Fragmentation: An Attitude or a Choice?
by Henry Carrigan
August 13, 2006
Back in the late 1960s, the juggernaut of commercial development—which cannot let any sleeping land lie—threatened to destroy some of Florida’s most pristine natural areas. The lazy St. Mary’s River, the tranquil St. John’s River—flowing from Jacksonville into the Gulf of Mexico—and the towering pin oaks and squat scrub pines and cabbage palms of the Osceola and Ocala National Forests lay smack dab in the center of the sights of bulldozers from the Walt Disney Company. In a first step to expand its empire of theme parks and feel-good family attractions, Disney altered the flow of the St. John’s and destroyed acre after acre of forest and river lands to build Walt Disney World. Despite the protests of several of us environmental activists, the land of the Mouse opened in 1972. I vowed then never to darken the gates of Disney World or its relatives, and I’m proud to say that neither my family nor I have ever visited the park nor have any desire to do so.
Disney’s incursion into and destruction of the delicate web of life in north Florida is simply one of the most recent examples of the assault on Florida’s beleaguered beaches, swamps, rivers, and estuaries. When the great hurricane of 1928 turned Lake Okeechobee into an angry, roiling ocean and killed 2,000 people (an event Zora Neale Hurston dramatically captures in Their Eyes Were Watching God), the Army Corps of Engineers built a dike around the lake and a system of canals that diverted water from the Everglades. Twenty years later, the fragile Everglades ecosystem had suffered irreparable damage that was exacerbated by the failed attempt to build a jetport at the northern edge of the ‘Glades in the late 60s. Dredge and fill operations in the 70s destroyed the intercoastal waterway from the Palm Beaches to Miami, and one glance at any of Carl Hiassen’s hilarious mystery novels reveals the extent to which Biscayne Bay in Miami is now little more than a stinking sewage pond.
Fortunately for us, a handful of passionate activists have been writing and fighting for Florida since the nineteenth century. At the turn of the century, Guy Bradley, one of Florida’s first environmentalists, fought poachers from Fort Myers to Palm Beach in an effort to save Florida’s snowy egret population. After three valiant years of enforcing unpopular laws on the Florida frontier, Bradley found himself on the wrong end of a gun. Stuart B. McIver narrates Bradley’s poignant tale in a fascinating biography, Death in the Everglades: The Murder of guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism. In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas published her lyrical tribute to her beloved great swamp in The Everglades: River of Grass. The Thoreau of the Everglades, Douglas lyrically captured the lasting beauty of the swamp as she lived on its edge among the alligators and skunk cabbage.
And now Janisse Ray joins this exalted rank of naturalists and environmentalists in a marvelous paean to the swampy parcel of land that bridges the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia to the Osceola National Forest in north Florida. In Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land (Chelsea Green; $12), Ray introduces us to the people involved in saving Pinhook as well as to the numerous creatures who call it home. Along the way, she uses Pinhook as a symbol of our separation from nature and our willingness to destroy the natural world in order to protect ourselves from the terrors of the wild that we cannot control. Like Thoreau at Walden, Muir at Yosemite and Douglas at the Everglades, Ray conducts us into the beauty and solitude of Pinhook and the varied lives of its denizens, from black bears and red wolves to the fetterbush and gallberry plants. Ray’s lively tale pulls us into the sadness of the swamp’s destruction by loggers in the twentieth century and the elation at the swamp’s restoration to wholeness in the reforestation of acres of logged land.
Pinhook is a pocosin, “a tract of low swamp, usually wooded, a shrubby bog or a swamp on a hill” that is “170,000 acres of dreary dismal. It is a giant piece of ground too deep for a human to wade in, too shallow for a boat to draw.” As Ray points out, most people would take a few steps into Pinhook, sink down into the boggy peat, and beat a hasty retreat. To those who would run from the pocosin, Pinhook seems little more than a place to be forgotten and covered over. Yet, as Ray reminds us, Pinhook is home to river otters, bobcats, minks, weasels, gray foxes, sandhill cranes, and swallow-tailed kites. The rich diversity of Pinhook cries out for preservation.
Until the 1990s various special interest groups had so divided Pinhook that species that required large tracts of land began to dwindle. The fragmentation of Pinhook into discrete parcels created “edge” populations of plants and animals that were even more threatened by factors such as predation, parasitism and death by poachers and glory-shooters. In addition, “populations of species tolerant of edges and of habitat disturbance displace less common, less tolerant species.” Thus, red-bellied woodpeckers have colonized the territory that the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker might once have populated.
Ray reverently marvels at Pinhook’s inscrutable silence. The pocosin recalls, she observes, “the time before silence, before roads, before the modern age. It remembers what fires left behind, what storms left behind, what loggers left behind. It remembers the tambourines of leaves.”
Our own separation from nature makes it difficult to integrate the natural world in our daily experience. Can we imagine what life would be like without Pinhook? Would we be poorer if Pinhook and all its rich ecological diversity ceased to exist? What difference does it make to us that the last red wolf was heard near Pinhook Swamp around 1915? Ray urges us to recognize how impoverished we become when places like Pinhook cease to exist. “So many of us are estranged from the land. We find its processes strange. We are afraid that nature equals death, and it does, but the other, more necessary truth is that nature means life. For you, my beloved human, what does it mean to your life that the Pinhook has been saved, and that now we have preserved a state of wildness more than 750,000 acres in size, straddling two states? Could it mean that your life is enhanced? As are your children’s? Could it mean your great-grandchildren may hear a red wolf calling or a panther cry?”
Although much of the fragmentation of Pinhook has been reversed through the efforts of environmentalists like Ray and others, there is more to be done. Ray’s vision is to purchase what’s left of Pinhook Swamp—“so far 120,000 acres of 170,600 acres have been purchased in Pinhook Corridor”—and “fill it as Noah filled the Ark, with creatures of the southeastern coastal plains, limpkins and bald eagles and Florida panthers and southeastern shrews and pinewoods tree frogs and big brown bats.”
Ambitious and unwavering, Ray is a visionary who embraces our true nature as part of the sometimes savage, sometimes life-giving natural world. Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land takes us into a world at once wondrous and strange and calls for us to once again relish that world’s silence and its rich diversity. More than anything, Pinhook calls out to us to be part of that world and to resist the fragmentation that is so often our response to nature.
The author of the American Book Award–winning Ecology of a Cracker Childhood celebrates South Georgia's humble Pinhook Swamp in an impassioned and poetic account of the area's environmental fragmentation and its subsequent restoration. The swamp, "170,000 acres of dreary dismal... too deep for a human to wade in, too shallow for a boat to draw," and populated by flies and mosquitoes, is the corridor connecting the Okefenokee Swamp with Osceola National Park. Most of its acres have now been purchased and protected, but environmentalists' work, Ray warns, is not finished yet. In impressionistic, lyrical chapters, Ray meditates on the meaning of silence ("Silence is the ghost of the panther" that used to populate Pinhook), the animals of the area (black bears, bees, frogs) and the people dedicated to saving it. She also includes poems, a Native American blessing and italicized reflections on the land's fragmentation ("the separation of habitat in a landscape... chopping a wild place into pieces") by roads, logging, mining and developments. Her moving book is a tribute to a small but crucial wild place and a call for readers to help preserve it and others like it.
by Susan Krawitz
The Pinhook is a piece of the world we have not stepped too hard on," says author Janisse Ray. In geologic terms, Pinhook is a "pocosin"; an enormous wetland reaching from Northern Florida to Pogo's famed Okefenokee. But this waterlogged tract isn't merely a "dreary dismal...too deep for a human to wade in, too shallow for a boat to draw." It's a vibrant place of wildness Ray's come to know with intimacy, respect, and grace.
Ray is an environmental activist as well as an award-winning author. (Her Ecology of a Cracker Childhood won the American Book Award.) Her connection to land is passionate, but in this age of drill-for-oil-on-the-wildlife preserve, it's conjoined with a keen awareness of the worldly issues that work against it. The theme of wholeness versus fragmentation threads through the book the way catnettle vine weaves through palmetto scrub. Information mixes liberally with awe; the book is by turns soberly informative and fiercely elegiac. Ray's prose is fresh and many chapters present a duet of voices that read like the contradictory urgings of love and reason: "How can I hate roads? They are the way we pass through this world, the way we visit each other, the way we connect places. They are the formula by which my beloved comes home to me."
"In 1979, C.R. Ferris determined that in Maine, each kilometer of I-95 displaced 130 pairs of breeding birds, which translated into 62,400 pairs of breeding birds along the 480 kilometers of 1-95 in the state."
Ray celebrates wildness in details small and large. We learn of the "wonking" baby alligators and the clinking song of the cricket frog, the fruit-bearing gallberry bush and the jessamine vine that flowers yellow at the slightest hint of spring. There are people here too: the preservationists who helped save the swampscape, locals, farmers, and moonshiners.
"The world," Ray says, "is a globe of leaf green continents amid five blue green oceans, land we knife into smaller and smaller scraps." At 120,000 saved acres, Pinhook is a rare scrap made larger; it's part of the largest area of protected space east of the Mississippi.
One could argue that saving this kind of land must have been easy. It's swamp--who'd want it anyway? Swamps can be drained, and the timber companies, building contractors, and chemical companies wanted it. But because of the efforts of Ray and her fellow conservationists, they won't have Pinhook—instead, the titi bushes will have it, and the slash pines, and Suwanee cooters.
And so will the people. It's a lesson in the value of pulling back versus pushing forward, of slowing down instead of moving faster, and of prioritizing wholeness in our world—and subsequently, in ourselves. These are concepts some upstate New Yorkers, like the principals of the Belleayre Resort and Awosting Reserve, would do well to note.
Wild Mountain Times
"Fragmentation is what happens when a glass platter falls. Except that landscape fragmentation happens slowly, incrementally. In the moment the first tree fell did the plate begin to slip? At what point did it lay broken at our feet?"
In Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land (Chelsea Green, $12.00), Janisse Ray details one of the major, and relatively unsung, environmental triumphs of the 1990's: the protection and beginning restoration of Pinhook Swamp, which straddles the Florida/Georgia state line. Pinhook is important because it connects the Okefenokee Swamp with the Osceola National Forest, forming the largest tract of protected wild land in the eastern US, providing vital ranging habitat for native species and supplying millions of Floridians with fresh water. Pinhook's anonminity is because as a pocosin, a boggy area of low-lying swamp inhospitable to all except black bears, bobcats, alligators and other native species, it is a difficult location for the both the tourism industry and developers to exploit. Since being logged early last century, Pinhook's terrain has defeated attempts to drain, farm and mine its resources, and today it's probably one of the least explored areas of the continental U.S.
Using a mixture of history, personal anecdotes and interviews, Ray details the challenges of protecting and restoring large swathes of wilderness and illustrates the importance of intact areas of wild land by detailing the complex web of life across the Southeastern US that Pinhook supports. She also uses Pinhook as an analogy for our society's general estrangement from the natural world, and this is where her book transforms from a well-written factual account into a powerful, lyrical celebration of wildness, both in fact and spirit. Ray sees Pinhook's harshness and inhospitability as being at odds with our modern definition of utility. The unquestioned assumption that land not being used by humans has no use lies at the heart of our society's estrangement from the natural world, and it is a perception that is perpetuated through ignorance. Ray knows that this sense of alienation from nature must be cured if environmentalists hope to reverse the environment's downward spiral: "So many of us are estranged from the land. We find its processes strange. We are afraid that nature equals death, and it does, but the other, more necessary truth is that nature equals life." Books like Pinhook, and her earlier, award-winning, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood -- which are very accessible to the non-specialist (such as this reader) -- are Ray's attempt to educate the general pubic about the land they inhabit.
In Pinhook, Ray's great foe is fragmentation: the fragmentation of the greater ecosystem of the Southeast, the fragmentation of our approach to fixing environmental problems and the fragmentation of our modern relationship to the world where we no longer think holistically. Pinhook Swamp is important because it hasn't been broken up for subdivisions and super Wal-Marts, divided by four lane highways or paved to provide easy parking. Large animals like bears (and perhaps eventually reintroduced panthers and red wolves) have the space necessary to establish ranges and successfully breed and recover their numbers because "a species ability to move in large degree determines the fitness of that species to survive… Fragmentation represses movement. In [a fragmented habitat] movement may mean death."
And don't get Ray started on roads, roads are a particularly insidious agent of fragmentation in her view; noting with sadness the root of the verb road once meant "to join," and has now come to connote division: "roads may bisect home ranges established by wide-ranging mammals or birds, territories that we cannot see with our eyes the way we can see picket fences and No Trespassing signs, and sometimes roads divide migration routes." She acknowledges the benefits of roads, but calls government and the road building industry to task for the unnecessary impact and destructiveness of most road building projects: the general lack of ecopassages, the resulting fragmentation of the land, pollution from the long-term aggressive use of chemical herbicides, contamination from automobile exhausts, the often deadly changes in habit roads cause animals to make, and the blinkered assumption that diverting traffic away from rural towns somehow equates to economic growth. Anyone gearing up for the fight against the North Shore Road project at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park should read Pinhook just to renew their sense of righteous indignation. If no such renewal is needed, read the book anyway and pass it along to someone who doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.
The strength of Ray's book lies in its synthesis of many issues into a direct, accessible account of the benefits of saving and restoring wild land for all. Pinhook is a powerful plea for a greater individual awareness of the natural world and an uplifting celebration of an environmental success story. Without preaching or drowning us in dry statistics, Ray takes us into the heart of Pinhook swamp, sharing her travels there and also into the heart of some unique people who, like Ray herself, have found ways to incorporate their own wildness of spirit in their daily lives. The Pinhook swamp may not be in our backyard, but the issues at play are just as important in the Appalachians, whether it's preventing the further fragmentation of the Great Smokies, opposing mountain-top removal projects or stopping harmful timber sales in your watershed, the lessons of Pinhook's protection and the issues explored in Ray's book have relevance and should be a source of inspiration and understanding to many. We should all do whatever we can to ensure Pinhook finds a wide readership outside of the already environmentally active. With any luck, dog-eared and underlined copies should one day become as ubiquitous on college campuses and in backpackers' hostels as the works of Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold are today.
"The worst part of fragmentation is that it leads to isolation. For humans isolation is the place of hopelessness, of depression, of despair. By deduction, then, we know community to be a place of hope, of possibility, of wholeness. Human community, wild community."