In Florida, the pond apple is also known by many locals as the “custard apple,”(http://www.regionalconservation.org/beta/nfyn/plantdetail.asp?tx=Annoglab)
The mythical pond apple forest….Imagine, for a mile or two back from the water’s edge the trees grew, and like God’s magic sieve, their colossal roots strained the water of Lake Okeechobee before it inched its way south through the river of grass to the Everglades. Over thousands of years, the lake’s muck built up inside, around, and under, their gigantic roots, a forest grew, until one day the farmer came, the engineer came, the “white man” came, and took it all.
“We are chosen!” they said. “We are chosen to have dominion over the earth! Strip it! Cut it! Burn it! Tear it out! Expose the muck, the precious muck, and let us build an empire. Let us lift ourselves from poverty, feed ourselves, and become rich!”
And many of today’s generations have become rich from this soil.
The story of the explosion of agriculture, and the sugar industry below the great lake known as “big waters,” or “Okeechobee,” as the Seminole people called it, is a not a tale for the weak. It is the story of the nature of man, and his destruction of the environment of which he is part. It is the story of “success,” and the difficult journey of a culture to define what “success” really means.
Lawrence E. Will, in his book, “Swamp to Sugar Bowl,” writes in his cracker style in 1968:
“That part of the woods along the south shore and half way up the eastern side, was a dense forest of tropical custard apple trees. For a mile to two miles back from the water’s edge they grew, and on all the islands as well. About 33,000 acres of solid custard apple tress there were, and that’s a heap of woods.”
33,000 acres of custard apple trees destroyed. Gone. Forever.
Today, the Everglades Agricultural Area is 700,000 square miles south of the lake. It produces sugar and vegetables. The growth of the area is the reason why the overflow waters of Lake Okeechobee are directed thorough the northern estuaries killing local economies, rivers, and wildlife. Thus the story of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
Once during a conversation with Mr Tom MacVicar, a respected engineer who works with the agricultural and sugar industry, I was told that Lake Okeechobee used to be about “30% bigger.” At the time, I wondered what he was talking about, but over the years through reading and study I have come to understand.
Let me explain. In the late 1800s when the early farmers planted their crops they would do so in winter when Lake Okeechobee’s waters had “receded back” as it was the “dry season.” This would be after the back-breaking work in some areas of tearing out the pond apple trees in order to get to the rich muck, “black gold,” that lies underneath. Over the years the edge of the southern shore of the lake was pushed back and then the “smaller” lake was entirely diked. This is one reason why the lake can’t hold its historical water level. Through Florida and Congress, the history of the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corp of Engineers is linked to this history of pushing back the lake and building the agricultural empire, although now their mission includes environmental restoration.
I think it would be fitting to replant some pond apple trees each year until one day, perhaps, we can regain part of the soul of that lake that was ripped out at the roots.
History of EAA: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everglades#Everglades_Agricultural_Area)
Nature for Your Neighborhood, A Program of the Institute for Regional Conservation: (http://www.regionalconservation.org/beta/nfyn/plantdetail.asp?tx=Annoglab)
Mr Tom MacVicar: (http://www.macvicarconsulting.com)
ACOE Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee: http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Missions/CivilWorks/LakeOkeechobee/HerbertHooverDike.aspx