Pointing the Way to Hope

Pointing the Way to Hope @Lynne Buchanan
Last night my mother and I watched this sunset on Sarasota Bay and I immediately sensed how symbolic it was of my experiences earlier that day on the Caloosahatchee River and touring John Paul's orange groves.  My mother and I arrived at Indian Beach along the bay about twenty minutes before sunset.  The cloud layer was rather heavy and for much of the time, there was no light emanating.  The tide was so low, I walked out into the bay anyway, mesmerized by the marker in the foreground which is typically only found on mountains and marks some significant point at which you have arrived.  Then suddenly, the sun peaked through the only hole in the clouds and cast a golden glow on the water.  The feeling that instantly came to me was one of hopefulness, despite all the dark clouds on the horizon.  With the right intentions, we can move forward to create a healthier earth and more peaceful environment.

This was such a fitting end to my day on the Caloosahatchee with John Paul, a very wise orange grove owner who graciously spent the day with me and explained all the new farming techniques he is employing, which I believe could benefit all types of growers.  Before we went to his groves, we kayaked on the Caloosahatchee, the river he grew up on.

Oxbow Near La  Belle ©Lynne Buchanan
This particular oxbow north of La Belle suggested the peaceful, more primitive beauty of the Caloosahatchee before it became so developed.  Many of the other oxbows are totally grown over or are covered with invasive Brazilian Peppers.  This one still had some palm trees and other natural growth.  John Paul said when he grew up they swam in the river all the time and even drank from it, something that would be very dangerous to to do now.  Leaving the natural oxbows is so important for the health of the river, as is restoring the ones that have been altered.  Nevertheless, that is not enough.  The water quality itself must be improved.

Abandoned Sailboat, Caloosahatchee River ©Lynne Buchanan
When I was on the river last, I also photographed an abandoned boat, which had been salvaged and then left again.  Traveling north from La Belle this time, I past a host of other boats that had been left to the elements. Notices were posted that the owners would be fined daily, but the boats had been there for months, with all identifying information removed.  Many were likely left over from Hurricane Charley.  Perhaps the owners got paid off by the insurance companies and bailed.  It just seemed so telling–a dead river dotted with dead boats.

An Explosion of Clouds, Palms and Invasive Plants ©Lynne Buchanan
Yet, with the reflections in the still water, the clouds, and the palms, I could understand why some might want to live along the river's edge.  However, having your lawn abut the land directly with fertilizer seeping into the river each time it rains or you water the lawn, is dangerous to the environment.  The overgrowth on this creek off the Caloosahatchee was so thick we got mired very soon after we started paddling up it.  

Immature Ibis Floating in Innocence ©Lynne Buchanan

Before we got stuck in the overgrowth, we came upon this beautiful immature ibis.  Since I started working on this project, I have kayaked parts of the Caloosahatchee River three times and I have rarely seen any birds, except near where the river reached the Gulf, so I was happy to see this young bird no matter how strange the water looked.

Invasive Plants with Bacteria ©Lynne Buchanan
A few hundred yards from where we saw the bird, we saw this horrible water.  I am not a scientist and am not fully versed on all invasive species and bacteria types, but when I saw this water I was completely certain that it was not something that was indicative of a healthy environment.  In fact, I was afraid to touch this water and was very careful to try and keep the drips from my oar out of the boat and off my skin.  I instantly felt worried about the bird and any other life forms that were trying to live along this creek. When people live in their homes with their doors locked and only see nature on television, they do not see what we are doing to her.  It is heartbreaking.

John Paul in his New Experimental Grove ©Lynne Buchanan
People often blame agriculture on the water quality problems, and they do contribute along with  lawns and asphalt runoff.  However, there are a few inspirational people out there like the orange grove owner John Paul, whom I spent the day with yesterday.  This is where I see the hope for our future and I am so deeply grateful to him for his vision and his desire to think out of the box and fix what is broken.  He is even an active member of the Caloosahatchee River Citzens Association.  He grew up on this river and wants to see it healthy again.  

John Paul walks the talk.  Orange grove owners in this area have seen an up to 70 percent decline in their crops of late due to greening.  John Paul believes it has a lot to do with drought, climate change, and taking too much water from the aquifer for development.  The water table all over Florida is dropping, and this is causing the roots of the trees to become unhealthy, he believes, and for this reason they are becoming more susceptible to bacteria and other stressors. Trees that used to live 50 years are now living 15-20 years and are less than half the size.  John Paul was worried and being a very intelligent well-traveled person, who spent time in the Peace Corps, he decided to try some experimental tactics.  One thing he imported to Florida was underground irrigation like they do in arid climates such as California.  The field above is a new high density field with underground irrigation that John Paul recently planted.  He dug into the soil and showed me how damp it was through many layers, unlike the very sandy earth in his older groves.  Even better, it allows the grower to control exactly how much water goes into the soil, versus surface watering which requires ditches that collect excess amounts of fertilizers and other nutrients and then dump them into the river, if they are not captured and cleaned.  John Paul does attempt to capture and re-use much of the water on his property.  However, since economic times have become so difficult due to greening and other issues, they have not been able to invest as much money in water quality measurement.
The Magic Tree ©Lynne Buchanan
The tree above is a year and a half old.  Typically trees this young do not produce fruit. However, the underground irrigation allowed the trees in this grove to thrive and become so healthy that they produced fruit way earlier than usual and copious amounts at that.  In addition, John Paul was also able to reduce his water consumption by 40% from the preceding year.  Many of the trees with above ground drip irrigation were suffering from greening, but not these trees.  The way of the future must be high density crops with low water usage, because we are running out of both land and water. Underground irrigation prevents loss of water from evaporation, as well as reducing the need for spraying pesticides because the trees are so much healthier to begin with.  This grove is 70 to 80 percent organic already and they are hoping to reduce pesticides more each year. John Paul has even imported Pongamia trees from India that are natural insecticides as well as being good sources of biodiesel fuel.  Additionally, if the orange trees are planted closer together and are smaller in size with more fruit, the costs of harvesting also decline because ladders are unnecessary and/or have to be moved less frequently and certainly not raised as high, which lowers workers compensation payments.  Though the upfront costs of underground irrigation are high, John Paul will likely make that back with higher producing, healthier crops in closer proximity that cost lest to harvest.

The population on this planet is increasing, and we still need food.  We cannot tell all farmers to cease production, but we need to find sustainable methods of farming that don't harm our water supply and the environment.  I applaud grove owners and farmers such as John Paul for trying to find the best way to utilize their land, grow nutritious, organic food and leave the smallest footprint possible.  He was willing to talk to me and participate in my upcoming museum exhibition, because he hopes this will open a dialog between all farmers so they can all learn from each other and discover better production methods.  Let communication and learning begin...