I owe my love of Florida spring country to living there once upon a time. My family and I lived in Lake County, FL for years, and it was generally a happy time. Lots of hikes in the Ocala Forest, lots of visits to local springs such as Alexander, Juniper and Silver Glenn.
I didn’t worry much about politics back then. So what if I lived in a more conservative Florida county? No biggie. In local elections, I often voted for incumbents who’d reportedly (according to the local press, anyway) been doing a good job. These tended to be Republicans. Fine.
Times have changed. Today, partisanship has reached extraordinarily toxic levels, with some Americans espousing violence as a way to settle political differences. This is a kind of mass madness. When I expressed concern about what was happening on Jan. 6th, an old schoolmate of mine, now an avid Trump supporter, wouldn’t condemn the violence. Instead, he told me he refused to be imprisoned in “my gulag.”
My gulag? I assured him I have no gulag on my modest estate. What would I do with one? I have a hard enough time tending to our unruly little stand of bamboo trees.
Gulag? Such a strange word, a Soviet word that I assume had been ringing in the tirades of certain social media posters or cable news personalities. A word that shapes and warps the realities of the people hearing and using the term.
Black Flags in a Green Country
I was reminded of this weird exchange when we were driving the country roads of the Big Bend region of Florida. It was not a surprise to see Trump flags and political posters dotting the country landscape. People do not give up their political allegiances very easily these days. Trump, enmeshed in many scandals that would have sunk earlier politicians, has proven this beyond any doubt.
What was less expected was the number of black American flags. Sometimes they’d fly on people’s front porches, or we’d see them lined up at the end of long rural driveways, or even waving in the backs of pickup trucks roaring by. I had never heard of, much less seen, these flags before. My first impression was of something ominous and surreal, something intentionally harkening back to the black shirts of Mussolini’s Italy.
Later on, I googled it to see what those flags portend. I saw some left-leaning media interpreting these flags in very grim ways. For example, on Salon I found the following explanation:
In one troubling new development, Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, “socialist liberals,” Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be “enemies” of “real America.” As media critic Eric Boehlert recently noted, the liberal opinion site Living Blue in Texas is sounding the alarm about the specific meaning of the black flag and the Republican-fascists support for terrorism and other political violence.
If I had been able to ask the drivers of these black-flag-sporting trucks what it meant to them, would they say something similar? Or, would they talk about standing up for their freedoms in a land ruled by “socialists” who wanted to put them in “gulags”? (Just by the way, we now have a total of just four democratic socialists among the 435 congresspeople in the U.S. House of Representatives, not exactly a tsunami of any type of socialism.)
Trying to Interpret Symbols in Florida Spring Country
As far as I can tell, black flags harken back to pirate flags. Black flags were flown to show that the pirates would provide no quarter to those on the ships they attacked. This means that they would fight to the death and take no prisoners, killing everyone in their path.
Some say that black flags (though probably not black American flags) were sometimes flown by the Confederacy. The Sun reports, “Confederate army soldiers flew the black flag to symbolize the opposite of the white flag of surrender. The black flag meant that the unit would not give in nor surrender and that enemy combatants would be killed.”
So, who are the perceived “enemy combatants” of today’s black flag wavers? I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, those enemies are largely imaginary caricatures of other Americans, which makes the sight of such flags especially troubling.
We Floridians probably interpret American black flags in different ways. Still, I believe that those who display the flags generally express a willingness to violently resist or attack whatever forces they perceive as aligned against them.
The vast majority of Americans generally want the same things. That is, we want to live in a safe and secure environment. We want an economy in which we can find work. We want to feed our families, afford decent shelter, and enjoy some of goods things in life.
We want individual liberty balanced by enough collectivism to ensure things like good roads and bridges, a reasonably strong military, and enough social systems to help people who have fallen on hard times (as when they get sick or lose their jobs). In short, we still want–as Jefferson first put it–life, liberty and ability to pursue our own forms of happiness.
If we agree on all this, why is there so much outrage, animosity and division in our country today? Why do some people feel the need to fly black flags amid beautiful countryside?
Our Divisive Leaders
Much of it boils down to leaders and media personalities intent on gaining power, influence and money by making Americans believe we are far more divided than we truly are. After all, demonization works. It works to keep to the powerful emotions of fear and loathing engaged, emotions that override our reason.
Suddenly, we see threats everywhere. People who cross the border because they are desperate for work and a better life are viewed as dangerous “invaders.” The anxious parents of kids confused about their sexual identity are demonized as “groomers.” And people who simply disagree on political issues from tax burdens to energy policy are viewed as “enemies” rather than fellow Americans.
These grotesque exaggerations are used to keep our emotions charged so that cable channels can sell more advertisements and politicians can convince us that they are “fighting for us” rather than just cynically appealing to our darker selves so they can gain ever greater power.
In many respects, the Florida Big Bend area is an Arcadia. The people (at least the ones we met) are friendly and good natured. The countryside is expansive fields–some farmland combined with lots pastures populated by horses, cows, goats and chickens.
But we were specifically there for the freshwater springs, which are often fantastic places of cool, crystalline waters set like jewels in the primeval greenery of old Florida cypress and oaks, maples, sweet gum and honey locusts.
Springs are places of light. In the largest springs, there is a boil of water that can be seen from the surface, a boil that makes the light shimmer all around. Because the water is typically crystal clear, the light doesn’t just reflect off the surface, however, but fills the entire spring down to the very bottom. The best springs are living windows into sacred worlds from which flow, in tremendous volumes, that water so essential to our lives.
Glades of Shadow
But springs are also places of shadow and power. For every first magnitude spring, there are powerful pulses of water surging upwards from limestone caves. That’s why you will sometimes see intrepid cave diver types at the springs and sinks of Florida. They are, essentially, underwater spelunkers, a dazzling but dangerous hobby that has too often resulted in tragedy.
And then there are the spring denizens, not least of which are snakes and gators. Indeed, the caretakers of today’s Florida springs are not shy about informing visitors about the potential dangers via their signage.
So, it’s little wonder we were a tad nervous when we arrived at our first spring of the trip: Lafayette Blue. It was a weekday and, despite the fine weather, we had the entire spring to ourselves. That made the scene spookier than it would otherwise have been.
Lafayette Blue is unique in that the two parts of the spring are divided by a natural bridge made up of karst. It’s a remarkable sight. On the day we were there, the lighter part of the spring flowed out into the Suwanee River, frequented by schools of mullet and some larger fish that I took for bass. There were also smaller specimen such as sunfish and chubb. On the surface were thousands of waterbugs, moving dimples of light
On the other side of karst bridge is the deeper, darker part of the spring where I snorkled with less confidence, intimidated by shadows and rocky ledges. Even the two large turtles over whom I swam looked wary, unaccustomed to visitors in their dimly lit lair.
As we drove miles through rural Florida on our way to various springs, I thought about the ways in which Lafayette Blue reflects America itself: a mix of dark and light, a clearly divided yet ultimately connected and singular entity, an inspiring, beautiful yet intimidating and sometimes dangerous place.
I know it’s a strange and somewhat strained metaphor, but like the karst bridge over Lafayette Blue, the divisions between red and blue America appear rock hard. And, in fact, these perceived divisions could lead to the end of democracy itself in the U.S. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion. Lafayette is a single spring just as we are a single state in a still-united nation, no matter how much certain “leaders” want to turn us against one another.
The green and rural parts of Florida will always feel like home to me. Despite our rural/urban divides, all Floridians reside in the same fantastical, surreal landscape: a rainforest growing atop porous limestone through which flows cold, clear waters that burst and bubble up from these incredible, life-giving springs. Our divisions are mostly illusory, manufactured by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. The sooner we realize this, the better we’ll be able to savor the light and dark gifts of this preposterously beautiful state.