Florida Lost and Found: Nature in the Changing Landscape
By Fran Palmeri (Benin 1967-68)
Green Pilgrimage Press
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
Fran Palmeri and her husband Bob, who was with the USIA, were assigned to Dahomey (now Benin) in 1967/68. When Sam Stokes, the Peace Corps Country Director, and Sam Longsworth, the Assistant Director came to Cotonou, the capital, to set up the Peace Corps program, Fran was there to help them. Volunteers arrived several months later. “They were young and idealistic,” says Fran. “It was an exciting time to be in Africa. Many new countries had come into existence very recently, including Dahomey. It was an exciting time to be with the Peace Corps which also was relatively new.”
Fran had been working in Washington for the Navy department as assistant editor of a magazine, and was also working as a stringer for the Washington Star. She is a member of the RPCV Gulf Coast Florida group. An award-winning writer/photographer, Fran has been exploring natural Florida for fifty years. After completing the Florida Master Naturalist Program, she was inspired to document other areas throughout the region.
For me, the Florida peninsula has been a consuming interest since childhood, but it was not until 2001 that I started traipsing about seriously. At first I focused my photography on pristine still lives, but a spider would peek out from under a flower petal, ‘ruining’ my photo.
What drew me to Fran is her passionate dedication to nature, her quiet smile and wit. When she gave me a copy of her book, Florida Lost and Found, I was enthralled and felt compelled to share her knowledge and ecological aspirations, which she states quite simply.
With thousands of people settling here each year, natural lands, vegetation and animals are disappearing at an alarming rate. Pines, the matrix of the Florida landscape, are being taken down to make way for development. I used to see frogs and toads regularly; they’re now rare. Climate change is causing plants to bloom out of season which in turn affects pollinators. I could have written a rant on loss, but I wanted to inspire rather than scold. So I emphasized the beauty that remains, hoping to inspire everyone who visits or settles here to do everything they can to preserve and protect what remains of wild Florida.
Fran writes like a poet, using powerful verbs and adjectives. Her photographs are enchanting, capturing not only colors but moods and mysteries of wild places — the Everglades, creeks and rivers, scrub bush, beaches — and their inhabitants — alligators, snakes, clouds of birds, rainbows of wild flowers. “Often light, weather and access are out of my hands so I have learned to relinquish control. When I give in to serendipity, magic happens.”
Fran idolizes William Bartram, a botanist who explored Florida in 1765 and wrote a book about his discoveries. In her book there’s a vivid close-up of a wildflower, and in the background we barely see the back of a ghostly figure walking away. She hints at who it might be. “As I lean in to photograph a wildflower I see a shadowy figure hurrying to his next assignation with nature.”
I call Fran our “Florida Thoreau.” Like him, she is a “home cosmographer.” As Thoreau wrote in Walden “It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” Fran concentrates on creatures and plants in her world. When it rains she stays indoors with her piles of books, and travels with Darwin to the Galopagos or John Muir on his thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico.
Fran spends most of her time in the myriad parks that are dedicated to protecting and preserving Florida’s flora and fauna. “Florida’s beauty has always been its undoing,” she writes, and lists homo sapiens as invading species.
- migratorious congregate on coasts and theme parks . . . Field marks: plastic water bottles, sunglasses, cell phones.
- oceanitis . . . often accompanied by young, sit, walk, swim, read, exercise, talk on cell phones, apply sunscreen.
Sub species: Stoopus shelli . . .. A common wader on area beaches. Picks up shells, which get deposited in yards, glass lamps and coffee tables.
Stoopus metalicus, . . sifts sand on area beaches. Field marks: metal detectors, long-handled sieves and plastic bags.
Trampus audubonis: . . . Point a lot. Consult among themselves. Some make notes on little scraps of paper.
Touris speedis: A winter/spring visitor. Speeds through parks and other natural places to say they’ve been there. Field marks: Jeeps, Hummers and Cadillacs with rolled up tinted windows.
Fran has criss-crossed the state of Florida from north to south and everything in between. She describes what she observes each month of the year. She explains her vantage points in one chapter entitled “WHAT, WHY, HOW, WHEN, WHERE.” For example, “WHAT is this plant, this animal?” “WHY are black vultures mostly social animals and turkey vultures more solitary?” “HOW did a New England nurseryman survive in the cypress swamps in 1903?” WHEN she began to understand the progressions of living things throughout the year she observed “. . .global warming skewed things badly.” “WHERE do certain animals live?” “Where are the rarest wildflowers?” “Last but not least, WHO am I in all this?”
Fran waxes poetic about things like Spanish moss which, she explains, is neither Spanish nor moss but a beneficial epiphyte. “Like tinsel on a holiday tree it can be festive — or spooky in a Gothic sort of way.”
She watches an alligator sidle slowly up to an egret or gobble up tilapia. “Then he steams up the river, undeniably master of the place.” There’s a photo of Fran in a typical pose, kneeling, with her nose to the ground inspecting what we might view as a weed, but she sees as “heaven in a wildflower,” to quote William Wordsworth.
Butterflies nectaring on beggar ticks and scrub oaks with scrub jays were acceptable to the public, but a prickly pear cactus loaded with beetles? It took me — and them — a while to understand connectivity in a landscape. My mindset evolved from still lives to landscapes, from individual animals and plants to ecosystems, from discrete to inclusive. And a basic understanding of what belonged where. As I saw changes — fewer frogs and toads, for example — it became even more urgent to include all wildlife in my photos. Spiders, slugs, dung beetles, rats, bats and snakes all had their proper place in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the ‘web of God.’
“Letting things be has been my approach.” And she describes the riot of plants in her side yard jungle. Does she talk to plants? “It would seem strange not to when I’m photographing them most days. I talk to animals. I let birds and butterflies, every dragonfly that alights next to me, even snakes know how beautiful they are. Why not plants? I wouldn’t think of excluding them.”
Fran has opened my eyes to the wonders of nature in Florida. For years I’ve been dreaming of Senegal where I was a PCV in the Delta Sine Saloum, described by St. Exupery as the place “. . . where the Sahara meets the Atlantic.” I marveled at clouds of pink flamingos reflecting rosy sunsets, monkeys scampering through tree tops, hyenas loping along a beach and wild yellow dogs that bounded through the surf catching fish.
Near my village, the biosphere of Samba Dia set an unprecedented example of environmental conservation. The forest was declared a protected area by UNESCO in 1982 in an attempt to convince the people to preserve their forest, thousands of kilometers of royal palms that stood as a bulwark against the encroaching desert. The villagers were not impressed by UNESCO agents or even Senegalese ecologists, but when their chief, Boucar Bass, finally understood, he became the solid bridge between outside science and the survival of his village. He was seven feet tall and nearly eighty years old, with ears like an elephant and feet to match. The people trusted him because of his legendary strength and wisdom. He convinced them that cutting down the trees would invite the desert to destroy their land. He appointed village wardens to patrol the forest. Gradually, new trees began to grow, the soil improved and gardens and orchards began to flourish again. Whenever I walked through the forest I marveled at the miracle. If only we had such a chief in our country to lead us in the struggle to save our planet!
Fran’s home was damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017, and she had to move to Gainesville where, she confided, a black vulture appeared to cheer her. Discontent, she soon returned to Sarasota where she has an apartment in the tree tops at the edge of Oscar Scherer Park, a place where she can listen to birdsong and the vagaries of night critters from her porch.
Addressing the incredible influx of developers into Florida, she laments: “Have our personal values been demoted to property values? Has the land ethic been replaced by the bottom line? These, along with the chain saw and the bulldozer, are the greatest threats to our natural world.” There’s a stunning photo of wood storks foraging in a dumpster.
She sees the sacredness in all things of nature, viewing them like a mystic. Fakahatchee Strand, the Amazon of North America . . . “Like a lover it calls me. I rush down the road to uncover its secrets. . . . Timeless and mysterious, the Fakahatchee inhabits my dreams. A moonflower opens in the darkness. The panther passes by on his nightly prowl.”
I also live in a wildlife preserve, but nowhere near as wild as places that Fran explores. I’ll keep her book close by, like a guide, as I explore Florida parks and areas I’d never before noticed, as I get to know Fran’s world.
Sidebar: Fran is past Secretary of the Friends of Oscar Scherer Park and a former member of the Sarasota Tree Advisory Council. She writes for national and international magazines and is a contributing editor to the Sarasota News Leader. Fran’s photographs are featured in Natural Florida Landscaping by Dan Walton and Laurel Schiller. They are also on display at various state and county Parks. She is co-owner of the Florida Native Plants Nursery, Vice President of the Florida Native Plant Society (Serenoa Chapter), and a member of the Board of the Sustainable Living Center in Hampton.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs.(amazon.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Leita received the Lillian Carter Award in 2017.