Not stopping to smell the orange blossoms

Achoo! Achoo! …ACHOO! Sniff, sniff!
My forehead wasn’t hot. My lungs weren’t full of gunk. Why on earth could I not breathe and my head felt like it was about to explode?
Those symptoms sounded familiar to me, but why? I thought, you know, they sound like what my sister and dad go through every spring as soon as things start blooming. Their eyes would become red-rimmed along with a shining bulb of a nose like Rudolph. You could tell where they had been by the amount of crumpled tissues left behind, and the sound of sneezing blasted throughout the house. I had always sat back and grinned to myself since I never experienced anything like it.
Allergies. For all of my life, it was a term meant to describe the worst nightmare of other people, people who dreaded spring and raised their fist in anger at blooming flowers and pollen wafting through the air. Meanwhile, I’d be pulling out my favorite dresses for the warm weather and frolicking through fields of daises, breathing in deep the reproductive responses of plants waking up after winter.
Then, I moved to Florida.
A few weeks ago, I went to bed with the feeling that something wasn’t going to be right with my body by the time I awoke from slumber. I told my boyfriend over the phone that something was off and I couldn’t breathe through my nose. Sure enough, when I got up the next morning, I had to check my reflection in the mirror because it felt like my head had expanded like what’s-her-name from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” who turns into a blueberry. My nose was a pointless appendage on my swollen face, my eyes itched like I’d rubbed pepper in them, and I couldn’t stop sneezing. Could it be allergies? I called out of work and spent the day asleep or reading in bed.
Why would I suddenly be allergic to pollen in the air? I asked my friend Lynn, who runs Lions, Tigers and Bears, Inc. wildlife sanctuary. Like Luke Wilson, Lynn usually has the answers to all of life’s problems.
“There must be something blooming here that doesn’t bloom in North Carolina,” I complained. “What’s blooming right now?”
“Oak trees,” Lynn said.
“No, we have those in North Carolina.”
She paused and looked at me. “Orange trees,” she said.
I could have smacked myself on the forehead. Of course! Orange trees!
North Carolina is too cold and damp for citrus. And in the foothills of the Appalachians were I lived for a few years, the climate is actually considered a temperate rain forest. Think of the non-stop downpour the Amazon rain forest in Brazil experiences but with some snow every now and again during the winter. It’s seriously a climate perfect for the Cullen family Lexcolumn033017.jpgbut not so much for oranges. Only in southwest North Carolina can you possibly work an orange grove, according to a newspaper based in Wilmington, N.C.
In Florida, the state flower is actually the orange blossom, and according to Chinese symbology, an orange represents luck and wealth. According to a florist’s website, the flower is a symbol of good fortune and is used often in wedding bouquets. Well, it’s not good fortune for my nose, and I’ll be sure to keep it far away from my bouquet when I walk down the aisle unless my future husband is attracted to a woman imitating one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs in a white dress.
I can’t believe allergies have finally caught up with me. After years of laughing at my family members’ pain, I now understand the horror of those terrible allergies. For me, the orange blossom has turned my luck for the worst.


Discovering more creepy crawlies

While pumping gas in Arcadia late one night, I noticed something brown and leggy hop underneath my car. Trying to figure out what it was, I began glancing around me with the feeling that tiny legs were crawling over my skin.
There were more scattered across the top of the gas pump. The guts of one were smeared underneath the heel of my stiletto. And, more flattened specimens were littered around the gas station’s parking lot.
It looked like a grasshopper, but there was something mutated about its body. I immediately went searching for answers, and the best place to go for answers in this town is Luke Wilson.
Wilson, our paper’s columnist and cartoonist, is a man with a wealth of fast facts, historical tales and do-it-yourself anecdotes that could fill a few encyclopedias. I asked him what I’d seen the other night, describing it as “a very bizarre form of grasshopper” and his answer, without any type of hesitation, was “the lubber grasshopper.”
There are two types of lubber grasshoppers in Florida, according to the website for Insect Identification, a place to find out what the heck that six-legged thing is on the wall “for the casual observer,” it says.
The horse lubber grasshopper is a large specimen that will create “a noxious frothy substance” and “drop to the ground and ‘hiss’ when disturbed” in order to deter predators.
The eastern lubber grasshopper causes economic destruction throughout Florida as it consumes citrus and vegetable crops, according to the Entomology (study of insects) and Nematology (study of nematode worms) Department at University of Florida/Institute Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Both of these grasshoppers are black when they reach maturity (and while currently looking at their photos, I am brushing at my skin because it feels like something is crawling over me). However, the eastern lubber grasshopper goes through a “light color phase” where it appears an orange-brown color. They can also change into a yellow-golden color. This boy is absolutely huge in grasshopper standards with tall pointy hind legs and a very crunchy-looking body. It looks about like what I remember seeing at the gas station. Ugly in appearance by my standards, this guy also has a nasty habit of destroying crops. It makes a huge impact here in Florida.

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper 0002

Eastern lubber grasshopper from Google Images

According to UF/IFAS, lubber grasshoppers “can completely strip foliage from plants. More commonly, however, they will eat irregular holes in vegetation and then move on to another leaf or plant.” And because Florida is typically always warm, we may have to battle several generations at a time because there was no cold weather to kill off the older breeding adults, according to Insect Identification.
I must say Florida has some bizarre insect life. From the horror of the Palmetto bugs, now I’m faced with something that can jump through the air and appears to be the stallion of the grasshopper family. And then, it does the hissing thing like its cousin. If I ever hear a grasshopper hiss at me, that’s the day I never step out of my house again. Amazon Prime Pantry, here I come.
I had finally come to terms with the Palmetto bug that I can kill one without screaming. Now, there’s this thing. Also, while working on this column, I saw photos of the Carolina locust, the spotted camel cricket, the northern mole cricket and the tawny mole cricket, whom all live in Florida with us. I cannot even begin to describe the horrors. I think I’m just going to stay indoors after dark for awhile until I can face my fears.


Photo from NC State University


Crackin’ into the origins of ‘cracker’

When I told friends I was moving to Florida, a few of them began lecturing me on the meaning of “cracker.”
Wait, what?
Where I’m from, to call someone a “cracker” would be derogatory and cringe-worthy for several reasons or interpretations. According to an article from NPR, the slur was used in the 18th century to refer to “poor whites” then changed to refer to a white person who was “of lower caste or criminal disposition.” According to an article by CNN, the term also recognized a working class who drove livestock with whips and did not own their own land. It also meant white people who owned slaves. It can also mean “bigot.”
However, in Florida, it is a term that is reserved for people who herded cattle with cow whips that were made for the loud cracking noise.
I’m glad someone warned me. During my first assignment for The Arcadian former Sheriff Will Wise’s wife, Kay, came up to me, introduced herself and proudly told me she was a cracker. If I hadn’t been prepared, I probably would have keeled over.
While those in the West may be cowboys, Floridians are crackers, working the cattle industry longer than any state in the country. Florida Backroads Travel states what makes a cracker: “He or she is from a family that was here long before the huge population explosions in Florida after World War II. He or she is almost always Caucasian. They and their ancestors lived in Florida . . . usually have a rural upbringing, either on a farm or in a small town with plenty of woods and water for hunting and fishing and land planting. That’s because a Florida cracker is self sufficient.” Based on that definition, Arcadia seems like the heart of where to find legitimate Florida crackers.
Florida Backroads Travel added that crackers even have their own lingo. You might be a cracker if you know what the following words mean: corn pone, chitlins, Croker Sack, litard knot floater, perloo and Pineywoods Rooter.


Photo by Priscilla McDaniel

The terminology is also used for businesses, associations and to define objects. For instance, the Florida Cracker Cafe operates in St. Augustine, Florida Cracker Airboat Rides and Guide Service is located in Vero Beach, and Florida Cracker Ranch allows visitors to camp in historic-looking cabins in Bunnell. The “Florida Cracker” is a breed of cattle, recognized as a breed since the 1500s, according to The Livestock Conservancy. There’s also a breed of horse by the same name, which was designated as Florida’s official heritage horse in 2008. The Florida Cracker Trail Association works hard to preserve “the Old Florida Cracker Pioneer ways of agriculture, animal husbandry and the respect for the land,” according to their website. And, I live in a “cracker house” in the heart of Arcadia.
I had no idea I was moving into a home with such history, and even a name, but I must say I love the style. According to Old House Web, cracker farmhouses were popular from 1840 to 1920 but are starting to make a comeback, known as “Cracker Chic.” A cracker house must have: Native materials, simple symmetrical shape, a crawl space beneath the home, a steep roof because of the rain and a deep-shade porch. There are actually a few types of cracker homes — a single pen, which had one room and one door; a double pen or “saddlebag,” which was two single pens put together with two front doors, and the Dog-Trot House, which had “two pens” with an outdoor breezeway between them as well as additional porches and large windows.
My house has been added onto some many times that I don’t believe it falls in any of the three categories. However, it does have one of the greatest porches I’ve ever encountered. My cats regularly sunbathe or chase anole lizards on the screened-in porch, which wraps around the front and side of the house. My cattle dog regularly runs back and forth across the wooden planks chasing people who dare peddle a bicycle down our street. And, I love sitting out there watching the thunderstorms roll in or catching up on the latest book I’ve got my nose in.
While I’m not a cracker, I do love the way they built their homes. And, I love how they fiercely they preserve their history and traditions. Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 18! I, for one, am going to be first in line to get a helping of some cracker history at Pioneer Day at DeSoto Veterans Memorial Park.

Students teach me why I love journalism

If you ever get the opportunity to talk to students about your profession, I highly suggest you do so.

Principal Bradley Warren of West Elementary School sent an email to The Arcadian, sharing his students’ Leadership group that created a newspaper called #WestLeads News. Inside, the second-grade students covered the week’s weather, The Leader in Me habits they learn at West Elementary, the Spirit Week schedule and more. They even had what we in the news industry call a “bishop,” a box that says who works on the newspaper. There were headlines, bylines, graphics, photos and photo captions.

I was so impressed that I told Warren I would love to meet the students. Soon after, second-grade teacher Michelle Lawrence invited me to the day they participate in Leadership Camps.

I came to class and spoke with the students about where news comes from, how the newspaper goes from a story idea to a printed paper, important tools of the trade (pretty much a note pad, a pen and a camera are the basics) and what someone must study in college in order to become a journalist.

It is always a bit nerve wracking when you open up the floor for questions. You never know what is going to come out of a child’s mouth. In the past, I’ve been asked if I have ever been arrested, to which I clarified that I was not a member of the paparazzi. I didn’t dig through people’s trash or shoot photos through windows. This time, the best question went to a young boy who wanted to know, “Why are there so many words in a newspaper?”


The students received two copies of The Arcadian, and they flipped through all the pages multiple times. I had never witnessed children so enraptured by a newspaper before. They loved all the colorful photos.

It’s that kind of curiosity that is needed to keep newspapers alive. Since I started pursuing a career in journalism in 2007, everyone has told me, “It’s a dying industry. There aren’t going to be newspapers in 20 years.” I honestly don’t believe that.

Facebook is overflowing with stories with exaggerated headlines and unverified sources. Television broadcasts are constantly being slammed for being biased, and recently, big-time news source hosts have come clean and admitted some of their biggest stories were faked.


Working on the next issue

Newspapers are still vital, important parts of society and especially small communities. Small community newspapers work diligently to provide accurate coverage of as much of the county as they can with usually a dismal amount of staff. They rely heavily on community members to keep them informed on what’s going. Some would argue that everyone in the county should subscribe to their local newspaper in order to stay informed, find out when events are planned for, learn about important decisions made by elected officials, etc. Unfortunately, there are varying opinions about what is or is not important news.

Take the students for example. The newspaper they created as the local weather forecast. The Arcadian does not. Several of the students loved the photos of animals from the local shelter while others were attracted to the sports photos. Some children enjoyed looking through live event coverage and feature stories to see if they recognized anyone. Each part of the newspaper was important to different students based on their interests, backgrounds and people they knew.


Michelle Lawrence instructs the boys how to make a search word puzzle.

In the same way, community members care about different parts of the newspaper. Some only grab the issue they themselves or their family members were featured in. Some pay attention to the front page too look for “big, splashy” stories exposing corruption or mayhem while a handful of people never want to see any coverage that can be interpreted as negative. Others want more sports coverage. Still more only want to read who was arrested and who died each week.

Our job as journalists is to cover as many events, meetings, features as possible deemed “newsworthy.” We report on the great successes, innocent mistakes, poor decisions and anyone who tries to fly under the radar with illegalities. We are the watch dogs of DeSoto County. Combining these stories together, we strive to create a product that will entertain but ultimately inform our readers as a whole to what they should know about their home.

While there are disagreements about news and how news should be covered, I believe that newspapers have a permanent place. They may not always be on paper, but the local newspapers (whether in print, online or via Hogwarts owls) will continue to thrive because of their important role in the community of keeping elected officials honest, sharing successes of local businesses and encouraging residents to know all the facts, all the points of view to then make an opinion when voting, protesting, supporting or talking about news in the county.

And, it starts with promoting that curiosity and hunger for accurate information with students just like the second graders at West Elementary School.

Sandspurs — a downside to fall in Florida

‘Ouch! What the—? OW!”
These are words I’ve been regularly saying over the past month as tiny balls of thorny spikes prick and poke me whenever I step outside. They can be green or brown, but they hurt like the dickens no matter the color. What on earth is this creation of torture?
I first noticed the plant of pain when my dog, Bindi, started limping on our walks. She’d walk along quite happily, suddenly stumble then hobble forward. I’d bend down with her looking at me with sad eyes as I examined her paw. Sure enough, somewhere either between her toes or on her paw pad or on her heel would be a spiky ball, or even two. As she would yelp, I’d pluck them off as fast as possible, apologizing to her for her unwarranted pain.

Now, the little bundles of thorns are everywhere. I’ve found them on the porch, my living room floor, in my bathtub and even wedged on the inside of my shoe where my toes sit. I have whelped, cursed and shrieked as I’ve unknowingly sat, squished or stepped on one of these painful menaces.
They are known as sandspurs, but also go by bufflegrasses or sandburs, according to Wikipedia. And, apparently they are a sign that autumn has arrived in Florida.
In North Carolina, we have what are known as “gumballs,” a sort of larger version of the sandspur. They are the seed pod that falls from an American sweetgum tree. However, they are significantly larger, easier to spot and are not sticky like the sandspur.


Some “gumballs.” Photo from

According to the Okeechobee County Extension Services’ article about sandspurs, author Dan Culbert writes that the sandspur is the “fruit” of the Cenchrus echinatus grass or the C. spinifex plant. During the spring, the plant begins growing seeds and is mostly ignored as it looks like any other blade of grass. When fall comes around, the sandspurs begin emerging and causing havoc. By the time this happens, it’s too late, Culbert writes. You just have to live with it.
“There are no weed killers that will make the sandspurs disappear in the fall. The better approach is to use what are called ‘pre-emergent’ herbicides in the spring — and this means mid February in our area. Then next fall, you’ll be enjoying your Florida yard rather than pulling spines from your socks and Fido’s fur,” Culbert writes.
Sandspurs can also be combated by mowing one’s lawn a particular way before the grass begins producing the sandspurs, once again in February and March.


A sandspur. Photo from

They have become so numerous because of a change in the Florida landscape, according to an article published by Shell Key in Pinellas County’s Web site by Jack Coletti. In the case of Shell Key, an Australian pine forest was removed because the tree is an invasive species.
“When they were cut, the richer soil was exposed to sunlight, and the sandspurs had a field day (pun intended). Sandspurs are one of those ‘pioneer’ species that will move in to an immature, bare or newly disturbed environment — to restart the eventual progression to a forested area. Once the trees that were planted to replace the pines have matured in a few decades, the sandspurs will eventually die back in numbers out-competed by a balanced and mature ecosystem,” the article states.
Well, I for one, am not planning on planting a forest in my yard. However, hope is on the horizon. The same article says that, “the majority of the burs will have lost most of their sharp points” by the time winter arrives.
This may be the first time in my life I have wished for winter to hurry up and get here. And now, I have learned my lesson and will keep tighter control on how long I let my grass grow and decide on an “eradication plan” for next year’s fruit.

The sport of hurricane watching

“Hurricane Watch” should be more than a phrase used as a distress signal by meteorologists whenever a hurricane is threatening a region. It should be a sport.
Last week, Florida residents kept a close eye on Hurricane Matthew as it spun closer to the state, threatening to be the first hurricane to make landfall on the east coast for the first time in a decade.
As it continued to strengthen, gas prices skyrocketed, bread disappeared from grocery stores and Gov. Rick Scott started live tweeting his panic on how everyone who chose not to evacuate was going to die.
I watched Hurricane Matthew like a hawk. I kept a website browser open on my computer at all times just so I could check the “cone of unpredictability” of where it was planning to hit and when.
You see, I had a plane to catch on Friday. It would be my first time returning to North Carolina since moving down here at the end of May.
I was to be a groomsman, or a “groomslady,” in my best friend’s wedding, and of course, that’s the very weekend that the first hurricane since Andrew decided to strike Florida and cause statewide hysteria.


A photo of Hurricane Matthew courtesy of Pixabay

Facebook posts started emerging about bread disappearing even in DeSoto County, which received only a little rain and some gusty winds. Traffic was deadlocked on Highway 70 in front of Walmart as people ran to the store to stock up or get out of town.
My aunt, uncle and cousin evacuated from Melbourne to my house. They arrived late in the dark on Wednesday night in two cars with two cats, as much of their possessions as they could pack and a lot of baked goods (my aunt bakes when she’s stressed). All day Thursday and into the night, my aunt paced around my house, texting all her friends who decided to stay behind and ride out the storm. With tears streaming down her face, she told me that nothing would ever convince her to not evacuate again.
“That constant howling of the wind. You will never forget that. Nothing is worth listening to that all night long,” she said.
My uncle continually updated his phone and gave us a play-by-play of where meteorologists predicted Matthew to go next.
For the whole week, coworkers and other community members told me it was going to be impossible to fly out of Punta Gorda on Friday morning. The conversations felt like we were talking about some ultimate sporting event.
I kept reading Gov. Scott’s tweets of doom, looked at news articles coming from Haiti and tried my best to hope and wish Matthew away.
I also saw a ton of messages on Arcadia’s Facebook pages supporting neighbors, offering rooms to stay in at private homes because the hotels were full of evacuees, and people offering their services to put up shutters, help people pack and more.
When Friday arrived, I was a nervous wreck. I hate flying. And now, I was going to face flying in a hurricane. While the rest of Florida was preparing for the storm as shown on large screen TVs throughout the terminal, the airport in Punta Gorda was shockingly calm.
I sat in front of my gate for two hours waiting for them to delay or cancel the flight. No such thing. My fellow passengers and I boarded the plane right on time.
“It’s going to be a bit bumpy, but we’re scheduled to land early,” the pilot announced quite cheerfully.
Could it be? Could I text my friends and boyfriend without a doubt I’d be arriving on time in North Carolina?
Sure enough, the plane rocketed down the runway and into the air without a hitch.
“Congratulations,” the pilot announced as we reached cruising altitude. “You are all officially storm chasers. If you look out the window, you’ll see the outer band of Matthew.”
I peeked out the window, and sure enough, below I could see the swirling blue bands of Matthew slowly moving over Florida. It doesn’t get more Floridian than that. All I needed was an alligator and Mickey Mouse sitting in the seats next to me.

ARCADIAN PHOTO BY LEX MENZThe view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

The view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

Hurricanes are very serious and dangerous matters. I’m not trying to make light of that. Twenty-two people in the U.S. were killed by Matthew.
St. Augustine and other coastal cities of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina suffered devastating loss and destruction.
There are some things that could have been done differently by our state’s leader during Matthew, and there is a lot to learn about the unpredictability of these storms.
Hurricane Matthew’s eye stayed out to sea as it passed Melbourne, which is unlike what meteorologists originally predicted. My aunt and uncle’s house never lost power throughout the storm. They did the right thing by evacuating, but it was an overwhelming relief to be wrong rather than to be right and lose everything.
DeSoto County, too, saw a bit of a panic that was unwarranted as Hurricane Matthew stayed on the Atlantic side, but the memories of Hurricane Charley are still too raw for residents here who lost so much and are still trying to recover.
Hurricane Matthew taught me an invaluable lesson about being prepared, staying calm through the storm, valuing family and keeping positive in the face of unpredictability.
If we face another hurricane this season or in years to come, I hope to see the unwavering support, love and friendship in DeSoto County that I saw from neighbors and community members last week.

The power of committed citizens

During my three-year career in journalism, I believe I’ve attended more government meetings than many local government officials … I’d even add than a few entire councils combined.
In North Carolina, I covered four city councils, two boards of county commissioners and one school board for nearly two-and-a-half years. Every Monday, Tuesday and sometimes even Thursday for three weeks out of each month, I went to meetings with my press badge and my little reporter’s notebook. I listened to budgets, topics like how many pigs should a resident be allowed to own in the city limits, banning dogs from parks, grant applications, building a veterans’ monument, developing a new town seal and so much more. I saw great accomplishments happen, massive verbal fights break out between council members, and residents and town officials crying. I even watched a resident tell the town attorney that no matter what the law was “that’s not how we do things” in that town.
But, while I was there documenting it all because it was my job, hundreds of residents missed out.


Dressed up in newspaper!

Since arriving in Arcadia, I have attended several DeSoto County School Board and Arcadia City Council meetings, as well as two DeSoto Board of County Commissioner meetings. And, there is a stark difference between those meetings and the ones I went to in North Carolina.
Yes, DeSoto residents regularly come out to their government meetings. Once upon a time, I was the only person sitting in the audience as government officials debated and decided the fates of issues directly affecting residents. Now, I’m surrounded by community members who don’t mind taking the time to listen in on their elected officials’ thoughts, discussions, accomplishments and hardships.
Now, I wasn’t always alone at those meetings. There were two or three regulars for a few towns. At the school board meetings I attended, there would be well over 30 or 40 people in the room at the start of the meeting. The school board members would hand out a variety of awards and recognize student artists who contributed to the art gallery in the school district’s administration building.
Immediately afterwards, however, a mass exodus of people flew out the doors right as the business part of the meeting began. Usually, if I walked into a council chamber where many people were present, it meant that a group of residents had a complaint. Then the council members would spend 15 to 20 minutes going over an issue they had already discussed and decided on a few months ago, but no one had been at the meeting to tell the council members their opinions.


The Arcadian’s political Q&A forum for the primary election

It is refreshing and exciting to see DeSoto County residents so engaged in their local government. Many residents I see at the meetings do not speak during public comment, making me assume that they are there just to listen and stay informed, not because they have complaints. In fact, quite a few residents use the public comment times to talk about something happening in the community and make an announcement. Only a few times have I heard complaints.
And, I’m not saying complaints are terrible. Complaints are great as long as they are presented in a level-headed manner in order to show opposition and another side of the story. But, what I love about DeSoto County is that the engagement is mostly positive and encouraging.
I also see a lot of sharing of news stories and tidbits from the meetings on Facebook accounts. Not only is that individual informed, but by sharing information through social media, he or she is encouraging neighbors and friends to be educated as well.
Your civic engagement in local politics makes your elected officials better politicians. They are better informed of what’s happening in the community, they are more aware of your concerns and they appreciate your support and dedication.
I’m delighted to no longer be the only member of the audience. As one who remains unbiased for my job, my presence acts as a “watch dog” but not as a someone who can present opinions, criticism and praise. So, it’s nice to be joined in the ranks of usually not-quite comfortable chairs, listening to the hushed whispers of residents as decisions are made. DeSoto County is a stronger community because of its active involvement and commitment to civic engagement.