by Tim Gilmore, 7/14/2014
The office stinks of sodden rotting particle board and drywall. Dark mold marches aggressively up walls down which warm water drips from ceiling tiles. A 2008 calendar is still pinned to an office wall. Venetian blinds, rolled shut, admit a sickened light.
Thick tall grass absorbs and breaks up the parking lot. The glass in the windows and doors has shattered. Papers, files, and office supplies lay strewn, damp and disintegrating, across the soiled blue carpet. A mattress lies in the middle of the room.
One explanation holds that the company’s office, factory, and warehouse space was so filled with asbestos that cleaning it out would have been either physically impossible or cost-prohibitive. Another story claims that All Star Building Materials asked the City of Green Cove Springs to discount its electricity in the 200,000 square foot building, and when the city refused, All Star left this stinking hull behind.
The man who sells boiled peanuts from his nearby roadside cart favors the latter explanation. Wanda and I chat with him for a while. His grizzled and wizened assistant has “love” tattooed blue-green in chicken scratch across the inside of his lower arm. They’re reticent, but kind.
In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain stopped at the Ormond Beach headquarters for All Star Building Materials, where the company’s president lamented he’d let 138 workers go in Green Cove Springs. Four years later, presidential candidate Mitt Romney held a campaign rally at the same place. By then, Green Cove Springs was long forgotten.
A roiling blue sludge of bulbous storm clouds unfurls and plumes behind the rusted water tower and the long rusting exoskeleton of the factory and warehouse breaking and dropping piece by piece into the Florida muck. Stand still with the saplings that rise from and break up the concrete, face the vast maw of the warehouse, and you’ll hear it drop and thump wet, deep in its interior.
The soiled carpet in the molded offices breeds mosquitoes and chiggers in its own second-floor swamp-echo of the landscape underneath. You can’t escape the swamp. It was here forever and will be. The absorption rate of human endeavor is terrifyingly impersonal and rapid.
A green-black mold called Stachybotrys chartarum grows on and in cellulose-rich materials like drywall and sheet rock in water damage and moisture. The mold has thriven and proliferated in the last 175 years with the increased use of cheap and highly soluble building materials. Mycotoxins are those poisons present in such materials. They readily spore and spread through air currents and human touch.
The ribbon of black snake that hangs in the young tree is but a symptom of the landscape. Wanda’s afraid of snakes. As any rational person should be. My 90 year old father tells me that when he was a little boy, he learned the smell of rattlesnakes in the woods. A relative once gave Wanda some counterintuitive advice for dealing with her fear: “Don’t ever look for snakes in Florida. Because if you look for snakes, you’ll see them.”
We slosh through mud and thorns. We climb a short brick wall to circumvent the far side of the warehouse. Wanda tumbles backward off the wall into the muck and laughs gloriously at herself. Of course she does. She’s my sister whom I know this well and love. What else is there to do?
The long rectangle rusts and rots into the soil as much of the economy of Green Cove Springs has done in these last 20 years. A century ago, the town’s hotel trade throve on its proximity to its namesake mineral springs. Beginning in the 1940s, the town began to call itself the local “Little Detroit” in reference to its growing conglomeration of car dealerships, Detroit then being the car manufacturing center of the country. As late as the early 1980s, cartoon automobiles rolled across TV screens with the advertising jingle, “Green Cove Springs is your best bet, / Green Cove Springs is… / Little Detroit.”
Since the 1990s, car dealerships have evaporated, Gustafson’s Farm’s dairy operations closed down, and this small town’s largest economic enterprises shut up shop. A March 2014 City of Green Cove Springs community redevelopment plan acknowledged “the city as a whole” had for years been “experiencing economic decline.”
Economies decline into landscapes much the same as do the physical locations of economic activity. We step across concrete runnels of rainwater runoff to oblong coffin-shapes of algae-green water.
The storm clouds continue to gather. I think about that phrase, “woolgathering,” maybe something slightly more philosophical than daydreaming. That’s what the thunderheads are doing, distantly menacing.
You can stand here and hear the occasional glass panel crash against the hard ground from some tall forsaken window, or the soft mineral fiber of a ceiling tile pulp into the warehouse-floor puddles creating their own soil for the sad sick foliage that ingests the human-made refuse to clean it to nurture future green life.
You can stand here and hear the dragonflies alight so delicately on sharp red oxidized waters, or the occasional but continual fleck-fall of atomizing rust in the stale air inside the buildings.
Storm’s coming. Storm was always coming. The storm always came and came again and came before. And all those vines that grew up through it and rooted their lines in the elevated rust—they were always coming too, and had always already come.
The storm has always come. This 200,000 square foot chitinous chassis just needs in this July-Wet to catch itself up. The snakes in the trees know the score. The toxic mold spores know best how to spread.
We, however, understand so little of our environment.
But we imagine we’re careful just where we step.