Road to Cocoanut Grove, 1910’s Stereopticon Image
ALONG the way of one of our garage sale excursions a couple years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting noted Coconut Grove artist Carol Garvin at her wonderful home there. (Her work can be seen at http://www.carolgarvin.com/ ) She had decided to let go of a number of treasures, including a few old books once part of the library of the Munroe family (one of whom built the still-standing Barnacle homestead on the shores of the Bay), from around the turn of the century. And there was a more recent, wonderful document published by a much-younger Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce, in the early 1970’s:
SITTING down with it and turning its pages was wonderful, and strange.
Having participated in the wonderfully unlikely Grove community for at least part of that era, it struck me that the vibrant, eccentric, and proud “village” brought back to life so vividly by the mosaic of stories, photos, and advertisements on these oversized pages, is now gone. Almost every bit of it: the defining sense of quirkiness, celebrating (rather than merely tolerating) colorful individuality. That palpable (if quietly held) sense of pride in really belonging to a community seen as worthy of such connection, with no trace of cynicism, reservation, or irony. And beneath it all, very close to the surface, an unabashed shared imperative to live and feel and experience “larger than life.” Within these yellowed pages (actually pinkish) the Old Grove still lived on. And quite obviously always would, if only in dream and memory.
So much was conveyed with pellucid clarity in what was said on these pages, and what was not. The pictures and words spoke of an era that now seems nearly as unreachable and distant as that of the once open streets of cobbled Pompeii, before the molten rivers and mountains of hot ash spewed by Mount Vesuvius swallowed it all up within its ravenous burning shadow.
A bad day for nearby Pompeii. Darkness before noon on the morning of Aug. 24 in the year 79 A.D., according to latest practices in scientific dating.
AS I thumbed through page after huge page of articles and exuberant advertisement for every manner of innovative and unique craftsmanship and creative expression: theater, cuisine and fashion, jewelry and floral arrangement, and so on, I could not help but be struck by the thought, with no small wonder, “My God. My God. It would be a full 10 years until the sickness came.” These young people, captured in their bold and brave and (generally) good spirit, quickening in the very prime of their art, were never going to sicken and die. And neither would their friends one after another, like bowling pins racked up badly out of order.
Ruins, Pompeii Image from Google Earth
The horizon had been as bright, bold, and inviting as that of the blue bay itself, at its most lyrical. The Florida sky above has always seemed to me somehow extraordinarily big, offering by day and by star-scattered night a great, never-ending and always-changing show. And so it was, then. Up, down, all around; the whole of it seemed to fairly sparkle with an infinite range of possibilities.
In so many ways, it was such an innocent time.
Cocoanut Grove Yacht Club, 1880’s.
Yet innocence, I suppose, is a relative term given meaning only in strict relationship to the lessons of its contrapuntal “shadow,” experience. And we, all of us, adult and child alike, are becoming experienced. Like it or not. It’s as if a process has begun with no clear starting date, nor a knowable end in sight. And it all seems to be somehow accelerating. As expressed by poet Billy Collins, “there are speed lines on everything.”
(By itself, the inevitable segue into the future is not necessarily a bad thing. Not at all. But in our case, the extent of the unknown and a entirely new range of dangers, and possibilities, seems to invite us, or possibly demand—that we seek better and more useful answers to some of the great o’er-looming questions even now hitting us all so hard right in the face: where do we now stand in relation to one another? What exactly is happening here, and what are we to do with it all? Where are we to go from here, and what, if any, are our real choices in the matter? Oh yeah, and how?
One “master key” available, I feel, is a deeper understanding and appreciation of the ancient rhythms that once sustained and guided us. In the generously paved, air-conditioned, and oil-fueled world that has become our environment, we have forgotten altogether to pay attention to the Earth, and the lessons that have from the dawn of time been offered quietly in its natural cycles. Hurricanes definitely get our attention (or at least have since Andrew hit the Florida coast with an awful shrieking howl in 1992), and there is an undeniable thrill to the the destructive implosion of sinkholes, but aside from catastrophe, we have forgotten how to listen to our Mother, or show her any respect. Or for that matter, to pay her any attention at all.
It was not always so, especially in the water-blessed subtropical slice of Earth along the Bay now known as the Miami area. The tides, prevailing winds, currents, and cycles of plant and animal growth and death all part of the natural world were so much part of us that the lessons could scarcely be missed.
There’s no real going back, I realize, but it may nevertheless be critical to celebrate, or grieve the loss of, the ways of being well-known to our ancestors before us.
What has been lost?
THE questions are both daunting and without number, and plausible answers both elusive and difficult to fathom. Yet for some reason I cannot know, but have learned to trust absolutely, I have hope.
Coconut Grove 1970
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PERHAPS I should clarify that I did not sit down to write another elegaic piece about AIDS and its long shadow. Been there, done that, am living it, and grateful to be alive.
I write more of a universal human experience confronted by anyone who sticks around long enough, and in South Florida it needn’t be that long, at all: the fading into history of yet another golden era, leaving its survivors stranded upon a middling sandbar of time, with no solid footing in either direction, and no place to go.
As so poetically expressed by Robert Frost, Nothing Golden Can Stay.
We all know that there’s no real going back, that we can’t go home again. Not really. Say a prayer, or better still lend a helping hand if you can, to those souls who see no way of moving forward, and cannot even begin to imagine their place in this jarring and chaotic parade of endless “progress.” Yet they cannot go back.
Welcome to the Peacock Inn P. Crockett The story of the moment in time captured by this painting is told elsewhere in this web log:
I cannot help but see that the Grove of that era as a “moment,” but still: one so exquisitely vibrant and alive that it did not seem so. How can any such time and place so rare, so radiant and full in its native glory, be subject to the ordinary tidal pulls, the dreary and inevitable ebb and flow of statistical historical precedent? Where do dreams go to die?
Perhaps that is why, for all of its canned “festiveness,” the Cocowalk mega-complex always touches me with a light but definite sense of sadness. I think, “I don’t want to be here!” Yet even if I stamp both feet in futile resistance and rail with all the righteous indignation I can muster against this sickly tide of the inevitable, it makes no difference at all. Here we still are.
This monolith consecrated to Mammon holds itself out as a bastion of “the new Grove,” in fact something of a presumptuous organizing principle: a more relevant and up-to-date version of the old-time community markets in which people bought, sold, and traded with people. Sure enough, when I go to Cocowalk I always see people. Usually a lot of them. Yet I feel part of no community. The neighbors who once greeted neighbors have all gone elsewhere, or died off. No oddballs are permitted. You find a parking space easily, if you’re lucky, and then you stroll. Meanwhile, you know those damn cameras are everywhere, programmed to film with insatiable lust, as if data were treasure, and filming were seeing. The sprawling facility is seamless and relentlessly efficient, no doubt. But who cares?
Every time I go there it leaves me flat, after all of these years.
IT strikes me: this is often how we learn that we have really loved. One day we find ourselves mourning, to greater or lesser degree, and looking back. I believe there might be a better way.
Miami River, and Egret
I write of one era, and yet: I’ve heard from the old timers how the real peak of the Grove was in the ’50’s. (Oh, Paul, my God! You should’ve been there! The boat outings that went on all weekend, the unforgettable dinner parties, the whole scene… It really was something to see.”) The “beat poets” had come and taken up residence, mixing harmoniously with the artists already local– a whole rainbow of them– yet still more came, of all kinds. Like some willful shimmering mirage insistent upon its own becoming, a thriving, cultured, and tolerant (real) community somehow willed itself into being there, within a suitably unlikely slice of tangled subtropical forest along the shores of Biscayne Bay.
Cocoanut Grove Trail, 1880’s.
And looking back further still, I have heard tales told by the even “older timers,” some of whom were young when the Seminole Indians still came in from the Everglades by cypress canoe to trade, and who remember drawing fresh water from “boils” out in the salty bay, replenishing their precious supplies of sweet water without need of heading back to shore. They were here before all this damned pavement, when the water was unimaginably clear and alive with every conceivable manner of sea life, and the Earth still breathed fresh and deep.
And once upon a time, I am told, it had not yet become too crowded to foreclose the sharing of the ample forest and rocky pine highlands with roaming panther, fox, black bear, and any number of other creatures that had arrived here well before any man. Since the dawn of time, after all, none of these species had known of (or been even able to imagine) any other that would have the motivation and means to lay claim to all of it, land and sea and sky above, all for itself. The very notion would have made no sense to them, at all. For the world they knew was the natural world, and that just wasn’t how nature worked.
“First Fox Caught in South Florida, 1884“. A truly pitiful sight. In a sense, the sad closing, forever, of a grand and ancient chapter of natural life, beauty, and freedom in a most extraordinary part of the Earth. The swift and clever fox was natural enemy to the dunder-headed possum. (To this day, the scent of fox urine remains the most effective means of sending unwanted possums packing.) I hate to think what it says of the world that only the latter now survives.
For the creatures knew not greed, nor malice. They, God bless them, were innocent.
Tenochtitlan, seat of the Aztec Empire (current site of Mexico City), November 1519, a thriving city in many respects absolutely unequaled in contemporary Europe. Cortez and his men would arrive on the 22nd day of the following month.
Strange, the way this line of contemplation hits me. There’s no quality of the morbid to it; we are already grieving, yet might not understand exactly why. Yet perhaps we should. Every challenge I have yet encountered, no matter its seriousness or magnitude, is easier and most usefully faced in the light. Also, we cannot help but realize that the transience of our experience here is at once the most unimaginable burden we carry, and the very well-spring of the abiding sweetness that gets us through it.
AND if the cities will come and go, perhaps we might set our sights on leaving behind, at the least, the finest and most golden treasure we possibly can. And quite possibly that treasure has nothing at all to do with gold of the cold metal kind.
Carpe diem. If you’ve got love in your heart, it is your greatest gift. Share it, all you can. Just because.
And I will aim to do the same.
Peacock Inn, 1880’s. Sweet dreams.