MC Davis, Our Hero

Ranger has been expectant each time we talk these last few days, since I told him I would tell the story of MC Davis. Today is a good day for that: Florida is not just hot these days, it is also humid and clammy. A dreadful algae bloom has developed throughout the southern part of the state, the inevitable result of run-off from the sugar plantations around Lake Okeechobee. But that is another story. Now we will snuggle up on the couch in my office and talk about the man from the Florida Panhandle that is transforming wildlife in Walton County.

Ranger: “Why is the term ‘cracker’ applied to this man? What does it mean?”

Me: “Usually the term ‘cracker’ is pejorative. It came, probably, from the times in the American South when poor white guys were hired to discipline and manage the slaves. They carried whips with rawhide on the ends… so you can see the name came to mean those who cracked the whip. By the way, I’m not sure it was a term in the Florida Panhandle that was negative, however…. it might have been a job to which poor whites aspired. But that’s beside the point. People who were born dirt poor in the American South were often called ‘crackers,’ and MC Davis was certainly that.”

Me: (continuing) “We’ve talked often in these pages about the rape and pillage of the American wilderness. The long-leaf pine tree was clear cut from millions of acres by those wanting to sell turpentine and great lumber. I guess people just thought there was more to be had, that nothing needed to be replaced. Did they believe it would just spring up overnight and replace itself? Maybe, but I suspect they didn’t think about that at all. They just thought about the profits that would come their way. The older I get, the more I see that greed and profit motivate most of what we pass off in this culture as progress.”

Ranger: “Stop. You’re veering off topic. Tell me about MC Davis.”

EO Wilson and MC Davis walk through a pitcher plant prarie on Davis' Nokuse Plantation which is 50,000 acres of conservation land.
EO Wilson and MC Davis walk through a pitcher plant prarie on Davis’ Nokuse Plantation which is 50,000 acres of conservation land.

Me: “Well, he made a ton of money, from land development to ice cream parlors. And then, on his own personal ‘Road to Damascus,’ he got stuck in so much traffic in Tampa on Interstate 4 that he decided to take a break. He found himself at a seminar on the black bear, and to pass the time entered the room. Well, to make a long story short, he experienced an epiphany. He became a conservationist and decided to do what he could to save Florida from itself. He recognized that to set the land free from serving us allows all of Earth (including humans) to be free. Earth does not belong to people. People belong to Earth.”

Ranger: “It almost sounds like a spiritual experience, yet the people so intent on opening up all the wild lands make themselves out to be spiritual, don’t they?”

Me: “I would say that position is not spiritual at all. It is greed, pure and simple. It is greed that motivates people to pursue profit as the central goal of life. It is using ‘religion’ to grab more for themselves.”

Me: (continuing, since I cannot help myself): “Davis researched the long-leaf pine forests, and decided that the Florida Panhandle would be a place he could buy up land and bring back these amazing trees. That led to land purchases, often hidden from public view through multiple land companies, which resulted in the Nokuse Plantation. OMG, Ranger!!!! This place is amazing.”

Ranger: “You said it was 53,000 acres. How far did you get into it? Does it look like Disney World?”

Me: “Don’t make me laugh! We got to go in because we had arranged for it, but the place is mostly off limits to people. This place is for the trees, and for the returning gopher tortoise, the cleansing fires, the snakes, the hawks and eagles and all such wildlife. There is an education center on it’s edge, built by Davis through a $13 million donation, that is doing an amazing job of telling this story, especially to school kids.”

Ranger: “So, will you be able to meet Davis some day?”

Me: “No. He died just a year ago, in 2015. He died like he lived, bold and gruff. His end-stage lung cancer was a fatal prognosis. So after setting all his affairs in order, with competent staff members on both the plantation and the education center who further the vision. More land is being purchased and added to the plantation. More school kids are seeing the trees grow, measuring the effects of fires, seeing the tortoises and snakes. But this story is one of those Florida stories that must be told, for it gives some hope for the “Half-Earth” proposal of E.O. Wilson. We talked about that last session, and will again. But right now I need to give you a walk.”

Interstate Highway 10: The Metaphor

Ranger demanded a story when we came back from the our week away from him. This is what I told him:

Interstate 10 is a well-honed meat cleaver through the Florida Panhandle. I’ve been on I10 in Arizona and California, where it ends, and now I’ve been on the eastern end of the road. The Florida section of I10 bisects this land, the Florida Panhandle, that time forgot. North of I10 are the scruffy towns of local legend, like Marianna, where the last Confederate governor shot himself rather than surrender, and, until it was closed in 2011, the home of an infamous “reform school” for boys, some of whom simply disappeared. Bodies are now being exhumed. South is the terrible tinsel of the “Redneck Riveria” on the Gulf of Mexico, where megamansions, posh resorts and spas, and seafood restaurants proliferate.

I10 has the feel of a deliberate advertisement for progress in Florida, it’s groomed berms fronting sweeping pine farms. Multiple underpasses for wildlife keep the wilderness creatures funneled between water and savanna habitat, without much evidence of road-kill to those of us traveling at 75 MPH above. State lawmakers headed for Tallahassee can rest assured their travel is smooth. They may even compliment themselves on their progressive “green” leanings. We spot Confederate flags and shop carefully for a motel where smokers are kept away from the front door and restaurant.

Our goal is the Nokuse Plantation, 53,000 acres devoted to the recreation of the longleaf savanna that once dominated the southeastern US. The savanna was clear cut for the superior lumber these trees provided, after their sap was drained for terpentine. When replanting happened, the short-term goals of famers were better served by the fast growing slash pine, but mostly the land remained untended until snapped up by developers for track homes.

The story of the Nokuse stands in sharp contrast to the “For Sale” signs put out on most of Florida by the Scott administration in Tallahassee.

The ecosystem of the longleaf was a wonder. Longleaf pine was a hardwood of great density, and extremely combustible. There are actually logs of the longleaf, lost during that great harvest to river accidents, that now are being dredged up after a hundred years, found to be perfectly preserved. Such was the quality of this tree. Longleaf forests thrived on fire, which cleared out the understory, while gopher tortoises sheltered in their giant burrows and grew to ripe old age.

Developers simply poured concrete into the burrows and called it a day.

Ranger: “You can stop now. Will you also tell me how the Nokuse came to be?”

Me: “Yep, that’s for next time.”