By Mark Jerome Walters
There are places in Florida that take you right into the heart of Texas. Cracker cowboys ride through paddocks that look like they’re out of old Laredo. Cows and little dogies git along what you might mistake for the Old Chisholm Trail. In many places in the state, the Florida cowboys’ life once played out against a sweeping backdrop of scrub straight of out the popular old television western The High Chaparral, a fictional ranch named for the western scrublands where it was located.
The legendary chaparral: the term comes from a mid-19th Century Spanish term meaning “dwarf evergreen oak.” As Merriam-Webster defines it, “A thicket of dwarf evergreen oaks,” or more broadly, “a dense impenetrable thicket of shrubs and dwarf trees.” You couldn’t find a more accurate description of the Florida scrub if you tried.
Scrub, meet your other name, “Florida chaparral.” Given the west’s unique contributions to our landscape, it is, indeed, an honor to meet you—and one long past due.
Cowboys themselves were late comers to the west. Spanish cowboys in Florida—vaqueros—had been lassoing and driving cattle centuries before western cattle ranchers knew where a steer was. These early Florida cowboys bequeathed to later generations of Floridians the accouterments and skills of life on the range. It was the descendants of these later-day Florida cowboys who moved out west with their whips and spurs and introduced cowboy culture west of the Mississippi.
But Florida has a lot more in common with the west than cowboys. Some of the species in Florida’s central ridge and in other sandy scrub uplands where the state’s cattle culture evolved came from the western United States. The best-known of these is the Florida scrub-jay. The gopher tortoise is also descended from a western ancestor. And if you’ve ever walked through the Florida scrub—the besieged habitat can be hard to find now—you’ve probably encountered the native prickly pear cactus. What could be more O.K. Corral than that?
About two million years ago, a dramatic drop in sea-level drained the Mississippi Delta and exposed the continental shelf along the Gulf of Mexico. This created a land-bridge between the Florida peninsula and the western U.S. A chaparral-like habitat grew across it, and some western species dispersed east along it to Florida. When sea-level later rose again, these plants and animals got cut off from their western ancestors and evolved into Florida species. That’s how the Florida scrub-jay, the gopher tortoise, a horse fly, the prickly pear cactus, and several other plants and animals became native to a land, parts of which, a few million years later, would become known as Cracker County.
Crackers even helped to create a breed of cow adapted to the scrub—aptly called the Florida scrub cow, or better known as the Cracker cow. One of the oldest and rarest cattle breeds in the U.S., these small, hardly animals are a tough as the landscape they came from.
Over the past century, ranchers in need of pasture destroyed a lot of the very scrub that added to the land’s distinctive western feel. The sandy uplands that ranchers didn’t claim, citrus growers eventually did. Much of Florida’s western heritage has already been lost. Florida cowboy culture is fading as development rolls through the countryside, and younger generations move on to create legends elsewhere. Chaparral continues to be destroyed.
Up to ninety percent of the state’s chaparral has been lost since colonization—and with it most of the scrub-jays and a host of other quintessentially Florida species. Without them, the land would never be the same. One day, cowboys in Florida may be as hard to find as their compatriot the scrub-jay is today.
Among the reasons so much scrub has been lost is because the habitat has been misunderstood since the first settlers arrived, and their descendants have inherited a damn-the-scrub attitude. Believing that only the dry land it grew on was worth anything, they slandered the scrub, called it worse than worthless and often cleared it with the single-mindedness of a minister wiping sin from his congregants’ souls. Even naming it “scrub”— something stunted and inferior—suggests their contempt for it.
Names and labels matter because they are the gatekeepers of perception. They are our first impressions. Conservationists learned a long time ago that a good way to help save “jungles” was to call them rainforests. Then, darkness suddenly gave way to light. They learned that a good way to help save “swamps” was to call them wetlands. With that, curiosity replaced the visitors’ fears.
By the same token, call the scrub “Florida chaparral,” and the curtain of ecological prejudice might be lifted just enough to reveal to people a glimmer of a dazzling, fantastical world where lizards that swim just beneath the sand, plants that use the hairy underside of their leaves to capture dew and drop it on the ground near the thirsty roots, and where thrive flowers and mints and fruit trees like the hog plum, 5,000-year-old scrub palmettos as ancient as the legendary bristle cone pines of California, and the uniquely Florida bird known as the scrub-jay.
Ecologists recently added their own additional definition to the rich etymology of the term “chaparral” by applying it only to specific habitats that occur along the coast of California and in other areas of the world with Mediterranean climates. Like the scrub, these shrubby habitats are also shaped by periodic fires, consist of drought-resistant plants and have dry summers and wet winters. While Florida, by contrast, has wet summer and dry winters and different species, it is no less chaparral.
The high chaparral of the central ridge and other sandy upland Florida habitats is quickly fading. Protection of more land and better management of what has already been set aside is needed to reverse the trend. It will also take a change in how people perceive this largely forsaken habitat. There is still time to save what remains. But not much.
It’s high noon in the Florida chaparral.