by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012, updated 10/17/2020
Park Ranger Craig Morris leant toward a riverfront house the left side of the road. “That’s it right there,” he said. “That’s the house I grew up in.” I can hardly believe it’s been 21 years. I’ll never forget Craig’s personal tour of the signs of ancient Timucuan civilization beneath and between the yards, swimming pools and 1960s and ’80s houses in the subdivisions of Fort Caroline. And I can hardly believe Craig’s gone. He was only 58.
He pointed to the oyster shells that peeked through the manicured lawns. Every house from here down to the bluff, he noted, sat atop remains of ancient Timucuan Indian garbage heaps, the oyster shell middens beneath front yards and house foundations.
I was 25 years old, the age Craig was when he joined the National Park Service. He spent his career here at the 46,000 acre Timucuan Preserve, established in 1988, the year after he became a ranger, in the lands and the waters where he grew up. Most young rangers work their way from one park to another, but Craig stayed where he knew he needed to be. The land had chosen him. He’d heard the calling.
When Craig was 11 or 12 years old, early 1970s, his family had just moved into the neighborhood, a brand new subdivision in one of the only parts of town with hills. He didn’t yet know Fort Caroline was named for the French fort founded here in the 1560s.
Wandering the river near his new home, Craig walked into a vision that marked, instantly, his entire life. “There were human bones by the hundreds eroding out of the bluff,” he told me. He told his parents. His parents called the police. Yes, the bones were human. No, they were not recent.
Developers had built the subdivision on the remains of Timucuan Indian civilization and Craig Morris’s childhood home sat on top of a burial mound. Now the ground beneath this house is part of an archaeological site called Grant Mound 8DU14. Though archaeologists excavated hundreds of Timucuan bones here, developers bulldozed the land and scrambled the soil.
“Welcome to Downtown Jacksonville, A.D. 1400,” Craig told me as he braked his SUV. He pointed to Shields Mound, 12 miles northeast of Downtown Jacksonville, February 1999. It looked like any other Fort Caroline hill, oyster shell protruding.
“This is where Timucuans would have been when Jean Ribault and the French arrived,” Craig said, referring to the Huguenots who came ashore here in 1562. Shields Mound bore evidence of ceremonial functions, topped by a small structure “like a temple.” Archaeologists found the bones of 150 Timucuan bodies buried here, ceramic vessels, “a bird effigy.”
We back up. Jacksonville was founded in 1822, incorporated a decade later. Fort Caroline was built more than 450 years ago. The Timucuans fished for oysters here when the pyramids were built in Egypt, though by then they were already ancient residents.
Craig felt close to these ancient marsh bluff neighbors. Looking at how they treated death told him how they lived. “People are treated the same in death as they were in life,” he said. “Willie the Wino’s going to be buried in a Croker sack. William Gates III will be buried in something that looks like the Taj Mahal.”
I remember marveling that Craig could see the real landscape beneath veneers of newness the rest of us saw, and I’ve always wanted to emulate that. And his graciousness, his kindness.
“See how those trees are tall and then all of the sudden, there are no big trees from there to the river?” he said. “That difference is where the old riverbank line was. All the houses from here to the river are built on dredge spoil.”
Coming back from dredge spoil houses to the old riverbank line, I meet a small mound surrounded by longleaf pines. “The guy who developed this subdivision gave up three housing lots to protect this ancient gravesite. He didn’t have to do that. In the face of profit motive, it was a highly moral act.”
This site is Kinzey’s Knoll, a “ritual midden located in the shadow of Shields Mound.” Here, at this dense small site, archaeologists have found sherds of more than 500 vessels, tools made of bone and shell, decorative pins made of bone, arrowheads and points traded from as far away as what’s now Central Florida and ancient Cahokia Mounds in present-day Illinois. Human remains are scattered through the bones of foxes, panthers, bears, dolphins and sharks.
Engraved, meanwhile, in deer bone, three eyes descend from beaded ropes. I have held it in my hand. Though no one knows for sure what this cosmic map means, archaeologists compare it to Southeastern tribal cosmogonies mapping three spheres, often depicted as eyes—the sky, our world intermediate, and the world beneath the waters—strung together with four cords.
Meanwhile, “The little boy who hiked up to the hundreds of human bones jutting from the bluff still does so.” So I wrote in 2012, looking back on the story I’d originally written for Folio Weekly in 1999. “That day won’t stop happening. Something happens to you when you come alone to the bones of people who leave no other record, and you know their lives were as real to them long before Jesus Christ as your life is to you in earliest years in early 1970s (A.D.).”
Every now and then, Craig would text me about a story I should write or a book I should read. He said he’d broken some ribs. In June 2019, he had surgery for lung cancer, was diagnosed, just months later, with liver cancer, then started chemotherapy. He officially retired on June 26, 2020, and died on September 22nd in this most cruel of years.
Pandemic, civil unrest, economic depression no matter. Craig loved the land until the end. Life is short, life is real, and there’s no excuse for living without passion. Lives from millennia past spoke to Craig as a child and Craig’s kindness and curiosity and respect for the land and the Timucua touched everyone he encountered.
As Matt Soergel wrote for The Florida Times-Union, the day after Craig’s death, Craig said he’d still “so much to learn, even at this point.” He loved “the sound of the wind going through those millions and millions of blades of marsh grass,” and “that feeling when you’re out there, like you’re the only one.”
The land called up through him, all his life long, gave him purpose, and Craig gave his life as best response. He loved “the topography. The hills, the river, the marshes. They’ve always been part of me.” Thus always will Craig Morris grow up through this landscape and these waters, these serpents and birds, these alligators and anhingas, these scrub oaks and saltwater trees, these every individual whistlings of wind, roarings and breaths through marsh grass, forever, from the beginning, once and for all, and what you hear, this early afternoon, across these October waters.