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USA: Conversations with the Potano Timucua, Brooker FL

October 25, 2010

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I lived in a house in the woods for some years, near the Santa Fe River and ten miles north of Gainesville, Florida.  The region had been home for centuries to the Potano branch of the Timucua Native American group, before the disaster of First Contact with the Europeans.

1) They came dancing across the water – a replica of Columbus’ caravel in Jacksonville FL

That day arrived sometime in 1539, courtesy of Hernando de Soto.  But the European scourge of disease appeared among the clans as early as the late 1520s when the doomed Narváez expedition (from which Cabeza de Vaca survived and eventually returned to Old Mexico) passed to the west.  The original Timucua population may have been as high as 200,000, in a territory that stretched from what is now Georgia to central Florida.

By 1700 they were virtually exterminated. The first European to mingle with the Potano near the modern town of Gainesville was an “itinerant” Franciscan missionary in the 1590s.  I am not aware that he left any records of his time with them.

The Timucua impressed the early Spanish, who admired their grace, health, and stature. Individuals were said to be well over two meters in height, and possessed of remarkable athletic talent.  They may have been a high civilization, albeit one without much in the way of material possessions; we will never know.

To return to the 1990s, across the sand track that ran through our neighborhood lived Don, a humble spirit who made his living with a  haphazard collection of plants on his five-acre lot. He called his terrain a nursery but the flora grew of their own volition despite his best efforts at order.  Much of his property was covered with Crook-stem bamboo that he had planted years before.  Every winter he made good amounts of money selling bare-root trunks at the local plant show.

2) Don working; he lived to the right of the dirt track, we to the left

Under his property – and perhaps ours – was a system of limestone caves, but we never explored those.

His land abutted the Santa Fe River where a large Potano settlement had been sited, at the confluence of the Santa Fe and a smaller creek that ran through our lot to his and the river.  The ground was low and swampy near the meeting of the two waterways and so the Native Americans had sensibly built their living quarters on the higher ground near the present-day road.

3) Native azaleas on high ground

4) The confluence of the waterways

He often found delicate Potano pottery while digging on his lot, finely worked black and red pots that had been handsomely decorated by rolling corn cobs over the fresh clay. This technique is common to many parts of the Americas and also to regions of Asia where corn was introduced in pre-Colombian times.

5) Timucuca pottery from Don’s property

6) Flooded forest near the river; only white people ever built here, long after the extermination of the indigenous population

I used to spend hours and days in the woods around my property.  We had a diverse collection of wildlife: six species of venomous snakes, bobcats, cougars, raccoons, and the inevitable armadillos and possums.  Once a Princeton ornithologist stopped by to visit.  In our driveway he listened to the forest for a minute and counted eleven species of birds in trees over the house.  Barred owls hooted nightly; during one forest walk we were privileged to see a Great-horned owl just above us on a tree limb in full day.  Those intrepid flying invasives, the Turkey buzzards, swooped everywhere beside their distant relations the Red-tailed hawks (one of which snagged my pet chicken Rusty while our Lab-mix mutt watched impassively from beside the poor fowl).

A University of Florida herpetologist once caught an eighty pound alligator snapping turtle on the river a short distance from my house.  They live very long lives, sequestered in deep holes near the river banks.

7) Three little ones; Shawn with Rusty and friend

I would listen for the footfall of past inhabitants, too.  The presence of the Timucua was a palpable thing.  The ashes from cooking fires colored the earth under our lawn, spear-points and arrowheads occasionally peeked to the surface after a heavy rain, and elder voices whispered in the tree-borne thickets of  hanging Spanish moss during the flat three a.m. darkness of  moonless nights.

8) Vanessa and LazyBelle listening to the Earth

9) Potano scrapers and points found on my land, made from two kinds of chert

Sometimes they would tell of good hunting or of young women who were becoming beautiful. Or they would recount meetings with the dangerous critters of the woods, the Canebrake rattlesnakes that slithered with ego and indifference through tall grasses, the Cottonmouths that hid in the undergrowth near the river banks, and cougars who fled into the shadows upon waking from their mid-day naps.

10) Sacred ground – the cenote at Ginnie Springs where a large beverage company has long coveted this water for bottling

Most talk centered around the land and how fortunate they were to have come across a treasure of such beauty and bounty.  Treat it with reverence they told me.  Your ancestors were not so careful.

Indeed, many years before I moved to the house, our front lawn and the site of the Tumucua cooking fires had been turned into a watermelon field, heavily and chemically fertilized.  The Cyprus trees along the Santa Fe had been cut for their prized lumber only a few decades before my arrival.  Tobacco was planted a half mile away, sprayed with pesticide from the air and poisoning migrant laborers and local trailer park residents alike.  The little creek that ran through my woods had become a dumping ground for old truck oil, deer carcasses, and even bio-hazardous supplies from a medical clinic down the way (that circumstance only happening once during my guardianship of the land).

What, I often wondered, had caused people’s spirituality to become so severed from the needs of the natural world?  I never did find an answer in my conversations. But then I lived the damage myself and so it was revealed.

11) The disconnect begins with an SUV

I became more ashamed; it turned out my own relatives had been among the original white interlopers.  A branch of my family had settled in nearby Fort White around the time of the American revolution; my grandmother’s maiden name was still recognized by the inhabitants of the area.

As time went by my talks with the Tumucua grew fewer and further between.  I traveled more and eventually became unhinged in the near-mythic crystalline canyons of South America.  I lost my psychic connection to the Potano and eventually I lost my watch status over the Potano village.  The natives shook their heads; they had seen this all before, of course.

12) The disconnect intensifies – football stadium at the University of Florida

11) Full disconnect, in the shape of Enron storage tanks near Brooker – eventually shuttered, a hundred people thrown out of work while the company pursued its fortune through fraud

“Find yourself again,” they said finally, “so that we might once more whisper to you late at night.  We will tell you where you are and where you must go. But only you can regain your self.”

14) Seeking atonement with Alex by cleaning trash  from the Santa Fe River.

Luckily I listened at last.  After many hardships and years adrift in a wilderness of insanity and desire, I have found that their vanished counterparts in the far West of America are still present, in different forests filled with rain, sword ferns, and giant conifers.  When I walk through the woods near Puget Sound I hear familiar yet new voices, gently advising me on the path my life should take.  But the sadness prevails; we can never regain our past.  Only keep in our hearts the lessons bitterly won and so avoid the endless repetition of ancient errors that is the hallmark and perhaps the fate of the human species.

13) The woods above Puget Sound

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