Willie Browne Trail, Shell Peninsula, Dredge Spoil Island

by Tim Gilmore, 6/22/2012

courtesy National Park Service

He donates his 600-acre family property to the Nature Conservancy, 1969. His namesake trail leads through palmetto, oak, magnolia, and scrub hammock to the ruins of the Willie Browne House. The ruins aren’t much. Stone foundation corners to indicate the bedroom was here, the front door here, and that the house was very small. There’s more to the Browne family cemetery down the trail than to the Browne house ruins.

Spanish Pond Trailhead starts the Spanish Pond Trail, one mile into the preserve, declining deep into the chthonic muck toward Alligator Pond and skirting the high bluff along the tributaries of St. Johns Creek. It connects to the Willie Browne Trail, which loops around the cabin ruins and cemetery and climbs the bluff past a single, lost Confederate grave. Even here, a Confederate grave. All of Duval County is a Confederate grave. All of the bluff is a Timucuan garbage heap. The shell middens that crest the bluff seem a natural formation, an organic outgrowth of the bluff rising up from the marsh. Instead, the middens are kitchen scraps, thousands of years of deposits of shellfish remains left over by the Indians from bounty caught out in what is now Round Marsh, St. Johns Creek, and Chicopit Bay. The Willie Browne Trail lanyards onto the Timucuan Trail, which leads through thick midden, scrub oak, marsh cacti, small crabs, and green snakes to a wooden observation platform overlooking Round Marsh at the tip of Shell Peninsula.

William Henry and Eliza Browne leave New York for Jacksonville in 1882. In the late 1880s, they flee the Yellow Fever outbreak in downtown Jacksonville for a two-story house on the salt marsh.

There the boys, Willie and Saxon, fish the marsh, explore the woods and hills and Confederate gun batteries lost in the trees along the bluff. And when William and Eliza move, their sons stay on the property. They live off the land, in touch with it, nourishing it and nourished by it. What they don’t eat from the livestock and vegetable garden comes from the waters.

In 1953, the younger brother Saxon dies, and Willie is left by himself. He lives in the Browne cabin for the 17 years left of his life with no electricity, no indoor plumbing.

From the meandering arc high up over the marsh, the Spanish Pond trail descends into sandy scrub, narrows until walled in tightly with the dark brown jagged curves of scrub oak, then flattens out and opens up into the verdure of the low-lying pond. A sign says, “Caution: Alligator Active in Area.”

Coming down here into the thick, into the green ooze, makes the 21st century hiker think about the prophets of monotheistic religions and their experiences in the austerity and deprivation of the desert. Coming down here into the primitive green and the deep dank makes him think that religious prophets in this environment would give birth to different cosmologies. Here too is an austerity, but this is an austerity of lushness, of fullness, of fragrant fertility—the opposite of the desert.

He has not seen the alligator. He walks among the twisted scraggles of scrub oak rising up out of the algae-covered ooze. The ooze is the loveliest thick green. All the greens around him breathe and pulse in their billions of depths. Everything here is depth—not depth in the ground or in the water, but in itself. One inch of green here is deep as the oceans. This place cloys, clutters, clusters, so gibbous of life that it suffocates you. There is no need for you and no room for you in this kind of green.

The algae on the water teems and breaks in the emergence of a thousand tiny trees. The hiker feels that he is down, down deep in the navel of the world, omphalos, which must have been the kind of thing the Timucua believed (he thinks). He has not seen the alligator, but in such a deep earthen amniotic sac, the alligator and its savage deep-time saurian appetite and its otherworldly (because so deeply earthly) evil intelligence is implicit in every surrounding thing.

In 1992, United States Representative Charles Bennett of Jacksonville leaves office after serving in Congress for 40 years. He was elected when Jacksonville still elected that breed of Democrats called Dixiecrats.

Typically, Dixiecrats opposed Civil Rights legislation, until that Southern Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson passed Civil Rights legislation that he acknowledged would lose the South for the Democratic Party. It did. Dixiecratic Representative Charlie Bennett signed the Southern Manifesto in 1956, which took a bigoted stand against racial integration, though later he sought to make up to black voters and received their support.

In 1998, Bennett tells a young newspaper reporter that in 1950, he fulfilled a long-term effort to establish a national park at Fort Caroline. In 1990, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and Fort Caroline National Monument takes over the 600 acres Willie Browne bequeathed to the Nature Conservancy. It calls his former family land the Theodore Roosevelt Area, to commemorate the early preservationist president, when the United States elected that breed of Republicans who were preservationists, whom, for reason of preservation of wilderness, Willie Browne revered.

In 1998, Charlie Bennett tells the young newspaper reporter, “In my last term, I came to the conviction that ancient Indian culture and more recent European and American history made it a good idea to establish that whole area as an historic and ecological preserve.”

U.S. Representative Charles Bennett dies in 2003. He is 92 years old. Willie Browne dies in 1970. He is 80 years old. Juan Alonso Cavale, “the last Timucuan,” dies in Guanabacoa, in eastern Havana, Cuba, in 1767. No one knows his age. (Today’s Seminoles include the Timucua as their forebears.)

Wood stork. Clapper rail. Bald eagle. Seaside sparrow. Roseate spoonbill. Osprey. Great Blue Heron. Belted Kingfisher. Painted Bunting.

Gopher tortoise. Bobcat. Dolphin. Otter.            Alligator.

The Great Blue Heron stands 52 inches tall, walks gingerly in the marsh grasses, eats a fish or a small snake, or walking up amongst the twisted trees on Shell Peninsula, dines on a rat or a salamander. The Great Blue Heron may even consume a Carolina Wren, a Painted Bunting.

The Painted Bunting, Nonpareil, is five inches long, bright green and blue and red, the most colorful bird in North America.

The alligator, the alligator eats everything.

By the time the teacher and her daughters arc downward and across from Alligator Pond through the scrub brush thickets along Spanish Pond Trail, the sky and treetops have filled with great numbers of buzzards. The large dark sharp-faced birds swoop down into the thick concave off the narrow trail, dozens of buzzards. Something is in there. Something big is dead. Or more than one thing. Big things are dead in the thicket.

Obvious to the girls, obvious to their mother, far more is not seen than what is seen. Such is the case in this world. Far more is not seen. Most things enter the world and leave it without any human being ever having discerned them. Most things happen offstage, the original meaning of obscene. These three know this skinny trail, the green and green and green, the great carrion birds filling the upper reaches of the landscape bowl these human beings blindly hike, but the carrion birds move by scent and they know too well what big things die off the trail. By the time the teacher and her children cross Spanish Pond Trail, they have seen more than a hundred buzzards fill the tops of surrounding trees.

A bald eagle lights across Dredge Spoil Island, counterpoint to Willie Browne Land, ignoring the “State Owned—NO Trespassing” sign. Birds acknowledge no such artificial borders. Nor do birds acknowledge any such irony as that the only reason natural habitats and trails and cabin ruins and the Browne Family Cemetery may be here now is that Willie Browne left them in state ownership. The wildlife and the hikers alike ignore the irony that state ownership allows them to forget the State. There is no United States, no State of Florida, no City of Jacksonville in the muck in which a roseate spoonbill walks or on the bark on which a spotted salamander hides.