by Art Levy
Updated 2 months ago
At the very beginning, we were using chair legs or table legs for shovels because we didn't have shovels. There was virtually no money for materials. I can remember when we finally had 200 bucks in the bank and the first thing we did was go to Hughes hardware supply in Gainesville and buy shovels and rakes and all those sorts of things. It was a big day.
My wife and I and our newborn daughter, we took our old unairconditioned Datsun and drove down to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota and we talked with the fiscal officers and the garden directors about the prospect of starting a botanical garden. They didn't laugh at us. They were actually very encouraging.
On this particular day, I had to do some work in the lower pond because it had this really ugly gray mass of algae. A good stiff wind from the west blew it into a crescent on the east side and somebody — me — had to go in with a net head and pull the stuff out. First thing in the morning, I checked where the alligator was and he was above the first waterfall and where I was going to work was below the waterfall. I waded in and worked for a couple of hours and got most of the algae out and then stopped for lunch.
You can never tell where the next break is going to come from or who's going to be your friend and who's not. For example, I got a call from Phil Em- Interview by Art Levy Icon Photograph by Jon M. Fletcher mer, who was a very large local builder. Because I thought builders were destroying Florida, I never would have thought about contacting a contractor for help, but he called me. He said he had a lot of extra chain link fence and asked if could I use it. He also gave us an old travel trailer, which was our very first office. That was kind of a dawning of an understanding that you can't pigeonhole people.
I got into this whole thing because I really like gardening and I wanted to spend a lot of time gardening — and then I spent years and years putting in boardwalks and fences and irrigation systems.
After lunch, I walked to the same place where I had been working for two hours and I walked right into him. He grabbed my arm. I thought once he knew he had a person, and not a great blue heron or something, and I could pound him on the nose, he would turn me loose. When that didn't happen, that's when I realized I was in trouble.
I'm technically retired now, which means I work three days a week instead of five, but I'm finally in a position where I can actually garden. When the phone rings or bills have to be paid or letters have to be written, my daughter, who's the director now, she does all that. Finally, I have a botanical garden to garden in.
I like to get factual information about anything I'm involved with, whether it's gardening or botany or zoology or politics or whatever. I'm actually amazed at how many people feel passionate about things they don't understand. I tend not to talk to those people a lot about politics.
I think the alligator decided I was more trouble than I was worth, so he just took the arm, which was OK with me. I was extremely fortunate to survive. If he had come after me when I turned to walk up the bank then that would have been it, but he was busy swallowing my arm.
Florida isn't on a good path. I've been worried about the state's environment ever since I got here in 1966. I don't really see it getting better. People tend to look at their pocketbook first and the environment second.
I'm a naturalist, and I've always been an apologist for alligators and snakes because they've really gotten a bad rap. I've always tried to soften that relationship — they were here first, this is their habitat, we have to be responsible, yada yada — and here I am defending alligators and talking about how wonderful they are then one bites off my arm.
I'm enough of a committed Southerner that, despite the fact that I shouldn't, I love fried catfish. You can get catfish at a lot of places, but unless it's fresh and not frozen, it's just not worth it. We drive very regularly to Stumpknockers on the Withlacoochee River, down in Dunnellon. Also, Corky's in Palatka.
I still love alligators.
I measure the whole thing in terms of dead versus alive as opposed to one arm versus two arms. I'd much prefer to be right-handed, but I'm just glad to be handed.