Solitude in the Okefenokee

Earlier this week, before the cold front arrived but when its precursor had brought overcast skies, a biting wind and a dampness that chilled, I went to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
I entered the park at the eastern entrance near Folkston and found that I pretty much had the park to myself. It was glorious.
I headed to the Chesser Island Boardwalk and the Owls Roost Tower. There wasn’t another person on the one-and-a-half mile walk to the tower and back. The only sounds were the songs of birds and the wind blowing through the trees.
The intended purpose of the trip was to take photos with my new camera, but the weather, which I suspect was why no one else was there, didn’t cooperate.
The hour spent alone at the top of the tower in contemplation drinking in the beauty of the swamp was a gift.
A lesson learned: Never give up on finding a good photo. On my return, there was a splashing sound in the marsh beside the boardwalk. Three raccoons were busily grooming each other.
I got what I had come for — peace and a photo recording a memory.

JaxPort will demand to go deeper

JaxPort’s deep dredge scam won’t stop with deepening the St. Johns River shipping channel from 40 feet to 47 feet.

If the port’s current project is completed — hopefully a lawsuit in federal court will stop it — JaxPort’s tune will change that 47 feet is enough; instead 50 feet or 52 feet or 54 feet will be needed to handle the cargo ships that keep getting bigger.

Here’s now it works:

It was just three years ago that PortMiami dredged its channel in Biscayne Bay to 50 feet, destroying critical coral reefs and seagrass beds along the way.

According to the Miami Herald, Port Miami is already back asking for more — deeper and wider.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accepts some blame for environmental damage in Biscayne Bay but makes the excuse that the dredge was hurried as part of the federal government’s push to get infrastructure work done.

Don’t look now, but JaxPort’s dredge was also part of the hurry-up plan, and environmental concerns, especially mitigation, were given short shrift.

If you think the flooding from Hurricane Irma was bad, just wait until the channel goes to more than 50 feet in depth.

And remember all of this — at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money — is being done by an unelected board.

Signs of rebirth

It’s been one month since Hurricane Michael ripped through Roaring Creek Farm.

Some progress is being made in cleaning up the debris from a thousand toppled trees although I still think it will take close to one year to finish the job.

Nature is  renewing itself.

Fresh green leaves are beginning to reappear on the trees that had been stripped by the 130 mph wind.

And in a bit of an oddity for November, blooms have burst open on some of my plum and peach trees. I don’t know if they were confused by the storm or the warmer than usual fall weather.

I had feared the wild turkeys that call the farm home had not survived, but plots planted with chufa show otherwise as within the last week turkeys have torn the ground to get at the  chufa’s tubers.

There are fresh deer tracks, and I spotted a covey of quail this past weekend.

The beauty of Roaring Creek Farm is returning slowly. The road ahead is long, but we will get there.


What to do? What to do?

Mayor Lenny Curry and his JEA board buddies are in a pickle.

Or maybe a bind.

Or a jam.

At the very least they are face to face with a conundrum.

If JEA’s board names Aaron Zahn the utilities’ next CEO, even if he is the most qualified of the candidates for the job, which he isn’t, the cries will be loud that the fix was in from the beginning, that Curry was pulling the strings of hand-picked puppets he appointed to what’s supposed to be an independent authority to select Zahn, Curry’s friend and supporter.

Even though Zahn is going up against other candidates with much stronger resumes, one board member said the interim CEO deserved to make it to the final round because of his “passion” for the job.

Passion is a good thing, but it has its limits as a qualification for a job.

For example, Curry has a passion for football, but that doesn’t qualify him to coach the Jaguars.

There’s another strange twist in this intriguing episode. The board is considering making background checks on the candidates simply a “pass/fail” affair because otherwise details would be part of the public record.

That certainly leaves a very big “hmmm” in the room.

And Election Day added another  ingredient to the brine this pickle is curing in.

Almost three-quarters of Jacksonville’s voters approved a straw ballot measure that said voters should have a say in whether the city-owned utility is sold, an underlying theme of this whole drama about the control of JEA.

A conundrum indeed.



Hope after the storm

When Hurricane Michael carved its disastrous path across the Florida Panhandle, the eastern edge of the eye moved directly over Roaring Creek Farm.

The 130 mph winds toppled a thousand longleaf pines and 100-year-old hardwoods.

The creek-carved bottoms that lace through the property are now a tangled mess.

The morning after the storm I drove to the farm from my home in Jacksonville to check for damage.

The closer I got the havoc left behind by Michael intensified. Quincy was hurt but not as badly as Gretna.

I dodged toppled trees on U.S. 90 to make my way past Mount Pleasant and Oak Grove.

The dead-end road to my farm was blocked by downed trees and power lines.

I scrambled through the wreckage until I could peer around a corner: Our cabin and barn were still intact.

At that moment, even though the farm had been left scarred by Michael, I knew we were luckier than so many who lost much more.

We are now into week four of the cleanup. The work is likely to take a year.

A young forester who works with us left me with these words after seeing the damage: “Nature has a way of healing itself.”

I’m already starting to see signs of that. The birds are back, and there’s evidence that the deer and turkey are as well.

I’ve spotted one of my favorite animals several times – a silver fox squirrel who survived the howling winds and falling trees.

Trees left standing but with most of their leaves stripped off are beginning to bud.

There is still beauty at Roaring Creek Farm.

During one of the nights after the storm passed, the sky was clear and moonless. The stars sparkled so brightly that even the Milky Way was clearly visible, stretching across the horizon.

And the sunsets over the farm’s pond are still mesmerizing.

It will take time, but nature will heal itself.



Some days it’s hard to carry on

My first experience with violence was etched into my memory shortly before I was 2 years old.

My grandfather was a police reporter for the San Antonio Light, and he and my grandmother lived on a farm outside of San Antonio on the Corpus Christi Highway.

A short distance to the south from their home was Hilltop, which consisted of a gas station, a store and a locker where people could store frozen goods. It was long before people had freezers in their homes.

My grandfather heard that something was happening at Hilltop, and he headed that way.

Being a baby attached to his grandfather, I didn’t want him to leave. He took me with him.

The gas station had been robbed and three men murdered. To this day, seven decades later, I can still see their bloodied bodies.

I first witnessed the joining of violence and pure evil in August 1973 in Houston.

I was a reporter for United Press International working the night shift. A source called and said I should come to a boat storage shed in a remote part of the city.

I watched as detectives dug in one of the units and began recovering the bodies of young boys and teenagers who had been tortured, raped, murdered and buried there, their bodies stuffed into garbage bags and covered in lye.

I didn’t think the stench from the decay would ever leave me.

As midnight approached, the body count grew as the officers dug.

I reported the growing number to my editors in the Dallas UPI office.

“Who says there are that many victims?” they asked.

“I do,” I said. “I’m counting them as they pull the bodies from their grave.”

Before the search at the boat shed and other locations was over, 28 victims of Dean Allen Corll and his teenage accomplices, Elmer Wayne Henley and David Owen Brooks, had been found. More likely went undiscovered.

I had hoped such evil would be the rare exception. Now 70 years old, I have a gnawing fear that it is not.

Mass murders in schools, at concerts, during worship services no longer jar us beyond the initial revulsion that too readily fades as news cycles move onto other things.

The stench of that boat shed and the sight of those bloodied bodies in an obscure Texas gas station have never left me.

But the onslaught of violence – the assassinations, the Vietnam war, four dead in Ohio, the endless wars in the Mideast, the terrorist attacks, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Pittsburgh, a Tallahassee yoga studio – leaves me, and others I suspect, numb.

I grew disillusioned with the church when so many Christians condoned the atrocities of the Vietnam War.

I grow more disillusioned today as so many Christians condone the words and actions of a president that are far removed from the teachings of Christ.

I fear for our souls and the soul of our country.




Hocus Pocus from Lenny and the Sheriff

It was comical as well as maddening watching efforts by First Coast News to drag out of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office exactly how many police officers are employed by the agency now.

JSO, under the leadership of Mr. Transparency Mike Williams, kept telling the news station that number wasn’t available.

Come on. The agency doesn’t know how many people are on its payroll?

And kudos to First Coast New for asking the question every day until the information was forthcoming.

The  number is a sensitive issue for the sheriff and Mayor Lenny Curry. As you might recall, Curry hammered Mayor Alvin Brown during their campaign battle for reducing the number of police, basically saying that Brown was responsible for the city’s high murder rate.

In Curry’s current re-election campaign television ads, he boasts of adding 180 police officers to ensure public safety. If that was the answer to violent crime, as  Curry contended in his first mayoral race, why are most days in Jacksonville still marked by murders?

The first answer is that Curry is highballing the number.

According to figures finally released by JSO, 523 officers have been hired since Curry and Williams took office on  July 1, 2015.

However, 70 of those have left the agency, another 236 officers have retired and 80 officers resigned or were terminated.

That means the net gain is 137 officers, not the 180 that Curry touts.

JSO points out that another 23 recruits have just started at the training academy. That would bring the number go 160. However, officers now on the force will likely retire or move onto other jobs, which will lessen the impact of the 23 new officers, if all of them make it through the academy.

That number 23 is interesting in itself. During the debate over the pension reform pushed by Curry, an argument was made that it will be difficult to recruit new hires who would fall under a defined contribution plan instead of a more lucrative defined benefit pension being offered by most law enforcement agencies in the state.

Previous classes have had 30 and 31 graduates, so that prediction of recruitment difficulties could very well be playing out.

And we will see in the next few years if another prediction holds true: New hires will work at  JSO for a few years, gain valuable training and experience, collect a defined contribution nest egg and then move to a department that has a defined benefit plan.

Curry’s accusations about the number of police officers lost during the Brown administration was always built on a false narrative.

It began with Brown’s first budget in 2011-12 and JSO’s claim that it cut 71 officers.

As I wrote in an April 2015 column for the Times-Union, the reality was this: Included in that 71 number were 28 school resource officers and 13 officers who provided security at JaxPort,

Those officers were not patrolling the streets of Jacksonville. And those positions weren’t lost; they were privatized.

Another 10 officers were transferred to a federal program.

The net loss from the 71 was actually 20, and the loss of 147 total that Curry continues to hammer Brown on was really 96.

That leads to one final question: With 137 more officers patrolling the streets of Jacksonville, which more than makes up for the 96 lost under Brown, why is mayhem still the order of the day?

If it was Brown’s fault then, is it Curry’s fault now?