Underrated Joys on the Conservation

In a society where we are in need of constant entertainment, one would believe hiking through a natural conservation is a waste of time. In truth, these conservations don’t offer much. Maybe a few benches, a winding trail leading nowhere, and if you’re lucky, some view of a lake. Are you bored yet?

As dull as they may appear, they are critical to have in our ever-evolving environment. I will admit in the beginning stages of my traveling, conservations and preserves bored me to death. I decided that if it wasn’t a state park, I didn’t care for it much. As a person who admires open-mindedness and an adventurous spirit, I knew I needed to find joy in such places. Surprisingly, I have.

At first sight, the natural conservation at Sister’s Creek in Jacksonville, Florida, looks like a barren wasteland. Honestly, throw in some large bones and a few boulders, and it could become a spitting image of an Elephant Graveyard. There aren’t any trails to hike, just a long road with patches of crushed rocks and shells as parking areas to observe. With my tiny notebook in hand and eagerness to explore, I open my senses to the elements and take in what I can. Just because the low tide exposed the land to the heat of the Florida sun didn’t mean it was safe to walk across. It’s an illusion until you begin to trek across it and your feet sink fast into water-soaked sand. I haven’t played hopscotch in years, but I pulled out my old skills to get back to the creek’s edge.

Now with limited space to explore, I had to make do with what I had. I stood still and used my senses to explore for me. Big White Egrets flew low over the marshy area, searching for somewhere else to enjoy the loneliness of the land. They were smart enough to keep away from people like me. The low tide exposed a ton of oyster clusters. Now and then, you would see one spit water into the air. One oyster does it. Then others follow—sort of like doing the wave. Tiny fish swim in collective swimming patterns in the shallow water. What a show they put on going around in synchronized circles together? An old tree with peeling bark hovers over the depleted creek. Years of moving water caused erosion which exposed most of its roots. I found a sharp-drill conch shell beneath those roots. Lucky me! I tried to find another, but no success.

My favorite part was the tiny sand fiddler crabs. The mating season must be high because every male with their oversized claw danced for the group’s females. It was hilarious to see the small female crab snaking through the crowd. The males wave their giant claw in the air and bounce on their legs to catch her attention. I once read that when a female becomes interested in a male, he pounds his claw on the ground near his burrow. She goes into the hole, he follows, plugs up the hole, and returns to her to mate. How romantic, right? To watch this funny courtship dance, you have to stand perfectly still. Fiddler crabs are super scary. The slightest movement and they hurry into their holes. Once they feel it is safe, they come out of the holes and dance again.

ECO Magazine, fiddler crab waving his giant claw to attract a mate.

These conservations may not provide the most fun that a state park may provide, but they serve a tremendous purpose. If we want to continue to see the dancing crabs, graceful Egrets, and synchronized fish, we must take the steps necessary to protect their home and environment because once they are gone, they’re gone for good.

The Trails of Kingsley Plantation

The near three-mile, pot-hole filled, low-land, flood-threatened dirt road entrance to the Kingsley Plantation is only the beginning trail among other trails which recounts the story of slavery and freedom. The trails at Kingsley Plantation offers more than your typical southern slavery tale. It provides the opportunity to let your imagination drift back into a critical time in history, even if it means hallucinating a bit. 

 

The Entrance Trail

Growing up in the modern world, I couldn’t be happier to be able to drive on paved streets. Though my Toyota Camry has hit some potholes in her day, it was nothing compared to the rugged road from Hell, otherwise known as the entrance to Kingsley Plantation. Unless you have a boat, there is only one way in and out of the plantation through the entrance trail. Previous rain makes the trail worst. My car bounced and jumped through hole after hole to the point where I had to reduce my speed to crawl mode. Tall trees and vines enclave the narrow road, so it appears darker than it actually is outside. I had to roll my windows u,p thanks to the drop in temperature due to constant shade and humidity. Along the way, the trail past several marshes. Because of the rain, the water levels are high and slowly inch across the path, nearly consuming it. As I approached water-filled holes, I either had to maneuver the car to drive on half trail half grass in order to escape the hole or I had to floor the gas pedal through water-filled holes to keep from getting stuck. The trail seemed like it would go on forever until you come to a split road, one going to the Kingsley Plantation. The other road going to the Ribault Club, a beautiful mansion often used for weddings. After another quarter of a mile, you come to some ruins of a tabby house off to the left and voila! You are at the Kingsley Plantation. It is very interesting that your first welcome through the gates of the plantation is a semi-circle row of slave quarters. 

 

The Garden Trail

The last time I visited Kingsley Plantation was in the summer. Usually, the sample garden displays planted crops. Crops that would have been sold when the plantation was operational. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I am visiting in the middle of winter, and there are no crops. I walked over to the enclosed garden, camera in hand, and there are only weeds that obviously haven’t been touched in weeks. The weeds were so high they were taller than the wooden fencing surrounding them. However, in one corner was a small orange tree and, in the other corner, two stalks of corn. I couldn’t tell at first with all the weeds covering the stalks. Back then, the plantation grew three primary cash crops: sea island cotton, indigo, and sugar cane. Off to the left side of the sample garden are three crates built like an ascending staircase. These boxes were used to produce dyes from the indigo plants they grew. The process was lengthy, and according to the info board next to the boxes, 100 pounds of plant material created only four ounces of dye, the total cost selling at forty bucks. On the right side of the sample garden are four white posts outlining the exact dimensions of a single acre, giving visitors an idea of the workload of working sixty acres that the slaves actually worked. 

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The Slave Owners Home

Slave owner homes are popular for being massive and luxurious. As seen in Hollywood films, the homes were often two-story,  painted bright white, with pillars, and wrap-around porches on both levels. Kingsley Plantation is big too, but not quite like Hollywood films. There is the main house where the owner and his family stayed, and then there’s the kitchen house where food was prepared. A walkway with lattice siding connects the main house and the kitchen house. Visitors are free to walk through the kitchen house, but certain areas, like upstairs, are off-limits either for safety reasons or for remodeling. I never went into either home on my last visit, so I thought I’d do so on this one. I grabbed onto the old metal doorknob and stepped into a small space. The floor is made of tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, rocks, and cement), the windows are small, and the room has been set up as a presentation. Big posters lined the walls detailing the story of the plantation, how it operated, how the slaves were treated before and after Spanish rule. I tried to visit the main house, but only those taking the exclusive tour, led by a Ranger, were invited. These tours often take place on the weekend. The most you can do is admire the structure of the home from the outside. The house was built next to the Fort George River. The large windows and the front porch facing the river was the intentional design to take advantage of the wind that came off the river. Summers in Florida are brutal, so the Kingsley family stayed cool by opening their windows and sitting on the porch. 

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The River Trail

The quiet Fort George River runs pass the Kingsley Plantation. The river was the easiest way to transport goods to and from the plantation. Today, the river is mostly used for watersports and fishing. You can stand on the shore and see how much as changed since the peak days of the plantation. When facing the river, to your right in the distance, you can see the scenic Florida A1A Highway. To the left, boats and jet skis snake through Clapboard Creek. The last time I visited the Kingsley Plantation, a wild peacock walked about the grounds. Every now and then he displayed his lovely feathers. This time he was there, but there are two guarded burrows in the ground for tortoises and other burrowing mammals. A second large building apart from the Slave owners owns houses modern restrooms and a gift store where you can buy trinkets, sign up for a tour, and see artifacts collected on the plantation grounds. 

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The Slave Quarters Trail

When you enter the metal gates of the Kingsley Plantation, you are instantly greeted by a long semi-circle line of slave quarter ruins. From the small parking lot next to the plantation barn is a mulch trail that leads you directly to the beginning of the line of ruined homes. Each home designed from the tabby material. With the roofs missing and the walls nearly deteriorated down to the ground, you can see the interior dimensions of the rooms. It was common for slave quarters to be just as crowded at the slave ships the slaves sailed onto. The rooms were no bigger than a walk-in closet. With only two rooms per living quarter home, it isn’t hard to imagine the cramped lifestyle. Each “living room” area is furnished with a brick fireplace and chimney. Most of the walls in each quarter has three medium-sized holes used for ventilation. As you move down the trail studying each home, you get a greater sense of what lives were like for the slaves. The last time I visited the plantation, I found myself slightly hallucinating. I could hear singing and children laughing. I imagined seeing slaves walking around with huge containers filled with cotton and other vegetables. Naturally, when we think of slavery, we think of the beatings, slave auctions, and slaves running for the lives to freedom in the dead of night. Despite the constant turmoil, there were days that were less tragic than others. In their free time, slaves danced and ate together as one large family. Gazing at the slave quarters together as they are, built like a community filled with support and strength to make it to another day.

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The trails at Kingsley Plantation is an education in itself without textbooks or guided tours. The livelihood of this plantation was a part of a changing country. It would be decades before the actual change would come along, but every story leading to freedom is one worth telling. The Kingsley Plantation is one brick in a very long wall, but it helps to build the story that will forever be told in our American history.