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Bits of Flotsam and Tiny Coral Things

On the history of the Florida Keys.


One of the more photographed statues of Jesus Christ in the United States is underwater. The four-thousand-pound bronze statue, called the Christ of the Abyss, sits in twenty-five feet of water, about four miles offshore from the Florida Keys. It was installed in 1965 on Molasses Reef, the most impressive coral reef in the U.S., and it depicts Jesus raising his arms and gazing upward. It is not the most handsome or technically accomplished statue of Christ, but it is aided greatly by its natural surroundings. Shafts of light from above dance across the arms and face of the statue, while deep shadows and murk collect near its base, creating a striking chiaroscuro effect. Snorkelers sometimes dive down and make the mistake of touching the statue when it hasn’t been cleaned recently, only to discover that the hem of this particular garment is covered in fire coral. (Fire coral is actually a species of sponge, but the “fire” part is accurate enough; it’s armed with the same type of stinging cells as jellyfish tentacles.)

The statue is one of the many curios that have accumulated in the Florida Keys over the years. The chain of small islands, stretching about one hundred and twenty-five miles south-southwest from the tip of mainland Florida, attracts all sorts of flotsam and jetsam, inanimate and human. Fugitives regularly turn up here, as do migrants from Cuba and Haiti on makeshift rafts. Boaters often come across floating bales of cocaine abandoned by drug runners. Writers, young divers, and fish-haunted anglers also seem to feel the tug of an invisible current driving them to the islands.

My wife and I blew into the Keys four years ago after making the perfectly absurd decision to leave Washington, D.C., and rent a place in Key Largo, sight unseen. We loved the ocean, and we had lived in D.C. long enough that we were either staying for life or moving. The former seemed intolerable, so I found myself driving a U-Haul south on I-95 to the edge of the country with a very unhappy crated cat and my wife all jammed in the cab. Melville’s line about people’s natural inclination to wander to the water kept echoing in my head: “Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land.”

The Keys are about as far as you can go without being nowhere. They’re a place on the dreamy fringe, a borderworld, a liminal space. You are never sure if you are at the end or beginning of something. We frequently wonder what we’re doing here, and how long we will really stay, especially after Hurricane Ian narrowly missed the Keys and demolished Florida’s southwest coast.

The Keys are also not quite as advertised, although I’ve found that something about the environment fascinates me. It’s subtropical, not tropical, more swampy than a Corona commercial. The offshore barrier reef soaks up most wave action. On certain days, the inshore waters of the Atlantic Ocean are as flat as a duck pond. But no waves means no natural sand beaches, so what meager beaches there are here in the Keys have been trucked in. Most of the coastline is rocky or thick with mangrove trees. Day-trippers from Miami sometimes stop and ask me where the nearest public beaches are, and I pretend to be sad when I deliver the news.

A corruption pervades the Keys, a noirish undercurrent that tourism campaigns and the march of capital haven’t managed to erase. Plants, reptiles, and birds thrive in the greenhouse heat, but it’s a rank fecundity. Everything blossoms fast and rots faster. The sun and salt degrade things at a fantastic speed. It was fairly unlivable until modern mosquito control arrived. In the summer, sargassum seaweed piles up in the canals abutting million-dollar waterfront homes and stinks like rotten eggs. One day I walked out to get the mail, and there was a turkey vulture eating a dead iguana in my driveway.

“It is a very very dead place because it has died several times,” Robert Frost wrote in a 1934 letter from Key West.

According to the account of Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda, a shipwrecked Spanish sailor who spent seventeen years living among the South Florida Indians, there were two Indian villages in the Keys, one named Chuchiyaga, “place where there has been suffering,” and the other Guaragunbe, “the town of weeping.” Juan Ponce de León named the islands Los Martires, or “the martyrs,” in 1513 because the craggy rocks and twisted mangrove roots reminded him of suffering men, which maybe says more about the Spanish imagination than the islands. And remember that Jimmy Buffett lamented he was “wasting away again in Margaritaville.” (Juan Ponce de León wasted away in Cuba after being mortally wounded by an arrow dipped in poisonous tree sap, courtesy of South Florida’s Calusa Indians.)

Key West is an anglicized corruption of Cayo Hueso, or Bone Cay. One popular and dubious explanation for the name is that the Spanish sailors found the island littered with human bones. Another I’ve read is that the sailors, looking down through the clear, shallow waters, saw bleached fragments of dead staghorn corals, which collect in debris fields near reefs, and mistook them for bones.

The sailors would have had reason to let their imaginations drift. The Indians of South Florida were notoriously hostile. They had either heard through the trade grapevine or learned firsthand of the violent proclivities of the conquistadors, and many chiefs decided that the most prudent course of action would be to kill or enslave any white men that they came across.

Because of this, early attempts to convert the South Florida Indians ranged from unsuccessful to disastrous. In 1549, a Spanish caravel carrying a Dominican priest named Luis de Cáncer arrived in what is today Tampa Bay on a missionary expedition. Cáncer was noted for his decades of successful missionary work in the New World and his novel tactic of converting tribes without violence or coercion. The expedition’s first contacts with the local Indians were peaceful, if tense. But they soon encountered a Spanish sailor who had been captured during a previous expedition. He warned Cáncer that two of his fellow friars, who had split from the party earlier and traveled overland to meet the tribe, had been murdered. The rest of the expedition wanted to flee, but Cáncer refused to leave a land “hallowed by the blood” of his brothers. Instead, he jumped in the water and began wading ashore alone. A group of Tocobaga Indians clubbed him to death as he kneeled before them in the surf. Cáncer and the other friars became the protomartyrs of Florida.

Some Franciscans tried to make inroads with the Calusa in 1697, but the Calusa heckled and mooned them. The Franciscans beat a retreat back to Cuba and were content to continue their mission there.

Relations in the Keys thawed considerably after the more agreeable Indians developed a taste for the Spaniards’ metal tools, clothes, and rum. Many Keys Indians were converted, and the already small number of them dwindled further as they succumbed to disease and hostilities from other tribes, or moved to Cuba, where they promptly died.

After Spain transferred ownership of Florida to Great Britain in 1763, and the last group of Indians left, the Keys were uninhabited, except for small camps of Bahamian and Cuban fishermen, as well as smugglers and pirates who hid in the maze of islands and mangrove channels.

The next wave of settlement began in 1822, after a U.S. Navy schooner arrived in Key West and claimed the island chain for America. It would be more accurate to say tried to begin. Many pioneers were enticed by the promise of a perfect climate for growing fruits and vegetables, but this was, as is the case in most of Florida’s real estate history, a grain of truth in a heaping mound of lies by omission.

Calling the conditions early Keys settlers endured hard living would be like calling a Soviet gulag hard labor. The heat was oppressive, and the mosquitoes swarmed so thick in the summer that they blackened the sides of cabins. Freshwater was scarce; the only reliable sources were sinkholes or shallow wells that became brackish during droughts. Houses were usually one room, made out of driftwood with thatched roofs. Families survived through subsistence farming—sweet potatoes, melons, and squash—as well as fishing and turtling. Of the hundreds of pioneers who tried to homestead the Keys outside the relative civilization of Key West, only a handful were able to handle the miserable conditions and isolation for more than a few years. Even fewer managed to do more than eke out an existence. (Those who persevered are remembered in many of the local place names—for example, Happy Jack Key, named after a whiskey-loving hermit who allegedly left a buried treasure of gold coins on his island.) There was a brief pineapple boom in Key Largo that brought hopes of prosperity, but it was destroyed by, in succession, a hurricane, blight, and the importation of cheaper Cuban pineapples. There were also several attempts to artificially cultivate sea sponges, but poachers, blight, and hurricanes doomed those to failure, too.

There is something beguiling about the islands, though. Not for everyone, but for some people a certain quality—the varied shades of the ocean and the fresh sea breeze—grabs them and does not let go.

Tales of Yesterday’s Florida Keys, an anthology of first-hand narratives of early island life, includes a letter from a woman recounting a childhood train ride to Key West in 1925. Her father was especially enamored with the island. So much so that on the way back, when the train stopped in New Smyrna, he ran up to the girl’s mother, said, “Give me twenty dollars, I’ll write,” and jumped off the moving train as it was pulling out of the station. A few days later, the family received a letter telling them to sell the house and move to Key West.

Henry Perrine, a noted horticulturist, moved to Indian Key in 1838 to grow valuable tropical plants. It was in fact Perrine who first cultivated Key limes in the Florida Keys from seeds he collected during a stint in Mexico. At the time, Indian Key was the most populous settlement outside of Key West, due to its ideal location for salvaging shipwrecks (the most lucrative industry in the Keys then, thanks to its many treacherous shoals). The twelve-acre island boasted a two-story hotel and a nine-pin bowling alley. One of Perrine’s daughters wrote in her memoirs of first arriving on the island on Christmas Day: “It was truly a ‘Gem of the Ocean.’ The trees were many of them covered with morning glories of all colors, while the waving palms, tamarinds, papaws, guavas, seaside grape trees and many others too numerous to mention made it seem to us like fairy land, coming as we did from the midst of snow and ice.”

Perrine and his son once took an expedition up into the Everglades, along Cape Sable, where they planted seeds as they went, feasted on oysters, and marveled at the quality of freshwater found by digging just a few feet into the rich loam. They were looking at something none of us will ever see again: the natural, unimpeded flow of the Florida Everglades.

In 1840, during the Second Seminole War, a large war party raided Indian Key in the dead of night. Perrine hurried his family through a trapdoor in the living room, which led to a partially submerged turtle pen under the house, and pushed a trunk containing his invaluable seed collection over the trap door to hide it. Perrine was murdered trying to reason with the invaders. His family narrowly escaped being burned alive when the Indians put their house to the torch, along with every other building on the island. Indian Key is now a ghost town.

Lily Lawrence Bow, a pioneer from Chicago, moved to Cudjoe Key in 1904 to try to grow limes and cotton. Her dissolute husband only lasted a few months before abandoning her and their two children, but Bow stuck it out alone for two years, roughly the same amount of time Thoreau spent at Walden Pond, but in conditions that would have made the dilettantish Yankee faint. In addition to farming, Bow and her children fished, foraged, and hunted to survive. They took whatever surplus they had to Key West to sell and trade for essentials. It was a twenty-mile trip by sailboat each way. Bow was also college-educated and taught children from neighboring keys how to read and write in exchange for food.

Bow could not be deterred by rattlesnakes, alligators, or hurricanes that destroyed her crops, but the arrival in 1906 of several hundred unruly railroad workers on the small island—an untenable situation for a lone woman with children—finally convinced her to return to the mainland.

Those men were employed by Henry Flagler, an oil tycoon turned railroad enthusiast and the greatest of the many dreamers and schemers in the Florida Keys’ history. After he retired from Standard Oil, Flagler abandoned a lifetime of prudence and frugality, married a volatile redhead, and sank his fortune into building rail lines up and down Florida. His grandest plan was to build a line all the way to Key West, which he believed would become a major trade hub because of its natural deepwater port and ideal location between Latin America and the United States. It took seven years to build, required forty-two bridges, and was widely referred to as the eighth wonder of the world when it was finally completed. Flagler was the first to ride the length of it, and he did it in his own private train.

The last train to ever run the line pulled into Islamorada on Labor Day of 1935, around the same time that a monstrous hurricane was making landfall. The train was supposed to evacuate hundreds of men, mostly World War I veterans, who were constructing the Overseas Highway, but because of bizarre and inexcusable delays, it never made it. Its final stop was well north of the veterans’ camps.

“We had been stopped but ten or fifteen minutes when a wall of water from fifteen to twenty feet high picks up our coaches and swirls them about like straws,” wrote William Johns, a reporter.

Meanwhile, most of the veterans were left in the open to fend for themselves against the twenty-foot storm surge sweeping over the meager islands. One of the few survivors said he’d rather face machine gun fire again. The residents of Islamorada did not fare much better in their houses, though.

Ernest Hemingway, then living in Key West, traveled up the next day to survey the carnage.

“Imagine you have read it in the papers but nothing could give an idea of the destruction,” Hemingway wrote in a letter to Maxwell Perkins. “Between 700 and 1000 dead. Many, today, still unburied. The foliage absolutely stripped as though by fire for forty miles and the land looking like the abandoned bed of a river. Not a building of any sort standing. Over thirty miles of railway washed and blown away. We were the first in to Camp Five of the veterans who were working on the highway construction. Out of 187 only 8 survived. Saw more dead than I’d seen in one place since the lower Piave in June of 1918.”

Bodies washed up as far as Cape Sable, forty miles away, and about thirty years later, a car full of skeletons with 1935 plates was discovered underwater.

But now I’ve slipped back into noir. Instead, consider what charms people enough to stay in such a place. In Bow’s later years, she founded the first library in Homestead, Florida, and wrote poetry, including a long piece about her days on Cudjoe Key. It talks of the hardships (“the flavor of sea purslane / Lingers still to recall those days of hunger”) but also the special contentment of being somewhere wild and unspoiled:

Bleached bones of black-fish
Traced some early flood. Trails aisled
By deer on forage hunts,
And often in the night
A shrill cry of panther
Woke us from our dreams, not in fright,
For who could find aught to fear
Living close to Nature’s Heart,
As we did here?

In a world that seems to have been drained of most of its wonder, there are still great mysteries here. On one summer night a year, two to three days on either side of the August full moon, corals on the reef spawn at the exact same time, releasing their gametes into the water column. No one knows how separate coral colonies throughout the reefs all spawn in perfect synchronization. Divers consider it a bucket-list item to descend into those soupy waters, and it requires some luck, as the exact night and hour is known only to the corals.

One time while scuba diving, I saw two moray eels mating. It reminded me of an Olympic ribbon dancing routine.

The fishing is so good that it drives people into either bliss or mania. After retiring from baseball, Ted Williams moved to the Keys and became one of the best saltwater fly fishermen in the area, which is to say he was among the best in the world. Tom Evans, who has landed seven world-record tarpons on a fly rod over the course of his life, told the author Monte Burke that Williams had “one of the prettiest casting strokes I’ve ever seen, maybe the prettiest.” Williams enjoyed the Keys because the locals took no special notice of him and let him fish and cuss in peace.

Those days—when Ted Williams was playing fish with his beautiful cast but before drug runners and tourism and Jimmy Buffett turned it all into an adult amusement park—are considered the Keys’ golden years. It was feasible and affordable to live here, and still so remote that you could take a nap on the U.S. Highway 1 without much worry.

Those Florida Keys no longer exist. There used to be acres of coral on the reefs, big thickets of staghorn and elkhorn coral. Today ninety-five percent of the historical reef cover is dead due to decades of overlapping environmental pressures—pollution, bleaching events, and diseases. The seagrass beds, which popular game fish like snook and bonefish depend on, have been seriously degraded. The sea turtles that settlers used to catch until the holds of their boats were full are now endangered. Last year, fishing guides started complaining that they just couldn’t find the big mahi mahi that sports fishermen flock to the Keys to hook.

People come here, throw their trash in the water, drag their boat anchors through fragile coral beds, rent jet skis and tear through the shallow sea grass flats. They poach incessantly. Every week the police blotter in the local newspaper has at least one item on someone being found with a cooler full of undersized lobsters or protected fish. A couple years ago someone mutilated a pelican, slicing open its gullet and pulling the skin over the bird’s head. It had to be euthanized. (Another Melville line that is lodged in my mind: “For there is no folly of the beasts of the Earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.”)

There is a sign tacked up at my local bar that says “The Florida Keys: A Place Worth Saving.” Of course, you can find an advocate for saving just about every place on earth. I’m sure the people of Nebraska feel it’s worth saving, too. But it gets at the feeling that there’s something fragile here hanging in the balance, something that might slip away if we’re not careful.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary recently announced a massive project to restore the reefs by planting hundreds of thousands of coral fragments back onto them. Volunteer divers are doing much of the grunt work, scraping algae away from the rock and carefully fixing corals to the sea bed with epoxy. Because coral grows so slowly, it is a quite touching effort; many of those working on it won’t be around to see the results, if successful, but the hope is that our children and grandchildren will be able to see the reefs as they once were.

You can’t freeze a place in time, though, no matter how hard you try, and especially not an ephemeral place like the Keys. That may be the defining folly of the Keys’ history. According to the novelist Joy Williams, who wrote a travel guide to the Florida Keys filled with terrifically morbid asides, there used to be a small billboard that greeted motorists driving into Key Largo with the message “Hell is a truth seen too late.” It was probably one of the earnest religious billboards that appear frequently on Florida highways. I like to think that it was a warning to suckers like myself considering homesteading a piece of paradise.

But once you are here, the urge to build and preserve is strong, even against all common sense. My wife and I ended up buying a house and having a kid here. I have a garden bed that mainly exists to feed the invasive iguanas, and I planted a Key lime tree (R.I.P. Henry Perrine) that bears two to three anemic fruits a year. I often wonder if I will see it become a sprawling, gnarled tree, like the kind that used to be found in groves all over the islands; or if my daughter will one day write about growing up on a gem of an island; or if the truth will reveal itself sooner rather than later.

I know it will happen eventually. The Keys might end up underwater before too long, more company for the Christ of the Abyss. It would be bad for property values, but think of the diving. Or maybe a Category 5 hurricane will scour the islands clean, right down to the limestone bedrock where you can see ten-thousand-year-old fossils of brain corals that thrived last time the Keys were below sea level. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. But as the formidable Mrs. Bow observed, a place that dies many times is also reborn many times:

Sometimes a stormy fanfaron
Beats his way across this jeweled sea
And sweeps away the sand and stone
Leaving only mangrove roots to catch and hold
Bits of flotsam and tiny coral things
So lands may build anew.

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