I will get this all wrong.
It is 2000 or 2003; the fruit in question are oranges or key limes or lemons, maybe all of those possibilities. We are at the house on SW 82nd Street, white wood with tin roof. The man from the agency that controls agriculture in Florida is coming house by house. We are lucky to receive a warning call from a neighbour. We are lucky again that most of our citrus trees are planted in large terracotta pots. My parents and older brother lug these pots inside, rolling them tilted on their edges. I walk along with them, my hand reaching to the pots in some effort to help.
The man arrives; he is in khaki pants and shirt. He shows my mother a letter. He is under order to go house by house and cut down any citrus trees. You see, there was a deadly invasive bug spreading through South Florida. Or maybe it was a disease; no, I think a bug. A beetle, I imagined. And in an effort to protect the valuable citrus industry, someone decided that the best course of action was to destroy any non-commercial citrus trees in the given area, preventing the bug from spreading further.
The man in the khaki walked through our yard, searching for citrus. He must have noticed the depressed earth where the terracotta pots had sat. He probably knew what was up. He couldn’t come inside. Our citrus trees sat on towels inside our family room. A few hours passed before we rolled the trees back outside. It felt dangerous; I think I felt guilty. I’ve avoided looking further into that citrus disease or invasive bug. I haven’t asked my parents for details. I haven’t googled it.
Years later I’m sitting at El Palacio de Los Jugos. This treasured juice spot lies just before the border of the Everglades National Park. Its pleasures mount in heaping piles of guava and papaya, berries of all sorts. And every variety of citrus. The oranges are gargantuan and misshapen, blistered and lumpy. The juicers are large, mechanical, cruelly efficient – all the better. Can you imagine the lines if they juiced by hand? Ha. Of course, that charm is gone, replaced by a new charm: a charm all too fitting in a landmark juice shop perched on the edge of a city on the edge of collapse.
Juice does strange work out here. It prompts a set of new relationships; it is, in its distilled form, the final product of a whole series of social interactions. The juice is not simple. The juice asserts a naturalised authenticity; the juice exemplifies a set of ideological and political goals. The invasive bug, if there even was an invasive bug, produces something peculiar too. It drove a particular set of social relations which were based largely on a particular set of economic interests. These economic interests do not exist in isolation. Juice is not simple. That bug is not simple. And together they create something muddled and intertwined, a vivid and thick reality so representative of what Miami might be.
Matheson Hammock Park. Perhaps it’s the best representation of Miami’s duality. The park lies on both sides of Old Cutler Road, extending to Biscayne Bay in the east. Protected mangrove forests occupy much of the park. They’re crisscrossed by walking paths, passable only at low tide. The small beach and protected inlet make for a popular family destination. Then there’s another aspect of Matheson Hammock: a marina holding hundreds of yachts and recreational fishing boats. Just beyond the marina sits the Red Fish Grill, a lovely (and pricey) restaurant perched right by Biscayne Bay.
And the history of Matheson Hammock Park: a benevolent rich man’s gift to the city. A slice of land that would now be worth ungodly amounts on the open market. Its 630 acres would make for a gleaming new fortress – after all, the rest of Old Cutler Road is marked by gated community after gated community. Inside lie houses with their own secondary gates. Most of Miami’s coastline is restricted, gated, privatised. Matheson Hammock is one of the few spots in the area where bay access is relatively open, democratised to an extent.
It was at Matheson Hammock that I would often go fishing as a kid. Normally I pulled up small yellowtail snappers, perhaps a black grouper or the occasional barracuda. It was the barracudas that excited me the most – long and lean, silver scales throwing colours where the sunlight hit. I imagined them as nearly-sharks, something dangerous, mean even. They were quick, ruthless. A different story: fishing with my father in the Florida Keys, a six-foot long barracuda snapping in half the hogfish on my line…the ones at Matheson Hammock never got that big, not that I saw. Let’s say it was 2005 when there was something red striped and spike crowned on my line. A lionfish. I didn’t know that then. I was advised by a nearby fisherman not to touch the fish. The man removed the fish from my line with gloves. I don’t think he killed it.
It was years later that I knew what that fish was; first, as an exotic aquarium fish. And then as an invading marauder, a destroyer of reefs, a mythologised killer from the Indo-Pacific.
The Miami newspapers took up the story, running brilliant underwater photographs of reefs as bare as asphalt; stripped of nearly all life. Only the lionfish remained, slowly circling the dead reef. I remember seeing videos of the scene. The lionfish looked like sentries on night shift, moving in irregular loops. That’s where the narrative ended; there was no epilogue, no where-are-they now? for the reefs stripped bare.
But how do we think about the lionfish itself? The lionfish was a scapegoat. A guilty scapegoat, but a scapegoat nonetheless. Florida’s reefs weren’t thriving prior to their invasion. Wastewater has flowed into Biscayne Bay for centuries; acid levels are higher than ever before. Recreational boats tore through seagrass and reef systems. Most of the manatees in the area have large lacerations on their backs, the result of careless boaters. Biscayne Bay – and Florida’s waters more generally – have been in trouble for a long time. But most of those other problems are too abstract to fully ascertain. The lionfish seems like a problem that can be solved.
And yet little progress has been made. The efforts at population control haven’t done enough. Many people argue that the answer is culinary. Lionfish have a firm sweet flesh, not unlike red snapper. Some restaurants in Miami have begun serving lionfish – I’ve tasted it in a sublime ceviche. If lionfish became popular, then the classic fishing and overfishing story could unfold. Maybe, as was the case with the North Atlantic Cod stock or Chilean Sea Bass, we could trigger a full-scale population collapse.
It’s an undeniably grim possibility. It feels immoral to repeat such a clear human folly. And to do so on purpose! It brings to light some bad associations, like how it might feel gratifying to cause collapse. Like how it will create an entrepreneurial opportunity based upon the destruction of a species. And how, if lionfish meat becomes popular, its popularity won’t be limited to south Florida. And if the Florida population crashes, the desire for lionfish meat won’t simply end. The hunt will continue to the lionfish’s native habitat, and the seller’s zeal will only increase with scarcity.
It brings to light some bad associations, like how it might feel gratifying to cause collapse. Like how it will create an entrepreneurial opportunity based upon the destruction of a species.
The fight against nonnative species like lionfish relies upon a rhetoric of invasion, which posits a unified enemy. In this framework the lionfish is understood as neither acting agent nor as simple, unthinking blight. The lionfish isn’t merely doing what comes naturally to it, and it is not simply trying to survive. The rhetorical movements surrounding invasive species remove human culpability, but they also suggest an ideological identification on the part of the lionfish. The lionfish is homogenised and standardised, transformed into a reproducible unit with no purpose beyond destruction, beyond invasion.
Out west I ate alligator. Of course, the west in question is relative. In truth we are barely an hour outside of Miami. The wetlands stop in straight lines to the west of Miami. Straight lines that sometimes move westward, that make you think – is there a place beyond this? I swear there hadn’t been a place beyond this. We’re seated at a small, heavily themed restaurant in the Everglades. Its walls feature fish mounted on warped cedar planks. My memory is hazy; this very well might be a constructed past.
The alligator was cut in small pieces, battered and fried. I was duped into eating it – my dad had told my brother and me that it was chicken. We quickly realised his lie: its stringy texture, its vaguely freshwater taste. The restaurant was built on stilts, propped above a small slough amidst the marshland. Airboat tours were offered outback. Another time, being told: airboats have flair, but you don’t want all that noise. Better off in a canoe if you want to see anything good.
I imagined that the alligator I was eating was plucked from those particular wetlands.
The alligator wasn’t plucked from those particular wetlands. It wasn’t from the Everglades at all. It would have been raised on a farm, somewhere in East Texas or Vietnam or North Florida. It would then be shipped back to the place that the alligator represents. It forms a funny sort of supply chain, the product moving back to the particular landscapes that the alligator inhabits, so it can be eaten in this particular sort of corny swamp themed restaurant.
Alligator farms are eerily sedate places. The alligators are piled upon one another, basking in the sun surrounding a pool of murky water. Alligators grow slowly, and so an alligator farm is in it for the long haul. Some of them do double duty as roadside zoos, allowing visitors to view the alligators before their time comes. I’ve visited attractions like this. They dot the rural two-lane highways all throughout Florida. Next to the alligator ponds sit small wooden buildings with tanks of snakes or cages of birds. The air is thick and still and musty, and you will have no choice but to spend $2.49 on a two litre soda in the gift shop.
The alternate purpose of the business is shielded from visitors, most of whom are unaware of the alligators’ eventual destiny as fried nugget or Prada handbag. There is always one alligator bigger than the rest, and it’ll be named something absurd, Shaq or The Hulk or whatever, and some guy working for the farm will wrestle him.
These little alligator farms act in economies large and small, forming networks that bridge gaps in space and time. These economic networks connect the rural American South to Milan; they transmute alligators to carcasses to hides to shoes. The alligator’s meat and skin adopt new subjectivities based upon context. The meat may serve as a gimmicky treat in a swamp themed restaurant in the Everglades, while the adjacent skin occupies a very different cultural space.
Dyed red or black or emerald, the particular patterns and textures of gator skin serve to signal status. But this wasn’t some predetermined end. The luxury market didn’t decide the form of the alligator. Alligator skin evolved through particular evolutionary pressures and adaptations; it is a deliberately functional feature during the alligator’s life. This functional quality doesn’t disappear after slaughter, but it does morph. Alligator skin’s function shifts in each step of the process. It is relational and dependent, a reality formed through the varying and contingent actions of people, animals, and things throughout the process.
In the Miami area these identities coexist. There is alligator as alligator, common throughout the Everglades but also inhabiting the canals and lakes of urban and suburban Miami. There is alligator as nugget, as was the case for the imposter meat my dad fed me. And there is alligator as luxury, adorning the shoes or handbags of Miamians throughout the city. These varying subjectivities do not simply inhabit a partitioned landscape. They do not exist in different worlds, because there are no different worlds.
This will end with water. In truth this has been about water all along.
The history of Miami is a history of moving earth. Of building islands and of cutting canals. Reconfiguring the relationship between land and water. The first canals were dug to drain the Everglades; subsequent canals were dug to create valuable waterfront property. Whole neighbourhoods are organised around mazes of these regimented canals. Real estate listings boast about how big a boat you can moor at your back door. These two purposes of canals serve the same mission – they both were, in essence, economic choices. The draining of the Everglades aimed to create farmland and to help drive migration to Florida; the dredging of Miami’s canals aimed to create amenities for the residents of Miami’s wealthy coastal neighbourhoods.
A lot of what’s written about Miami hones in on this history. The supposed artificiality of the built city provides a convenient critique for
the hack commentators who draw a link between an artificial island and a plastic surgery clinic. It’s easy enough for someone to shout, fake, fake, fake – that the city is, and the people are fake. It all fits neatly together. It’s a critique devoid of substance or meaning. It is merely a celebration of one’s own ideals. There is nothing fake about this constructed landscape. Despite its partially human origins, it still presents a space for unsanctioned life, for disruptive behavior, for interactions of all sorts between species of all sorts.
The interactions occur on wet leaves and in crevices chipped away from corroding seawall. On lawns with sprinklers running as the rain falls.
I often think that Miami is intelligible only through water. Its flows and disruptions, the ways it travels through the city – the ways it shapes and reshapes it. The water is dispersed and consolidated; it is in truth so many different waters.
In the limestone bedrock, which filters some of the best drinking water in the nation. It’s soft, slightly sweet, lacking any metallic ting…
In the runoff from lawns sprayed thick with fertilisers. Biscayne Bay grows warmer, more acidic.
In the thunderstorms, every summer afternoon…the city continues but is affected, shifted, sidelined. Clouds throw daggers over the ocean. The rainwater pools on spongy earth. The park across the street from my house transforms into a standing body of water an acre in size. And the growth. You see it in the orchids sprawling across live oaks, roots extending up, glistening green as they swell and reach.
And the waters condensed from air: you see the window mounted air conditioners dripping like sap, drumming a steady rhythm. It’s a sound that blends with the cicadas and the traffic noise, a symphony of Miami summers. Air conditioners built this city. I realise that it’s ridiculous to attribute Miami’s post-war development to one single factor, but air conditioning would be a worthy contender. With air conditioning Miami became comfortable year round, and the city changed. The buildings adopted new forms; houses no longer had to be optimised for cross ventilation. The hallmarks of old Floridian architecture fell away. Gone were the pitched ceilings and covered porches.
Scenes like this make me think that, of all possible distinctions or definitions, this is an epoch of oversaturation. Little signs of humanity, percolating throughout the landscape. A lawn swelling and quaking, trying to swallow all it can. The waters are marked by human intrusion; small chemical markers of us. And so the soils, the fish, the gators and the sawgrass.
Water gives Miami form. It makes Miami make sense. And it is water that threatens Miami the most. Water that crawls up the storm drains, flooding the streets. Water that softens stone, that tears away at jetties.
It is water that threatens Miami the most. Water that crawls up the storm drains, flooding the streets. Water that softens stone, that tears away at jetties.
And nobody in Miami seems to be paying much attention. But that’s not true. Plenty of people are paying attention. They’re just paying attention to the wrong things. There seems to be a shared delusion that the rich will be hit the hardest. That’s the gist of the arguments that run in the popular press. Property values will plummet; waterfront estates will be obliterated; the tourism sector will suffer. The poor are overlooked – that’s not new. But in the strange logic of sinking Miami, the poor will turn out alright. There is some degree of truth in the geography of these dynamics. Miami’s wealthiest neighbourhoods are clustered on the coast, and housing costs decrease as you move further from the water. But that is to say nothing of the effects of prolonged economic oppression, which will only be amplified as the city enters crisis mode. The deaths of the poor are a continuation, linked with harsh metal wires to the deaths inflicted by (and take your pick): the lingering relics of slavery or our healthcare system or law enforcement or the war industry.
With environmental disruption, the means of murder will be multiple, will be disparate, will be concealed by so many different names. The murder of displacement and racialisation; of drowning; of being electrocuted by fell power lines; of rising waters and rising ethnonationalism; of a financial collapse, the burden borne by the poor. We’ve got a hell of a lot more on the way. The forthcoming climate disaster is going to be chock full of slow death. There’ll be quick deaths, too, and violent deaths, and climate-inflicted war – but the bulk of it all is going to be slow. Millions of deaths, overlooked because their horrors creeped up in small degrees. Crops will fail and disease will spread. You think the traumas will be over when the dust settles. But they won’t be. The effects will reverberate, will compound and spread. And yet soft killings don’t spark outrage. Sadness, yes, and mourning, and tragedy – depoliticised tragedy, a how-could-God-let-this-happen type of tragedy.
Despite the warnings Miami continues to grow. Property values have exploded since the financial crisis. This is especially true of waterfront properties, such as those on the various elite islands of Miami Beach. Star Island, Palm Island, Indian Creek – these havens for celebrities and business magnates have gone from pricey to exorbitant. Five bedroom italianates are torn down in favor of ten bedroom contemporaries, replete with every amenity you could imagine. These hulking steel and glass contraptions resemble supervillain lairs, forming the sort of architecture that’s never quite right, never quite fitting no matter its location.
The Miami of the speculative imagination will grow and expand, will luxurise, will reap the evanescent rewards of a manufactured artistic hub and a constructed geography – much of the most valuable land in Miami is new land, perfectly shaped islands built for the purpose of development. The future is always bright until it isn’t.
Then again, for those with power or capital, maybe it does always work out in the end. Barring full revolution, those in power can abscond to higher ground, can take what they can carry (a yacht full of stuff is plenty) and land in a new place. Maybe that new place will take on the role of Miami. Give it the name too – future inhabitants can imagine it in line with the old sunken city. It can be a warning. The water, our Vesuvius.
Meanwhile, Miami continues to sell itself as a global city. And it is, kind of. It’s a metropolis of near-hits, of condo towers that feel almost like New York and restaurants that, in the dim light, might be in London or Tokyo or Paris. It’s a city still marked by a certain parochialism; by the parochialism of capitalism as purity, as unabashed and unselfconscious speculation. It’s capitalism without the cloak of embarrassment; without, to any significant degree, opposition. It’s a city where a real estate developer can still look someone in the eye and say, yes, see those mangroves over there? Imagine a mansion in their place. Buy the land for X, and spend X on construction, and sell the whole shebang for five times X.
There’s a place in Miami, not far from where I grew up, where if you time it right you can make an island for yourself. At Matheson Hammock take a walk down the path through the mangrove forest when the tide is low, find a bench along the way, and wait. The incoming tide will first saturate the spongy earth then settle above, submerging the path and leaving you marooned on the bench. Sit cross-legged so your shoes don’t get wet; bring a book and read until the water recedes. You can play at submersion, toe the line as the water continues to rise, as you think – maybe this time it won’t reverse course.
Originally published in saltfront
IMAGE: ‘Wonderland’ by Fatemeh Burnes
Oil on canvas
‘Wonderland’ is an autobiographical visual poem that is 72 × 108 inches in size. I regard it as a fantastical reexamination of ‘Land’, a compounding of ‘land’ and ‘wonder’. It is a land that owns us, not that we own – or do we? It is the land that lies here and lies there, crossing over. It is a grasp of the umbilical cord attaching man and nature. It deconstructs and reconstructs the maps familiar and unfamiliar to us, finding the home that was never built and the everlasting bubbles.
Fatemeh Burnes’ artwork focuses on nature and human nature, looking at modern events and tragedies, ecological and social, and how those events manifest in contemporary life. Over the last three decades Burnes has exhibited nationally and internationally, curated over 100 exhibitions, authored numerous publications, and conducted art-education documentaries. Her most current work has taken an autobiographical turn in the context of her experience as an immigrant and as a woman. fatemehburnes.com