The Secret Histories of Everywhere
My mother always used to tell me that I had an “over-active” imagination, with an emphasis on the over. In hindsight, I don’t think she meant that as a good thing. She used to say that when I was being annoying. Like the time I insisted on bringing a backpack to the supermarket with a wolverine mask from a 1991 costume set that I stole from my older brother and a bathrobe inside. Halfway through shopping I’d pretend I had to pee, go to the restroom, change into the robe, throw on the mask, then reappear as “Cat-Man,” ready to protect the shoppers from any evil-doers should my service be necessary. I insisted she call me that, by the way. I didn’t even like cats or X-Men for that matter—I just thought the mask was cool. When I looked at it, I saw a universe of possibilities. “Overactive,” my mom said.
At that age, around nine or ten, my favorite thing to do was go exploring and visualize the world around me as some place completely different, populated with all sorts of imaginary beasts and offbeat companions. Dinosaurs were big for me, as were Pokémon, obviously. Whatever movie I had recently watched or video game I played would come alive for me in the real world as if my pre-adolescent brain were equipped with A.R. technology.
In school, some kids doodled, I day-dreamed. Then, one day, my fourth-grade teacher taught us a lesson on earth science that blew my little mind wide open. It was on the geological time scale and it began as boring as it sounds—until she said in a quintessential elementary school teacher voice the magic words: “I want you to use your imagination.” With all the appropriate dramatism, she explained that the sea level was much higher millions of years ago, and because we were in south Florida, that meant that where we were sitting, “was… Completely. Under. Water. Can you imagine what it would look like if we were under one hundred feet of water?” Immediately, my overactive imagination kicked in. All around me, water was rising. The classroom became a fishbowl and we sank, my fellow fourth graders and I, into the dark depths of the bottom of the ocean. Giant strands of seaweed swayed around us while plesiosaurs and megalodons swam through the classroom chasing schools of fish around coral reefs; it was the coolest thing I had ever learned. We watched time lapse-videos of the earth changing, coming to life, and moving in ways so dynamic it seemed like it had an overactive brain of its very own.
It’s been a long time since I daydreamed like I used to but the image of my fourth-grade class flooding with seawater came back to me recently. I work with the Florida park system and attended a training in the Florida Keys (not as extravagant as it sounds) at a place called Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. A mouthful, I know. The land used to be a limestone rock quarry in the early 1900’s. Walls of exposed limestone surrounded the courtyard and within it you could see layers of fossilized coral that make up the bedrock of the entire Florida Keys. For the first time in years that old imagination kicked in. I visualized the prehistoric ocean around me, brought to life by the fossilized wall, as if I was in that fourth-grade classroom again.
When the training broke for lunch, I chose to feed my curiosity and went exploring. There was a small museum in the park that showcased artifacts and old pictures from when the quarry was active. Apparently, they used a massive drill to cut blocks of stone out of the ground which could then be used as materials in construction projects. Premier among them: Henry Flagler’s Florida Key’s Railroad.
Honestly, I can’t remember many details of the workshop but for the entire drive home (almost three hours in Key Largo/Miami traffic) I couldn’t stop thinking about the different ways that places change over time and the secrets they keep in doing so.
Almost as soon as I got home, I downloaded Google Earth Pro (the free version) and spun the digital globe to North America then zoomed all the way in on its strange appendage-like peninsula so that all of Florida south of Lake Okeechobee was visible. From way up high, it looked like a piece of raw tree agate that had been dropped in a turquoise stream. After a bit of searching, I found the feature to enable the historical archive. A little sliding bar appeared at the top of the screen with the years 1984 on one end and 2020 on the other. I scrolled all the way back and watched roadways shrink and disappear, shopping centers vanish, and neighborhoods get swallowed up by an ocean of grass, otherwise known as the great Florida Everglades. Of course, that meant that what happened in the real world was the opposite. In the real world, the greenspace each year didn’t grow, it withered, getting covered by parking lots and apartment buildings. Bleak ennui settled in and I wondered if all these natural spaces were doomed to eventually get paved over and destroyed by the “inevitable forward march of progress,” when I noticed something—no matter what year I toggled to, whether it be 2020, 1999, or 1984, the boundary between urban and wild stayed the same: Route 27 in Broward County. Even in an aerial photograph I found from an ArcGIS internet archive dating back to 1947, to its east is urban sprawl and to its west is the Everglades, now, then, and who knows, maybe forever?
That gave me hope. I know how much can change in 40 years, I have seen it with my own eyes dozens of times (sort of). It’s pretty obvious that most things are guaranteed to change but when I look at that dividing line, when I see that it hasn’t budged since 1947, it makes me think that maybe not everything must be compromised in the interest of “progress.” It’s easy to be cynical, especially now. Even as I pen this piece and attempt to make an argument for optimism, there are reasons to be dismisssive. On May 25th, 2023 the “illustrious” and “very democratic” Supreme Court ruled that the EPA no longer has the authority to regulate and protect wetland ecosystems including bogs, marshes, swamps and notably, the Florida Everglades.
However, it would be hyperbolic to say that all is lost. Not yet at least. I for one, will keep looking at that zoomed out, space-alien eye’s view of the world and find solace in how green it is. How so much of it remains alive and not covered by hard concrete and cold steel. I will keep thinking about all the people I have met through my work with the Florida park system who care as deeply as I do about the sanctity of these green and blue spaces.
It might be challenging to visualize a future where the bad things change and good things stay the same, but it is a challenge that we must meet if we are to survive. In different forms and styles, artists and storytellers are doing the difficult work of imagining futures that dare to be hopeful. I think there is a lot out there that can inspire not just the mind but the soul as well—like that wolverine mask did for me all those years ago.
It is true that my mom called my imagination “overactive” whenever I was being annoying, but if I annoyed her, I had no idea, even if she did emphasize the over. At the time, I didn’t think having an overactive imagination was a bad thing at all. I thought of it as a kind of a superpower; the ability to visualize a totally different world. Cat-Man vindicated! I was definitely annoying her. It’s nice though—to imagine I wasn’t, to hope for the best. Not a bad superpower to have these days.
Brian Lynn is a writer and idealist from south Florida. He finds inspiration in the natural world around him, where he spends most of his time. He lives with his dog Zora and his two fish, Bill and Ted.