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Dreams of a new Florida damaged the original, but maybe it's not too late to restore it

Posted July 8, 2018 6:07 p.m. EDT

Sometimes living in Florida can seem like we're trapped in some bizarre science fiction scenario.

We've got alligators wrestling with pythons, iguanas popping up in our toilets, bone-rattling bolts of lightning zapping from the sky, the earth collapsing to create massive sinkholes -- and hey, don't forget that there's something that looks a lot like a flying saucer sitting atop a strip club in Tampa.

Maybe that's why I've been reading a lot of science fiction lately. One book I read, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin, was about a guy whose dreams could alter reality, but things never worked out right. For instance, he dreamed about a world where there was plenty of food and water for everyone. When he woke up, a big chunk of the Earth's population had died from a plague. He dreamed about an end to people fighting each other, and woke up to find they had stopped because aliens were invading. Getting back to something like normal required a nearly superhuman effort.

It sounded an awful lot like Florida history to me.

Florida's first settlers found it to be rich with a natural bounty. One wrote, "Panthers were still to be found, wild turkeys were plentiful, deer numerous, alligators and crocodiles of huge size filled every river and lagoon, green turtle swarmed on the southern beaches and shoal-water feeding grounds, and the cumbersome manatee was common."

The forests were like Eden. Every oak and mahogany tree seemed to be festooned with colorful orchids. Clouds of butterflies, some the size of a man's hand, bobbed along with every breeze. Birds flocked in such large numbers as to blot out the sky.

Even as late as the 1930s, you could see astonishing things. One memoir of those days recounts a trip across the Everglades on the new cross-state highway known as the Tamiami Trail, when "the sky lit up with fireflies -- I mean just millions of them! Every place you looked, the sky just flickered like it was on fire." A few years later, in a flood, vast schools of eels swam across the road, to the astonishment of those who witnessed it.

Here's the part that reminded me of LeGuin's dreamer: A lot of the people who flooded into Florida like the eels swarming the highway had dreams of altering this place for the better. Instead, their pursuit of those dreams just messed it up, over and over.

Building the Tamiami Trail, for instance, allowed easier access from one side of the state to the other, but it also dammed the flow of water into the Everglades. Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is spending millions of taxpayer dollars raising it up so the River of Grass can flow unimpeded.

To stop flooding of the cattle ranches along the Kissimmee River's banks, the Corps straightened the Kissimmee, destroying the wetlands in its bends. Now they're spending millions of taxpayer dollars trying to put everything back, hoping it will revive the ecosystem they destroyed.

While building the first Florida state parks, the Civilian Conservation Corps ripped out native plants and instead put in exotics that looked prettier. The Florida parks system has spent years and lots of tax dollars undoing this damage, ripping out the exotics and replacing them with the native plants.

Some of the people who moved here had a dream of making a fortune from Florida's rich natural offerings. For instance, 1920s land speculators claimed new Florida residents could support themselves selling all those native orchids found in the trees. Collectors harvested far more than would ever re-grow, and meanwhile development and timber crews chopped down the trees they grew in.

Soon many of the 50 species of native orchids, such as the Florida butterfly orchid and the cowhorn orchid, became so scarce they were in danger of disappearing.

There's a happy ending to this story. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, an 83-acre oasis of greenery since its founding in 1938 in Coral Gables, still has some of those orchids in its vast collection, growing on some of the remaining native trees.

Using the Fairchild orchids for their seeds, the staff began propagating a crop that could be transplanted. They had a lot of help from Florida's many professional orchid growers and from a coterie of retired scientists who had volunteered to assist.

On Earth Day 2014, the day that Fairchild first planted its newly grown orchids in a city park, one of the volunteers, a 70-year-old woman, wound up being the one to ride in a bucket truck up into the tree tops to put the first one in place.

Fairchild's staff and volunteers hope to produce and distribute enough of the native blooms by next year to justify the name they came up with for the operation: the Million Orchid Project.

A million Florida orchids! Now that's a dream worth pursuing, don't you think?

But maybe we shouldn't try to bring back a million eels. Our roads are already pretty clogged.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.