I couldn’t resist placing my characters in Florida’s Garden of Eden
When I was in high school, I occasionally got into letters-to-the-editor duels in the Tallahassee, Democrat with a minister who believed the real Garden of Eden was perched up above the Apalachicola River near the small Florida town of Bristol. He offered a variety of proofs, including the fact that the tree used to build the ark was very rare and could be seen on the site.
Fortunately, for those of us who didn’t agree with the Reverend E. E. Callaway, the Eden signs and trappings are less in evidence these days in what’s now preserved as the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines. There’s still a Garden of Eden Trail, and I just couldn’t resist having the two main characters in my new fantasy The Seeker walk along it from the highway to the river. (They had just come from the nearby Tate’s Hell Swamp, and I liked the contrast.)
Considered one of the rarest habitats on Earth, the preserve is now administered by the Nature Conservancy: Steephead ravines and associated seepage streams are among the rarest of freshwater habitats. These unusual geologic features provide refuge for a number of Florida’s plants and animals—some found nowhere else on Earth– including two of the world’s rarest evergreens, the Florida torreya and Florida yew. Other species more common in the Appalachians, such as mountain laurel and ash magnolia are at the southern end of their range here. The preserve also protects longleaf pine sandhill uplands, breathtaking river bluffs and million year-old fossils.
I lived in Florida between the time I entered the first grade until I graduated from college. I loved Florida’s rivers and swamps, including the Bluffs and Ravines and Tate’s Hell. I’m happy to say that a lot of preservation work has been done in both of these locations as the Conservancy and other groups try to undo the damage of the past.
After David Ward, the protagonist in my novel, meets Anne Hill in a Glacier National Park, Montana, valley that was once called “The Garden of Heaven,” I wanted him to visit Anne’s Florida Panhandle world. David was a man who loved mountains. Anne was a woman who loved swamps. The locations helped me emphasize their differences.
Excerpt from the Novel
He extracted a Sunoco map from the glove box—“Go with CONFIDENCE,” it said—and followed their progress along Florida 65 (displayed in red) through Wilma to State Route 12, displayed in blue and not altogether paved near Orange, and the western edge of the Apalachicola National Forest.
“Stiff and Ugly,” she said without prelude.
“Excuse me,” he said cautiously.
“That’s what some of the locals still call Estiffanulga,” she said, as they passed a narrow road leading toward the river.
“I don’t want to know the history of that,” he said lightly. “According to your map, we’re coming up on Woods. What do the locals call it?”
It was simply spring, one could see it going through Bristol in the spontaneous smiles of people along the street. North of town, she pulled off the road.
“All of this,” she said, pointing at the gentle hills and old growth timber, “might just be the Garden of Eden.
She tried her best to brush the Einsteinian kinks out of his hair.
“I won’t swear it’s Gospel other than the gospel of the Reverend E. E. Callaway who cites the world’s only known occurrence of gopher wood trees and the four-headed river system along with other evidence.”
“Spring Creek, the Flint, the Chattahoochee, and the Apalachicola. Come on, let’s go watch the river,” she said, climbing out with her sack of apples.
“Do you believe the reverend?” asked David.
“No, but sometimes I pretend that I do. Your double, as I have been thinking of that Thanksgiving rescuer, didn’t believe him.”
“How in the world do you know that?”
“From time to time, Callaway sends a Garden of Eden letter to the editor to the Tallahassee Democrat. Invariably, your double responds, and the debate is on.”
“What all do you know about this double?” asked David.
“Not much. There’s a high bluff overlooking the river. Let’s speak of some things there.”
“While you’re stewing about doubles, you’re walking past a gopher wood tree without even noticing it. Most people call them Torreyas or Stinking Cedar. Very rare. But not quite as rare as the Florida Yew, which also grows on this paper company land.”
“Noah built his ark out of trees like this?” he asked.
“So says Callaway.”
The pyramid shaped tree looked to be about thirty-five feet tall with drooping branches and dark green needles.
“The flowers have already come and gone,” she said.
“It smells like a tomato plant dipped in turpentine,” he said.
It was simply spring as they hiked in and out of deep shade, pausing to look at wild ginger, trillium, Ashe magnolias and pungent anise. Despite the rich humus smell of the forest floor, he caught the river scent before he heard its voice. Best he could tell, they’d walked three miles, hand-in-hand mostly except in the denser, steeper areas where the land tilted down into steephead ravines.
It was simply spring when they stepped out onto Alum Bluff. The river, swift flowing and filled with sunlight and clouds, bent sharply, 135 feet below.
I hope you enjoy the novel, and know when you read this sequence that I was blending a little personal history into the scene.