The boy wakes early to walk to the beach before sunrise. His father sets the alarm, wakes him early, helps him pack his camera bag. The boy already knows his way to the Atlantic, has cut his forearms on palmetto and sudden brush, trying to find the quickest route to the water. But it’s dark and he’s tired, he simply takes all he can into his arms, puts the heavy strap of his shoulder, clutches his new tripod.
Yesterday, the family drove some miles from Jacksonville to Marineland, a strip of land between the Intracoastal Waterway and the blue tumble of ocean. The boy doesn’t know that the campground they’ve stayed at twenty or more times in five years sits next to what was once a once-groundbreaking national site, a theme park built before Theme Parks existed.
He only knows that the dim façade is crumbling, that even during busy summer months the campground and park are deserted, and that the kids can cross the highway and pass casually to the hotel, from which they can cross back, unnoticed, into Marineland. Walk the wrong way in through the gift shop exit, and with a smile or a lie they can pass illegally into the jumping dolphin exhibit and stay as long as they’d like to watch them leap to charm whatever small audience has come for them.
The boy wakes early to photograph a Florida sunrise.
He asked his father to set the alarm in the camper before putting himself to sleep, alone in the tent while the other kids stay up.
Yesterday, they drove between two horizons, one of ocean and the other of salt marsh and winter. They passed the clapboard fruit stands, makeshift shelters baring painted particleboard promising FRESH BOILED PEANUTS and TOMATOES!! THE FRESHEST FOR MILES, and when in sight of the campground his stepmother said Stop, look, his father turned down the dusty road for oysters.
After setting up camp, the couple sucked the squall of the raw meat while the kids cried out in disgust.
“I’ll try one,” the boy said, and he slurped the salt-slug out of its socket. No jelly, no cracker. “Yuck!” And they seemed relieved not to have to share.
The boy wakes early to prove his family wrong: he makes his father set an alarm, goes to bed early. When he wakes, it is still pitch dark, but he knows he has to hurry. He follows the dirt road—is it still called dirt when it’s shell, not rock, that’s been eroded, ground to form the gritty loam?—crosses the barren highway, over a small dune to find his place.
He’s already afraid he’ll miss first sun. He scrambles to set up his tripod, digs its pointed feet into the loose sand. He struggles to align the viewfinder with the dark horizon. Beyond him the ocean is furious, though patient, tumbling as it does. He speaks to it as if he’s afraid of being alone with the dark. He sings so quietly the notes barely leave his throat.
Florida’s history—any place’s history—is one of people, of lives lived within that space, of visitations and individual escapes.
A place can’t only exist in fact. If it did, there could be no record of it; the stuff of the world is always changing.
In 1997, my uncle Bill flew down from Michigan for a visit. While Mom and David were at work, he drove Brian and me south to St. Augustine to see the Alligator Farm.
I remember many facts of the place: a huge parrot, bright on its perch, strange pink flowers like something from a Sci-Fi movie, and, of course, alligators of countless sizes, including Gomek, a huge creature the size of the rental car.
My uncle brought his camera and tripod, a heavy black apparatus he carried slung over his shoulder. I took my photos seriously, or thought I did. But I saw quickly that I wasn’t as selective with what I chose to capture. When I raised the tiny box of my camera, it felt like a toy, and when I paused to frame the parrot and Bill only walked by, I felt silly and wasteful with my film. I was only a child, and of course didn’t know the difference—or even that there was a difference between an adult aesthetic and a boy’s—but I welcomed the lesson, even if my uncle wasn’t conscious of what he was teaching me.
It’s easy for me to talk of that afternoon as if I was consciously learning from him. I do remember admiring his curiosity, being surprised at the way he paused to admire those strange flowers. I watched how he held the camera firmly as if he knew exactly what he wanted to bring with him back to Michigan. I wanted that intensity, to take something purposefully, to will something back with me to Jacksonville, something I had found and seized.
Before leaving for St. Augustine, Bill and Brian sat in the living room playing each other music, trading one interest for another. He looked closely at Brian’s albums as if he were actually considering their worth—which was more than our parents did. He nodded when there were songs he liked and took turns giving tunes back.
But photography was my thing, not Brian’s. I wanted Bill to see our shared interest. So each time I stopped to take in some caged thing and he would glance then continue by me, unimpressed, I would hesitate.
It’s easier to recall the slow pulling away or the steady physical fact of a man focusing a machine. I don’t know for sure what I felt that afternoon, if what I am telling is truth or something I have imagined. Like Marineland itself, the memory crumbles. And since I can’t repair it, I invent the rest.
The boy wakes early to teach himself a lesson, but when he gets to dawn breaking overhead, the dream of a photograph metallic in his mouth. He wakes and walks, he plans his composition. He waits, but the horizon is all cloud. Where there should be sunrise, there is only a brightening. Maybe he thinks it is the brightness that comes before the sun, the way light proceeds itself around a corner. He stands with his finger on the trigger. By the time he knows better, by the time he knows the picture won’t be picturesque, it’s full-on morning and the seagulls circle him, curious, hungry.
In Disney, signs have been put up marking the best places for a photo. “Picture Spots” where one can stand and point their camera for promised results.
But then there is the long wooden walkway over the water, like a dock that leaves the land only to arc back to the shore.
Tourists can spot from the safe bridge a number of sites: baby alligators crawling over each other for food, box turtles sunning themselves on branches above the water, and a wealth of other living things, huddled against the mud or darting under the surface of the water. Walking past families, parents with small children on their shoulders smiling from their perches, girls leaning over the railing to point toward something wet and picturesque, glossy as if cut from one of my father’s magazines—an entire crowd in awe of life, looking down in search of it.
Perhaps it was how crowded the railing was where the animals fed. Perhaps I didn’t want to elbow my way in to see, or because I didn’t want to look, with everyone else, at the predictable rush of hunger toward food. But whatever the reason, I found myself looking up, away from the water, into the trees.
It was coming on dusk, but still bright as ibises and egrets were coming to roost in the greened husks lining the bank near the walkway. I knew even then that a photograph couldn’t capture the beauty of the moment—the white birds finding their places, one by one, each dancer practicing her own small part of the chaos as one by one they gave a limb their weight, folded themselves into a steady shape—but once they were seated for the night, nestled even, what was left was the simple image of their white bodies, heads and slender necks tucked under wing, miniature clouds against the mottled green. That separate sky, spoke so directly to me, only me, as the crowd still pointed to the water, away.
I stood there in the fading light, taking shot after shot, never satisfied.
I can say now, looking back on the day, how I longed for my uncle to realize something in me. The way he came up behind me, interested. The way he patted my shoulder as if I finally understood, then followed my lead, taking his own shots of what I’d discovered.
Does it matter if I was following him or he was following me? To sight. If a photograph has already been taken, an image already been noticed, does it change the fact?
We can name a place, return to it years later, feel the same fence post, the same ancient tree, but the heart of it may have changed. We’re taught as children that the Earth is made of earth, has at its core a severe and boiling density on which we float. The hardened ground is tentative only within a broad gesture of stability.
The boy wakes early to witness. He sleepwalks over the dune and waits for Nothing to reveal itself over the water. He walks back to camp, waits for breakfast, a little angry.
Marineland is the center of his memory. Where the boy woke and woke again, walked through the woods to water, where oyster shells and bricks were piled against the Intracoastal. Where he met coral snakes in the sandy sites where a path had been dug, where he found dolphin bones under a foot of dry earth.
The point is, a boy can learn to wander, can learn to put his eye on the less immediate thing. He builds a life out of the stuff that hasn’t been given to him. When he talks now to the dark, it isn’t the darkness that answers back. Isn’t even the ocean.
The point is: suck the squall of raw oysters; touch the railing and feel it beneath your palm; look away from what you know. But the chord laid down is not always a new one to the ear.
It was coming on dusk, but still bright as ibises and egrets were coming to roost in the greened husks… The boy wakes early to photograph a Florida sunrise.