What We’re Reading: Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair With Florida
Posted by on March 19, 2015

I have lived in Florida for 14 years and never knew what a coontie was. Never met a blue-gray gnatcatcher, a magnificent frigatebird, or an ovenbird. Not even a yellow bellied sapsucker.

The bananaquit? The snook?

Never crossed my path.

Now I know why. Like so many in the Sunshine State, I never took the time, spent the effort, to see. I came to view the coontie (a spikey-leafed plant), that elusive snook (a fish), the bananaquit and others (native or guesting birds) through a surprising gem of a book, Bitten: My Unexpected Love Affair With Florida by Andrew Furman (University Press of Florida). In fact, seeing is the tacit metaphor at work just beneath the lilting narrative surface of Furman’s eco-memoir, a series of inter-related essays about his and his young family’s unforeseen encounters with Florida Wild.

Soon after he and his wife moved here in 1996, Furman, a professor of English at Florida Atlantic University, turned his office into a nursery, his desk migrating to the master bedroom beneath “a narrow window, just two feet wide, which opened to a more shrunken scene, just ten scraggly feet or so …”  Suddenly, Furman’s view of the world outside seemed small, severe. But with that restricted view came an unexpected gift: his learning to see more keenly, more deeply, trading the broad vistas, the sherbet sunrise and Everglades expanse, for tiny details hidden in a diverse landscape teeming with unexpected miracles. Like the live oak, “leafed out in its spring clothes, its trunk thick and straight for five feet before branching into several well-muscled arms.” Or the spot-breasted oriole, “[t]he heads of male birds [taking] on a rich egg-yolk orange that oozes down the body before fading to a more yellowish orange; black spots, sometimes just a few, sometimes more, tatter male chests and stomachs below their solid black bibs.” Or the burrowing owl “hunkered down on the dirt.” Or that wily snook, which Furman never manages to land, but which keeps a psychic hold on him, and which he finally sees: “a school of them, big females, stacked up like copper logs beside the lit-up bridge piling at the inlet. Incoming tide.”

Furman invokes Thoreau’s Journals, an apt comparison for the magic of the narrowed view. As Thoreau wrote, “…in exchange for views as wide as heaven’s cope I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope – I see details not wholes nor the shadows of the whole.” For Furman, that narrowed field of view “seems increasingly significant to me, emblematic of the life I have embraced in my postage stamp of Florida soil. Partly by accident, partly by choice, I have adopted a certain way of seeing down here in the subtropics.”

In Bitten, Prof. Furman displays an academic’s heart for deep research; a naturalist’s eye for the enigmatic patterns in nature; a poet’s ear for words that bring it all to life: “I’ll hear the human breath of the loggerhead turtles above the darks skin of the sea and glimpse their broad caramel shells before they descend. I’ll see the moon cast spears of light from between the clouds on faraway lapping swells. My heart will leap to my throat when the giant broad heads of the bull sharks rise to the surface and snatch my snapper, boatside. Thick schools of long-beaked ballyhoo, spasmodic silver punctuation marks, will mob our chum-slick.”

Furman’s “postage stamp of Florida soil” is his own small yard, a personal world in miniature mirroring the wider Florida landscape imperiled by sprawling malls, paved boulevards, pastel housing developments, general human recklessness. Furman and his wife rid the yard of non-native plants and grass, replacing them with a poetic panoply of Florida natives: “live oak, gumbo limbo, firebush, Geiger tree, milkweed, necklace pod, privet, wild coffee, and marlberry.” And, of course, vegetables, okra, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, the plants we are meant to eat. It is here in the garden that Furman teaches his young son about the wonders of planting, of tending, of inter-relationships among things that grow. When the tree trimmer shows up, and the boy’s plants get buried in a riot of palm fronds, he is devastated. “To my son,” Furman writes, “his garden was a functional society, above all, a collection of individual citizens, all of whom mattered to him deeply.”

Owl fledglings by Andrew FurmanOwl fledglings by Andrew Furman

One could say the same about Furman himself, whose passion for the native “citizens” he encounters on his jaunts, should be a lesson for all – Florida natives; non-natives; tourists; legislators; planners and builders, anyone who hasn’t taken the time to see. As Furman presciently says of the burrowing owl – his university’s mascot, whose local habitat was woefully compromised by the school’s new football field: “Given the bustle of our increasingly metropolitan area, it seemed incredible to me – and still seems incredible — that these fierce little birds still lived among us, fighting the good fight.”

If the native species stop “fighting the good fight,” ”Furman is telling us – if the humans charged with caretaking them don’t give a hoot – then one of the richest natural environments on this green globe will be headed for the ash heap. “The world, I realize during these brief moments, was not designed for us. At least not for us alone …This search is far more terrific than the meager version of it that we’ve tamed and cultivated for our use, and it’s more terrifying too. We ought to mind our manners during our brief time here.”

As for me, thanks to Bitten, I have hung birdfeeders along the back fence in my decidedly un-native backyard. I think a pileated woodpecker came to visit our towering bird of paradise. A handful of cardinals and doves and jays (“our everyday year-round birds”) tussle with one another over the seed in the hanging feeders.

The bananaquit? The magnificent frigatebird?

I am still waiting … but ready for the unexpected.

Post by Mary Ann

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  • Photo by Tyler Malone