Father and Son Hiking and Camping at Torreya State Park

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 Villegas WFSU-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.

It’s important for both mommies, daddies and children to be out in nature, but for different reasons.  The mommy/ daddy reason is, often, that we need a break from the day-to-day of work to get out in nature and unwind.  But, when you bring a child, you have to balance that with your parenting duties.  What does that balance look like?  Let’s start with this verdant forest scene taken in Torreya State Park:

Those trees you glimpse behind Max’s bouncing head- that symbolizes the amount of time you spend enjoying nature on your own terms.  Max’s bouncing head- that represents the amount of time you spend parenting.  But that’s okay.  You can still have fun.  If you make it an awesome experience for them, you will enjoy it in ways that you might never have expected.  In the following account, you’ll see that while it’s a bit of work, a four-year-old can be a great adventure buddy.

A Beach Stop at Bald Point State Park

In my previous posts about taking kids into nature, my counsel has been to keep excursions simple.  I’m ignoring this today, as I also have a need for salt water and coastal breeze.  After a recent shoot there, I’ve decided to go to Bald Point.  This is a good, wild beach at the mouth of the Ochlockonee River.

My initial thought was to camp nearby at Ochlockonee River State Park, but my sudden inspiration to go camping plus a couple days of procrastination left me looking at a completely booked campground.  I next tried two other state parks where I could camp even closer to the beach- St. George Island and St. Joseph Peninsula- but I was out of luck there as well.  I had always wanted to camp at Torreya, even if was ninety miles from the coast.  Luckily I snagged the last available campsite.  Our local state parks are in demand.

After Max’s t-ball game and a picnic lunch with my wife and younger son, Xavi, we head out.  We pass through Panacea and its Blue Crab Festival traffic (another festival!).  By the time we get to the beach, it’s already 2:30.

The narrow sliver of high tide beach is crowded but quiet; many of the visitors are lined up fishing by submerged oyster reefs along the river mouth.  I had wanted to show Max the reefs, but I can see that he’s not concerned about exploring coastal ecosystems today.

Instead, he runs onto the sand and starts throwing it up in the air.  He’s loud.  He pours sand over his head.  Behind us, dunes are roped off to protect nesting plovers.  He knows not to run at birds on the beach, but I wonder if he’s agitating some of the little sandpipers by the water’s edge.  After a while he settles down, and I relax as well.  I’ve never been on a beach so full of people and yet so silent.  It makes me a little self conscious.  I have to remind myself why we call it an “outdoor voice.”  I remind myself that I’ve brought him outside to do something with all of his four-year-old energy.  He does, and we settle down to dig moats and inspect shells inhabited by hermit crabs- banded tulips, moon snails, murex, and crown conch.

Crown conch shell with hermit crab inside.

Crown conch shell with hermit crab inside.

We spend a couple of hours here.  He’s really having fun so I have to start preparing him for our departure about thirty minutes before I want to leave.  It takes about 10-15 minutes to get him on board with the idea of leaving.  It takes another 10-15 to get him out of the water (it took about 30 minutes to get him to go in the water).  We get out just after 4:30, which, after Google’s projected hour-and-a-half of driving, puts us in Torreya State Park well before sunset, when the gates close.  Max sleeps soundly the whole way there.

Watch Out for the Copperheads

Copperhead snake by the Alum Bluff sand bar, Apalachicola River.  Taken during RiverTrek 2012.

Copperhead snake by the Alum Bluff sand bar, Apalachicola River. Taken during RiverTrek 2012.

Pulling into the campsite at 6:15 pm, I see a sign that says to check in by 5:00.  The reservation I printed from Reserve America (all State Park camping is booked here) only says to arrive before gates close at sunset.  There is someone in the office, however, and he’s friendly despite my late arrival.

“You’ll want to keep an eye out for copperheads” he says, holding up a photo. “We had two bitings last week.  A man got bit in the yurt and spent the night in the hospital.  Then a dog was bitten and they had to spend $750 at the vet for it.” (A yurt is a kind of tent used by central Asian nomads, of which there is one on the campgrounds)

We get our parking pass and head back to set up our tent.  Max really wants to help, so we take it slow.  Having a four-year-old help usually means you’re just getting them involved, and you may have to work slowly and redo things more than you would normally.  But I need to build on his desire to help, so I gladly accept it.

P1080643-smallerDue to my strange ideas about scheduling, we’re here a little late but I know that the sun will set after 8:00.  We explore the trail that heads from the campgrounds.  I point out the blue trail blazes on the trees.  “That’s how we know we’re on the path.”  Looking at the map, I see that Torreya State Park has two loop trails marked in orange; we’re on one of the blue blazed trails that connect places in the park to these main trails.

Characteristically, Max first says that he’s scared of the trail; but by the time I’m ready to head back, he doesn’t want to leave.  He keeps meandering off of the trail and I keep reminding him about snakes.  I’m on a constant lookout.  To Max, now, the trail is a train track on the Island of Sodor, and we have to dodge Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends.  I look at my watch and decide that we need to get back to our campsite.  We don’t want to start dinner late.

A Text Message Sent to my Wife at 9:20 pm:

“A raccoon just stole our hot dog buns.”

I am not a woodsman.  I am not a master of fire.

There were some nice flames for a while there.  It took a little while to cook our hot dogs, maybe because I kept fiddling with the fire.  Anyhow, it got a little late.

Also, I can be something of a minimalist.  For those moments I had the fire kind of going, it was our light.  As it died down, I used my headlamp.  Max would loudly note how brightly lit out neighbor’s campsite was.  Next to their RV they had hung lanterns and had a nice table set up.  The husband had nicely given me the wood I was using (Torreya prohibits you from gathering wood; it is instead provided by the Friends of Torreya State Park).

Meanwhile, I’m hunched over the fire; our only light emanating from my forehead onto our hot dogs.

Then, I hear a rustling over in the darkness by the picnic table.  Whipping my head around, I see something furry run off with a bag.  The hot dog buns!  I chase after the creature, thinking that the pursuit of a large mammal will frighten it into dropping the buns.  I stop and look up, and instead of being angry, I wish I had a camera.  A raccoon is standing on its hind legs, holding up our hot dog buns.  It’s looking right at me.  I could chase it all night, but for what?  What would I do with a raccoon if I managed to get my hands on it?

When I get back, Max is distraught. “I don’t like hot dogs with no buns.”  Eventually he eats them.  “Eating hot dogs without buns is my favorite way to eat them.”  I love this kid.  I stick some marshmallows close into the red glowing spot where the logs meet.  I don’t have to worry about burning them.

I read bedtime stories by headlamp.  I sleep better than I usually do while camping, thanks to all the extra bedding I packed.  Two times I wake up, and I can hear that raccoon and his/ her buddies running around.  All the food is in here with us, you little monsters!

When I wake up for good, a little after 7 am, all I hear is birds.  A whole forest full of birds.  I must be awake before most of the other campers; I don’t hear a single person.

Yesterday was fun, but I had us rushing around.  By the time we actually got to just sit at our campsite, it had gotten late and I had to contend with our fire and ill-mannered wildlife.  Now begins the best part of the trip.


Breakfast is easy; Clif bars and oranges.  We move our chairs to the back of our campsite, which slopes for a couple dozen yards before a network of logs cuts you off from the steeper part of a ravine.  We eat.  Max scampers down and climbs up on the log behind our site.  He says he wants to climb down.  I can’t tell if he’s serious.

P1080691-smallerWhile I’m down here, I see a plastic bag behind one of our neighbor’s sites.  I go and get it.  I’m glad that I haven’t contributed to polluting this place, even indirectly via raccoon.

It’s tough to get Max to break camp.  He thinks we should stay a few days.

“Max,” I say, “Do you want to see the Apalachicola River?”

“Yes I do!”

“Then let’s go!”

It still takes a while, but we have a purpose, and that gets us moving.

A Trek to the Apalachicola River

In previous posts about my outdoor excursions with Max, his love of the Apalachicola has been prominent.  I’ve spent some time working on river and bay segments, and the photos and videos I’ve shown him have given him the idea that this is a place where adventure happens.  I’ve worked to nurture this feeling within him.  It has led to a love of kayaking and camping; and I want to fill these early years with positive outdoor experiences that stay with him.

After bushwhacking through the Aspalaga Unit of Torreya State Park, 2012's RiverTrekkers ate lunch on this sandbar (R) opposite the Gregory House (L).

After bushwhacking through the Aspalaga Unit of Torreya State Park, 2012’s RiverTrekkers ate lunch on this sandbar (R) opposite the Gregory House (L).

We start at the Gregory House.  Originally built in the 1840s, the Civilian Conservation Corps moved the house from across the river when the park was created in 1935.  I’ve only ever seen it from the river.  In fact, I remember having lunch on a sand bar across the river, looking up at the house on its perch high atop a bluff.  Looking down from that bluff now, I don’t see the sand bar.  There’s a reason the Apalachicola Blueway Paddling Guide doesn’t recommend camping on sandbars in the spring wet season; your tent would get awfully wet under all that water.

The view from the Gregory House, May 2015.

The view from the Gregory House, May 2015.

One of those blue blazed trails leaves from behind the Gregory House.  When we get to the main orange blazed trail, there is a sign pointing to the left that indicates the way to the Rock Bluff Primitive Camp sites.  What it doesn’t say is that to the right is the Apalachicola River.

Max is funny when it comes to walking and hiking.  I’ve often heard “I’m tired of walking.  Pick me up.”  I sometimes hear this after only a few steps.  For such an energetic kid, he can get “tired” after minimal exertion.  It’s heavily tied to his motivation and excitement level; in that way he is not unlike his father.  Luckily, he wants to see the river.

P1080703-smallAnd that’s good, because this is more challenging than any trail I’ve taken him on to date.  But he knows how to follow a trail now.  “The blue paint on the tree means we’re on the trail.”

I’m impressed.  “That’s good, son.  Now see how this tree has two blazes?  That means the trail turns.”  The trail zig-zags down the river bluff, often at tight turns.  Sometimes we walk into an apparent dead end, and I look back and see the double blaze.  We missed a turn.  But the trail is well marked, so we keep moving in the right direction.

We’re in a dense forest, and fallen trees cross the path at multiple points.  The Friends of Torreya State Park maintain the trail, and while the logs stay in place as nature intended, a section of each is chain-sawed out to keep the trail clear. As we get closer to the river, though, we get to some recently fallen trees that lie intact.  One has just the slightest nick from a chainsaw in it, a job to be finished another day by dedicated volunteers.  I’m glad that a couple of logs temporarily remain as impediments; Max happily climbs over them.  They add to the adventure.


At some point, a little bridge crosses over the smallest of streams.  He walks around the bridge to splash in the water.  That stream then runs alongside the trail, so that he walks in water as often as not.  Soon, the stream drains into a creek, and the creek into the river itself.

I try to get a photo of him by the river, but he won’t stay still.  And why should he?

"Max, can you stay still for a second while I get a picture?"

“Max, can you stay still for a second while I get a picture?”

Trees stick out of the water, and fish forage on the higher ground made available to them during the rainy season.  Water flows by on its way to tupelo swamps and oyster beds.  It’s an El Niño year, I’ve been told, and rain and high water have led to the cancelation of shoots I’ve scheduled on other rivers.  But having been on this river during a dry La Niña year, the driest on record, I’m happy to see high water.  The Apalachicola grew up with these cycles, but changing climate has made them more extreme, while upstream manipulation of flows further knocks the river off its ancient rhythms.  But that’s not what I think about when I’m here with Max.  I just want him to see it.  If he stops jumping around for a second he just might.

P1080702-smallWe make the trek back up, which going up hill should be more work.  But I’m never asked to pick him up.  We eat watermelon on the benches behind the Gregory House, and I’m grateful to have had both the close-up and and the high-up perspective of the Apalachicola River today.  After a quick stop at the park’s playground, we head home.

When we get there, Amy meets us in the driveway and quickly diverts us to the back yard.  Xavi is napping.  Max and I are put to work planting flowers in pots.  I take one out and start squeezing the root ball beneath it.

“I want to break up the root ball!” Max says.  I’m surprised that he knew to say this, and am pleased with how well he loosens all of the little strands of root.

Amy tells me that with us out of the house last night, Xavi slept through the night.  In fact, starting later in the week, he’ll soon start sleeping through almost nightly.  This makes me feel a little better about taking him camping.  Family trips are on the horizon.  I wonder if I’ll ever get the same one-on-one outdoor adventures with Xavi that I’ve had with Max.  It only seems fair.  But would Max ever let us go camping without him?  I have plenty of time to think about this.  For now, I’m just happy with how this last trip went.  We came back plenty dirty from out trip, and we’re getting dirtier still in the garden.  It has been a good weekend.

  • As always, remember to pack plenty of water and sunscreen.  It is tick season, so check for those and be thorough.  The map I picked up at the office implored us to “Leave only footprints and take only pictures.”  Familiarize yourself with the rules at any outdoor place you visit.  And, as always with children, be patient.  You want them to enjoy nature and want to return.



Growing Mushrooms and Cleaning the Forest at Lake Seminole

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 Villegas WFSU-TV
Lake Seminole Farm grows shiitake mushrooms (pictured in the banner image above) and pink oyster mushrooms.

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.

Rather than deforest the hillside sloping into the Flint River side of the lake, he and Lake Seminole Farm co-owner Breck Dalton remove hardwoods from where they are least welcome.  In a longleaf pine forest, hardwoods should burn down before growing to the size that David and Breck need.  Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox, who took us into the Big Woods for EcoShakespeare, showed us last summer what a longleaf forest looks like when burned at one, two, and three year intervals.  As he and fellow Tall Timbers biologist Kim Sash showed the WFSU/ Mag Lab SciGirls, too many years without burning can crowd the understory with hardwood trees.  There’s a point where the trees get too big to be burned down; David and Breck offer a service to their neighbors while benefitting their farm.  It’s an elegant solution.


Jonathan (L) fills holes with shiitake spawn sawdust while Breck preps another log for drilling. After the holes are filled, they are sealed with wax to keep the sawdust moist.

Once the logs are cut, they sit for thirty days while their immune systems die.  Then, they enter the work shed, where holes are drilled in them and filled with mushroom-spawn-innoculated sawdust.  To speed production, the logs are force flushed- dunked in ice water, essentially.  The emptied bags of ice are then filled with inoculated straw and seeded with oyster mushroom spawn.

I knew that when I decided to feature a mushroom farm, I would see a different type of agriculture.  I didn’t expect it to be such a lesson in the ways a forest creates space.  Mushrooms feed on and break down logs.  Fire clears out hardwoods (and when it doesn’t, someone might have a use for them somewhere else).  Animals graze on the understory.  Nature knows how to take care of itself, and humans figure out how to manipulate nature to maintain the land and grow our food.

Foraging for Mushrooms

Mushrooms come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.  Many are toxic.  Approach mushroom foraging with caution.

Mushrooms come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. Many are toxic. Approach mushroom foraging with caution.

David says that there are edible mushrooms growing naturally on the property, notably orange chanterelles (shiitakes and oyster mushrooms are not native fungi).  He enjoys foraging for mushrooms on he and his and neighbors’ properties.  Foraging for mushrooms is dangerous, however, if you don’t have the right knowledge.  He encourages people interested in foraging for mushrooms to find an experienced mentor or foraging club.

Trying a variety of Google searches, all I have found are that a lot of people are interested in finding a club locally, but with no luck (maybe I should go through all of those forums and find a way to connect all those people with each other).  There is an online community of sorts in the following of the Crawfordville based Florida Fungi Facebook page.  The page is maintained by Bill Petty, a UF IFAS certified master gardener and one-time president of the Sarracenia chapter (Wakulla County) of the Florida Native Plant Society.  People routinely post pictures of mushrooms they find for identification help.

Odds and Ends

  • David has Tennessee fainting goats eating the brush on his property.  If you can’t get enough fainting goat footage, check out our visit to Golden Acres Ranch last fall.
  • Lake Seminole is a reservoir lake created by the Jim Woodruff Dam at the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers.  From the dam flows the Apalachicola River.  The river and the amount of water flowing from that dam are frequent topics on this blog.
  • Wet conditions are favorable for mushroom spawning, but they won’t sprout until after it stops raining.  I’m starting to see quite a few in my yard from the relative break in rain we’ve had this week.
  • The hunt leases and timber plots where they gather logs have been certified USDA organic, and so are the mushrooms produced at the farm.
  • Tall Timbers Research Station’s fire ecologist, Dr. Kevin Robertson, makes a brief appearance in the video above to explain the importance of burning longleaf habitat and why hardwoods need to be burned out of it.  The shots I use to illustrate the biodiversity of which he speaks come from the aforementioned Big Woods.  The Big Woods is an old growth forest, of which only 8,000 acres remain from the historic 90,000,000 acre coastal plain forest (there are 3,000,000 acres of longleaf habitat left in the country, but most has been cut and replanted).  If you want to see what the habitat should look like, watch that EcoShakespeare segment.  I cannot overstate what a priveledge it was to get footage of those ancient woods.
Biodiversity in the understory of the Big Woods.

Biodiversity in the understory of the Big Woods.


Jim McClellan’s “Life Along the Apalachicola River”

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 Villegas WFSU-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?

This is how Jim McClellan grew up.  This is the kind of thing Jim writes about in his book, Life Along the Apalachicola River.  His family has lived in Calhoun county for seven generations; Jim himself is fifth generation.  Sitting here with his back to a tree in the forested flood plain of the Apalachicola River, he is continuing a familial relationship with this land and water that goes back over 150 years.  Within Jim’s own lifetime, however, he has seen Iamonia Lake change.

This row of willows took root in Iamonia Lake during a low water event.  Now firmly established in the channel, the trees are accumulating silt.  The Apalachicola River system relies upon its many sloughs and streams. During high water, the banks of these waterways provide important foraging grounds for the rivers fish.  Channels like this provide nutrients to the Apalachicola Bay estuary.  What happens when the channels become altered?

This row of willows took root in Iamonia Lake during a low water event. Now firmly established in the channel, the trees are accumulating silt. The Apalachicola River system relies upon its many sloughs and streams. The banks of these waterways provide important foraging grounds for the river’s fish. Channels like this provide nutrients to the Apalachicola Bay estuary. What happens when the channels are narrowed or become blocked?

“I’ve talked to people in their sixties, people in their seventies, people in their eighties,” Jim said as he guided us to the main river channel later in the morning.  “The periods of low water that we’re seeing now are things that those folks haven’t seen in their life.”

We slowed down now and then to squeeze between willow trees that took root in Iamonia Lake’s stream bed when water was low.  “In my lifetime, this has been an easily navigable waterway from where we are now all the way out to the river.”  In his lifetime, he has seen Iamonia Lake, an oxbow which had once been part of the main Apalachicola River channel, cut off from the river on both ends.  This was just a couple of years ago, he said; I imagine this was during the record low flows of 2012.  That year, fish didn’t bite and he couldn’t find frogs.

As we returned from the fogged out Apalachicola, he set bush hooks on low branches.  I’ve been seeing those since I started paddling out here in 2012.  These fishing hooks are baited and hung to be retrieved later in the day or early the next.  They are usually marked by bright tape- all except the one that caught my shirt on the last day of RiverTrek 2012.  On that trip, I saw plenty of the river, but only superficially experienced the river culture Jim writes about in his book.  I saw bush hooks.  On the Estiffanulga sand bar, I awoke to the sounds of barking dogs and boats departing the ramp across the river in the early morning.  I saw hunting dogs in a  floating kennel south of Wewahitchka.  Through Jim’s book, I get a better sense of that world.

  • Jim didn’t catch any turkeys that weekend.  We went out with him on a Friday; Turkey season started that Saturday.  He did hear some turkeys on Sunday, and caught “a boatload of fish.”
  • This is Jim’s first book, but he is a writer by trade.  He was a speechwriter for Governor Lawton Chiles, Press Secretary for Lt. Governor Buddy MacKay, and Communications Director for the Florida Department of Commerce.  He currently does marketing for an e-mail and web security firm in Pensacola.
  • Jim gave us more stories than we could fit into a single video.  You can watch those, which paraphrase stories in his book, here.
Jim calls a turkey.  As he explains in the video, turkey hunters go against nature by doing this.  Males are the ones that are hunted, but they are also the ones who call females to them.  Jim is imitating a female calling a male.

Jim calls a turkey. As he explains in the video, turkey hunters go against nature by doing this. Males are the ones that are hunted, but they are also the ones who call females to them. Jim is imitating a female calling a male.

Hunting Along the Apalachicola River

P1080444-smallJim and his family hunt on private land.  But, as we’ve covered in the past, there is plenty of public land along the Apalachicola River.  If you’re  interested in hunting along the river, check out the Apalachicola National Forest, Tate’s Hell State Forest, and The Apalachicola Wildlife and Environmental Area.  The Northwest Florida Water Management District manages two sites where you can hunt along the river: Florida River Island and Beaverdam.  The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a hunting page on their website that’s full of resources and information.

What will the Apalachicola River look like in seven generations?

I was sitting here, editing this video, when I heard Jim say that his family had been in Calhoun County for seven generations.  It reminded me of something in the EcoShakespeare show, which I had finished days earlier.  Towards the end of that program, Madeleine Carr says that, in caring for Wakulla Springs, we must think seven generations ahead.  She is invoking the Great Law of Peace, the constitution of the five nations of the Iroquois.  Of the leaders of the five nations, referred to as mentors, it says “The thickness of their skin shall be seven spans — which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism.”  As it is often interpreted, the Great Law is asking that we think beyond whatever conflicts and pettiness would distract us in the moment, to think of future generations.  You don’t have to squint too hard to see in it a message for the mentors of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.  To Madeleine, and many other environmentalists, it’s a message for all of us.

When we got to the Apalachicola River, it was covered in thick fog.  With so many forces tugging at it, the different interests and concerns vying for its water, and so many possible outcomes, the river's future resembles this image.

The Apalachicola River.

It’s interesting to think of seven generations of environmental stewardship when, for so many Floridians, our families have only been in the state for one or two “spans”.  Our last EcoAdventure subject, Susan Cerulean (born in New Jersey), wrote about this in her 2005 book, Tracking Desire.  In the chapter called Restorying, she laments not only our population’s lack of roots in our natural landscape, but the lack of old stories to connect us to the land.  She had been looking for stories of swallow-tailed kites from Florida’s original inhabitants, but realized that any that might have existed were likely lost when the state’s native peoples were driven out or killed by Europeans.  “With the genocide of the original peoples, we lost a profound opportunity to understand the landscape.”

Jim McCellan wrote his book in part to preserve a culture nourished by the Apalachicola River.  It may not represent thousands of years of native wisdom, but it’s as deep as Florida roots go.  Susan’s stories, on the other hand, combine research and personal stories.  Research and experience; people differ on which carries more weight.  Research can teach us quite a lot about the natural world; it’s what this blog was originally founded on.  But there’s something to be said about the experience of Jim and his family, who can look back at this land for as many generations as the Great Law requires we look forward.


Seasons Out of Order | EcoShakespeare

Watch EcoShakespeare – the Complete Adventure NOW!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

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…”

titania-headHere, 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…

EcoShakespeare is one of the oddest programs I’ve ever worked on.  In some regards I upped the oddness for the final, thirty minute program.  If you’ve been following the blog at all this year, you’ve seen segments covering each of our three adventures.  In the longer format, we can expand on some ideas, give Colbert Sturgeon a chance to get a couple more nature musings in.   And we had some more fun with the quirkiness of the premise.  And now that it’s all over, EcoShakespeare can say adieu.  It’s been fun.

As we wrap it up, I thought I’d share some of my favorite tidbits that didn’t make it into the show.  There are so many great facts and stories on these shoots that just don’t make it in when the story is finding its path.


Adventure 1: A Quarrel in the Big Woods of Thomasville

We visit the Big Woods, an old growth longleaf forest.  This tract is part of an 8,000 acre remnant of the original 90,000,000 acre coastal plain forest that stretched from South Carolina to Texas.  Many of the trees here are hundreds of years old in a habitat where mature trees benefit many endangered and threatened species.  Jim Cox, with Tall Timbers Research Station, bands a rare Henslow's sparrow.
  • A little bit about bird banding.  Jim Cox affixes a band to a Henslow’s sparrow’s leg. The band was numbered.  In the video, he references that he has to register the information he gathers about the bird (time caught, weight, wingspan, etc.).  The Bird Banding Program is overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service; Jim has to get federal authorization both to band birds and to use a mist net.  The information he registered is made available to other researchers.  If the bird is recaptured, they will see that, indeed, it had a role in a Shakespearean production.
  • The bird’s wing length helps Jim locate its point of origin.  Henslow’s from out west tend to have longer wings than their eastern counterparts.


    Toothache grass.

  • The bird usually forages for grass seeds on the forest floor.  One type of grass we saw in the Big Woods is “toothache grass.”  The roots of the plant are known to have an anesthetic property.  I couldn’t get it to numb my gums.  Maybe I had to chew on it some more.
  • Henslow’s sparrows keep their weight down before migration.  This keeps them from using too much energy during long flights.  When they first arrive at their destination, Jim says, they are emaciated.  The one in the video had been in the Big Woods for a little while, though.
  • In our original segment we didn’t mention red cockaded woodpeckers; in the full program we have Jim talk about their relationship to old growth longleaf pine trees.


Adventure 2: Puck’s Mission on Lake Iamonia

Colbert Sturgeon leads us on a mission to forage ingredients for a medicinal tea on the shores of Lake Iamonia, on the Tall Timbers Research Station & Land Conservancy campus.
  • P1070759-smallWe shot the only purple flower growing on Tall Timbers in November and had it pose as love in idleness.  Love in idleness is in fact a type of pansy which grows both white and purple.  Shakespeare’s reference to Cupid’s arrow changing the color of the flower is drawn from Roman mythology.  I’m not sure what the flower we shot is called.
  • Someone asked Colbert what his favorite type of natural space is.  He said “In between.”  The fringes between ecosystems are known as ecotones.  The example I keep using for this is the bogs where carnivorous plants grow.  They grow between pine flat woods and forested wetland areas.  Many kinds of interesting things grow “in between.”


Adventure 3: A Fairy Song of Protection for Wakulla Springs

We follow the path of water from Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs, getting a full sense of how pollution contaminates groundwater and of the sensitivity of the aquifer in Wakulla County.
  • As Jim Stevenson talked to us at Lake Munson, a boat backed into the lake.  Perhaps some people were going out on the lake to catch fish.  Jim pointed out that there were no signs warning that the lake contained PCB- Polychlorinated biphenyl.  This chemical compound is associated with endocrine disruption and nuerotoxicity.  Leon County does regularly check the overall health of its lakes and streams, and publishes their findings.  But there no signs are placed by lakes with Toxic Algae blooms or PCB.

    Lake Munson, Tallahassee's most polluted lake.

    Lake Munson, Tallahassee’s most polluted lake.

  • Where did the PCB come from?  The old electrical building at Cascades Park (soon to be the Edison).  When electrical transformers would stop working, they’d dump them in the lake.
  • We interviewed Madeleine Carr, President of the Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park, at Cherokee Sink.  Cherokee Sink used to be quite the party spot, and in the course of that partying, quite a lot of trash ended up in it.  The Friends of Wakulla Springs raised money to purchase it for the state park; it’s across the street from the old entrance.  Once in possession of that land, they hired a crane to pull garbage out.  According to Madeleine, they removed 70,000 tons of trash, including a car.
  • We shot her interview on Halloween.  That day, the mile-plus hike to the spring was littered with crabapples.  If you’re visiting in the fall, bring a basket and have a picnic on the scenic overlook.
  • Madeleine’s interview was shot on October 31, our trip with Jim was on November 1.  On November 4, Wakulla voters rejected an ordinance intended to protect the county’s wetlands, an amendment that both ardently supported.  Madeleine and Jim talked off camera about being called marsh marxists.  A week earlier, Jack Rudloe brought the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab’s Seamobile to a screening of our Oyster Doctors film at Tall Timbers.  He had just replaced its tires after they were slashed.  He suspected this was a result of his own outspoken support of Amendment A (and some problems with “No on A” proponents a couple of days earlier at the St. Marks Stone Crab Festival).  Wakulla County is an ecologically sensitive place.  Water passes freely into the limestone aquifer; it lacks the red clay protection of the area to its north.  It has miles and miles of undeveloped coast, a lot of it on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  It seems like a difficult place to live without making an ecological impact.  It makes for an interesting case study on how we live with nature.  We always feature passionate advocates for the environment.  But what price is the average citizen willing to pay for pristine ecosystems?  What level of impact are most people comfortable with?
  • The fairy song in this video was arranged by Southern Shakespeare Festival Music Director Stephen Hodges.  Years ago, before I called them EcoAdventures, we interviewed Stephen on Leon County’s greenway system.  At the time, I had no idea he was such an accomplished musician.  That piece also featured some great local music.  Our latest EcoAdventure, with Susan Cerulean, also benefitted greatly from the inclusion of local music.  I have to say it adds quite a lot to the feel of these videos to have that kind of a score. Any musicians out there want to have their music set to nature? Contact me!
  • Stephen joined SSF’s Artistic Director, Lanny Thomas, on WFSQ-FM for the radio part of our collaboration.  Dan MacDonald explored the musical history of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the accompaniment used during Shakespeare’s day, to the compositions created by Felix Mendelssohn starting when he was 17 (in the early 1800s), to the 1960s music that will accompany next week’s performances in Cascades Park, which Stephen selected.

We get back to conventional EcoAdventures next week.  Tune in to Dimensions on Wednesday, April 15 at 7:30 pm ET, as we head back to the Apalachicola River with Jim McClellan, author of Life Along the Apalachicola River.  We go looking for turkeys, hang a few bush hooks, and hear some tales about life in Calhoun County.


Special thanks to WFSU’s partners on EcoShakespeare, The Southern Shakespeare Festival, Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Palmetto Expeditions, and the Friends of Wakulla Springs State Park. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
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.

Bird Watching & Nature Writing: Susan Cerulean at Bald Point

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 Villegas WFSU-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.

We’re here to see as many shorebirds as possible, so we arrive at low tide.  Today, that happens to coincide with sunrise.  Lunar and solar cycles.  In fact, the full moon has exposed quite the sand flat, an epic low tide that we enjoy throughout the morning, as do foraging dunlin and ruddy turnstones.  Further off, pelicans and least terns sit at the water’s edge.  Through the simple act of scheduling our shoot when we did, I’ve already gotten quite a lesson in the cycles of the natural world.

sunriseBald Point provides a sunrise vista that’s uncommon on our Forgotten Coast.  Here, the coast faces straight east into Apalachee Bay, meaning you get to see the sun rise out of the water.  While the park doesn’t open until 8 am, there is sunrise beach access along Bald Point Road (Consult this brochure for a map).  It’s an hour away from Tallahassee, but I need to come out and start my day here more often.

Once you do get past that gate, you can walk on the beach or up onto observation platforms at the mouth of the Ochlockonee River.  Today, the extra-low tide exposes something of an oyster reef maze.  I should have guessed from where I was going that there would be reefs; instead I’m kicking myself for not bringing my “oyster shoes.”  That’s my nickname for the old shoes I would save from the trash for my shoots with David Kimbro and Randall Hughes.  Many of those took place on the other side of this park in the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor, where I started following their research for the In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Oysters are sharp and are unkind to feet and footwear; it’s best not to bring your favorite pair of shoes.  Oyster reefs are a great place to see birds, as they shelter so many invertebrates.  Walking on a reef, if you really look, you’ll see stone crabs, mud crabs, and various predatory snails.  Birds love to eat these and the many small fish and shrimp that hide in the crags of submerged oyster clumps.  It was no surprise to see, as you may have noted in the video above, fishermen and shrimp boats reaping the bounty of the estuary systems at the mouth of the river.

Oyster reefs also line the edges of Chaires Creek, a couple of miles of winding marshy stream leading to Lake Tucker.  I’ve not paddled it, but I have accompanied fishermen retrieving traps full of blue crabs here.  There is a boat launch at Lake Tucker, so you can put in kayaks or a boat and maybe go after some of the big fish that forage in intertidal systems.


Oyster reefs will cut up your shoes. They can have a strong smell. And the mud around them can be treacherous. I will always love walking on and around them.

Coming To Pass

Susan Cerulean's newest book, Coming to Pass.  Cover art by David Moynahan.

Susan Cerulean’s newest book, Coming to Pass. Cover art by David Moynahan.

Bald Point nicely encapsulates much of what we love about the Forgotten Coast.  Susan has spent the last eight years writing a book that captures the very heart of this region; appreciating what we have while we still have it.  “Like those buffleheads- you can’t know when the last one’s left,” She says.  “And that’s sort of how I feel about our coast.”

Specifically, she’s writing about the barrier islands of the Forgotten Coast: Dog Island, St. George Island, and St. Vincent Island.  These islands were created by sediments carried from the Appalachian Mountains via the Apalachicola River.  They physically contain the river’s fresh water, creating what had been, until a couple of years ago, one of the nation’s most productive estuaries.  We often think of the peril faced by that estuary as it struggles to receive freshwater in the quantity and with the consistency that it needs.  However, the islands themselves are in trouble, being slowly swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico.

Coming to Pass is the result of a journey that started with Susan interviewing her husband, FSU oceanographer Dr. Jeff Chanton.  Over eight years, she researched, she visited the people who live and make their living from the coast, she walked from one end of St. Vincent Island to the other.  The book is about more than sea level rise.  But that is the focus.

In the linked pdf produced by Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training, you can see that it projects to be a slow process.  In the 2100 map, St. George looks to lose a little bit of coastline but St. Vincent looks like it’s falling apart.  Aside from helping to create the estuary, the islands are a key stop for already diminishing flocks of migratory birds.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Over decades of shorebird counts, Susan has seen big declines in the abundances of each species.  “We’re not really set up to see these changes with eyes and senses so much.”  She still sees all of the types of birds, but the quantities of each have been shrinking.  During those decades, more and more coastline has been developed and habitat lost.  Sea level rise threatens to claim more of that habitat.

Luckily, that process is slow.  For Susan, it means that we can still do something about it.  “I’m grounded in knowing what’s at stake and what’s been lost” Susan says. “But I feel if you only go that far, it’s a dead end.  ‘Well, okay then, let’s just have a party.’  But where does that leave the children?”  Judging by the passages she read in the video (and the one we didn’t use), this is not a depressing book about our destruction of the planet.  It’s as much about the islands themselves, and the bay, and all those things we love.  In a way, it feels like a wake up call.  Here’s the thing we love; now please don’t let it go away.

Word of South

Susan’s friend, Velma Frye, provided us with two tracks to use in the video.  The two of them will be collaborating for a performance piece in the upcoming Word of South Festival that’s hitting Tallahassee’s Cascades Park on April 11 and 12 (it says rain or shine, which is brave for a location that’s designed to flood).  They’re still working on the specifics of combining Susan’s words with Velma’s music, but Velma described it to me like this: “I’ll begin an instrumental introduction to deepen the response as Sue is still reading and later she will resume reading after I have finished singing the song and am playing a long coda, like wind and water interacting.”

Two of Word of South’s organizers, Mark Mustian and Mandy Stringer, joined Julz Graham on Dimensions this week.  Watch the interview to learn more about the festival.

There are Other Nature Blogs on the Internet

Yes, it’s true, this isn’t the only one.  I normally try to shelter readers from this fact, but I would like to mention that Susan Cerulean has a blog that she started after completing Coming to Pass.  I had been reading it, and throughly enjoying it, when one day I thought to myself “I bet a day with Susan on the coast would make a good video.” I’ll leave that for you to decide; regardless, I enjoyed the process.