Observations from La Florida


By Byron Rempel 

The shih-tzu disappearances continue at a bad rate in the neighbourhood, and it can only be the alligators’ work. You can hear the screams and gnashing of teeth, gasps that last only seconds until they’re extinguished forever…or maybe it’s practice day at the drag strip of the DeSoto Super Speedway 3.3 miles down the road from my rented farm house in Florida.

It’s the kind of mix-up that happens here on the Gulf Coast, like when hordes of dwarf horses gallop by my writing room windows. Those bastard armadillos only make it worse when they sproing up into the air in fear. When they bounce off the tea cup hooves and roll away it’s easy to mistake the backyard for a re-enactment of a hobbit cavalry under heavy shell fire.

I’m in Florida for a self-imposed four-month writing retreat, but it’s not working. The writing doesn’t retreat at all. It comes faster and weirder than ever, and the only way to stop it is with heavy medication and pitchers of Ocean Breezes on the beach. Unfortunately the beach is only reached after a 20 minute drive through a ghastly six lane feeder embanked by strip malls and fast food factories. The only reason people don’t go mad from the sight of the same franchises on guard at each corner is that the buildings are interspersed with palm trees and those cedars and pines that drip with Spanish moss. Even so, it doesn’t work all the time. I got stuck in traffic because a gunman holed up in a pawnshop and demanded his alligator boots back. But that yellow police tape drapes nicely through the Spanish moss.

Florida is where the mundane and the outrageous, the ordered and the savage coexist, often without incident. Last week I turned down an invitation to Drag Queen Bingo because I played my first hockey game with the Ice Pirates.

That’s why anyone who spends time in the state can appreciate the literature that drains out of its swamps. They don’t understand the word “understatement” here for instance, whereas Canadian writing is unimaginable without it. Delicacy sounds ridiculous in the Sunshine State, as a Manitoban novel that stands and shouts its merits across the barrens rings untrue, if it’s ever heard over the howl of winter winds. They do know what irony is, but writers usually send it out accompanied by garish banners and a brass band.

The environment sprouts subtle writers like Carl Hiassen (murderous hitmen with Weedwhackers for prosthetics), the firmly grounded in reality Dave Barry, and now Karen Russell, author of the NY Times-celebrated first novel Swamplandia! I’ve only started to read her book (an HBO series is promised), so all I can say is that it’s about a family who runs an alligator theme park near the Everglades, who masquerade as Indians and who are either on the lookout for their dead mother or dating ghosts. Of course. I don’t know why the state isn’t more famous for artists than mundane sports, because it’s also a natural fit for movies and the visual arts (at least in nearby St. Petersburg there’s a museum dedicated to Dali).

Or maybe not. Maybe after a while the sun burns holes in the brain, like happened in the Keys to Saint Hemingway. Maybe there’s too much to be distracted by, and that’s why everyone wants to work as a commercial diver. Not only do you avoid the heat, but you also don’t have to look at strip malls and Long John Silver’s all day.

But apart from those silent depths, and the deep recesses of the Everglades, there is no wilderness in Florida, at least not like we know it in the True North. Instead the wilderness is everywhere, in the middle of the parking lots and in the backyards of trailer parks; pest control workers coax out gators who’ve crawled into open-doored houses, or purge six foot snakes from basements. A friend who plays golf knows the twelve-foot alligator at his local course by first name. Our stumble blind armadillo is a house pet next to them. And everywhere the fleshy nose of the turkey buzzard patiently loops the thermals and sniffs the air for the sweet gasses that result from union between man and nature on the multiple death lanes.

I don’t mean the DeSoto Super Speedway either, where racers push 4 Gs on nitromethane, a gas that sets you back 16 smacks a gallon. They also use it to dry clean, and dissolve superglue, and the stuff is ruthless as a pesticide…which is convenient, because right across the road lie the fruit and vegetable fields where the Latinos stoop all day under the sun and work for the pay rate of about two gallons of that nitro per day that would get the drag cars about three yards. Writers of course know all about life under the poverty line, but consider this: since 1997 the Feds in Florida have prosecuted seven cases where over 1,000 field workers were used in slavery operations.

The mundane country road through all that is really an outrageous six-lane highway. I learn where my turn off is thanks to a crispy fresh memorial beside the road, two crosses planted with helium heart balloons and scrawled messages—young innocents run down in unspeakable carnage, right under the sign for the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Camp (which aims to produce “strong, lawful, resilient and productive citizens”). Ambulances and cop cars buzz another grisly accident while a landed rescue chopper’s wings patiently loop the air, a mechanical buzzard for the New World. And what brings all that down from the heavens? A car spun out of control through three lanes, tires up in smoke and flattening everything in its path—except for the cause, a pair of four and a half foot high Sandhill Cranes who stilt-walk across the asphalt, worth a $100,000 fine if you take one down, and who now pick their way untouched through the sedge on the shoulder.

Sometimes I have to rush home from that savage asphalt and clamber up the stairs to my writing room where peace and normalcy exist, or at least put up a good fight. Got my girl down on the farm and her horse and our dog, and those alligators and pygmy rattlers stay for the most part in the reservoir next door. The water treatment plant lights glitter on the edge, the Sheriff’s pickups guard the entrance, and test sirens go off when you least expect it to make sure residents don’t panic when the county’s water supply is poisoned by Al Qaeda miscreants. Or maybe my standard poodle Biscuit sets them off as she digs up gopher turtles and nine-banded armadillos. Or maybe that’s the shi-tzu alarm. You never can tell in this swamp.

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Observations from New France

Byron Rempel

Byron Rempel lives outside of Montreal and writes and edits books for a living.