Each of the four mornings that we have been here at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (near Gainesville in north-central Florida) there has been a distinctive messenger from nature. Yesterday, it was a serenade from the sunrise chorus of birds and on our first two mornings here, the rhythm of rain in sporadic downpours that we New Englanders associate with summer thunderstorms. The remoteness of this place (no road sounds from highway traffic, no distant train whistles and only 30 campsites) allows one to really experience nature on a fully sensory level – one hears, smells, feels, and sees it here.
Following the tradition we started at the last millennial mark, we celebrated our 2,000-mile marker last evening with dinner at The Jones, in Gainesville. We have eaten here in the past when visiting our kids and grandchildren and it is always wonderful: grilled shrimp and grits for Peter; and shitake mushrooms, spinach, goat cheese and chicken for me. This time I enjoyed a locally crafted draught IPA beer and loved it but now that I am back in Jai Alai country (from Cigar-City Brewery) we stopped and bought some for our refrigerator. I’m a happy camper!
The 5-night stay has been restorative for us still-weary travelers. After a day at Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia (photos from which are rotating in the blog header now) we drove down to Paynes Prairie which sits in the center of what was historically called the Alachua Savanna. This Savanna is about 50 miles around of a richly fertile plain that has proven to be a treasure chest for archeologists studying the history of the native peoples who lived in north central Florida. The rich land of grasses, fresh water and springs supported game animals that fed the indigenous inhabitants for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. Today, a herd of American bison and a herd of wild horses (shown above) roam the rich savanna. On this coast of Florida, the Spanish arrived at St. Augustine in 1513 but the first fort was actually built by the French in 1564 up at the mouth of the St. Johns River, north of St. Augustine. When the French got wind of the fact the Spanish were constructing a fort of their own 40 miles away in St. Augustine in 1565, they sent troops to challenge them. Nature intervened and in an event that may have changed the course of history, the French were blown off course in what was most likely a hurricane, missing their chance to land at St. Augustine. The Spanish, realizing this, made a hasty decision to march north and surprise the French garrison, killing many and then marching the survivors to a beach south of town and summarily executing them all. The place has since been named Matanzas, or “the slaughtering place”.
Intermingled with this European activity we are learning more about the story of the natives who were here. We visited the nearby town of Micanopy, a charming little village that early English visitors re-named (from its native name of Cuscowilla) “Micanopy” for the head chief of the village where about 30 Timucuan lodges had been. By the time the Spanish arrived, there were perhaps 200,000 native peoples in numerous tribes speaking seven languages on the peninsula. The understanding is that these tribes were descendents of the Creek people who inhabited lands we now know as Alabama and Georgia and north Florida. Their ancestors most likely inhabited the area for 12,000 years. The etymology of the word “Seminole” actually comes from the Spanish word “cimarrones”, or free people, because the natives the Spanish met on the Atlantic coast would not allow themselves to be dominated by the Spanish. The word was taken in and over the years, by the mid-1800s, had been Anglicized to “Seminole”. As colonization continued, 80% of the native populations died from disease and/or war. The various tribes from the region joined forces to attempt to defend themselves. We know how that turned out. There is a great website about all of the history of native peoples at semtribe.com.
After our bike ride this morning along the beautiful Gainesville to Hawthorne Bike Trail, we reflected on what we have learned about the rich history of just this small section of Florida. It would take years to fully discover it. And then, each discovery opens the possibility of an awareness of our own place and purpose on this planet because we can never return to the moment just before we learned something of the history of a place. Welcome to week 3 of our pilgrimage.