Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Native Peoples and Their Watery World

Long Key Nature Center

Davie, Florida

October 23rd, 2008

Today for our class we visited an ancient lush island located in the sea of suburban Davie. The place is called Long Key. The land here was once a central home to the Tequesta, then the Seminoles and then white settlers growing oranges. Now, housing developments outnumber orange groves and Broward County has stepped in and reclaimed this jewel in order to preserve it for future generations. Long Key is essentially a large island - part of the Pine Island Ridge system - a system of leftover ancient dunes that have become our uplands, our "high" ground. If we were to stop controlling the water, they would be true islands once again. The upland area of Long Key is home to a beautiful Oak Hammock, lush with native plants and animals and surrounded by vibrant re-established wetlands. The land and the animals are thriving - it is truly an oasis. To learn more, go to the website:

Today was the perfect day to be out. The forecast predicted an 80% chance of rain, but we gambled and went anyway and were so thankful that we did. The overcast skies kept it cool and made for a very pleasant day of nature wandering. The wildlife loved the cooler weather too, our group of naturalists spotted a Great Egret, cute little Moorhens, a Tri-colored Heron, and the biggest Iguana I've ever seen. We saw how a wetland acts as a sponge and a filter and as a nursery for the young. In the forest we saw giant Golden OrbWeavers behaving as guardians of the hammock and an unknown fungus that looked like lace. We became Native American children today and played games that would have sharpened our skills as hunters and gatherers in the past. We learned that wild coffee (psychotria nervosa) might make you have "nervous psychosis" and that if you knew how to get the poisons out, you could eat the Coontie plant.

After our games and wanderings, we spent an enjoyable visit in the Nature Center. It is a wonderful place to go - very kid-friendly, state of the art, and educational, it really tied together all that we learned outside.

Florida and water go together, especially here in south Florida. Go back 100 years or even less and you would need a canoe to navigate across the land. The land is a peninsula, and, therefore surrounded by water on three sides: the Gulf of Mexico to the west, the Florida Bay to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. We have Lake Okechobee and all the rivers to the north adding more water to the landscape. Each rainy season (May to November) we get about 54 inches of rain creating a very wet state indeed. In fact, Florida has more natural fresh water springs than any other state!! We are just bursting at the seams!!

You are probably wondering how we manage to live here...... well, it took many, many years and a lot of digging! I won't go into details now but if you want a good read about the way it all works, read "The Swamp" by Michael Grunwald. Basically, we dredged into the limestone and diverted the water into canals - which are controlled by locks. Now, the flow from the Everglades is controlled by the South Florida Water Management District. In the last 100 years, we have lost about over 50% of our wetlands - a very short time for such tremendous losses.

Wetlands are vital to the Earth, and of course, to Florida. The habitats we have are dependent upon them for survival. Without the wetlands our fresh water source - the Floridan Aquifer would be threatened. These vital waterways filter and strain out pollutants and dirt as the water flows through them, pre-treating the water before it seeps down into the limestone bedrock that makes up the Florida Plateau. The water also cleans itself before it runs to the sea, lessening the phosphates and other things that may flow into the salt water ecosystems. Currently, because our water is tainted with pollutants and phosphates - due to overpopulation of people and lack of wetlands, the bay and ocean systems are suffering.

Wetlands serve as breeding grounds and home to many Florida species, especially birds. In the spring the trees dotting the wetlands and ponds are filled with nests, cradling the young of herons, egrets, and many, many more. The plants and trees provide shelter, camouflage, and food. When it gets cold in the north, Florida wetlands are an essential stopping ground for migrating birds. Wetlands also play a very important role as a spawning and nursery habitat for fish and shell fish populations.

Florida, in all its watery-glory has been home to humans for thousands of years. The warmth and prosperity of the land here has encouraged settlements for the last 10,000 years!!! Over the course of thousands of years, the land we now live upon has changed dramatically. For millions of years, Florida was under the ocean, building up sediment, then for hundreds and thousands of years, the coastlines changed back and forth, creating islands or large plateaus of land. All of these changes were the result of many different ice ages - either forming or melting. About 15-20,000 years ago, we had our most recent ice age, the oceans receded and the plateau of Florida was revealed. At this time, Florida was much larger than it is now, cooler than it is now, and much drier. Further north it grew very cold and was covered in ice, the animals moved southward, with the humans following. The people followed the game - deer, giant sloths, mastodons, saber toothed tigers, and many more prehistoric creatures, the humans thrived but many of the animal species didn't, possibly due to overhunting.

Moving southward, the human populations settled into areas throughout Florida. About 5,000 years ago the largest tribe in south Florida was the Calusa settlement on the west coast of Florida, near Naples. The people there were tremendously successful, they were so adept at hunting and gathering that they never developed a need for agriculture, like the rest of the world's people. Fish and game were plentiful and able to nourish the natives to become fierce, intelligent people with elaborate religious rituals, beautiful art, and finely-engineered tools and weapons. Among the tribes the Calusa controlled were the Tequesta Indians. The Tequesta lived on the east coast of Florida, from West Palm to Miami and the Keys. The site here at Long Key is an ancient home to the Tequesta tribe, dating back at least 3-5,000 years ago.

Before the Florida government succeeded at draining the Everglades, this area in Davie was a series of islands surrounded by the slow-moving fresh water. Before that, going back thousands and thousands of years, these higher areas of ground were our ancient coastlines, where sand built up as dunes. The Tequesta lived here peacefully - harvesting from the local plants, like: coontie, wild coffee, various palms and greens; hunting the local animals, such as, white-tailed deer, rabbits, squirrels, alligator, fish, turtles, manatees, whales, dolphin, fish, crabs, shellfish, and many, many more. After the Spanish arrived, they lived in relative peace but were wiped out, along with the other tribes, by disease, slavery, and warring. The Spanish brought us cattle, wild pigs, banannas, and sugar cane.

Soon after the ancient tribes were gone, the Seminole and the Miccosukee Indians moved in. They came from the Creek and Muskogee Indians in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. The Seminole name comes from a Spanish word, "Cimarrone" - or "runaway". Miccosukee literally means "pig-farmer". These groups of people moved into the wilds of south Florida because it was so "wild" and wet and they were hopeful that they would escape the white man's soldiers. They successfully hid for many years, never lost a war and are still living here in south Florida today.

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