Published: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.
I refrain here from telling this at greater length, because each one can imagine for himself what could happen in a land so strange and so poor and so lacking in every single thing that it seemed impossible either to be in it or to escape from it."
-From the journal of Cabeza de Vaca.
I've just finished reading "A Land So Strange: The epic journey of Cabeza de Vaca," by Andres Resendez.
And an epic journey it was.
In 1528 de Vaca and 300 other Spaniards landed on the west coast to claim Florida as their own.
Upon encountering the locals who lived on the shores of Tampa Bay, they were told that the mighty Apalachee tribe up near present-day Tallahassee had all the gold.
This being, the Tampa locals figured, the best way to rid themselves of these annoying tourists.
And it worked. Immediately, de Vaca and his fellows proceeded to march right up the peninsula in search of gold, glory and maybe some decent grub for a change.
And in some respects, they were not that much different from the parade of snowbirds, confidence men, land speculators, sun worshippers and wide-eyed innocents who would follow them to Florida down through the ages.
They couldn't drive (having actually landed on the wrong side of the Gulf of Mexico, presumably too stubborn to ask directions).
They immediately began to complain about the heat, the mosquitoes, the swamps, the beastly weather and the rudeness of the natives.
And they had this arrogant notion that they would reshape Florida in their own image.
Didn't happen. Upon encountering the Apalachee they received, not gold, but the pointy end of a bunch of arrows.
Desperate to escape, they killed and ate their horses, built rafts and floated off to Texas.
They might have been Florida's first halfbacks; those legions of disillusioned newcomers who get here, discover that paradise isn't all it's cracked up to be, and then move halfway back home.
Except that most of them didn't even make it halfway back to Spain before meeting with disaster and death.
In the end, only de Vaca and three others survived this land so strange.
It's a good read, and a morality tale for the ages for those who think they can conquer Florida on their own terms.
The "Land of Flowers" has always had thorns.
And in a way, de Vaca's revived tale is a reminder that we can lay down all the asphalt, condos, theme parks and subdivisions we care to, and Florida is still going to be a potentially hostile land so strange. A land where life as we wish it to be can never really be taken for granted.
There's an awful lot of hand-wringing going on in Tallahassee and elsewhere over Florida's sagging economic fortunes. Our boom has gone bust. They are having to cut billions from the state budget. The housing market is flush with unsold inventory.
Atlas Van Lines says that for the second year in a row it has moved more people out of Florida than into it.
The state's population gain last year, 35,000 people, was the lowest since the Census Bureau began to keep track of such things, in 1990.
Rising insurance premiums, property taxes and gas prices, the threat of hurricanes and a stagnating economy have all taken the bloom off Florida's rose; at least for now. The halfbacks are on the march again.
Oh yeah, and the Wall Street Journal, almost gleefully, has already written Florida's obituary.
But as Mark Twain once famously wrote, "the report of my death was an exaggeration."
"This doesn't mean that Florida is busted and that the best days are over," Gary Mormino, professor of Florida studies at the University of South Florida, told the St. Petersburg Times the other day. ''New generations will redefine and reinvent the Florida dream."
And he's probably right. Certainly the disaster that befell de Vaca and his compatriots didn't stop other fortune seekers from following in their footsteps.
Still, while we're in this little slump, no matter how temporary, this might be a good time for those of us who have the grit to stay and gut it out to have a serious discussion about the limits of growth and the inherent vulnerability of an economy that is built almost exclusively on the premise that Florida is going to continue to add population ad infinitum.
A little slump might not be a bad thing if we use this time out to rethink the way we do taxes, infrastructure, education, growth management and economic development.
Of late, we have been running a series of editorials and commentaries about efforts to preserve slices of natural Florida from development.
Indeed, the latest such commentary, about ways to save our farms, appears on today's op-ed page.
Florida is the most aggressive state in America when it comes to buying up conservation lands. But given our projected growth rate and suburban-centric land-use patterns (outward, ever outward), a lot more farms and forests are destined to be gobbled up by development than saved for prosperity.
Population projections from the University of Florida see the state going from 18 million people now to more than 35 million by 2060.
If Florida continues to develop as it always has, accommodating that kind of growth would require 7 million acres of additional land.
The resulting infrastructure, transportation, environmental and social costs of that sort of endless sprawl will be astronomical.
Cabeza de Vaca came here looking for gold and found only grief. Nearly 500 years later we're all still sifting for gold in a growth-addicted economy that cannot be sustained.
Maybe the halfbacks are trying to tell us something.
Maybe we need to start listening.
Ron Cunningham is The Sun's editorial page editor. Write him at email@example.com.
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