Wildsam Field Guides: Florida Keys
A SKIFF GLIDES PAST A BED OF SEAGRASS headed into blue-green waters swirling like a mood ring. It chases the silverkings, the mighty fish that flip as if reaching for the sun. “It’s so extraordinary,” Richard Brautigan recalled in the 1977 film Tarpon, “as to create immediate unreality.”
The novelist joined writers Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison to fish and philosophize in a technicolor Keys world. Jimmy Buffett added a score of island country. A different wild lives out in these Keys than at the bars of Duval Street, where the piña coladas and margaritas whirl. A vibrancy unfolds quietly, all the time. Beneath the water’s surface where the tarpon swim, divers float among the coral reef with its shock of colors, hunting shipwrecks and their stories. Along the backstreets and alleys, lizards skitter. Royal poinciana trees light up in a cayenne-colored blaze. Just being here is a wonder.
Before the railroad or highways, only aqua and indigo connected this jangle of tiny islands. Today: 42 bridges, about 45 miles per hour. It remains a commitment to come here, and to be here. Despite–or maybe because of–those challenges, whimsy weaves through the place. Nearly a century ago, the poet Elizabeth Bishop compared a tarpon’s scales to the glint of the islands’ tin roofs. She also found herself shooing tourists from Hemingway’s lawn.
Writers, artists, musicians have long been drawn to the freedom and beauty here; many others followed to see what lies at the end of the road. The deeper story embraces Calusa and Tequesta tribes living on the water’s bounty, Cuban fishermen, cigar makers, Bahamian wreckers, whose cultures carry on in music and architecture. Generations of families keep their histories alive through the cafés con leche and Cuban sandwiches passed across countertops. The legends stretch and twist back to tales of pirates and lost gold, but the real treasures here have never been monetary.
The locals who protect this place, the divers who care for its coral, remind us to tread lightly on this land and its waters, mysterious and wild, yet precarious too. With our proper respect, it can thrive in the ways that matter most. We appraise it in awe–and dive in.