What follows is an exclusive excerpt from Florida’s Mangroves: A Slightly Salty History by Thomas Kenning, out now from Arcadia Press.
On a map or from high above, the Florida peninsula is little more than an unlikely spit of sand perched precariously between ocean and gulf. When the sea level rises just a few feet more, Florida’s precious Everglades, its freshwater aquifers, and its many springs may all be inundated by salt—its lush green overtaken by sand, scrub, and saltwater marsh. A few more degrees of temperature, and the whole thing—most everything south of the panhandle’s rolling hills—effectively slides under the waves.
For millions of years, in fact, this was the state of things—no dinosaur fossils will ever be found in Florida, because when those behemoths walked the Earth, the majority of the modern peninsula was underwater.
It’s where things are headed once again, more or less.
Florida is an incredible balancing act between land and sea. This high wire routine is perhaps nowhere more visible than in the vast swathes of mangrove forest hugging the most sheltered portions of peninsular coastline—from Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast, down south through the Everglades and the Keys, sweeping north again on the Atlantic Coast, past Cape Canaveral. Incredibly sensitive to frost, but hardy enough to grow in salty, silty soil where no other broad-leafed tree can, Florida’s mangroves congregate in the intertidal zones of bays, on the leeward edge of unassuming keys, in brackish estuaries—wherever the wave action is calm enough and the salinity amenable.
For around 12,000 years, likely since humans first entered the Florida peninsula, mankind has occupied a prominent niche within mangrove ecosystems. Through the wonders of archaeology, we know that the astounding productivity of Florida’s mangroves was apparent to Florida’s earliest peoples.
Middens are the refuse piles of the prehistoric world. These large heaps—filled with shells and bones from oysters, welch, jack, and other marine species whose life cycles wend their way through the prop roots of the red mangrove—reveal the hearty diet of Florida’s coastal peoples. Based on this evidence, as well as on archaeology conducted elsewhere in their settlements and on the written accounts of Spanish explorers, there is little to suggest that these ancient societies farmed maize, beans, squash, or any other staple foods on any meaningful scale, if at all.
Rather, the food surplus of Florida’s coastal civilizations—the Calusa, the Manasota, the Tocobaga, and so many others—is largely a testament to the prodigious nutritional abundance bursting forth from Florida’s mangrove forests. The mangrove was a stand-in for the fertile river valleys which gave rise to other complex civilizations elsewhere in the world, from the Yellow to the Nile.
To say it again, mangroves were the cornerstone of civilization in ancient Florida.
They rise, limbs interlocked like a mighty phalanx engaged in a slow northward march along Florida’s coast. Collectively, they are battered and diminished after a century-long struggle. Yet, dutiful and resilient, they stand strong against hurricanes, storm surge, as well as their deadliest foe, the dreaded South Florida real estate developer. They are mangroves—a truly remarkable and underappreciated form of plant life.
Nursery to dozens of species of commercially harvested fish! Important anchors for the filter feeders who keep our waters clean! More effective than any seawall in halting coastal erosion! Bulwark against destructive waves and wind alike! What else do you need?
Florida’s Mangroves: A Slightly Salty History lays out the glorious past, tenuous present, and hazy future of Florida’s mangrove forests. Reporting from the Ten Thousand Islands to Cedar Key, from Weedon Island Preserve to Flamingo Point at the southern tip of Everglades National Park, and incorporating 140 lavish photos, historian Thomas Kenning offers a lively primer on the way that human activity in Florida has shaped—and, in turn, has been shaped by—the state’s great, hopefully not late, mangrove forests.