Home of Hurricanes. The Invasive Species State. Land of the Rising Sea. Live Free or Die in a Sinkhole. Any of these phrases could proudly serve as the officially legislated nickname for Florida. But the legislature in Tallahassee seems really married to the Sunshine State. Even though Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas all get more sunshine than Florida does, a knowledge nugget I unearthed in the new book Oh, Florida!: How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country (St. Martin's Press).
The book's author, Tampa Bay Times journalist Craig Pittman (an apt name for someone revealing the reality of a place famous for orange juice), is a Florida native. Which, as he points out on page 2, puts him in the minority: “Only about a third of Florida's 19 million residents are natives. Some of those six million—nobody knows how many—are kids born in the last decade.” The true number will stay under wraps until the 2020 census, the findings of which I just realized will spawn innumerable “Hindsight is 2020” leaden jokes from news anchors.
The population boom in the Shady Land Deal State is one reason I'm so leery of hitting the highway when I visit. It seems like driving every other car is a youngster distracted by the competing demands of texting and applying acne unguents. While every other-other car is piloted by a member of the Greatest Generation, whose reflexes and eyesight have been on the decline since Ike handed over the keys to the White House. Pittman notes that as of 2012, Florida had 65,000 licensed drivers between 91 and 100, and the state “had 455 licensed drivers who were one hundred or older.” Yikes.
Speaking of the White House and bad driving, by the time you read these words Florida may have once again T-boned the nation. (See presidential elections of 1876 and 2000.) I can't know for sure, because I'm writing in early October, and I don't have a crystal ball. But I could buy one in the Florida town of Cassadaga, which, Pittman writes, “has so many crystal balls per capita that it's known as the Psychic Capital of the World.” Fortunately, Florida is also home to James Randi, the former magician and escape artist who has devoted his life's second act to making such claims of paranormal phenomena disappear.
Oh, Florida! covers the state's chicanery (including political and business corruption, often intertwined) and general goofiness (including the history of Disney's outsize influence). But Pittman squeezes in a lot of science, too—for example, invasive species. “Scientists say Florida has more invasives than any other state,” Pittman writes.
Iguanas are a growing nuisance—I've seen half a dozen cavorting in a patch of sandy soil at the incredibly busy corner of Glades Road and U.S. 441, for you West Boca Raton fans. But the most famous invasive now has to be the Burmese python, which is all over the Everglades and, Pittman says, wiped out “the rabbits, raccoons, and foxes that lived there. Pythons have tried to gobble up the alligators too, but the gators fight back.”
You may have seen the 2005 photograph that went viral of a python-alligator mash-up. The 13-foot snake swallowed the six-foot crocodilian, which spent its, and its host's, last moments clawing its way out, “making the snake explode,” Pittman describes. See the book for stories about the invasive hogs, monkeys and GALS—giant African land snails—smuggled in for their alleged healthful mucus, which people drank and got sick from.
The sea around Florida has risen about eight inches “since reliable record keeping began in 1880,” Pittman offers. And the rise is accelerating. Meanwhile the land “is about as solid as Swiss cheese. Geologists call it karst—limestone caverns that easily crumble.” Which means sinkholes. One in Winter Park in 1981 swallowed “250,000 cubic yards of soil, five Porsches from a foreign car repair shop, the deep end of an Olympic-size swimming pool, chunks of two streets and a three-bedroom home.”
I'll be heading down to Florida for Thanksgiving. I want to see it while it's still there.