Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Koreshan State Park

Show up at this state park at eight o'clock on a Sunday morning in October and find the place to yourself. It is southwest Florida so if I say it was cool and fresh at that hour you have to allow for the acclimatization of the human body immersed in sub tropical weather for far too long. So for anyone looking out the window at snow drifts, orange leaves and gray skies it was hot and muggy. But either way we had the lot to ourselves.
After years spent trying to wedge myself into the narrow confines of acceptable behavior in mythical California the land of Hollywood free thinkers, the relaxed attitude the State of Florida takes to pets is still a feature of life I marvel at. Friends in Santa Cruz recoil in horror: "Florida? Ugh, isn't that humid and buggy?" they ask imagining life in some hellish low tax, redneck organic-free swamp. Oh yes I reply, eager to reinforce their insular prejudices, but I can take my dog to the state parks whenever I want. The Koreshans found a buggy humid swamp when they came here at the end of the 19th century fresh from Chicago and full of ambition. Early photographs show a less lush, manicured environment but what one sees today on the banks of the Estero River is really quite pleasant.
And dogs are allowed on the grounds on a leash but are not allowed inside the buildings. Excellent.
Less than eighty degrees and no humidity at eight thirty in the morning. Also excellent.
The founder of Koreshanity spent decades trying to get people interested in his very particular view of the cosmos. Cyrus Reed Teed was a doctor of medicine which fact slightly boggled my mind considering an educated man of science could believe the nonsense he espoused. His name sounds like an anagram and not content he decided to take what he thought was the biblical translation of Cyrus into Koresh. And naturally named his movement for himself. David Koresh, decades later led the Branch Davidians to a fiery death in Waco, so this lot were considerably ahead of them. Koresh - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The story of the Koreshan Unity is a classic American tale of a handsome charismatic leader who dreamed up a bizarre philosophy that wouldn't let go of his imagination, such that he felt the need to spread it around among the unbelievers. Being as how he was the charismatic handsome dude aforementioned he attracted women like crazy. In fact he became the object of several law suits accusing him of alienating the affection of several Chicago housewives from their angry husbands, so Koreshanity moved south to the land of the mosquito.
The thing is though that these people, mostly women, weren't just some Jim Jones nutters in the jungle. Teed laid down some pretty strict rules in keeping with his meticulous if crazy cosmology. Celibacy was the rule, women led the community and the belief was that the earth was a hollow sphere looking inward not outward because Teed couldn't imagine the extent of an eternally expanding universe. So he simply inverted the cosmos and decided the sun and moon were inside the earth. I decided it made no sense whatsoever so I gave up trying to figure it out. And I'm not smart enough to be a doctor.
The state park ranger who opened the Planetary Court, as this house was called, showed obvious affection for these people that she has studied. She wound up the phonograph which was suffering from a weak spring because she wanted to illustrate the love of art culture and literature that inspired the Koreshans. By modern standards they were by no means threatening and we would find them unexceptional today. Seven women each representing one of the seven known planets lived in this building and led the community. Because women weren't acceptable as leaders to the world outside these privileged three hundred acres, seven men represented them in public. Women didn't get the vote in the Land of the Free till 1920.
 
They were middle class intellectuals and artists and the ranger delighted in showing us the rather poor handiwork of their construction standards. The exception was the staircase, beautiful and intricately built by a shipwright the community gave refuge to for a period of time. In payment he built them a magnificent staircase. Rising damp inside the upstairs closed off the area to us so we could only admire it from below.
We got a condensed version of the Koreshan story in a film produced by the local public TV station WGCU,Video: Koreshan Unity: A Quest for Utopia | Watch Untold Stories Online | WGCU Public Media Video.
Teed's study looked better set up for a temperate climate to me. I cannot imagine hanging out here in July reading the paper and listening to a record or two. The ranger said they used cross ventilation to good effect but I am a fan of air conditioning especially in the breeze-free interior of southwest Florida.
The story goes that a first the Koreshans were welcomed into the wilderness by the few people that lived here. The railroad put Ft Myers on the map and what had been a frontier fort in the Indian Wars became a railroad stop and an outpost of civilization. But this was a world of survival not of lives lived large. The music and theater the Koreshans integrated into their daily lives brought color and recreation into frontier life and it was enjoyed by all.
The trouble started when the Koreshans got involved in politics and upset the locals with their drive to incorporate the new town of Estero, between Fort Myers and what would become Naples. Like I said this is an American story of following a dream created by the followers of a handsome and charismatic leader but these relatively wealthy cultured outsiders ended up clashing with the locals. It's a story we all know and have seen before. Hell, we see it today in Key West where people like me show up in town, and then want to change what they find, an impulse I have largely resisted, though I say so myself.
It seems that a decade after they first arrived a group of Koreshans got into a banal political debate that devolved into a punch up in town. Teed went down supposedly to break it up, perhaps to get involved supporting his own, and in the event he was knocked to the ground and ultimately got arrested.
This stupidity was the beginning of the end of the Koreshans even though they hung on for half a century more. Teed lingered and died in 1908 apparently from his injuries and with the loss of their charismatic leader the followers, some 200 of them put his corpse in a bath tub and waited for him to come back to life as Koreshanity predicted he would. No surprise, his mortal remains rotted and a week later he was planted as ordered by the authorities. His grave was washed away in a hurricane and effectively he vanished forever.
The problem with charismatic leaders is that they frequently find themselves preaching nonsense and their cult lasts only as long as belief in the nonsense can be sustained. We've seen this in our modern era when raggedy assed prophets show up announcing the imminent end of the world. The world doesn't end (though sometimes it feels like it should!) and the followers either a) kill themselves or b) bugger off back to real life, the sadder and wiser for their deviation from reality. The rest of us mock them for their gullibility and ignore whatever revelations the experience may have taught them.
The Koreshans soldiered on, a few them, continuing to believe their cosmos was turned inside out, hoping for resurrection when it was clear none was to hand. Celibacy is bound to hamper a movement, as Catholicism has discovered in the diminished numbers of priesthood applicants, but Catholicism's back up plan calls for families to be fruitful and multiply. With neither a charismatic leader nor children Koreshanity was headed toward oblivion.
In 1961 the last four handed their lands over to the state to create this lasting memorial to the commune that flourished briefly on the banks of the Estero river. The Koreshans were the first to have electricity in these parts as they adopted Thomas Edison's direct current generating method, first by steam power and then by diesel generator two decades before commercial power was made available in 1946 to southwest Florida at large. All of it has been preserved for us to see and admire.
We spent two hours on the grounds enjoying a couple of the buildings and then taking the nature trail along the river. There was so much to see we barely seemed to have scratched the surface and a return visit will be in order. The last Koreshan, a woman predictably, died in 1982. She was a refugee from the Nazis who found a home here and resented bitterly her label in her last years as the last Koreshan insisting they will live on forever.
There is a community foundation in their name run by some of their descendants hoping to exploit 75 of the acres deeded to them to build a lasting memorial to the movement and they are mentioned in the movie. Whatever their accomplishments may be this property of lovely homes and neatly manicured grounds and a serene wooded trail are the monuments worthy of the memory of these strange obsessed people.
In a world filled with uncertainty and ugliness you can see the attraction of yielding to a leader, agreeing to some ridiculous ideas and living a life of beauty and worthwhile work in a place surrounded by like minded neighbors.
And yet the search for meaning and immortality and denial of basic human nature sank these people because being human seems to require the ultimate sacrifice from all of us. We cannot it seems just live. I continue to be astonished by the fervor daily life seems to require of all of us. I wondered at the time why the invasion of Iraq was so necessary, a war that killed thousands and contributed to half the national debt we have so far accumulated. We continue to live beyond our means and who can blame us? We prefer that to the reality of a life deprived of that which we think we need, believing industrialists who promise us easier living as they take away meaningful labor. Our politicians fail every day to represent us, and a short fantastical walk through the alternate reality of the Koreshans is enough to make you think that, hell yes, I can believe the world is a hollow sphere and the sun and moon are but illuminated discs, if that's all I have to do to leave in peace and true shared prosperity. Then the dream fades and reality intrudes once more, sweat, heat and buzzing insects.
The nature trail seemed endless and the sun was high in the sky and it was actually starting to get hot. Cheyenne's tongue was getting longer so we turned back before trail's end and clumped through the campground toward the distant parking lot and our car.
The sun blazed down out of a clear blue sky and I thought about the land clearing of the first Koreshans, living in tents and using hand tools to make Utopia out of scrub land and pine trees. They were brave people, leaving behind what they knew in Chicago to come down here and carve a communal life out of the wilderness.
In the end I suppose we can conclude they got it wrong, but I'm glad they gave it a shot. We had a good day on their land, among their dreams and their hopes. Not a bad legacy in the end and I'm sure Cheyenne would agree.
No one is going to open a state park in my memory so the last laugh is on the Koreshan Unity I guess.