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Wednesday, 26 December 2007 00:00

When Florida was wild

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Crackers in the Glade: Life and Times in the Old Everglades edited Betty Savidge Briggs. University of Georgia Press, 2007. 127 pages.

Crackers in the Glade: Life and Times in the Old Everglades (University of Georgia Press, ISBN 13-978-0-8203-3043-3) tells the story of Rob Storter, fisherman, fishing guide, writer and artist, a man who witnessed and helped record the transformation of West Florida from a rough frontier to its current development as a haven for tourists, retirees, and developers.

Edited by Betty Savidge Briggs, a granddaughter of Storter, and with a foreword by Peter Mathiessen, the well-known novelist who knew and interviewed Storter on several occasions, Crackers in the Glade recreates a bygone era in Florida’s sprawling history by combining Rob Storter’s drawings and writings with a photographic history and some additional notes of his life by his wife, Marilea.

Through these accounts, paintings, and drawings we see firsthand the vast transformation of Florida’s coast and of the efforts to preserve the Everglades, America’s largest remaining subtropical wilderness. In particular we observe how harsh their hardscrabble life was for the people who tried to tame the waters and swamps of this land. From Marilea we learn both of the reality and terrible beauty of life in the Costal Everglades. Here she recounts events from her brother’s life:

“My brother married one of the Crews girls. The Crewses had eleven children. One child was struck by lightning, another turned a lamp over and burned to death, still another died mysteriously after swelling up around the neck. One son, born deformed, died at age seven, only able to make a terrible noise, and another son died of lockjaw.”

From Rob Storter’s accounts we learn what hunting and fishing in West Florida was like at this time. Readers of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling, the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel set in North Florida that remains one of the greatest of American novels in terms of its descriptions of the natural world, will find much that is familiar here in Crackers in the Glade: the abundance of wildlife — deer, alligators, bear, and panthers; the necessary closeness to the land; the enormous effect of storms and heat on daily lives. The violence of the climate and the land in turn bred violence among the men and women living there; Storter’s book overflows with tales of hunting accidents, death by disease, and murder, often in relation to bootlegging or other crimes. Storter, for example, introduces us to E.J. Watson, who may have killed the notorious Belle Starr in Arkansas. He tells us of the murder of Leland Rice, one of a gang of bank robbers, and of the subsequent murders or shootings of his accomplices. Storter writes that

“Tucker, the fourth robber, drowned in a squall after getting on a drunk, and his body drifted ashore. A Seminole, Charley Tiger Tail, found his body, and the ears, eyes, and nose had all been eaten by the blue crabs. There must have been one hundred crabs on him when he was found. George (Storter’s brother) wouldn’t eat blue crabs after that.”

The frosting to this gateau of writing is Storter’s artwork. With a feel of the primitive that brings to mind the paintings of Grandma Moses or the sketches and paintings of America’s early pioneers, Storter’s work helps bring alive the rural coastal South. Numerous illustrations of birds, fish, and snakes, drawings and watercolors of buildings and boats, and softly rendered landscapes give us a feel for those bygone times and places. Storter’s perspective is often off, and the drawings, particularly of men and beasts, are rough and awkward, but these flaws add to the charm of the book and the artist’s vision rather than diminish it.

Storter supplements his art with printed texts ranging from a few words to brief stories. Though informative in a cultural and historical sense, these notes are unremarkable and often distract from the art. In a drawing titled “Memories of a Good Hunt in 1915,” for example, Storter writes at the end of a long paragraph that “It’s about a mile on out to the cypress throgh (sic) almost knee deep of water. Joe killed one big buck — it was just to (sic) much water — but we sure had a good time and enjoyed good eating.”

Interspersed with the drawings are photographs of the author and his family from the late 1880s until Rob Storter’s death in 1987. Here we have faces to put to the names mentioned in the journals. Here, too, we catch glimpses via the camera of sawmills and general stores, giant manta rays and antique automobiles. The faces and carriage of the people bear that strained sobriety peculiar to the photographs of the time, a sobriety born not only from the habit of not smiling before the camera but of lives lived hard. When we read nostalgic accounts of the good old days — and there is some of that in Storter’s writings, though not in a saccharine way — we would do well to remember those hardened faces and to tell ourselves that perhaps the good old days were not so good after all.

Storter’s work will not appeal to everyone; it is not high art. Like his writing, the illustrations are lacking in too many areas to make such a claim. The absence of sophistication in technique combined with a sometimes deliberate effort to appear quaint can become annoying. The simplicity of the actions in the foreground occasionally bring to mind the work of a reasonably skilled fifth grader. People seeking great art, and possibly even good art, will find it elsewhere than in this volume.

That having been said, however, Crackers in the Glade will most assuredly entertain many of us. Those looking for a personal history of Florida before the bright lights and concrete, those who enjoy vivid accounts of nature and wildlife, and those who like good storytelling will find what they seek in these pages.

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