Keeping the Country

In southwest Florida, nothing seemed as central to the Myakka River Valley as mystery and myth. Over the course of centuries, the region has remained largely untouched. But in the past few decades, increased development and population growth threatened to pave over this little-known wilderness. But some folks want to keep the country, well, country.

By Michael Adno for The Bitter Southerner(Available online here)

“One is now inside the grove, out of one world and in the mysterious heart of another. Enchantment lies in different things for each of us. For me, it is in this: to step out of the bright sunlight into the shade of orange trees; to walk under the arched canopy of their jadelike leaves; to see the long aisles of lichened trunks stretch ahead in a geometric rhythm; to feel the mystery of a seclusion that yet has shafts of light striking through it. This is the essence of an ancient and secret magic … and after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home. An old thread, long tangled, comes straight again.”

— Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, “Cross Creek,” 1942

Lightning only galvanized the bond. When the rains came, a crew of cowboys traced the edge of the river as dark gray clouds marched west across southern Florida. In no time, the river spilled into the pasture, and as the seams came apart, purple rivulets cut across the sky. All the men in the cow crew threw on their jackets, tipped the brims of their hats down, and let the rain beat them as they drew a line toward home. Then came the blast.

“I was the first one who woke up,” Jim Strickland says.

With a purple glow hanging over the prairie, Strickland saw a string of horses with men pinned under them, dogs howling, some lifeless. And before he could place where he was, thunder blanketed the valley.

“Everybody was laid out,” he remembers. “We’d been struck.”

On hand and knee, Strickland crawled past dead mares, hounds, and the ranch’s foreman to reach his father, who groaned under the weight of his own horse. At only 13, Strickland seemed bound to this place, and 50 years later, as he told me the story not far from that very place in southwest Florida, it seemed evident: The Myakka River Valley was as much a part of him as he was of it.

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Photograph by Cavin Brothers