable lot, chase them across the sky because of some slight.

I didn’t know, however, that grasshoppers could match them for aerial twists and turns — almost.

Despite my feelings for grasshoppers, for some reason I found myself rooting for the smaller foe as my tractor idled and the struggle continued.

But after one particularly artful quick dive, the prize belonged to the crow.

That’s life — and death — on the farm.

There’s probably a deep meaning to this brief drama I witnessed. I just don’t know what it is.

Besides I had plowing to finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Missing you, Mr. Blue

Mr. Bluebird didn’t show up this morning.
The wind and the rain probably have him hunkered down somewhere. Even the cardinals are  quiet.
I wrote about my daily companion recently.
He shows up mornings and evenings, and sometimes in the middle of the day.
He sits atop a tall pole that supports the remnants of a purple martin house that was battered by Hurricane Michael.
I watch him from the screened in porch of my cabin, which provides a view of the pond at the bottom of the hill.
Yes, like many of us, I tend to assign human traits to birds and animals.
I imagined his gaze toward the lake, much like mine during this time of isolation, was lost in thoughts about today and what happens tomorrow.
That wasn’t it at all. It has become clear what he’s doing. He’s hunting.
He swoops down from his post, landing as much as 15 yards away, and then returns with an insect held in his beak, which he proceeds to pound into submission by beating it against the remaining metal roof of the purple martin house.
That accomplished, he takes his prize to a nearby bluebird box that several days ago had three bright blue eggs in it.
Of course, I’m curious to take a peek at the new family, but I won’t so as not to disturb them.
It’s not long before he’s back atop his hunting post.
That’s the rhythm of life at Roaring Creek Farm.
It’s spring, and there’s work that must be done to fulfill the promise of the sweet songs of bluebirds to come.

Hold onto the little things

Lately I’ve shared my mornings and evenings with a surprising but most welcome guest.
During self isolation at our farm, I’ve developed a routine of sitting on our cabin’s screened-in porch as the sun rises and again late in the afternoon.
They are quiet moments to reflect in these troubled times.
There is peace in the view. The trees shine with their bright green leaves of spring. The pond at the bottom of the hill is rippled as puffs of wind move across it.
Not long after first light and again as the evening wanes, a male eastern bluebird perches on the top of a tall pole that supports the remains of a purple martin house left scrambled by Hurricane Michael.
The songs of cardinals dominate the air.
The bluebird is silent with his back to me and his gaze seemingly fixed the same as mine on the view before us.
A dear friend wrote to me recently to share her excitement about the bumper number of monarch caterpillars in her garden this year.
It was a short message in praise of “the little things.”
Like the calls of the chuck-will’s-widows that migrated back to the farm this week .

Like the teeming swarm of honey bees I saw in the woods last week as they searched for a new home for their queen.

Like the dark sky and bright stars as a sliver of a moon set the other night .

Like a bluebird.

He flies off and I return to the cabin with questions still unanswered but a stronger faith

 

 

 

Hello Walls

Self isolation. Social distancing. Hiding out.
Whichever term you prefer, I left Jacksonville last week and moved to my farm.

Surrounded by 100 acres should provide a safe cushion until we see how this plays out.
Yes, I’m blessed to have such place to escape.
And no, I haven’t started talking to the walls yet.
In fact, each sunrise and the beginning of a new day humbles and reminds me of the beauty of God’s creation even as this time is filled with uncertainty.

With first light comes a symphony of bird songs — mourning doves, ground doves, titmice, jays, crows — accompanied by the drumming of woodpeckers.

Soon the cardinals chime in, their songs clear as a bell and strong.
The mornings are still cool, and spring punctuates the beauty of the farm.
The flowers of the wild dogwoods are a startling white.  The peach trees are painted with pink flowers as are the native crab apple trees.
Each year, deep in the woods, a small wild azalea bursts into bright orange flowers. This year was no exception.
The tea olive trees are filled with sweet smelling flowers as is my pineapple orange tree, although the buds are few this year most likely because of two late freezes.
Each day is special.
While the world goes mad, nature keeps playing its eternal tune, almost pleading with us not to forget to dance no matter how troubled the times.

Florida: This is on us

Florida can be exquisitely right and terribly wrong.

A prime example of the rare taste of glory is the Guana River State Park located in St. Johns County on A1A north of St. Augustine.

How it became owned by the public instead of meeting the typical Florida fate of condos, million dollar homes and golf courses involved luck.

The developer who bought the island as part of a package deal with other prized land needed money to close the deal. His answer was to sell the island to the state.

Because of that, Guana River State Park will forever be a reminder of what Old Florida was like before we began the now unstoppable march to destroy it,

Gnarled oaks, giant pines and twisted cedar trees provide an ancient canopy over trails that lead through maritime forests and into open savannas. Indians lived on this island at one time, and you can sense their presence still.

During the summer heat, insects can make life miserable. But on a crisp spring day when the buzzing and biting disappear, rubbing shoulders with nature and experiencing a glimpse of a time now lost is both exhilarating and humbling.

Florida at its worst is just down the road near Palatka — the Ocklawaha River.

It was once described as the sweetest river in all of Florida. Its course twisted and turned through a primeval forest of ancient trees. More than a dozen springs flowed freely, and its huge floodplain cleansed water as it moved to the St. Johns River.

Then decades ago, Floridians, anxious to make money and uncaring about this unique ecosystem, destroyed it.

The idea was to build a canal across Florida to speed shipping times connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.

Giant machines crushed trees that stood in the way, and the river was dammed to create a huge reservoir.

President Richard Nixon finally stopped the madness before the project was competed, but the dam and the reservoir remained.

And they remain to this day, a testament to the folly of Floridians.

Every three to four years, the reservoir has to be drained because it becomes a cesspool of choking vegetation and polluted water.

For a few glorious months the springs begin flowing again, and the mighty remnants of giant trees re-emerge as a reminder of what was lost.

At the same time, tiny cypress seedlings begin spouting, bringing with them the promise of a regenerated flood plain.

Then the dam is closed, and what was and could be again the sweetest river in Florida is drowned.

Why? The reservoir serves no other purpose but as a playground for bass anglers.

All of Florida must demand that the Ocklawaha be restored. It’s every bit as important as the Everglades.

We baby boomers have let this travesty stand. Our time to finally right this wrong is slipping away.

 

 

Second Chances

February was a most unusual month.
On the second day, a Sunday, I died. Heart attack. Full cardiac arrest.
The attack came without warning. If I had been asked, I would have said, no, I’m not ready to die.
However, you don’t get a choice in such matters.
But apparently God wasn’t finished with me yet.
My wife, who had never performed CPR, began the procedure with the aid of a 911 operator to at least keep my blood flowing after my heart had stopped. A rescue squad arrived within minutes and took over. Finally, two shocks from electric paddles brought me back, and a cardiologist kept me alive by inserting five stints into my arteries.
People have asked if I saw a bright light or felt the calming presence of God.
To be honest, I don’t remember anything about the attack or the stay in intensive care or the full week in the hospital,
My first memories are going to rehab and realizing I felt remarkably well for someone who had been dead.
But I was left with a lingering and still unanswered question: Why was I still alive?
As I said, February was a most unusual month.
Februarys in Florida can’t make up their mind whether to remain locked in winter or to welcome the warmth of spring.
That was the case in spades this year at Roaring Creek Farm, the 100-acre farm my wife and I own in Gadsden County.
The warmth came early, and my fruit trees reveled in it. The pear, apple, mulberry and citrus trees burst into blooms with promises of fruit to come.
Then came a hard freeze. Then another.
The dozens of white blossoms on the grapefruit tree shriveled and turned brown. Its leaves began falling off.
The mulberry trees in particular looked confused. The hundreds of buds that had heralded spring were dead.
I did the only things I knew to do. I watered the trees and fertilized them with the hope that when spring finally comes, they will recover, put on new leaves and grow strong.
There’s likely to be no fruit this year. Maybe next year. There’s always hope for second chances.
With that in mind, I’ll tend the trees in the months ahead and continue my quest to find an answer to my own unanswered question: What to do with these extra days of life I have been blessed with?

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Morning sounds

In the city shortly before sunrise, as predictable as the returning light, the warning blasts from the morning train’s horn begin.
Muffled at first by distance, the piercing sound grows louder with the train’s approach until it joins with the clanging bells of the lowering crossing arms shouting: Beware. Beware.
Motorists pause impatiently. Then the sounds of accelerating engines and wheels turning on asphalt take over as the train moves to another crossing, to another neighborhood still trying to sleep.
Even before dawn, the loud hum of humans is constant in the city.
The rising sun brings with it the beep, beep, beep of garbage trucks backing up and the rumble of mowers and the growls of leaf blowers.
At the farm, the sounds of an awakening day are orchestrated by nature, not people.
As punctual as the city’s train, the first bird begins to sing before the sun’s orange glow paints the horizon.
The screech owls, great horned owls, barred owls and occasionally coyotes set the tone with their night hoots and startling cries.
At sunrise, the cardinals, chickadees, mourning doves, blue jays and quail take over.
Why do they sing?
Those who study such things say the songs come mostly from males trying to attract mates and warning other males to stay away from their territories.
I like to think the songs are a daily announcement of: “Here I am.”
Soaking up these sounds soothes and calms. It reminds us that nature, battered by human carelessness and greed, is still there, reveling in the routine of beginning another day.
Here I am.
If we are indeed on the brink of another mass extinction as scientists predict, the loss will be ours.
In the city, the clatter of humans adjusting to a new world will grow louder.
At the farm, the silence will overwhelm.
Where are you?
I’m no longer here.

The Bench

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The bench isn’t much to look at.
Like most of my building projects, it’s a bit off kilter but solid.
Made with pressure treated lumber, it should last for years, certainly not forever. Nothing made by humans does.
I carried it on my trailer to one of the deep ravines on Roaring Creek Farm and placed it among the towering pines and hardwoods.
It’s quiet there.
The gurgling water of a gently flowing creek soothes. Birds sing their ancient songs.
It’s a place to listen to God.
If you believe the Old Testament stories, God was much more direct during those times.
The word came through a burning bush or spoken by an archangel or directly from God.
Abraham, Moses, David and the other chosen ones must have trembled at the sound.
God speaks in a quieter voice now.
You can hear it in this cathedral in the woods. Divining the meaning isn’t always simple.
Jesus taught in such places, on hillsides and in farmers’ fields.
He didn’t need multimillion-dollar edifices to inspire or million-dollar pipe organs to create a heavenly sound.
We’ve gotten it all wrong. His message was delivered simply:
Feed the hungry, visit the sick, welcome the stranger, love your neighbor.
Hurricane Michael left many of the trees on Roaring Creek Farm twisted and broken.
The bench on the side of the ravine survived amid the fallen trunks and branches.
The creek and the birds still sing their songs. God still speaks, quietly, subtly.
You only have to listen.