Tenessee Williams and Papa Hemmingway Country

I have just returned from the edge of the Everglades in southern Florida.  My new professional responsibilities took me to this exotic destination.  I visited in my capacity as Director of Communication and Development for a wild life sanctuary.   Some of the most endangered species in the world are sheltered at this remote reserve on the edge of the continent.  Part of communications is interpreting the work done by an interdisciplinary team of scientists. In other words, creating stories from data; I put tropes to statistics, and adjectives to reports. It was my first meeting with the Scientific Advisory board, and the conservation biology staff. It was also my first visit to the Florida Everglades.    Considering the ‘communications’ aspect of my position it probably should not have come as so much of a surprise that story telling would be such a big part of this powerful experience.  After all, besides my need to communicate the story of the organization, this is Tennessee Williams and Papa Hemingway country.   Stories and the American south are a given. My particular Everglades experience was racing around in my head like a story by Haggard or Shakespeare.  Some startling literary realizations accompanied this trip, right down to genre conventions, imagery, and use of tropes.

My trip began and ended with a set of familiar enough conventions, trips through a storm – Tropical Storm Debby on the way to Florida and the large, unnamed storm that covered the north-eastern seaboard on the way home.  Perfect structure.  On the way to Florida each change of planes and vehicles brought me closer to the eye of the storm and deeper into this dramatically different world.  Now I definitely understand why Shakespeare uses storms as a device so often.   After several flights we finally landed at a small airport with a sculpture of the Conquistador Hernando De Soto at the gate.   Somehow that shocking bit of imagery made me feel a little fearful, and like we were at the gateway of a very different place and time. Hot and tired, we drove through 40 miles of flooded orange groves where alligators lunged crossed the muddy roads, or silently left rings on the surface of the ponds we crept past.  The different legs of my journey into the wild wetlands and swamps felt like passing through a liminal space between two ways of being, just like it does in a good story.  It made me understand, viscerally, how the device of a journey can create a very specific response in a reader alive to the author’s imagination. I was on an adventure, and started to imagine I would meet the Amahagger, and hoped my journey would not become any more Conradesque.

Conradesque might not be the right adjective. But, with no sleep for over 40 hours, alone, in the middle of the night, secluded in a seldom used, darkened cottage in the middle of hundreds of acres of sub-tropical wilderness teeming with venomous snakes, man-sized, carnivorous amphibians, and spiders the size of basketballs, meeting Kurtz would not have surprised me in the slightest.  My Kurtz might have been Milo, the rancher whose homestead was the last building before turning down the lonely road into the reserve.  His dim porch lamp quickly faded in distance as we drove past.  The Jeep’s head lights were the only illumination in miles of dark, deep forest.  Location in a story suddenly became clearly important.  Across the Gulf of Mexico from these Everglades, Chopin’s Edna Pontillier walked out of the southern Louisiana bayou and drowned herself in the Gulf’s waters.  Now, I completely understand Chopin’s ‘Awakening’ could not possibly have been set anyplace else.

My emerging story really could not have been set anyplace else either. It was a surreal experience, in highly a romantic location. The location was central to the story of finding ways to communicate many messages, like scientists’ research and the organization’s mission, to a lay audience. I hoped getting home would put some structure around my story, just like a good narrator does when they reflect on their exotic journey or location. There is so much I want to read now with an eye on location or journey; ‘Jude the Obscure’,’ On Walden’s Pond’, or ‘Our Town,’ for example.  Nora Ephron was right, what you read in a book should remind you of something you have seen, or somewhere you have been.  Maybe that’s how good story telling begins.

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