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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Feast or Famine Florida

I’m the child of farmers, and it’s in my blood to dig dirt. My mother and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, though, grew vegetables because they needed them to feed their big families. My generation is fortunate to enjoy gardening as a hobby, not a necessity, and I grow flowers for birds and butterflies. The few fruit trees we have are for fun more than food – and that’s a very good thing because this has been a very strange year for them. You may remember that the winter was exceptionally warm and the spring exceptionally dry, so the lychee and mango trees bloomed much too early and then lost their buds in the spring drought. I was sure they would bloom again when the summer rains came, but they haven’t. In retrospect, I think it was because late spring not only was dry, but also uncommonly hot. I even took a picture of the TV screen when the map showed 100 degrees in Brandon, something that never has happened in the 45 years we’ve lived here.

So the lychee has not produced even one of its bright red fruits, but last week I spotted a lonely mango that had grown in the shade on our neighbor’s side of the fence. It is ripening now on the kitchen table – next to guavas. The guava tree, a couple of lemons, and several bananas live on opposite sides of the mango and are doing their routine reproduction, while the mango is not. In contrast, last year, I had enough mangos that many fell to the ground and some sprouted. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t pay enough attention to those baby trees during the hot spring, and they died.

It’s hard to accept our feast or famine Florida, with too much rain in summer and too little in spring. The seasonal schedule is the opposite of Up North, and newcomers have to learn to garden anew. Yet even the specialists in this field don’t quite seem to get it – or at least, their “customer service” people don’t get it. Back in January, I bought about $50 worth of bulbs and tubers suitable for Zones 9/10, which is our area in the zip-code equivalent of US climates. When the order didn’t arrive, I called to inquire and was hugely disappointed with the response: “But there’s deep snow on the ground here in Wisconsin.” I replied that they shouldn’t advertise tropical-zone items if they can’t provide them at the correct planting time, but this concept seemed completely foreign to the woman on the phone. The new things I wanted to try – a Louisiana black iris, for example, and an Orange King Aurantiaca -- didn’t arrive until the April drought and heat. Not surprisingly, most never lifted themselves out of the hot ground. I suppose I should call for a refund/replacement, but I hate even thinking about it.


We Floridians nonetheless have made some progress on this. It’s been years since I’ve seen an advertisement in local media for tulips or lilacs or other things that won’t thrive here. That used to be routine, and I felt sorry for the Yankee newcomers who didn’t understand that they might as well just light their money on fire. The agronomists with the Gainesville-based IFAS (Institute of Food and Agricultural Science) have made progress, too. It’s routine to grow blueberries here now, which was not the case a few decades ago. These scientists keep hurrying evolution along, persuading grapes, peaches, and other such things that they don’t actually need the cold-weather break that the plants thought they did.

So we should support IFAS, as well as NOAA, the federal agency that used to be the Weather Bureau. These researchers are open-minded and innovative scientists, dedicated to understanding things and rarely motivated by personal profit. There will be profit, though, when we finally can affect weather. We can’t prevent feast and famine yet, but (assuming that we don’t waste resources on war) I’m sure our great-grands will be able to influence it. My aim would be the Camelot song: “The rain may never fall ‘til after sundown; at 8 AM, the clouds must disappear…”

Still Cleaning My Study, Which Inspires Thought

It will be months before I finish cleaning out files of research materials that I used for writing books as far back as the 1980s. I’m contributing lots of paper to Hillsborough County’s recycling program, and I probably will throw out a 1995 Rand-McNally atlas -- but not prior to recording why this particular US map was important to me. Circles and squares decorate it, as I wrote an essay back then about how state lines should have been drawn if we knew then what we know now. It’s never too late to think about new ideas, and perhaps we should have a national re-draw. Everyone might be happier if we did.

To start here in Florida, let’s liberate the Panhandle. They are proud to call themselves “LA” anyway, meaning “Lower Alabama.” Right-wingers around Pensacola would be glad to sign up with either Mississippi or Louisiana, while those near Panama City who term their area “The Redneck Riviera” could go with like-minded folks in Alabama. Tallahassee might want to stay with Florida, but some of its residents would prefer Georgia. If so, we could return to thinking about moving the capitol to the Orlando area, something that we should have done when the new one was built in the 1970s. It’s a mistake to put state capitals too far from the people.

I could write a whole article about capital cities, but let’s return to state borders. Here’s an idea: Let’s put the federal workers together by creating a new state of Columbia, letting DC merge with suburban Virginia and Maryland. Coastal Maryland (Annapolis, et al) belongs with Delaware, while western Virginia has much more in common with West Virginia. Everybody would be happier with their state government, and maybe the new state of Columbia could get a handle on its all-day rush hour. No one who has any experience “Inside the Beltway” believes that the federal budget favors this area. Instead, congressmen -- and especially the current president -- just fly over it.

Heading up the East Coast, there should be a state linking Baltimore and Philadelphia, bringing independence for both these urbanites and for the differently-minded folks who live in the mountains that stretch from western Virginia and Maryland to Pennsylvania and New York. New York City and Long Island, of course, could be a state unto itself, or it could link up with the Jersey side of the Hudson. Massachusetts and Connecticut are small enough that there is no real polarization between their city and their country folks, and the same is true for the three New England states to their north, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Something would have to be done about Rhode Island, though. I think I would plop it in with a possible Newark-to-Philly state. They have a lot in common, including histories of corruption. See the next paragraph.

(Diversion: Hubby and I spent the summer of 1976 at Brown University, which you may recall, is in Providence, Rhode Island. I was at the university library one day, and when I came out, the car was gone. I thought I’d forgotten where I parked, but my hunt was futile, and understanding librarians called the cops. Their response was more-or-less: “Whatta think would happen when you brought an out-of-state car into Rhode Island? Of course, it’s going to be stolen.” It turned out that the state had absolutely no title law, and car theft was a key industry. We bought a replacement car from a private individual, and he made it clear that it was routine to write out the bill-of-sale – on plain paper! – and to invent whatever sales price we wanted to declare. That would keep our license fee lower, he said, and he didn’t hide his scorn when we opted for honesty. Nor did living in Princeton in 1979 improve our opinion of New Jersey’s government.)

More Re Rearranging the United States to Make Everyone Happier

At the northwestern edge of Pennsylvania and New York, we could build a long, narrow state of old, industrialized cities. At a minimum, this would consist of the Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo areas that border on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie -- or you could go a further southwest and also take in Youngstown, Akron, and other Ohio cities. Working together, these Rust Belt towns might be able to restore a healthy environment and economy – something that is harder when they have to deal with downstate farmers with different interests. It’s even possible to go still further west to include Gary, Indiana, and Detroit, Michigan. By the way, did you realize that the distance from Pensacola to Key West is greater than the distance from New York to Chicago? Thinking about that makes this new state plausible. It could be named “Great Lakes.”

The rural leftovers might make up another sort of Great Lakes state. We forget that much of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota is further north than some of Canada. Too cold for most humans, this area mostly remains wilderness that we have a chance to preserve. Many Native Americans still call it home. The boundaries are Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior – and wouldn’t “Superior” be a fun name? I’m not sure how pure these waters are now, but probably clean enough that a fishing industry could be restored. Back when I was a kid in Minnesota, Dad ordered big boxes of frozen fish from Lake Superior every winter. We didn’t have a freezer, and Mom regularly sent me out to the garage to chip a fish or two out of the ice.

Going West

Minnesota and other Midwestern prairies did not have trees, so pioneers termed the land “The Great American Desert” and skipped over it. By the next generation, however, it would be known as “The Heartland” that provides our basic foods. So, because the Midwest was settled late, its map reflects the neat squares of surveyors who drew the sectional grids that were encouraged by the Homestead Act. (Another thing to remember: Our ancestors did not entirely pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Ask any young person today how he/she would like to get 160 acres of free land simply by living on it, even part-time, for five years.) The point here, however, is that because surveyors got there before settlers, the borders of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, etc. pretty much follow straight lines and make sense.

In driving their wagon trains through the great “desert” and across the Rockies, settlers were heading to California and “Oregon Country,” which later divided into the states of Oregon and Washington. California already was its big self by then: It was admitted to the Union in 1850, well before other states that are much further east. The rush to make California a state was to solidify our conquest of the land from Mexico during war in the late 1840s and especially because of the 1849 gold rush. We took other territory from Mexico, too, but less desirable land and more Native Americans meant that Arizona and New Mexico didn’t reach statehood status until after the twentieth century.

California logically could be three states: Sacramento and the rural area to its north; San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and the surprisingly large towns in the middle of the state; and the Los Angeles/San Diego area in the south. Like California, Texas – the easternmost of the lands we took from Mexico – was not subdivided. Yet it logically could be: The ranching and petroleum fields around Amarillo, Lubbock, and Abilene have common interests, while the Gulf Coast area of Houston might join up with Dallas/Fort Worth to be a new urban state.

It’s rather inexplicable how voters in California and in Texas are very different from each other, but within their own borders, the residents of each nonetheless seem to get along. They like being big, so we could leave them alone. The only western state that needs to go is Idaho. Like Rhode Island in the East, Idaho is geographically small and absolutely tiny in population. With fewer residents than Hillsborough County, it should not be entitled to the same two votes in the US Senate that other states have.

Distribution of senate seats is another and much more complicated topic, though, and my aim here is to improve relations between residents within a state. Just one example: Virginia holds off-year elections for state offices, and you can see the animosity right now between voters with very disparate interests. Residents of Arlington and Potomac Mills have nothing in common with those in Lynchburg and Lexington, making it very difficult for gubernatorial candidates to propose policies that seem fair to all. So why just create new states? Maybe I won’t throw out that Rand McNally map after all.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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