In the USF Riverfront Park hangs an old Burgert Brothers photograph, "Fishing on the Banks of the Hillsborough River." A black couple angles between the palmetto and Spanish moss-draped live oak. The man wears overalls and a tattered hat pulled low. The woman, whose pole is hidden, wears a full-length dress. A white fellow looks on, sporting a straw boater hat, bow tie and suit.
I wonder about the story here, from 1918, a bad time for race relations in Florida. But I appreciate the headgear — the fisherman's jaunty porkpie and the onlooker's straw hat, last seen on Fred Astaire. Who dresses like that for a river today?
Part of my job as an English professor includes classes on nature writing, where I come across two types of students: those who can paddle a canoe and those who cannot. The latter usually fear drowning, alligators, looking stupid and, of course, the clothes.
Their sartorial fears are well-founded. Outdoor apparel is a $6 billion industry, with style-free non-products that wick off moisture and bloat up credit card debts. Patagonia print shirts start at $49. REI Endurance Paddling Pants run $109.95. L.L. Bean offers six shades of gray — from khaki to slate, all choices dull.
If environmentalists want reform, I say, start with fashion. So I asked some friends to carve out a look.
My own quest began with my style advisers Eric Vaughan and Andy Winchell. Eric and Andy said skip the cargo shorts and go cut-offs. (Cuff the denim twice; show some thigh and keep below the pocket.) Camo and Guy Harvey, don't even ask. Ditto for Tevas. Wear cheap canvas sneakers: classic and always on sale.
I struggled with a shirt. Athletic gear looks good on athletes, but high-tech fabrics cling to my dad-bod. REI brands cotton as a cardinal sin (sweat cools, then causes hypothermia). Floridians, however, face different dangers than paddlers in Wisconsin or Maine. High-tech fabric is glorified polyester, and I know from teaching nature writing classes that a blend guayabera works just fine on the water.
I picked up a deep violet Lacoste, cut for sweaty tennis matches and designed for sweat, with the alligator insignia as a mascot. A bit posh, my advisors granted, but the cotton piqué (or weave) holds up in the heat. At 40 percent off, the polo ran less than a Patagonia button-down. And that color? Julie's favorite, so French, a tête-à-tête between purple and indigo that you will not find at REI.
I scheduled the aquatic Project Runway for a muggy morning in late July. My neighbor Andrew came in standard, head-to-toe taupe. Julie scored an outfit for $30 without leaving Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete. Fuschia sneakers and peach shorts from Metropolitan Charities, and a lime green sleeveless top from ARTpool, accessorized with a puka shell necklace and rose-colored shades. With her green top, trimmed in purple, and my regal Lacoste, we looked like a dream date for Nature's Prom.
My writer friend Ben Montgomery pulled together post-modern dandy. Cuffed linen pants, wool porkpie, cotton shirt and a red bow tie. Ben rolled up his sleeves to show off his journalist's credo, the word "Truth" tattooed on his forearm. His son Bey took the look one step further: checked shirt and long pants (like his dad) and a white fedora, his "second favorite hat."
I asked Ben how he planned to combat the heat. He produced a handkerchief. And long pants? "A gentleman does not show his legs." Truth, indeed.
So here's my truth: environmentalism needs a makeover. To get folks out on the river, call in the fashionistas. Nature writing also needs a new wardrobe. We have worn out the clichés. Enough about Wild Florida. Algae is suffocating our springs and climate change will trash our reefs. But the hand-wringing about Paradise Lost does not apply to where we live. I'm not going back to 1918, and the magic of Tampa Bay's nature comes from proximity. Our cities share space with apex predators.
In the spirit of wardrobe overhaul, I bring you this column. "City Wilds," that, for as long readers let me, will look for nature in the city. I will hit the classic spots. But I refuse to split natural and built environments, or fashion from the river. "City Wilds" will break down barriers.
Next month I tour retention ponds with a herpetologist friend. And come December I might just paddle up this river, see how far we can get.
Spring water, anyone?
Back to the aquatic Project Runway. Our two canoes veered across Lettuce Lake. We passed the expected turquoise fishing shirts and beige hats. The smart women stayed basic — black shorts and a tank top, sport bra or bikini underneath.
Thirty minutes into our paddle, thunder threatened. Some "vertical river" tested our choices.
Julie smiled through the sun shower in rayon. Ben and Bey kept their cool. Andrew got wet like the rest of us. And my glorious Lenten piqué? It splotched with sweat but the garment held its shape beautifully. We pulled onto the dock, recharged by wild beauty in city limits. Happy. In #RiverStyle.