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Nano Riley

Nano Riley is a journalist, environmental historian, and an adjunct professor at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. She is the author, most recently, of Florida's Farmworkers in the Twenty-First Century.

Salt Creek Journal

Nature, Community and Place in South St. Petersburg

Story of an urban stream.

Editors: Michelle Sonnenberg, Hannah Gorski, and Alison Hardage.

Thomas Hallock, USFSP Faculty Advisor

A Review of Salt Creek Journal, by Creative Loafing

 

If you haven’t heard of Salt Creek, you’re not alone. The old creek traverses the southern tip of Pinellas County from Bayboro Harbor on Tampa Bay to Clam Bayou, Gulfport’s own nature park on Boca Ciega Bay, but its convoluted path is a hard one to follow. Perhaps long ago it was navigable, but today it’s forgotten, barely visible and nearly lost as it flows through concrete culverts on its way to Lake Maggiore, then, onward in its tortured journey westward. This small volume of essays rediscovers Salt Creek, its place in St. Petersburg’s history and the value of finding untamed nature in the heart of Florida's most densely populated county; it brings together students, alumni and a few other local writers to ponder the existence of nature in the city, side by side industrial parks and interstate overpasses.

 

The book contains essays that run the gamut from poetic, to stark, matter-of-fact observations about its modern condition, which in some spots is little more than a trash-filled drainage ditch. Some of the writing is about life on the southside when Jim Crow ruled. The creek was there, and people fished the creek, as the native Tocobago no doubt did for centuries before the encounter. A few poems add a lyrical quality, and the addition of an occasional newspaper article allows the unfamiliar reader to place Salt Creek’s importance in a historical context.

 

One such story from a 1906 edition of The Evening Independent (St. Petersburg’s afternoon newspaper until it folded in 1986) tells of the improvements to Bayboro Harbor, reclaiming many acres of marshland to transform an eyesore into a beauty spot and creating a harbor for the growing city. Salt Creek was straightened and deepened to accommodate pleasure yachts. In 1906, nature was best subdued. Another article from the Independent documents a drug bust in the mid ‘60s, when a couple who lived on an old boat moored at the creek’s mouth and a few of their pals were busted for pot. The area near the creek was a counter-culture haven in those days.

 

Thomas Hallock, the USF SP professor whose nature writing classes worked on this project for five years, explained why he encourages students to explore the city, to find the hidden natural spots few recognize at first.

 

I like to urge students to look between the cracks in the urban jungle to see where nature pokes through, he said. When they go to the Green Swamp, or the Withlacoochee, they write clichés about nature as serene, healing, just writing about the beauty. But nature can be scary and surprising, when finding it underfoot, right under your nose.

 

And find nature, they did. On one expedition, they found a lifeless great blue heron, strangled by carelessly discarded fishing line dangling along the bank, fatally trapped when it only expected to find dinner. Paddling along the navigable portions of the creek, oars hit Styrofoam coolers and shiny orange Dorito bags glint in the sunshine among the mangrove roots. Don't pick up the litter, Hallock advises his students...it's hard for them to just observe. Kayaking Clam Bayou, the west end of the creek, a motorcycle helmet lodged in the mangroves, inspires Cathy Salustri's musings on how many dead bodies reside in Florida swamps. 

 

Salt Creek reminds us of life on the segregated southside, when one writer's parents were unable to obtain a bank loan to build a house on their Lake Maggiore's west shore property. Another longtime resident bemoaned the loss of the mangoes and other tropical fruits, a blessing for hungry kids from the bountiful, free-growing trees thriving across the southside when much of the area was sparsely developed.

 

Bob Devon Jones, the director of Studio@620, pens an homage to Lassing Park, discussing the ecology of that stretch of land bounding the bay from the Coast Guard station to 22nd Avenue in the Old Southeast. The beach, without seawalls, offers a dynamite view of summer storms as they thunder across the water, obscuring the usually visible city skyline with walls of pounding rain. In sunny weather, it's a gathering place for neighbors and dogs to socialize. Jon Wilson's 1986 article from the Independent documents his trip from the harbor to the lake, passing through Bartlett Park, recounting the foul smell coinciding with the unexpected spots of strange startling beauty along the way. Roy Peter Clark, that venerable writing coach from the Poynter Institute and self-professed landlubber, contributes his thoughts on bay fauna and unmasks his horror of confronting a bevy of horseshoe crabs at the bay's edge, down along the pink streets on Pinellas Point. 

 

The little book is a delightful read for anyone seeking to know more about nature in our city and where it  peeks out in surprising places. It's a labor of love, and well worth the five-year effort.

 

The quality of the writing varies, but it all has heart, and brings an awareness of wild urban nature, no matter how we try to tame it.

It's an attempt, says Hallock, to build community through finding nature in urban communities.