Wednesday Jun 20

BOOK REVIEW OF Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America Michelle Currie Navakas, Penn Press, University of Pennsylvania: Florida is Strange, and Strangely Important

There is something strange about Florida that we can’t quite put our collective finger on. Michelle Currie Navakas’ Liquid Landscape: Geography and Settlement at the Edge of Early America posits that we can’t seem to pin Florida down because it never stops shifting. Indeed, the protean southernmost continental state both demands attention and escapes definition. In the last several years, Florida has produced bewildering and tragic click-bait (a rash of bath salt-induced human maulings), has been clobbered by Caribbean storms severe enough to rattle even the hurricane-weathered peninsula; bore the murder of Trayvon Martin that launched a national movement against police violence; and withstood two of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. All of these instances of violence and upheaval occur alongside the “geographic fantasy” of the Florida motif: white sun, blue water—the Sunshine State, an American Paradise. As Roxane Gay wrote of her parents’ home in Naples, “Florida is a strange place: hot, beautiful, ugly. I love it here, and how nothing makes sense but still, somehow, there is a rhythm.”

Navakas’ Liquid Landscape, a welcome addition to the growing canon of interdisciplinary critical geography, bypasses attempts at a singular or static understanding of Florida. The author instead examines—via history, cartography, literature, botany, and speculation—the way the rhythm of the landscape’s ambiguous borders, floating amphibious plants, and manifold demographics defy stability—and thus defy the definition and demarcation necessary to conventional kinds of colonial settlement.

Navakas asks the reader, “What does it mean to take root on unstable ground?” She explores this question by first consulting the usual suspects of the 16th—19th century: western European explorers, mapmakers, botanists, wreckers, colonizers, and imperialists who wandered through mangrove and hopped archipelagos in search of land on which to plant a flag or a cash crop. The seekers were flummoxed, though, by ground that is somehow land and not-land. Navakas belabors this contradiction throughout her extensively-sourced chapters, as she follows the populations (indigenous people, free Black persons, survivalists), economies (piracy, salvage, agriculture, tourism), and foreign sovereignties (Spain, France, the U.S.) that shaped and were shaped by the Floridian tides.

When Liquid Landscape departs smartly from more conventional historical accounts in later chapters—in a way, abandoning the failed attempts of property and conquest to define the landscape—it seeks a geographical narrative through imaginative literature. Navakas pulls fictional and autobiographical work from James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Zora Neal Hurston, among others, and these writers convey wildly varying perceptions of Florida and its machinations. And that seems to be the point—that Florida, ephemeral and maddening to early explorers, served as a “metaphor for considering the variety of forms that founding and belonging could take.”

This allegorical landscape, Navakas reminds us, is at risk, as sea level rise threatens to chronically—and permanently—overtake a region that serves as a “vibrant language through which to imagine our relation to others and to the natural world.” Liquid Landscape suggests that one answer to rising seas may be to resist fixity in a nation built on parcels and property, and instead find new ways of “personal and political belonging” more appropriate to the environment upon which we rely.

The thesis weaved throughout Liquid Landscape is that Florida’s unnamable uniqueness is a product of its natural landscape, and that more inland methods of claiming land won’t work—and have never worked—on mutable Floridian shores. Navakas offers instead a “Floridian form of taking root,” epitomized by the indigenous pistia stratiotes—an amphibious plant that “takes shallow root,” and spreads “continually over the earth, or even floating just above it.” Water lettuce, as it is more commonly called, “refuses firm fixity,” and thus “remains ineradicable, and can always find footing.” In a land that refuses to stop moving, we might do well to go with the flow.

Maggie Calmes is a native of southern Louisiana, and currently lives in New York City where she works for a community development organization and attends Hunter College’s Urban Planning & Policy graduate program. She is partial to the panhandle of Florida, and recently completed a thesis about the history of race, tourism, and beach access on the Gulf Coast.

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