This year’s winter solstice started auspiciously, behind clouds. A few minutes before dawn, on December 21, a bank of gray on the southeastern horizon was dousing any hopes of my greeting the first rays of sun on its shortest flight of the year.
My custom here is to honor this day from its beginning, with undivided attention and gratitude. Just a simple pagan ritual of sun worship to celebrate this shortest of days as we turn the corner toward spring and summer. But it’s also a good time to pay respects in general to that big motherly star I too often taken for granted, without which we’d all still be cosmic dust.
This day as usual I’m alone for the rising, waiting like Linus for the Great Pumpkin. So to compensate I conjure a certain brotherhood with my more reverent neighbors around the world. From those blanket-clad Brits on the cold plains of Stonehenge, watching the sun rise between 25-ton pillars of stone erected by the ancients; to the Zuni people of New Mexico, against a backdrop of redrock mesas of New Mexico, dancing through the night in elaborate big-bird costumes. And any number of such like-minded celestial celebrations, from Scandinavia to China to Iran, drinking and feasting and dancing to the return of the sun and the promise of brighter, fatter days to come.
Alas, it’s not quite so festive in my sleepy little suburban cocoon of subtropical Florida. All quiet but for a river of crows streaming overhead, happily chatting their way towards breakfast somewhere.
Breakfast? The prospect of actually having to forage beyond the refrigerator or pantry gives me a measure of admiration for the crows. And that thought in turn raises the naval-gazing question of what my stone-age predecessor might have been contemplating as he stood on this spot a thousand years ago.
He would likely have been taller than I, with long dark hair, brown skin, and naked but for a loincloth of palm fiber. His body might have been painted, perhaps adorned with a necklace of pearl and shell. But for sure he would have held this day in far more reverence than I can ever begin to muster. He would have been tracking that sun as if his life depended on it. Because it did. For him the sun’s shallow arc would have signaled the changing of seasons, which in these parts comes with a drying of the landscape, a shift in the spawning and schooling of fish, to which he would either adapt and flourish or ignore and starve before another year’s solstice came around.
These thoughts bubbled up as I was standing just five miles from a tiny island that was once the capital of the Calusa kingdom, whose people had staked their claim on the southwest quarter of Florida for two thousand years. They lived along the coasts and estuaries and inland waterways of this steamy, swampy world, as fishers, hunters, and gatherers. They netted mullet and herring, plucked oysters and conch, probed for clams and snails.
The Calusa made a good living here, remarkably so without agriculture, even leaving time for crafts and contemplation. They had a religion headed by three gods, guilds of soldiers and artisans, and a commerce of trade with tribes from afar. The Calusa flourished as a highly sophisticated kingdom, numbering as many as twenty thousand, on what they could glean from the mudflats and mangroves.
They were astute landscape engineers. They dug shipping canals wide enough to float barges made of dugout canoes lashed together, and regularly traded with fellow tribesmen as far away as Lake Okeechobee. Most impressively, they engineered enormous holding pens made of mounded shell and mud, trapping huge schools of fish—enough to feed armies of laborers, who in turn built their king’s palace on a foundation of oyster shells rising thirty feet above the mangroves. There was space inside to hold two thousand people.
The mound on which that palace stood, still stands, on an island in the middle of Estero Bay. Mound Key is just a short kayak paddle and a world away from the tank-top and tourist kingdom of Fort Myers Beach. Mound Key stands as testament to the ingenuity and resilience of a people whose society might still have thrived there, if not for ours.
The Calusa were not what one might call friendly Indians—at least to strangers bearing bad intentions. (Their name itself means ‘the fierce ones.’) When the Spaniard Ponce de León, the first European credited with reaching Florida’s shores, arrived in 1513 with his regal flotilla of sailing ships, he was met on the water by an armada of eighty dugout canoes raining arrows from professional archers. He retreated, tried again eight years later, and was driven off for the final time, receiving a poison arrow in his hip that eventually killed him.
The Calusa gave no quarter to either the military might or the missionary zeal of the Conquistadors. They held steadfast to their homeland, their religion, their art, their sense of oneness with the watery water that had sustained them through the centuries. What ultimately doomed the Calusa was the enemy they never saw coming. It was the invasion of Old World diseases that decimated their people, weakened their defenses, and opened their once unbreachable kingdom to the ubiquitous floodgates of European subjugation and slavery. When the outside forces finally came to storm their bastion, the Calusa were already as good as gone. Heading south, they evaporated into history, leaving no descendants to be found.
That the Calusa lived large and long speaks well of their ecological savvy and reverence for the cycles of life. The failing environmental record of their successors suggests we could learn a lot from them.
As I write, the county has just issued another public warning for red tide, that toxic outbreak of algae that seems to crop up every year or two here on the Gulf Coast, turning the water rusty red and poisoning sea life by the ton. But we didn’t need a warning to figure that out. We had the dogs out for their weekly romp in the surf, and immediately upon hitting the beach we all started coughing like we’d inhaled a lungful of chili powder. That, and we had to tiptoe to keep from stepping on all the dead fish.
Déjà vu: Two years ago we witnessed a red tide bloom that lasted more than a year and killed nearly a thousand sea turtles, manatees, and bottlenose dolphins along our stretch of coast. It left 1,700 stinking tons of dead fish to be trucked off the beaches in Lee County alone, and cost the local resorts $8 million in cancelled reservations during one three-month stretch.
Bad Day at the Beach: Red tide on the Sanibel Causeway, August 4, 2018
Red tide blooms are somewhat mysterious as to their cause, but one of the leading suspects is of course us. Red tide algae feed on nitrogen and phosphorus, the stuff of fertilizer and sewage. To be fair, the Calusa occasionally saw red tide in their day, too. But in recent times the outbreaks have been coming with greater frequency and deadliness. And it’s getting harder to look past all that stuff we burgeoning multitudes of Floridians dump and drain from our ag fields and lawns and golf courses and leaky septic tanks.
Add that to a century of mindless development that has obliterated many of the dunes and maritime forests and mangroves that once glued this coastal ecosystem together—to the point they now have to pump in sand to keep the sunbathers’ beaches from washing out to sea—and you get the sense of the proverbial bull turned loose in the china shop.
For an economy that depends so heavily on beach life, our reckless trashing of it leaves a curious onlooker mystified. One can only imagine what a reincarnated Calusa fisherman would think to see what’s become of his once fertile kingdom.
I’d like to think there’s a deeper sensibility lying latent in us, a more graceful and gracious era in store for us. One that borrows and builds on the elegant craftsmanship of the Calusa. One that reminds us of where our livelihoods and happiness ultimately come from. To that end, I’d like to think that spending a few morning moments in conversation with the crows, giving thanks for another day blessed by the sun, is as good a start as any.