Head in the clouds, feet on the ground

I took a red-eye flight back from Anchorage, which departed around midnight. I had a window seat and managed to get in a few winks before I awoke to a surreal magenta sunrise emanating from far below the horizon of clouds. Upon landing in Dallas, a fellow passenger started shouting “Hallelujah!” There were a few chuckles at first, but his mania persisted until we reached the terminal. Praise God for earplugs.

Between Dallas and Tampa, I read most of Alaska at 50, a gift from the Alaska Humanities Forum for Florida Studies Program co-founder Gary Mormino. The book helped give context to some of my experiences and I particularly appreciated contributor Vic Fischer’s observation that “Alaska’s constitution…was less about political science, with its easily understood dictum to keep the basic law simple, and more about the personality of a unique moment in our history when Alaskans were able to follow that advice” (149, my emphasis added).

My own studies of history have helped me appreciate the rare confluences of people, place and timing that precipitate truly momentous events, and the challenges of perpetuating those achievements. The rapid changes since Alaskan statehood must seem daunting to sourdoughs and native elders who recall the past and ponder the future. It all reminds me of Florida’s turbulent past, its post-war boom and present challenges, some of which seem like déjà vu.

Musing about the big picture seems to come naturally at 30,000 feet, looking down on a long, curved arm of cumulus clouds stretching for many miles above the Gulf of Mexico. Alaska’s trash troubles seemed less permanently consequential than Florida’s suburban sprawl as I looked down at the concrete jungle along US-19 in Pinellas County.

By a stroke of good fortune, I arrived in time to attend a great event hosted by my beloved Florida Studies Program. Conservation photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. addressed a crowd of nearly 200 people at USF St. Petersburg, where he described his personal and professional journey to advocating the opportunity for a Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Heir to a legacy of Florida ranching and state leadership (his great-grandfather was a governor), Ward wields his camera and aw-shucks personality as powerful ammunition in the battle to preserve what remains of the state’s unique natural and cultural landscape. Last night’s images were stunning and stories captivating. Indeed, the audience sat silently and motionless, except for the occasional gasp or chuckle, for two hours of film and narration.

The focal point was an expedition led by Ward that traversed 1000 miles of Florida in 100 days, through swamps and uplands and diverse ecosystems in between, often close to developments that are likely to encroach on this last natural passageway from the Everglades to Okefenokee. Its purpose was clear: to connect protected areas and private lands through public purchases and conservation easements down the spine of peninsular Florida.

I couldn’t help but think of previous explorers’ and developers’ efforts to make a navigable shipping route from the St. Johns River to Gulf of Mexico. As chronicled in Ditch of Dreams, they almost succeeded in literally cutting the state in half before wiser heads prevailed. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could stitch together a permanently protected path for wildlife and those who wish to follow it?

Look for a documentary about the expedition coming in February 2013, help spread the word and check out what you can do in the meantime here: http://www.floridawildlifecorridor.org

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