Excerpt from “Reflections on Reflections on a Jungle River by Ernest Lyons, 1915-1990, as read for 2015’s “Historic Preservation Month” at Stuart Heritage. Mr Lyons was an award-winning editor and columnist for the Stuart News, and a state recognized environmental activist against over drainage and development of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. He was a gifted fisherman and he had a knack for seeing the wonder of the world…
“Drifting on the surface of a Florida jungle river, like the South Fork of the St Lucie or the Northwest Branch of the Loxahatchee, I experience the feeling that nothing is ordinary, nothing is commonplace.
The onyx surface of the water reflects in perfect color the images of the bushy-headed cabbage palms, the moss draped live-oaks and cypresses along the banks.
Cascading clumps of wild asters and fragile white spider-lily are mirrored on the smooth blank film. I drift in my rowboat on top of an image of scenery. This is, probably, a natural law which some logically minded egghead can recite to explain how a color image can be reflected on the face of a river, but please don’t quote it. I’d rather marvel…—- Ernest Lyons
Ernest Lyons, known to his friends as “Ernie,” is one of my heroes. You probably know of him, but maybe you don’t. He was a homegrown-boy become “newspaper man” right here in Martin County. He worked for what evolved into the “Stuart News” from 1931 until late into his life. Lyons won many Florida Press awards for his weekly columns that focused mostly on conservation, but also simply on the poetic natural beauty of our area. The bridge between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island is named for him. He was an avid and talented fisherman.
I think of Mr Lyons often when I walk the bridge and try to listen to his words floating in the winds and waves, and on the wings of the pelicans flying past. Today I would like to share a few words from his essay “Take Time, Enjoy the Real Florida,” from his book “My Florida.”
“Millions come to Florida–and never see it. They are like motorized pellets in a glamorized pinball machine, hitting the flashing lights of widely publicized artificial attractions before bounding out of the state and back home…
But the Florida we love who have lived here most of our lives has no admission fee, except the desire to appreciate beauty, the awareness to see it and the time to enjoy it…
The real Florida is a land of beauty and serenity, a place to take time to enjoy dawns and sunsets beyond the river against silhouetted pines. It is a place to hear the wind in the needles of the pines and to remember the dancing wreaths of Spanish moss on live-oaks. Florida is for quiet contemplation on a sea beach, watching pelicans skimming the breakers in singe file like long vanished pterodactyls…
Florida is for amazement, wonder, and delight, and refreshment of the soul. It may take a little more time to hunt out and enjoy the real Florida, but you will be well repaid.”
I find that the “real Florida” is actually very close and hand, in my yard, in the sky, in the water. Yes, even in the destitute and tired river beauty still prevails. Just look when you drive over the bridge. Look and “see.”
Publications of books “My Florida” and “The Last Cracker Barrel,” compilations of Mr Lyons columns from the Stuart News, can be purchased at Stuart Heritage Museum, 161 SW Flagler Avenue, Stuart, FL.(http://www.stuartheritagemuseum.com)
Just a few days ago, while walking and trying to “get back into shape,” I saw the giant granite boulder, like Stonehenge, with the sun setting behind it, and the full beauty of the river’s reflection bursting forth.
Immediately, I experienced a kind of flashback. It was 1979; it was raining. I was fifteen years old; I was awkward; and the most important thing in the world to me was my friends who I was hanging out with that day, and experiencing freedom away from my parents, who were just down the causeway.
And then, something I’d never seen happened. A governor was before me. Yes, Governor Bob Graham came out and started speaking, next to this giant rock. Everyone was quiet, even we girls stopped fooling around. The governor was wearing a suit, had presence, and when he started talking his slow cadence and confidence was rather mesmerizing ….He was talking about the St Lucie Inlet and the future of Martin County…
This experience, may in fact, have been the first time I realized a politician could have an effect on people…My mind’s eye still holds the image of seeing the governor, like a photograph.
I am fortunate to have information detectives in my family so after my flashback experience, when I got home, I immediately contacted my mother and brother and asked about the lone boulder that I recognized that was sitting all alone. “What’s its story…?”
I knew that before the “new” Ernest Lyons Bridge, the boulder stood close to the “old” Ernest Lyons Bridge along the Stuart Causeway. One would always see it on the way to the beach, sitting right there, very visible, along A1A. Today it is tucked away under the tall bridge between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island, without so much as a plaque to note its symbolic significance.
Within a short time, my brother, Todd, found a Palm Beach Post Article from 1979 entitled A FESTIVAL FOR ALL—EVEN IN THE RAIN by Jim Reeder. The article tells the story of the thousands of people who showed up to see the dedication of the boulder and Governor Graham at the “St Lucie Inlet Festival.” “This festival was in celebration of the extensive improvements to the inlet miraculously approved by Congress, requiring blasting and dredging that amazingly was “supported overwhelmingly by all the groups that are normally at odds, such as developers and conservationists.”
How quickly things are forgotten….
It is my hope the lone boulder gets a plaque. According to my historian mother, it was one of the gigantic granite rocks to be used to improve the new St Lucie Inlet jetty, set aside for the event to memorialize that special day. This jetty is still out there taking the waves, and is still part of an inlet that has problems, but represents one of the few times, Martin County contingencies “got along.” This is worth recognizing….
Today I thought I’d share a transcribed old Stuart News Column, by award-winning river activist and newspaper man, Ernest Lyons, for whom the bridge between Sewall’s Point and Hutchinson Island is named. It was given to me by my mother. The year of the piece’s writing is unknown but Lyons lived in Stuart since 1915 and was the paper’s editor for 44 years. He wrote prolifically about the changes and his love of the St Lucie River and Indian river Lagoon. I would imagine this piece was written around the 1950s. It is a time capsule and gives perspective on today. Enjoy.
By Ernie Lyons: Retiree’s New Money Crop at River of Light
“One of the earliest names of the St Lucie River was “Rio de Luz,” or “River of Light.” The imaginative Spaniard who gave it that name must have seen the dawn come sweeping in the inlet on a green flood tide, bringing light to the broad estuaries upstream.
Light from the distant sun outlined the rude thatched hut of the Jeagas, the primitive Indians that lived on Hutchinson Island. Those Indians disappeared around 1670 and there were no white settlements until the Armed Occupation Act of 1840.
The white settlers fled fearing Indian attack, and the first serious settlement began in 1875 when Captain Thomas Richards introduced pineapples to the Indian River at Eden just north of Jensen Beach. Pineapples meant money.
No matter how beautiful a river may be, it takes money to provide the fuel for a civilization on its banks. With the coming of the railroad and the building of ice plants, the settlers began harvesting the incredible crops of fish in the Indian and St Lucie Rivers and adjacent ocean.
Some planted small orange groves of hit and run patches of truck crops out in the back country. Drainage was so poor that regular year round farms were impossible. Meat was secured by rounding up a few bony wild cattle or wild hogs. Regular ranging was discouraged by the fact that all of country was open range with no fences.
The flow of money often scant, determined the prosperity of the St Lucie River country. After the pineapples and fish came tourist willing to pay a fee to rent a place for the winter of even to hire a hunting or fishing guide.
Summers were long, hot and plagued by hordes of salt marsh mosquitoes that flew over from the mangrove swamps along the ocean to torment the few brave souls that managed to stick it out.
Money, is still the driving force for the area, although now it is from people. The retirees are now the basis our economy.
Some of them sold their homes or other properties for fancy prices up north and reinvested in the area. They opened savings accounts and bought certificates of deposit in our banks and savings and loans, fueling the building boom.
We are getting the benefits of a new sort of American, where folks older than 65 receive Social Security checks, often pension checks and, if they have invested wisely , dividend checks.
Sure we have thousands of citrus and productive farms lands, as well as fisheries but the real money that makes the St Lucie River region hum with prosperity comes from people.
And most of it comes from outside of our area. It is in the form of government checks, pension checks, saving interest and dividend checks.
Next time you see a retiree salute him of her and say you’re glad they chose this part of Florida. They are our biggest industry, an industry without a smokestack, the industry that keeps our food stores and shopping centers going, the industry that keeps our many services going.
Retirees are the reason for our modern hospital and the host of specialized medical services the town now has.
The old River of Light has seen some amazing changes but none so remarkable as the constant flow of new money from outside brought by the retirees….”
“And what a marvelous river it was, with the pelicans diving into the mullet schools, bald eagles screaming as they robbed ospreys of their prey, a river teeming with interesting things to see and do, and such good things to eat…Pompano jumped into the boats. Tasty oysters were abundant–‘squirt clams put hair on your chest.’ How sad it is to see it change. But life, too, is a changing river. I suppose the river today is just as wonderful to those who are as young as I was in 1914.” —-Ernest Lyons, 1964, as transcribed by historian Sandra Henderson Thurlow.
Ernest Lyons was one of Martin County’s most prolific, and outspoken environmentalist and river advocates. His award winning Stuart News columns were published across the nation romanticizing and documenting pre and post World War growth that turned “sweet watered streams into walled canals.” (http://www.flpress.com/node/63)
Nonetheless, he recognized the power of river’s magic for all generations. He wrote the above, the year that I was born, in 1964.
Yesterday, 10 year old, St Lucie County River Kidz member, Aidan Lewey, spoke before the South Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board that was voting whether to support the Central Everglades Planning Project, (CEPP), a project that should, in time, redirect approximately 20% of the waters from Lake Okeechobee “south.”
Part of what Aidan said was: “Please find it in your hearts to complete (CEPP) for the kids and for the mammals that are dying every day, because there is too much pollution coming into our playground…” Because to Aidan, and to his generation, just like Mr Lyons said, “the river today, is just as wonderful to those who are as young as I was in 1914.”
Today’s Stuart News headline regarding the SFWMD CEPP vote, by Tyler Treadway: WEST PALM BEACH — The South Florida Water Management District board unanimously gave the go-ahead Thursday to a project designed to ease, but not end, catastrophic Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie River estuary and Indian River Lagoon.