By Harumi Abe, AIRIE Fellow
I have been living in South Florida about one third of my life now but I gained a new understanding of its history and landscape in this past month at the Residency. I stayed in a studio style home in the Everglades National Park during the month of July 2013. I had often visited Chokoloskee and Keys with my husband, who is an avid fisherman; but this residency was my first step into to the Everglades National Park and Flamingo area.
The first week of my stay was a difficult one. Being away from my husband and staying in the middle of nowhere was lonely and challenging, to say the least. Also, I am allergic to mosquito bites and the bites get very swollen. I brought my two dogs with me for company and I was afraid that they would become great snacks for the alligators. The night sky is much darker than in the city and full of buzzing insects and I feared the vast unknown.
The park ranger Kevin who greeted me the first day was extremely casual and told me that there was nothing to fear in this wilderness. Each day I drove into the park and tried to explore, but my hesitation and paranoia over deer flies and many other assorted unknown flying things was overwhelming. I decided to return to Hollywood after spending four days alone at the park.
As soon as I reached the corner of the “Robert is Here” (Florida city’s famous fruit stand) which was a mere 10 minute ride, I started seeing signs of civilization. Starbucks, traffic jams, billboards and all these things I never even notice, became fresh sights. By the time I arrived home my paranoia and fear of Nature was totally gone and my dog looked at me like I was crazy for all my fears. So the next night (after indulging the Wi-Fi and cable TV) I drove back to the Everglades.
I’m still trying to figure out why I was so nervous and scared that day. I love watching National Geographic TV shows and going fishing with my husband, and camping. But realized that I have never experienced these activities alone. The reality is that I am such a city person and I am used to living in comfort and convenience.
Luckily, the residency had great resource of books about the Everglades. I was able to read few books. One of the most influential books was “Voice of River”, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s biography. Also another environmental science book I read mentioned that original edge of the Everglades starts little south of Orland. John James Audubon Society or the activist Douglas talked about the importance of this park for a long time.
The city of Miami is not very old compared to the long history of Japan where I grew up. When Douglas arrived in South Florida, a little less than 100 years ago, Miami’s population was about 5000 and today, it is approximately 386,417. I do not know enough to talk about the history of Miami, but I can only assume from the population growth that the surrounding nature has been severely impacted.
It is difficult to summarize my experience of the residency. One thing for sure is that this adventure has provided me with the opportunity to explore and learn much more about the place where I live.
Every time I left the studio, I was able to encounter wildlife. A 6-inch land turtle crawled into the front yard. I saw over 25 different species of birds; a Roseate, a Spoonbill, a Barred Owl, a Cardinal, a Red-tailed Hawk and even a Bald Eagle. I was surprised by the fact that many of the birds are not afraid of cars. I could get surprisingly close in my car, but as soon as I step out on foot, they flew away. I found that if I stood perfectly still for a few minutes, blending into the surroundings, the birds returned. It seems like birds understand tourist patterns and learn to coexist with us.
The Everglades is home to many species of animals living all together. The number of bird species is declining due to farming pesticides and urban sprawl. It was only 100 years ago that this city really began to develop. I just hope 100 years from today, it will be maintained the same way or even better; so more people can experience its unique wonders.
I’m not quite sure how this residency will affect my art making in the future. I have been filing away small bits of landscape and my personal experiences in my memory bank. My work comes from very personal responses, so these fragments of landscape and fearfulness will be most likely appear in next few sets of paintings.