Monday, February 15, 2021

Wrecking The Courthouse

Historians tell us the courthouse was completed in 1890 and this spot, 100 feet below the rooftop clock, the steps were where the authorities auctioned off ships' cargoes from what was known as the business of wrecking. Wrecking was a legal trade when Key West was chartered by the new American owners. Wrecking emphatically was not piracy and you shouldn't confuse the two. Pirates had no interest in Key West as there was no decent harbor, no fresh water, no trees to make lumber for repairs, and besides the island lay in the wrong place in terms of winds and currents to intercept Spanish treasure ships under sail from the Caribbean to Spain. Finally the US Navy arrived and did use this island as a base to hunt down the pirates. Do as I do and when you hear people extoll the pirate element in historic Key West zip your lips and let them natter on. It's a living making up stories in a tourist town.
Florida Keys
Wrecking was a licensed trade though some people did break the law while doing it...can you imagine?  Think of a time when ships sailed down the Straits of Florida at night and weren't exactly sure where the rocks and shallow water lay. If they turned north too soon to run into Key West harbor they ran aground. Wreckers were the tow trucks of the 19th century. As soon as someone saw a ship canted on the rocks they jumped into their rowboats and raced out to claim the wreck. At that point they were responsible for the cargo and they would row it ashore and store it in the warehouses around Mallory Square until an Admiralty magistrate could organize an auction. Not a bad way to make a living.
Key West
However some people would have liked to make even more money and they were the ones that broke the law, Instead of just letting ships run aground at random they tried to encourage them into trouble by shining lights in the wrong places. Nowadays the key West lighthouse is a monument drowned out by city electric lights but 150 years ago the light was a real beacon. Unless some asshole placed a conflicting light to confuse the ships' crews and when they missed the pass and hit the rocks the pirate-wrecker (!) was perfectly placed to hustle out and claim his prize. Which explains the modern confession between piracy and wrecking.
Florida USA
The net result of all the sea trade was that Key West was a first rate city to live in during the 19th century if you were wealthy of course. The climate was decent with sea breezes and warm winters. There were frequent outbreaks of yellow fever and no one knew to blame mosquitoes so you'll see a lot of young deaths in the cemetery. People slept on their decks and porches to enjoy cooler air but the wealthy had slaves to cook over a burning fire in tropical heat. The ships brought ice for ice houses and the latest fashions from New York London and Paris. Furniture arrived on ships too and you'll see beautiful examples in the Audubon House for example of how people lived in this trading town.
US One Florida
In the house below you can see modern shades on the porches just as residents would have used them to shade the house in the day and create cooler bedrooms at night. 
I suppose that had we lived back then we'd have considered ourselves lucky for the good times and the good things of the era, considering you could send letters, get supplies shipped and hold down a job just like today.
I think the pandemic has been easier for me for a couple of reasons, one being my stay in the hospital two years ago. I had my fill of the hospital bed and slow recovery so I have no temptation at all to risk contagion now. I was ventilated for a day and as little as I remember of it, that was the worst day of all waking up with a garden hose down my throat. I'm not risking that again if I can help it.  But the other thing that helps me deal with my emotions  is remembering how common pandemics have been through human history. I am not subject to conspiracy theories and the pointless pursuit of blame for this mess because illness is part of life. Equally I don't question vaccinations because I grew up in a time when I knew exactly what whooping cough sounded like, how ghastly polio and measles were and how easy it was to die of cholera, yellow fever and smallpox in countries I visited. I don't waste energy trying to outthink people who have spent their careers protecting us from common killers of the 19th century.
Jesse James is a thrilling romantic figure of 19th century crime, and he isn't alone in the popular imagination. Our histories are filled with wild romantic absurd deaths and lives lived on the edge of constant peril. Reality was very different with pandemics a constant dull fear permeating our ancestors' lives. Yellow fever was a perennial companion and you don't even know about that disease these days. When I rode my motorcycle around Africa in the 1970s a yellow paper vaccination card was a critical travel document, issued by the World Health Organization and stamped by the doctor who verified your travel vaccinations. I read about modern Americans outraged by the notion of a Covid vaccination card! There's no point telling them credit cards alone tell Big Brother everything they need to know about you to sell you more stuff. A credit card and bar code and you are more exposed to tracking than any number of paper vaccination cards. 
It's a bit of a simplification to say the more things change the more they stay the same but still...the next time you block a driveway with your car and the tow company wants $150 to release your impounded vehicle to you, think as I do about wrecking, piracy and your own choices which lead to your consequences. No whining!  That's a tough requirement for me, not to whine, much tougher than making the choice to get vaccinated which was always a no brainer.
Thank you Dr Jenner.

On 14 May 1796, Jenner tested his hypothesis by inoculating James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy who was the son of Jenner's gardener. He scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom, whose hide now hangs on the wall of the St. George's Medical School library (now in Tooting). Phipps was the 17th case described in Jenner's first paper on vaccination.

Jenner inoculated Phipps in both arms that day, subsequently producing in Phipps a fever and some uneasiness, but no full-blown infection. Later, he injected Phipps with variolous material, the routine method of immunization at that time. No disease followed. The boy was later challenged with variolous material and again showed no sign of infection.

Donald Hopkins has written, "Jenner's unique contribution was not that he inoculated a few persons with cowpox, but that he then proved [by subsequent challenges] that they were immune to smallpox. Moreover, he demonstrated that the protective cowpox pus could be effectively inoculated from person to person, not just directly from cattle."[36] Jenner successfully tested his hypothesis on 23 additional subjects.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Black And White Trees

Winter sunlight in Key West, mid town on my lunch break.


Happy Valentine’s Day! We are off vanning to Mark the day. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Pictures I Like

I wonder if I would ever have found these pictures in a year without pandemic restrictions? I've always taken pleasure in the colors of mangrove country, odd red and yellow leaves, sunsets that I share with no one and the clouds like castles overhead. As much as I read about other peoples' pandemic misery my wife and I both feel very lucky. I get to walk my camera, I am protected in my office at work, my wife teaches adult ed from home for her last three months before retirement and we choose not to socialize. We have even both had our first vaccine shots. We still take all precautions. We are looking forward to normal life.
I read about other photographers who feel shut down in their various countries and assorted lockdowns, putting their cameras away and staring at the wall wondering when their families will get together, wondering what happened to their dead relatives who died alone in the hospital. Its grim stuff. It may have happened to you, and I think about that every day.
Some people love snow and fog and dark days and seasons and all that stuff, but anyone who reads this page knows that's not me. So to me the area we are stuck in, as it were, is perfect for us. But more than just mild weather Florida has been as usual a bizarre place in which to ride out a pandemic. The governor has been unflinching in opposing lockdowns and has left it up to people to manage their lives. This has led to many infections and a few critical weeks for hospitals and health care organizations but we seem to have reached a stage of endless exhaustion and infections at a low constant hum. I have no desire to stand in crowd or be around maskless people even as I complete my vaccination protocols but other people don't seem to mind. Good luck to them and their medical staff.

Carolina Dog
I get to wander, I choose places with few if any people, I play with my camera settings, trying to force myself to move away from my preferred pedestrian documentary style of pictures. I over exposed Rusty under a buttonwood and got an island of detail in a sea of light. I rather liked it and would never have tried it if I hadn't been bored! True confession.....
Usually there used to be people standing at the top of the bridge watching it crumble but most of the time I'm alone here these days and if there is someone there I walk a long way round. I never thought much good came of the lockdown process as it seems people go nuts once released from lockdown and act as though all restrictions are done. I'd rather see the usual mask wearing hand washing and distancing enforced steadily until the end. This constant yo-yoing of restrictions and rules and fears abut variants and double masks and all that stuff wears me out. My freedom to walk Rusty with my camera gets me past all that.
Winter traffic has been much reduced this winter, not that Key West is empty but for those that are used to the winter cramming you'd be amazed to see how much empty space there is in town. My views are all empirical I cannot back them up with numbers but my perspective is my life. I don't go to the sunset celebrations for obvious reasons but maybe after my second shot I'll take a swing by to check but so far it just hasn't seemed worth it.
I read about the slow vaccine roll out in the rest of the world, the lockdowns, and the word I hear is all about the tedium of life and I drive home at sunset to this: a world bathed in gold.
Just another day in the Florida Keys. As good a place for a pandemic hide out as any I dare say.

Thursday, February 11, 2021


It is not usual to see big fat clouds in winter.
I have seen a  few looking more like a hot humid summer evening.
So I get to photograph them without breaking out into a massive unprovoked sweat.

A reflection or two in the salt water floating among the mangroves. Sunset orange everywhere.

I like the stark outlines of mangrove branches against the multi-colored sky. 
This one was from the last full moon. I liked it as I got more detail on the moon combined with the detail on the horizon. Dynamic range they call it. 

And so good night as Rusty and I scuttle for the car. 
More 911 calls and people annoyed with each other. But that's tomorrow. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Sandy Cornish

I posted this essay in June 2010. I can hardly believe it was eleven years ago. I've added the few lines dedicated to Sandy Cornish's life from Wikipedia. 

Sandy Cornish (1793–1869) was an African American farmer, businessperson, and civic leader in Key West, Florida. As a former slave who had purchased his freedom, he publicly maimed himself to prevent being returned to slavery.

Slavery and freedom

Cornish was born a slave in Maryland in 1793. In 1839, his master hired him out to a railroad-building project in Port Leon in Florida's Panhandle. The position allowed him to earn money for himself, and after nine years of work at $600 a year, he was able to purchase his own freedom and that of his wife Lillah. However, the papers showing him to be free were destroyed in a fire. Lacking proof of his emancipation, he was seized by slave traders, but managed to break free. The next day he gathered a crowd of onlookers in Port Leon. He loudly proclaimed that, having purchased his freedom once, he would not return to slavery under any circumstances. He then deliberately maimed himself, stabbing himself in the leg, slashing the muscles of one ankle, and cutting off a finger of his left hand, which he proceeded to sew back on with a needle and thread. These injuries made him worthless as a slave and thus immune to recapture. Friends took him home in a wheelbarrow, and he eventually recovered his health.[2]

Key West

Around 1850, he and Lillah bought a farm in Key West, in the area that is now Truman Avenue near Simonton Street. Selling vegetables and fruits to local residents, he became one of the richest people in Key West. He was a leader of the local black community and the founder of the Cornish Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, now the Cornish Memorial AME Zion church and chapel, which still stands at 702 Whitehead Street.

He died in 1869 at the age of 76. He was buried in Key West Cemetery, but the location of his grave was lost to history. In 2014, the cemetery and the Historic Florida Keys Foundation installed a plaque to his memory. Speakers described his life as an inspiring testament to human freedom. City Commissioner Clayton Lopez, presiding over the ceremony, said, "His actions in life show that he was not going to accept the fate developed for him by lesser men. He is a legend that continues to point the way to human dignity to this day."[1]

Cornish Lane

As you scroll down this essay you will see a prevailing color- gray. It's an illuminated gray offset by white and backed by blue sky but this lane is lit up by a summer sun. It was hot out there.Cornish Lane is another of those little colons off the main street...
...and easy to miss unless you are a Labrador with an inquisitive nose.Splashes of color come from natural things and this to me is the joy of living where the sun is bright and hot- everything is in primary colors. This is not the land of fog and subtle shapes and dimly seen landscapes.Even the Conch Train provides a lump of yellow as background as it passes down Grinnell Street toward the west.World travelers come home to roost and bring their dust catchers with them.Perhaps they are French Canadians with a winter place in the sun, or perhaps they spent a long wet weekend in Paris, city of gray skies and wet sidewalks. (Remember, Nowhere Is As Wonderful As Key West, wannabe Conch). Especially Key West under construction.
I have seen a few homes actively under renovation around town which seems as though someone around here believes the economy is getting better. Good for them and may they keep spending, right?Cornish Lane is named for Andrew Cornish known to his contemporaries as Sandy, according to J. Wills Burke's superb The Streets of Key West. He says Sandy Cornish was born a slave in the 1790s, and bought his freedom with his wife Lillah in 1839. Then God, in a mischievous moment intervened and the documents witnessing Sandy's freedom got destroyed in a fire and back Sandy went onto the slave auction block in New Orleans. Eventually Sandy escaped and cut himself up to make himself valueless as a slave and he and Lillah lived happily every after on the fringes of "civilization" (the Confederate States) selling fruit and vegetables with his wife Lillah in Key West. All's well that ends well.
So Cornish got a church named for him on Whitehead Street and a lane here in the outer 'burbs of Old Town. I love the decrepitude of Key West, a city where the elements conspire to restore the natural order of things. A plank after all is just a shaped piece of wood. It doesn't actually have to do anything.Tourists are frequently told that Key West homes were built from scavenged ship's timbers by wreckers who salvaged what they could off passing ships that landed accidentally (we hope) on the reef. It sounds romantic and it looks lovely. To live in?
I grew up in old homes and know intimately how complex systems in elderly stages of failure can be. I like modern conveniences and yes I know all about carbon footprints. Sigh.
I don't like photographing modern ranchette homes unless it is to tack on a tart comment. This stuff looks lovely but I don't want to live here.Got foundations? Hell no, we don't need no stinking foundations! A reminder this is a home in 21st century America. Can we please protect it because happily for us all there are people who not only like looking at these places but want to preserve and use them as well.They feel to me like old wooden boats. I love to look at them and enjoy seeing them around but ownership is not for me.This is blue sky, a daily Key West event.this is an exhausted Yellow Labrador. She too is a daily event in summer when heat at sidewalk level is not dog friendly. 15 blocks and she's panting, so a slow stroll on Cornish Lane was an excellent way to end the stroll.Two more blocks to iced water (princess does not enjoy warm water, it turns out), and an air conditioned car.