Rylan Steele’s Ave Maria is an investigation of the 5000-acre unincorporated town that goes by the same name. Founded in South Florida by pizza mogul Tom Monaghan, Ave Maria was built in 2005 and marketed as a utopia for strict Catholics to retirees and young families alike.
In Fred Hobson’s Tell About the South, he writes of a well-to-do white writer named Lillian Smith, born in Jasper, Florida, a mere eighty miles from my home in the hills of Leon County. I had never heard of her. Unlike her contemporaries W. J. Cash, author of The Mind of the South, and Clarence Cason, author of 90° in the Shade, Smith did not go the full Quentin Compson and commit suicide after publishing a poetic, guilt-laden jeremiad—but instead authored book after book laying bare the South’s transgressions. She was fearless, a rabble-rouser and rebel who integrated her life and art.
I notice a few other attendees like me—people not in the PSA, interlopers, curious neophytes who have never grown from seed, who have no business even dreaming about discovering new cultivars. On Saturday, one woman interrupts a discussion about propagation methods and says, “Hey, sorry, newbie here. What do you mean by inflo?” The audience collectively gasps.
The first day I showed up for the Earth First! rehearsal in Lake Worth, Florida, a small coastal town thirty-five miles north of Fort Lauderdale, I walked in late to find a dozen tattooed people pretending to be a machine. Tentatively at first and then with increasing enthusiasm, they pantomimed the pulling of levers and the pushing of buttons and other nonsensical but orderly tasks.
Down a dirt lane, I park under a pine grove. I spot the old man I’m looking for standing beside the front door of a small white home, dressed in charcoal slacks, braided belt, and red suspenders over a pin-striped dress shirt, snow-white hair slicked back. He gazes with shiny, vacant eyes at the treetops, as if he has just stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, only he has no cigarettes. The last chief of the Apalachee beckons me in.
Once you could sit in a boat right over the spring source, hemisphere of sky above, hemisphere of water below, and it would be as if you hung suspended between the elements inside a perfect globe of morning-glory blue. Once, but not now, not anymore.