Moving is weird. It’s uncomfortable settling into new routines, and it’s made me retreat into a tiny shell this time around.
I’ve done it often enough, hopping across town, even jumping states. Flying from one end of the universe to the other. I’ve travelled often enough, too. But you get handed odd opportunities. You do things you never thought you would. That’s life.
So I’ve moved to Tallahassee. I liked it, when I visited, but it felt small and cramped. It’s smaller than Tampa in population, by just over half. Fort Lauderdale had fewer people… but the secret isn’t in how many people. It’s how many people in how big of an area. Tallahassee is far less dense than Tampa, and though Tampa boasts a higher population than Fort Lauderdale, Tampa is less dense by half than the latter city. Tallahassee? It kind of sprawls languidly over sinkholes and the south, its 180,000 people dotted around here and there, tucked into hills.
There are no high rises here. It’s not dense enough for that. Can I tell you a secret? High rises make me feel safe. High rises, skyscrapers, buildings that loom: they make me feel like a city is real. They set people to meandering about their bases like ants. Ants are an appropriate analogue for people. High rises give us a glimpse of our tininess, since we don’t realize it often enough by looking out at the sea, or up at the stars.
So moving here gave me doubts. But I’ve learned a neat trick to get to know a place. I’ve used it to become a Floridian in a way that other transplants never do. I wander backwoods. I traipse through wilderness on the days that no one wants to be out there. I stop and watch wildlife. I break in a place by letting it break in my shoes.
That’s how I came to love Miami and Fort Lauderdale: I cycled over 90 miles from there to the middle of the Keys, planting myself in Islamorada (though I have to admit, loving cities as I do, it wasn’t hard to fall in love with them). This is how I came to know Sarasota in my college years: hike the backwoods of Myakka, and fall in love with the Florida prairie.
Here, I drove only a short way south to the Apalachicola National Forest. Shortest drive out to wilderness I have ever taken. I could cycle there. The Leon Sinks Geological Area had caught my fancy. So I slung my bag over my shoulder, and wandered out into the forest.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. It had been raining for days, and much of the area was dotted with pines. It was not the pine flat woods I’d come to know on Florida’s west coast, all slash pine and palmetto, with its hot dry pine smell, and the needles crackling faintly under every step. These could be longleaf pine, or even loblollies. I wasn’t sure. But the scent was a rich loamy pine smell, earthy and sharp, and the needles were damp and giving. I took the low trail, the long way around. I wanted to see the sinkholes, yes, but the real treat was to come to know the land.
I have said before that the wilderness is a city busier than we can comprehend. I discovered in the woods here a city of splendid death, its morticians draped in red and gold. That’s what many fungi are in a forest: corpse consumers, feasting on dead trees. There are other kinds, who live in symbiosis, but I’m a foreigner here; I do not speak the language, so I could not ask to know whether their dance was one of life or death or both. They were everywhere, ruffles and lace, exhaling the breath of the wild.
In the lowlands, swamp bottom lands, the boggy ground was dotted with tupelo gums and cypress. You could follow the dark line of the bright high forest and the murky edge of the swampland. The air hummed with mosquitoes. In the shadows of the wide-bottomed swamp trees, I felt at ease. This was somehow more familiar. This is was something I knew.
And it was enough. Wandering through the forest, I could see the gradual change from the south Florida land I knew, could see aspects of the soil that were familiar to me from my travels in Georgia, could see the way the landscape flowed into what I’d seen in Tennessee. It was a link, a connection. Suddenly, my picture of the landscape made sense. That’s enough for me to feel easy with a place.