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Pineland - The Calusa Heritage Trail

Author: Eric Taubert
Date of Trip: December 2007

Each point of interest is documented on the large pictorial story boards which intermittently line the path. They give an abridged biography of the Calusa town of Tampa which once existed here. As is true with most history…later generations got the story wrong and Tampa was eventually misplaced to its present-day location by way of a mapmaker's error.

I walk to the right, along the side of a rare sight in Florida...raised ground. Overgrown with trees and shrubs, closer inspection reveals the hill to be constructed of ancient conch shells. It's a shell mound, a historic refuse pile of sea-life garbage deposited here by the Calusa Indians thousands of years ago.

The Calusa used shells in many different ways. First and foremost, they ate the inhabitants of the shells. Once the shells were empty, many of them were used for tools, utensils, jewelry and decorations. I take the path up a rustic stairway to the highest part of Brown's Mound. Off to the sides of the trail, the top layer of earth is disturbed in some areas. Chalky white shells, bleached by a million days under the unforgiving Florida sun, glimmer and emerge from the scarred ground like ancient bones jutting through withered flesh. A giant gumbo limbo tree emerges from a high point on the mound, sending its support roots deep into whatever residual nourishment this abandoned kitchen midden might still hold. History apparently feeds the tree well...its thick twisting trunk and the agonies of its sun-burnt skin are quite a sight to behold.

The storyboard atop the thirty foot mound informs that it was once, likely, twice as tall. The passing years have conspired with relentless weather, human footsteps, and the weight of sunrays to reduce the size of this historical junk heap by half. I wonder how long this diminishing evidence of an ancient civilization will continue to hold up.

Funny, how all we have to teach us of this once flourishing culture are the messes they left behind. We learn almost all we know of them by picking through the garbage bin of history and sorting and cataloguing whatever we find there.

I wonder what types of trash piles we'll leave behind and how long they're apt to last. When we're long forgotten and they come across our plastic, Styrofoam, metal and concrete…what will they think of us? Disposable diapers and aerosol cans, car parts and beer bottles, hurricane shutters and the remains of our iPhones…this is the evidence we'll leave in our dumps. These are the pieces of our lives.

I look out across the land below, reminiscent of an African savannah, and think of the ancient past, before man, when all the continents were joined by their plate tectonics. Was Florida once connected to Africa? Is that why I sometime see one in the other? How little we truly know about the grand scheme of things. We're forced to make due on the half-truths we're taught, propaganda sound-bites from corporate television and all the history that's been rewritten and edited into its present-day, cookie-cutter, and sugar-coated revisionism.

Perhaps the truth, in this world, is like Tampa…quietly withering away, forgotten, misplaced by a mapmaker's error. Perhaps it's hidden within the trash we've strewn.

A short continuance further down the meandering path exits to another set of stairs climbing up, yet, another shell mound. At the top of Randell Mound, a park bench overlooking Pine Island Sound offers the perfect vantage point for a scenic rest. Boats buzz past leaving frothy white trails in their wake. Sun glints off the points of subtle waves. Historic shells litter the ground. And bloodsucking insects attack from all sides. Don't forget your bug repellant.

Randell Mound might have been the site of the Tampa chief's house, or a Calusa temple. Between the years of 1917 and 1927, a private residence existed at the top of the mound. It burned down in 1927. Sometime later a small cabin was built in its place. The cabin was demolished by a new owner of the mound in 1996. He was preparing to build, yet, another house atop Randell Mound until Pineland activists mounted a campaign to purchase and rescue the land in question.

Times change. In the early and mid-1900s road builders used many mounds as fill. They'd just chop them up, laying waste to all the history within them, with nary a moment of hesitation. It was a matter of practicality…cars and carriages need roads, you can't build roads without fill, shell mounds contain fill…thus, shell mounds became roads. During this era, the mounds that had houses built on them were the most likely to be spared from the primitive asphalt-making process. It is only through those few who chose to build their homes atop shell mounds that we have access to these archeological resources today.

Many historically relevant parts of the Pineland site are still privately owned. Most of the owners diligently protect the cultural resources on their property, but some of the parcels face the threat of possible future development. Although some houses still exist atop shell mounds, some would argue the only safe shell mounds are those which have been purchased and set aside as protected land of historical and educational significance.

The backside of Randell mound brings us to a high point from which we can see another angle of the Pineland archeological site. Looking down, over the top of a small storage shed, you'll see a variety of colorful native vegetation, the quiet solitude of Pine Island.

There are also remains of a Calusa-built canal at the Pineland site. The canal once stretched two and a half miles across Pine Island to Matlacha Pass. When Smithsonian archaeologist Frank Cushing visited Pineland in 1895, he measured the canal at 30 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Now all that remains visible is a short portion.

The next stretch of the pathway brings wide open expanses dotted with curious tree and plant formations. Enigmatic mounds of vine-covered flora seem to intentionally provide natural frames for other plants in the distance. Primal shapes emerge from the soil in twisted and writhing forms brought to life by the salty breeze.

Some quizzical air surrounds this stretch of land. The entire setting is a puzzle needing to be solved, a mystery offering something slightly less than an answer.

Wicked root systems choke the trunks of trees.

Short grass erupts into patches of undisturbed wild growing in rigorous vigor, refuges to birds and animals, small ecosystems unto themselves. As the sun dips towards the horizon, rabbits appear from the depths of these tiny forests and frolic across the landscape.

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