Ponce De Leon, Celebrating La Florida, Jim Draper and the Feast of Flowers

By Laurie Sheldon

Ponce De Leon, the Executive Summary

Image from Ponce De Leon by Wyatt Blasingame
Ponce De Leon did not return to Spain after sailing on Christopher Columbus' second expedition to the Americas (1493). He chose to stay in what is now called the Dominican Republic, where he first heard that a neighboring island (present-day Puerto Rico) had a good bit of gold. He took the island using brute force against the natives, claimed it as Spain's, and became its governor. He was just getting warmed up.

In 1513 he sailed northwest with a 200-man, 3-galleon crew from Puerto Rico, hoping to find and conquer Bimini, a Bahamian island purported to contain riches and a legendary spring that gave people eternal life and health. After stopping in Grand Turk and San Salvador, the men caught sight of a low, flat stretch of land. It was Easter, April 2nd, "Pascua Florida," a Spanish reference to the holiday as a combination of both religious and natural significance (the resurrection of Christ and the beginning of spring/the season of flowering). In English, this translates as the "Feast of Flowers".  Ponce claimed the land for Spain and named it "La Florida". It is reported that when they went ashore they knew they had not reached Bimini (which was rumored to be inhabited by Indians) because they found no indications of village life.

Ponce's men meet the Calusa, from Dan Harmon's Juan
Ponce De Leon and the Search for the Fountain of Youth
Less than week later, the men shipped off and encountered the powerful current known as the Gulf Stream near Cape Canaveral (translated as the "cape of currents"). They sailed around the tip of the peninsula and up the west coast a touch, where they got into a riff with the native Calusa tribe. The men left shortly thereafter, and eventually made their way back to Puerto Rico.

Still determined to find Bimini and the treasure it contained, Ponce went back to Spain and got financial backing from the king to settle and govern the "islands" of Florida and Bimini. King Ferdinand gave it the thumbs up and even knighted Ponce, which reinforced the conquistador's lust for land and power. Then Ferdinand keeled over. This delayed Ponce's return to the Caribbean for several years, and made him antsy because he knew that other people had their eyes on these "islands" and would jump his claim if the territory remained unsettled.

In 1521, Ponce lead a group of 200-men, along with horses livestock and tools to work the land, back up the west coast of Florida. The Calusa had not softened over the years, and fired a barrage of arrows at the would-be settlers when they went inland for fresh water. Many of the men were hit, including Ponce, who took an arrow in his thigh. The mission (apparently a bad idea) was quickly aborted. The men jumped/limped/crawled back on board and headed for Cuba, where Ponce eventually died as a result of his wound.

Note the carefully selected words on the promotional
poster I designed early in the conference planning process.
Celebrating La Florida

Fast forward 500 years from that fated Easter day when Ponce set foot on the peninsula we now call home. For the benefit of the mathematically challenged, I should point out that would be approximately two months ago. All year long, there have been activities across the state of Florida that call attention to this "anniversary" of sorts. And let's face it - for a country that didn't get the democratic ball rolling until 237 years ago, 500 years sounds like a very big deal. So, keeping that in mind, my chapter (Ixia) had the honor of hosting this year's conference amid all of the "500 year" hoopla, and, not unlike any well-planned bar-mitzvah, we chose a theme: Celebrating La Florida. I thought it was vague enough to escape criticism while remaining topical and historically relevant, but, for the first time ever, I was wrong. Despite my insistence that by "Celebrating La Florida" we are honoring all that this state contained when it was named (i.e. prior to European footfall) I was personally accused of patting murderers on the back and praising Ponce De Leon for what should be considered to be "shameful moments in history." Nothing could be farther from my intentions (or the intentions of my chapter and the organization as a whole). So, once more, for the record books, our conference was in no way, shape, or form, a grand salute to the entourage responsible for decimating native populations. It was about looking back, trying to learn from, avoid repeating, and, whenever possible, correcting the mistakes of those who were here before us. Further, it was about recognizing that, after 500 years, natives - endemics in particular - are what continue to make Florida so special.

Jim Draper and the Feast of Flowers

The conference opened with a presentation by Jim Draper, who eloquently reiterated that message both with words and on canvas. He began by defining himself in terms of the environments that critically shaped his relationship with the natural world. Born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, the rural town with a population of 6,000, Draper's childhood was spent outdoors, working or eating in/from his family's gardens, or learning about timber management and dogwood trees from his aunt. Blessed with artistic skills, he went on to study art while working part-time in the landscape industry. He continued to do landscape work after graduating, but became increasingly uneasy with the institutional, exotic landscapes he was charged with installing. Eventually, he opened his own company and designed with specimens which seemed to thrive without assistance. He looked to cemeteries and natural areas for guidance with plant selection, and wanted to communicate through the landscape. Ultimately, he realized that his message would be more effective as expressed with a paintbrush instead of a shovel, so he moved to Jacksonville and turned to a career as an artist.

Not unlike the theme of our conference, Draper’s most recent project recognizes the naming of Florida 500 years ago. His paintings celebrate the state’s native flora, fauna, and the natural systems in which they exist. They are scaled to be imposing on the loftiest of viewers, and so life-like that they practically breathe. But beyond their “eye candy” is a narrative that is equally impressive. Through the project’s title, Feast of Flowers, Draper links the notorious Spanish land-grab with present-day issues of consumption/consumerism and the western idea of eating everything one can get their hands on. Ponce de Leon’s role is that of the anti-hero - a metaphor for man’s subconscious need to possess. Despite the dark undertone of this concept, he presented his paintings sans finger-shaking and direct accusations. To the contrary, Draper’s message, shared in vibrant, rich hues, was for each of us to consider nature - both our own and that of our surroundings - and to understand the relationship of one to the other.

I had seen Jim’s paintings on several occasions but it was not until I heard him speak that I recognized the spiritual element to his work. The first of his slides showed a triptych: the left canvas, entitled Small Passion,  appeared draped in Passiflora incarnata, the center canvas, entitled Nana, featured the tallest dune in Florida, and the right canvas, entitled Muscadine, was crisscrossed in the heart-shaped leaves of Vitis rotundifolia. He began by describing the passionvine as a host, giving its own life to give life to others. From there, I saw the dune as both altar and protector, the grapes as wine - a symbol of the Christian Eucharist, the Jewish Kiddush, and in Greek and Roman mythology. Suddenly these were much more than paintings. He flipped to a painting entitled Tree Snail of Liguus fasciatus, a species limited to southernmost Florida which he’d seen in a hardwood hammock in the Everglades. 1.5 million acres, and he’s focused on a creature that rarely measures more than 2.5” long. Draper’s was scaled to 6’ tall. I seemed slight in comparison. “You have to get into the ditches,” he insisted, “look up, down, and all around you” to truly experience Florida. “All creatures, large and small,” I thought to myself, and Draper continued.

It's probably no coincidence that Draper chose to paint a native vine whose mystique is connected to a spiritual icon. Legend links the 10 petals of this flower to the Apostles, its halo of filaments as Christ's crown of thorns, 3 secondary bracts as the holy trinity and 3 stigmas as Christ and 2 thieves on Calvary. This image was used as our conference logo.
A few slides later: Buttonbush, a native that grows where the damp ground sinks beneath one’s feet, painted with its luminescent other-worldly orb of a flower plotted dead center on the 4’x4’ canvas. Contrasted against the deep greens of its foliage in its favored low-light setting, it looked like an earth-bound star. And he went on. Slide after slide, I saw through his eyes… turkey vultures, wading in Silver Glen Springs, where the sand boils and the clear water sparkles (the painting’s title: Fountain of Youth).  Suwannee River: its leaning cypress trees like human silhouettes. Gulf Sturgeon: leaping, once pushed to the brink of extinction.

While conceding that we cannot return to the past, Draper emphasized the importance of respecting the identity of the landscape and its indigenous species. He pushed beyond the binomial nomenclature that so many of us seem fixed on, and showcased the divine in Florida’s native plants, animals and wild places. He is to Florida what Thoreau was to Walden, and Muir to California’s redwoods, and, thankfully, I will never look at La Florida the same way again.


Anonymous said…
Whoops: "Less than week later, the men shipped off and encountered the south-flowing current known as the Gulf Stream near Cape Canaveral..." Unless there's been a big change in ocean currents since then, it wasn't the Gulf Stream that took them south, since it flows generally north-northeast from that point.
The Jolly Bloggers said…
Thank you for reading so carefully :) He did, in fact, discover the north-flowing Gulf Stream, then headed south. Through my process of editing I must have transposed the directional content. The text has since been corrected accordingly.
Anonymous said…
You are a wonderful writer! I enjoyed this blog very much. I would love to hear Jim Draper speak!
Thank you for taking the time to read it and reply. Jim is an all-around salt-of-the-earth kind of guy. I was fortunate to have a great topic to write about.

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