“Perhaps animals are smarter than men, he thought, taking only what they need to live today, leaving something for tomorrow.”
― Patrick D. Smith, A Land Remembered
I just finished listening to an audiobook that thoroughly captured my imagination, reminding me of the Eden-like paradise that Florida once was. Though you may be familiar with it, I wanted to share some of my thoughts from the book with you.
A Land Remembered was written by Patrick D. Smith in 1984. This work of historical fiction tells the story of the MacIvey family, who migrated to Florida from Georgia in the mid-19th century, while the Civil War was still underway. Many teachers, I hear, have used this over the years to help teach Florida history, though because it does contain some racial slurs used by some of the less educated characters, it may not be used as openly, at least in unabridged form, today as it might have been after it was first written.
But I digress.
The hardships faced by Tobias and Emma MacIvey, along with their son Zech, as they attempted to make a home in Florida were numerous. There were swarms of mosquitos carrying malaria, ground that wouldn’t produce the crops he had learned how to grow in Georgia, and, of course, snakes, alligators and panthers, as well as the occasional Confederate deserter hiding out in the swamp.
In the place they first settled near modern-day Gainesville, the family was eventually able to build what is fondly called a “cracker shack” for shelter, obtain an iron skillet to cook meals in, and build a small barn for their oxen. Tobias began rounding up wild cattle, first for food, and later for selling to men who would ship them on boats to Cuba.
The story is lengthy, encompassing three generations of MacIveys from the mid-1800s to the late 1960s, but I’ll tell you what I took from it, other than the excellent storytelling that kept my attention. Florida is an amazing land. In the 19th century, as the MacIveys described what they saw and felt, it seemed one part Eden, and one part land of horrors. There were dense swamps, of course, for the people to navigate as they drove cattle from one area to the next in search of good grazing for the herd. One small wild herd they assembled wandered off one night, as there were no fences, of course, and walked into quicksand in a swampy area, nothing visible the next morning but the tips of their horns. That’s the stuff of nightmares!
There were snakes who’d crawl into one’s tent on the cattle drives on a cold night, seeking warmth from the chill. There were hungry bears and panthers, always ready to take down a cow for a meal...or a person, if the opportunity presented itself. There were freezing winters that killed the orange groves they eventually tried planting, and there were hurricanes that toppled their homes and took the lives of family members.
But what the book reminds us is that Florida was worth the struggle. The MacIveys stayed, and though the third generation came to regret their eventual contribution to, for example, the vast custard-apple forests being clear-cut for track homes to be built, and the endless buildings dotting the Miami coastline where once there had been a clear view of the water, they still loved Florida. They never retreated back to Georgia, nor did the generations who followed.
They loved the sea turtles, the mullet, the birds and the sand. They admired the gorgeous sunsets, the scent of endless flowers, and the beautiful lakes they encountered on their months-long cattle drives. They loved the friends they made among the remnants of the Seminoles they encountered, and they were enthralled by the ancient cypress stands as much as the clean, open beaches.
What a life that must have been. Those who were in Florida during those years, long after the explorers had come and gone, but while Florida was still largely wilderness, were pioneers who were blessed to see its beauty if they could survive its difficulties.
One thing the book teaches is that, once land is clear cut, or swamps are drained, and the habitats of the different species who lived there are destroyed for whatever purpose, whether it be cattle ranching or the addition of more and more subdivisions or strip malls, there will be a price to pay. Animals will end up scavenging from our garbage cans or swooping up our small pets because we are taking away their natural ability to provide for themselves by hunting. Certain animals can, and have, become endangered or extinct, over time.
There will be detrimental effects to the water, too; not just the animals’ water, of course, but the water we drink, and the water we swim in, when forests and swamps are continually cut or drained. These are all things we must keep in mind as we move forward in Florida. While making money is the American way, we can learn from the example of those in this historical novel that sometimes, what seems like a great financial idea can end up killing off entire species of animals and harming humans, too.
I hope that as we progress, we keep in mind that the real treasure isn’t really what is in our bank accounts, it’s the beautiful land itself.
Now, as far as the food the MacIveys ate, I have to be honest; other than the fresh seafood and fruit, there wasn’t much to take forward to enjoy today. I’m honestly not planning to try out raccoon stew or roasted rattlesnake. But I would like to share with you a recent salad I made that could have come from the MacIveys’ garden, minus the dressing, and is a great accompaniment to whatever you have on the grill: chicken, fish, or…even squirrel, I suppose, if the need arose.
Corn-tomato salad with spicy Ranch dressing
12 ounce bag frozen white corn, thawed but still cold (even better: fresh corn cut off the cob during the season!)
16 ounces grape tomatoes, halved
1 small red onion, diced
1 small cucumber, diced (about a cup)
Red or orange bell pepper, diced (about a cup)
2 small or one large stalk celery, chopped (1/2 to 3/4 cup)
1 teaspoon dried basil or a small handful fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
3/4 cup light sour cream
3 tablespoons Duke's mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon Hidden Valley Dill-Ranch dressing powder
In a glass mixing bowl, combine all chopped and diced vegetables, basil and Parmesan.. Toss to combine.
In a separate bowl, combine the dressing ingredients, whisking to incorporate the Ranch mix into the dressing well.
Set aside for ten minutes for best flavor, then pour over the vegetables, and toss to coat.
Before serving, sprinkle with more grated Parmesan and a bit of dried basil for color, if desired.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and she’d love to hear about your own favorite books or recipes via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.