Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer for WFSU-TV, covering environment and the outdoors. Rob is in the process of completing Roaming the Red Hills, an exploration of north Florida/ south Georgia ecology funded by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. Rob’s previous ecology projects include EcoShakespeare, which was funded by PBS member station WNET and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and In the Grass, On the Reef, a collaboration with the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab funded by the National Science Foundation. Rob’s EcoAdventure segments air on WFSU’s Local Routes and can be found on the WFSU Ecology Blog.
View all posts by Rob Diaz de Villegas →
The video for this EcoAdventure will air in September as part of a new WFSU program. What segments will air alongside this and other EcoAdventures? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. Come in and have a meal, on us, here at the station. We want this to feel like your show, and we’re listening to your suggestions. Conversations start in two weeks. Spots are limited; we want small groups so that we can hear what you have to say. Visit the WFSU Listens page to sign up for one of five sessions.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
We were traveling down an undisclosed section of the Wacissa River. Robert Daniels, the retired Florida Fish and Wildlife game warden who transported us in his jon boat, thought our hosts should have been less explicit in describing their location. He preferred to say “the Aucilla River basin” on camera. He was taking us to an archeological site being excavated under the clear water of the river, and he’s fiercely protective of the watershed’s sites. There are dozens of them in the spring-fed Wacissa and black water Aucilla, many of which, along with other Florida sites, are challenging notions about early human settlement in North America. Robert worries about looters, and it’s a legitimate concern. He caught his fair share of them while working with FWC. Continue reading →
Video: We travel down the Aucilla River, the eastern boundary of the Red Hills region, the dark water of which preserves some of the nation’s oldest archeological sites. It’s also a challenging kayak and canoe trail.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Until paddling the Aucilla River during the production of this video, I had never had to portage on a river. For non-paddlers, portage is when you take your canoe or kayak out of the water to navigate around an obstacle. And on that day, there were plenty of obstacles. The Aucilla River Paddling Trail Guide recommends the river be paddled by those with intermediate to advanced skills. Fallen trees and river bends, sometimes in a tricky proximity, had us pivoting at sharp angles. This was less of a challenge for the three kayakers on our trip, but David Ward and I each ferried a photographer on heavier canoes. If you’re looking for a Florida river on which to peacefully coast, this isn’t it. This is a more adventurous river; and one with thousands of years of human usage. Continue reading →
Thieving raccoons, high water on the Apalachicola, and learning to follow trail blazes make for a memorable camping trip for a WFSU producer and his son.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
One Sunday, I was planting seeds with my son Max when I decided that we needed to go camping that next weekend. We were at the tail end of what I guess is Festival Season in Tallahassee, and it had been fun. We saw a lot of cool things, got a little wet as nature tested the “rain or shine” claims on festival posters. But it was an awful lot of spring weekends in town. It was time to get out. Continue reading →
Mushrooms are one of the few foods we eat that are neither plant or animal. We trek to Lake Seminole Farm, where two men took a chance and have started a mushroom growing operation. In looking at how mushrooms grow, we get an unexpected lesson in forest ecology.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Lake Seminole farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.
Mushrooms are a food with a mystique about them. They’re like oysters or sushi. There are serious enthusiasts willing to spend good money on certain varieties; others are repulsed at the thought of them. Think of the possible outcomes of trying a random mushroom found in the woods. You discover amazing flavor. You become sick. You die. You take an unexpected mystic voyage into the depths of your psyche. This is not a food that is like the other food you eat, and so it makes sense that a mushroom farm doesn’t exactly look like most other farms.
Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake and oyster mushrooms (I love the symmetry of the Apalachicola River- the body of water to its south has oysters, the body of water to its north has oyster mushrooms). David Krause studied fungi at FSU and USF, part of a career path that led to his being Florida’s state toxicologist from 2008 through 2011. In 2011, he took a chance and decided to put his land to work. Living on Lake Seminole, his property has the dense tangle of hardwoods that you find on a floodplain. Those oak and gum trees are perfect for growing shiitake mushrooms. But the farm doesn’t exclusively use logs gathered on the property. Continue reading →
Video: We accompany Jim McClellan, author of Life Along the Apalachicola River, as he scouts turkey hunting locations and fishes in Iamonia Lake, an oxbow of the Apalachicola.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
We met Jim McClellan at 5:00 am in the parking lot of a Blountstown McDonalds. He took us to the Iamonia Lake Hunting and Fishing Club, from where we departed for Iamonia Island (surrounded by Iamonia Lake on one side and the Apalachicola River on the other). We sat in the darkness, backs against a tree, unseen mosquitos conducting a blood drive from any skin we left exposed. Turkey season began the following day; on this day we sat and listened, communicating by whisper. I wondered, would Jim’s potential prey see the little red light on the side of my camera battery? Continue reading →
In the end, it worked out that we had to shoot the show out of season.
“And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter…”
Here, Titania laments the damage done to the Earth’s climate cycles by her quarrel with Oberon, her husband and king of the fairies. She may also have been looking at our production schedule for EcoShakespeare. In October, we got our grant. The product was to be (mostly) finished by the end of January. The play we would be highlighting? A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s a summer where everyone is wearing jackets. We tag a bird- a Henslow’s sparrow- that migrates to our area in late fall. We forage for food that comes into season well after summer. And that’s perfect. How better to drive home the damage done by these nature deities’ marital discord? As Titania said, the seasons alter… Continue reading →
Video: bird watching, nature writing, and possibly the best sunrise spot on the Forgotten Coast. Author Susan Cerulean joins us at Bald Point State Park.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Susan Cerulean and I are watching a bufflehead duck dive for food by an oyster reef. We’re at Bald Point State Park, and Susan is putting me in tune with nature’s cycles. “You can’t know when that last one’s left,” she says of the duck, which should soon be departing for the north. This is the seasonal cycle, warming and cooling that spurs many of the birds we’re seeing to start continental and intercontinental flights. Continue reading →
Video: The dimpled trout lily isn’t a rare plant, but it is rare to see them as far south as Grady, County Georgia. There, volunteers from the Magnolia chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society set up a preserve for an unusually large concentration of the bright yellow winter flower. We visit the preserve and talk to members of the Magnolia chapter about the plants in our biodiverse region.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
Tiny little flowers; big vistas seen from an airplane. You’re not going to see our forests’ unique flowers from a plane or in a satellite image, not without serious advances in telescopy that would include the ability to see through tree cover. But there is a lot to be learned about what makes these flowers thrive by taking a look at a larger picture. In the video above, Wilson Baker presents a theory that attributes a concentration of dimpled trout lilies to the geology of the Red Hills region. In the interview that followed that segment in tonight’s Dimensions broadcast, Amy Jenkins explains how she uses aerial photographs to better understand fire dependent habitats in the Apalachicola National Forest. That includes flowers like the highly endangered Harper’s beauty and the diversity of carnivorous plants that call the forest home. Continue reading →
This past Saturday, my son Max and I returned to Owl Creek to join a few dozen paddlers for a special event. The Apalachicola Riverkeeper welcomed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they continue to make their way from the headwaters of the Everglades to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola. While on the water, I could see that people liked the image of a father and son in a kayak. Other paddlers would occasionally say things like “That’s the right way to raise a kid.” Max and I made a little game of picking up trash along the creek, which garnered more positive comments. It feels nice to hear those things because, honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m just making things up as I go with this kid and his outdoor experiences. Continue reading →
Video: Titania’s fairy retinue sings a song to ward off beasts of ill omen as she goes to sleep. Likewise, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to ward off threats to America’s largest spring. Jim Stevenson, a board member of Wakulla Springs Alliance, leads our trip, which is based on the Wakulla Springs Overland Tour he he leads with Palmetto Expeditions.
EcoShakespeare is a series of adventures through north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems. During each trip, adventurers view a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each with its own significance to the day’s habitat. Florida State University English professor, Dr. Bruce Boehrer, ties it all together.
Rob Diaz de VillegasWFSU-TV
A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.
While editing the video above, I kept hearing the Standell’s Dirty Water in my head. It’s a strange sort of ode to Boston, with its chorus, “Love that dirty water, Boston you’re my home.” It refers to the polluted Charles River and contains some other less than flattering Bean Town references, but that song and Sweet Caroline are staples at Red Sox games (my wife and I were married in her native Massachusetts, where both songs were loudly sung along to during the reception). Looking at shots of algae mats, the garbage piled into Lake Henrietta, and, most sadly, algae covered turtles, I don’t feel like writing even satirically about loving the quality of the water heading south to Wakulla Springs. Instead, I offer you a song written by William Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and arranged by Southern Shakespeare Festival’s Stephen Hodges). In it, Titania’s fairy servants call upon Philomel the nightingale to protect her as she sleeps in the woods.
We won’t be interpreting the song literally, because what’s the fun in that? The fairies are attempting to ward off what Dr. Bruce Boehrer calls “beasts of ill omen:” spiders, snakes and snails. In the Wakulla Springs ecosystem, though, these are important members of the food web. Our beasts of ill omen are defined by Madeleine Carr, President of the Friends of Wakulla Springs: dark water, hydrilla, and algae. The creatures mentioned by name in the song actually need protection themselves from these threats to the spring.
When I was meeting with our partners at the Southern Shakespeare Festival to plan EcoShakespeare, one of the themes we wanted to explore was the Victorian concept of the Great Chain of Being. I had a wonderful brainstorming session with Lanny Thomas and Laura Johnson, the Artistic and Executive Directors of the Festival, and Wakulla Springs seemed an ideal place to filter through Shakespeare’s worldview.
On the shores of Lake Munson, Titania’s fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders. Lake Munson is Tallahassee’s most polluted lake, receiving nitrate filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste. Lake Munson feeds Wakulla Springs through the Munson Slough system.
In the Victorian Great Chain, order in the world is maintained by God and queen. It’s a top-down model. You see this at play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oberon and Titania, as king and queen of the fairies, are a type of nature deity. Their marital discord upsets the skies and the seas, causing problems for plants and animals. That upheaval moved from the top-down. But nature often operates from the bottom-up. Hydrilla entered Wakulla Springs State Park and crowded out apple snails, which deprived one of the park’s showy attractions, the bird on its sign, of its food. So the limpkin left, and has been gone almost two decades. That problem moved its way up the chain, not down. Likewise with algae.
Jim Stevenson leads our pursuit of water as it flows south from Tallahassee and collects contaminants. One contaminant, nitrates, feed a microscopic plant, algae, which accumulates in the water. It forms mats which block out the sun for native marine plants. It blooms and sucks the oxygen out of the water, killing fish. Those fish in turn are meals for birds and other larger animals, the ones tour guides point out on Wakulla Springs boat rides.
Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida’s State Park Service. In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state’s springs. At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.
Of course, algae and hydrilla didn’t decide one day to become a nuisance and wreck the spring. Hydrilla is an asian import, an aquarium decorative that found its way into American rivers. It was introduced by humans. Nitrates originate from people, too, often right within us. It’s in our poop, which we like to think disappears to a fairy realm once we flush it down. That’s just not true. Utilities have to figure out how to sanitize and dispose of that waste, and the City of Tallahassee’s solution had inadvertently been putting nitrates directly into the aquifer. They have spent a lot of money to fix that problem. Nitrates also come from the synthetic poop substitute we use to make green lawns and larger tomatoes. This assault on the aquifer starts in our homes and is carried by storm water down the streets and into lakes and streams. Many Leon County lakes have sinkholes directly depositing water in the aquifer; many of our streams flow south into the Woodville Karst Plain, where sinkholes abound.
So, top-down and then bottom-up.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of a world controlled by the emotions of fairies is probably more fun than our reality of poop, algae, and invasive hydrilla. Still, with his imagination, and his often wicked sense of humor, I can only imagine that he would craft something simultaneously tragic and comedic from what has happened in Wakulla Springs. In the play, the gentle sea cow, the manatee, comes in and saves the day by coming in and eating the hydrilla in the spring run. In reality, the power to fully save Wakulla Springs lies closer to the top of the Chain of Being, with the humans living in the Wakulla Springshed.
EcoShakespeare and the Wakulla Springshed
It just so happens that our three EcoShakespeare adventures move southward through the geological regions within the Wakulla Springshed, illustrating the different ways we interact with our aquifer depending on where we live.
EcoShakespeare 1: The Streams Region
In our first adventure, we visit the “Big Woods,” a private forest outside of Thomasville, Georgia containing a tract of old growth longleaf habitat. This is in the heart of the Red Hills region, in which a layer of dense red clay sits atop the aquifer, slowly filtering water. It’s referred to as the streams region of the Wakulla Springshsed because much of the rain that falls on it doesn’t actually recharge the aquifer, it just flows away on rivers like the Ochlockonee and Aucilla. According to the Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan (released by the Howard T. Odum Spring Institute), this region adds about one inch of water per year over 770 square miles to the Floridan aquifer.
EcoShakespeare 2: The Lakes Region
We follow Colbert Sturgeon down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia (sounds kind of like ammonia), foraging for natural edibles along the way. Lake Iamonia is one of four major sinkhole lakes in the Red Hills region. Here, we still have that thick red clay to filter our water, but we also have four direct inputs to the aquifer that bypass the clay. These lakes are Iamonia, Jackson, Lafayette, and Miccosukee. This region adds eight inches a year over 250 square miles.
Also known as the Cody Scarp, this is Florida’s ancient shoreline (and maybe, with sea level rise, its future shoreline). This is where the Red Hills end, and our aquifer sits nearer to the surface. This is an important dividing line when thinking about how water penetrates the limestone beneath us.
EcoShakespeare 3: The Woodville Karst Plain (WKP)
Even those of us living in the very south of the Red Hills see our water roll down the Cody Scarp and into the more porous WKP. Rain is more directly in contact with the limestone aquifer here, and so that limestone is more likely to collapse and form a sinkhole. There is little filtration here. In the Red Hills, many contaminants are removed in the ten years or so that it takes to flow through the clay; in the Woodville Karst Plain everything flows right in. This is the most vulnerable part of the Wakulla Springshed. This region recharges the aquifer at a rate of eighteen inches a year over 145 square miles.
Most of all, I would like to thank the Southern Shakespeare Festival. Projects with this kind of unique twist are always great to work on, and more so when you can collaborate with people like Lanny Thomas, Laura Johnson, Kevin Carr, and Stephen Hodges. Michele Belson designed the costumes worn by our uncredited performers, who braved some cold and windy weather to bring this project to life. The SSF performances of a Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place from April 17-19 in the very place that the video above begins, in Cascades Park. You can watch their groovy 60s take on my favorite Shakespeare play, and then gaze at the water flowing from beneath the stage and watch as nitrates feed algae (seriously, that’s what that waterway was meant to do. Please do not touch it!). It promises to be a doubly educational experience.
EcoShakespeare has been produced in association with WNET-TV's Shakespeare Uncovered. Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.