River People of Florida

“Water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”—Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel T. Coleridge
Throughout this summer and the coming year, I will be doing fieldwork for a new book project: River People of Florida. This historical and ethnographic book will focus on ten rivers in Florida—the Apalachicola, Hillsborough, Kissimmee, Manatee, Miami, Peace, Perdido, Suwannee, St. Marks, and St. Johns River, highlighting the unique cultural geography of each river and its people. Through narrative and photographs, this book will tell the stories of people whose lives are deeply intertwined with their riverine environments and also discuss the contemporary challenges they face.
This project builds upon my research conducted for “River of Dreams: The St. Johns River and Its Springs,” exhibited at the Matheson History Museum from January 21-June 24, 2017. For this project, photographer Anne Ledbetter and I visited sites on the St. Johns River, often by boat, to learn about lifeways along the river, past and present. While Anne took photographs, I spoke with people at boat ramps and in fish camps, and I heard their stories—sometimes heart-breaking—about what the St. Johns meant to them. As a “Heritage River,” the St. Johns River holds a special place in Florida and U.S. history, but each of these ten rivers has a unique cultural geography and its own vernacular. Site visits and interviews will show me how people live, work, and play on these rivers.
Many people living and working along Florida’s rivers have long family histories and deep emotional connections with these rivers. Today, Florida’s rivers face enormous challenges, including sea-level rise, over-pumping, and pollution. In visiting sites and communities along different rivers, I have learned that the relationships between people and their riverine places are complicated and that people express care in diverse ways.  For example, many who resist the label ‘environmentalist’ have worked to sustain river-based lives and livelihoods.

In writing Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us About Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence (University Press of Kentucky, 2017), I discovered that concerns about food and food production sometimes transcend politics and diverse communities, despite language differences, can find common ground over practices such as seed-saving and river health. I hope that by illustrating how different populations construct emotional and material relationships with their riverine environments, diverse groups can find common ground and express shared concerns.

*This post is part of a summer series focusing on the fieldwork, travel, and summer-term work that our faculty and graduate students are engaged in across the globe. Thank you to Dr. Whitney Sanford for her work and writing. 
Dr. Whitney Sanford received her B.A. in English and Philosophy from Bowdoin College and M.A. and Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in north Indian devotional traditions. She teaches and researches in two main areas: Religion and Nature and Religions of Asia, her recent work lay at the intersection of religion, food (and agriculture), and social equity, focusing on South Asia. She can be found most weekends on the waterways of Florida exploring the connections people make between each other and a place while paddling through the waves.