a Favorite Among In-State Tourists
a feature by Jeff VanderMeer
To mark publication of City of Saints and Madmen in both its Cosmos and extended Prime editions, infinity plus presents the following:
Many readers of the Ambergris material have wondered where I got the idea for the Festival of the Freshwater Squid. It's a little embarrassing to have to tell them that such a festival exists--in Sebring, Florida. Although the Ambergris festival is vastly different--the Sebring festival is not violent in any way--both are get-togethers based on a particular type of cephalopod. The article linked below, originally published in the Orlando Sentinel, provides more information on the real festival. I wrote it a couple of years ago. - Jeff V.
Every second weekend in May, the mayor and other municipal officials of Sebring, Florida, rise well before dawn to kick off the annual Festival of the Freshwater Squid. On the steps of the Old Town Hall, the mayor addresses a crowd that has, in recent years, risen to more than 20,000 (5,000 of the 15,000 local residents and 15,000 tourists). The hotels have been booked for months and the town has been preparing for the influx of Festival-goers on-and-off since the end of the last festival. Swarms of sterile mosquitoes released as an experiment by the University of South Florida fill the cool pre-dawn air, but people don't seem to mind -- they're excited about observing another of the state's exotic species, the mayfly squid.
After a short speech, the mayor, Scott Thomas, cuts the green-and-silver ribbons held across the parade route by two cheerleaders from nearby Highlands High School. The mayor's brother, town sheriff Jeffrey Thomas, signals for the first parade floats to glide into position. As night begins to give way to dawn, many people surge ahead of the parade, eager to be the first to the boats that will take them to the middle of Lake Jackson and the freshwater squid's traditional mating grounds.
ORIGINS OF THE FESTIVAL
Sebring, Florida, is perhaps the perfect setting for a freshwater squid festival. Situated amid 15 kilometers of lakes that lie along the south end of the Lake Wales Ridge, Sebring is a popular location for water sports and boat trips. Although Lake Jackson, Sebring's largest lake, does not contain Florida's highest concentration of mayfly squid, it is the most accessible of the squid's breeding grounds. (Mayfly squid are more plentiful in the boggy cypress habitat of the northern Wacissa River, but the area is off-limits to all boats except canoes.)
Sebring needs a Festival in the summer as well, since the town is otherwise moribund until the autumn racing season brings the Grand Prix Raceway alive for the American Le Mans Series. In May, Panacea's Blue Crab Festival and Fernandina Beach's Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival are the only competition. The event closest in spirit to the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, the Sea Turtle Watch held in Jensen Beach on the Atlantic coast, does not occur until June.
The Festival began 12 years ago as the brainchild of local writer Jan Hines, a 46-year-old print shop manager who at first "just saw it as a good excuse for a summer party, and to sell some of my books. I never thought the town would actually sponsor it. And I never thought we'd ever see thousands of people coming down here for it."
The books, self-published through Hines' print shop, are very popular at the Festival. They relate the adventures of a talking squid named Hellatose. "They're for children and adults," Hines says. "Children like the plots and pictures. Adults like the subtext. It's all in good fun."
As for the thousands of tourists, most of them are from in-state, brought by word-of-mouth, newspaper articles, and the guidebooks. A few, like a German family I met on the parade route -- sweaty and pink and slightly dazed from all the noise and color -- come out of curiosity. "We were on vacation in Orlando," the father told me, "and wanted to see part of the real Florida." They seem satisfied that they have.
Despite the fact that the mayfly squid is neither endangered nor particularly edible, an entire subculture, largely unknown to the outside world and adhering to its own set of rituals, has grown up around this small invertebrate.
The parade represents the first of these rituals, a preliminary event that most locals participate in even if they don't take to the water later. It constitutes a uniquely Floridian oxymoron of sincerity and tackiness, part of a town that, by virtue of its strip malls, old abandoned Art Deco hotels from Sebring's boom period of the 1950s, and falsely-antique historic district, epitomizes the Florida impulse to meld pristine landscapes with facades of authentic human habitation.
The parade winds its way through the three blocks of quaint white-washed wooden houses that comprise the Historic District, past such institutions as the Inn on the Lakes, and then onto Sebring's main drag, Roosevelt Boulevard. The path is lined with crepe paper lanterns in the mayfly squid's most common strobing colors: vibrant shades of purple, green, and silver. The candles inside the lanterns make the crepe paper shimmer with light. The usual cavalcade of Shriners in tiny red cars, high school bands, ROTC units, and clowns is supplemented by six or seven squid floats mounted on rusting Ford pickup trucks. Most of the floats are made of crepe paper as well, although a couple have been painstakingly woven together from honeysuckle and green ivy, the pungent scent of the flowers taking the edge off the ever-present marsh smell from Lake Jackson.
Meanwhile, the parade-goers have begun to don their squid masks and take out their squid noise-makers. Any chance the high school bands had of impressing the tourists is soon lost in the clacking and croaking of the noise makers. Small boys always feel the need to set off caps and the resulting gunpowder smell gives the scene a slightly anarchic flavor. As I follow the festival crowds, the fake squid formed by the floats seem to waver and disintegrate in the early morning light.
THE MATING GROUNDS
Eventually, packed tightly together, the crowds lurch within sight of Lake Jackson. The floats, bands, and other parade participants march off into a side alley while we tourists head for the water. The near side of the lake teems with waiting boats. Most of the vessels have been chartered weeks in advance and I hear a few unlucky tourists asking if anyone has a seat available. (All lake traffic, whether rusted fishing boat or two-deck yacht, must adhere to the city council mandated speed of 5 MPH, "so as to facilitate," according to Sebring City Ordinance 93-0053A, "an atmosphere conducive to the squid's habits while also reducing the possibility of boating accidents.")
Among the lines of tourists are a few trained cephalopod biologists eager to record what they can of the mayfly squid's mating habits, even in such congested conditions.
However, some local biologists do not think much of the Festival, considering it a hazard to the squid. George Grayson, a marine ecologist who has worked for the State's Department of Environmental Protection for 20 years, told me that the Festival "disturbs the mating cycle. It also disturbs the ecosystem. Most of the tourists are pretty indifferent about tossing their trash in the water. Every year, the town has to hire people to clean up afterwards."
Nevertheless, after we get on board and the boats begin to move slowly forward toward the center of the lake, everyone quiets down. When the tell-tale silver-green glow begins to cut through the nascent sunlight, it is clear that the squid have once again congregated in great numbers. (Grayson estimates the lake contains more than 2,000 squid.) Excitement gives way to a kind of anticipatory awe. I look around and find that the squid have everyone's full attention, even the kids. The old man to my right takes off his baseball cap and shoves it into the pocket of his Bermuda shorts. A college student stops writing in her journal.
Then the engines cut off and the silence really encroaches on us, the only sound a quiet ripple of waves against the prow. Everyone gathers along the railing, staring down into the water. They're looking for the squid and, out here in the center of the lake, with the silt and hydrilla almost completely absent, you can really see into the water.
For a moment, though, I don't see anything in the water. Then, a boy reaches out between the railing bars and points at something. Everyone leans in the direction of that pointing finger -- and there they are, the squid, in numbers, sleek and small and incredibly fast, looking for all the world like Florida naturalist Edith Johnson's hummingbirds retrofitted for the water. They pulse with an emerald light that ripples up and down their silvery bodies. Despite the fact I've seen them up close and at a distance, in the wild and in the laboratory, so many times, my breath catches in my throat.
Still no one says anything. I have the feeling I'm not the only one holding my breath. The quick scooting and sliding through the water of these squid, their third eye blinking on and off on the underside of their mantels, at first seems random, chaotic, without purpose...but on second and third glances, I can tell that they've already entered the end stages of a complex series of maneuvers that should end in a successful mating. Dozens of squid riddle the water beneath us, and yet, through an ingenious recognition mechanism, no mating pair becomes separated in the process.
This intense level of activity continues for about an hour, until the sun has completely risen, casting a glow on the water that hampers visibility. Then the moment I have been waiting for, the moment I'm not sure my fellow watchers expected, occurs: the activity ceases all across the lake and each mating pair in the water below us lies perfectly still, the male atop the female, the tiny eyes of each seemingly turned up to watch us. With the flashing of colors abruptly ended, the water is dull with our own reflected faces. Several minutes pass. No one speaks. No one moves. Then, all at once, the lake erupts with streaks of emerald -- a deep, bright green that suffuses the sides of the white-hulled boats. A gasp rises up all around me. This synchronization of mating and color display may be one of the most beautiful yet mysterious events in the natural world. Despite 20 years of study, no one, from cephalopod experts at Harvard to researchers in the Everglades, has been able to pinpoint the exact how's and why's of this phenomenon.
After a few minutes, the display subsides, the squid disappear into the depths of the lake, and everyone begins chattering happily, as if to confirm that it really happened by replaying it again and again in words.
The unhappy epilogue to the event, which most of my companions on the boat probably do not realize, is that almost immediately after mating the male squid will die of fatigue and old age. The female will survive only long enough to ensure the successful birth of her young. The mayfly squid does, in fact, live up to its namesake.
DISTINCTLY FLORIDIAN FESTIVAL RITUALS
Afterwards, climbing out of the boat and onto the dock, there's nothing left to do but "party," as several teenagers loudly announce as they brush past me to get off first -- and they are essentially correct. The mayfly squid has played its part in the Festival and will not be seen again in the flesh. However, the iconography of the squid, its role as a motif in the Sebring subculture, is just beginning as festival-goers head back to the Historic District.
The full gamut of Florida tourism ingenuity is on display here, from plastic squid and squidsicles to glow-in-the-dark squid rings and a few tattered plush squid. Squid hats proliferate to such an extent that for long hours it appears that a sea of squid have left the lake to stroll around on land atop pale mannequins. Balloon squids with tentacle tassles are a favorite among the children, who run up and down the increasingly sizzling sidewalks in bare feet. Delicacies such as squid ink ice cream are hawked by vendors who seem unsure of the tastiness of what they're offering to the public. Vendors pace back and forth, selling T-shirts that read "Squid for a Day," "Experience the Festival," and, criminally, "I Like to See Squid, Mate."
The farmer's market set up opposite the Old Town Hall features a squid chili contest in the mid-afternoon, proceeds going to the charity Habitat for Humanity. Squid chili event organizer Sarah Townsend, also the town's treasurer, offers passersby sample cups of chili. Townsend is, I have been told, a festival fixture, and not only at the chili contest. Townsend wears a squid costume that glows green with silver running lights but she also, in special translucent pouches affixed to her costume, carries live mayfly squid with her down the parade route. Every year, Townsend is sent off in the first boat launched, balanced on the prow like a figurehead, the other boats, by established tradition, made to follow the light of her squid-like luminescence to the breeding waters. Once there, in a dramatic ceremony that I did not get to see because other boats blocked my view, she releases her pouched squid into the waters of Lake Jackson while reading a poem written for the occasion by local balladeer Michael Cruikshanks. (The one irony of this gesture is that by holding the pouched squid back until this time, she almost certainly prevents them from mating and thus they die without propagating.)
"It's important," she tells a local television reporter for the six o'clock news. "It's true that some of this is tacky, but you have to be sincere about the squid on some level. Otherwise, how can it be fun?"
THE END OF THE FESTIVAL
The late afternoon, punctuated by suffocating heat, proves to be little more than an opportunity to catalogue more squid-related phenomena. Many of the locals, preparing to turn their attention to televised racing events, have already changed into racing T-shirts and NASCAR caps. This leaves the tourists free to browse through the festival crafts show. More than 100 artists attend, some traveling from as far away as Alabama and Mississippi. Squid-specific objects are, of course, showcased, from paintings of squid (usually anatomically incorrect) to abstract sculptures of squid-like objects locked in an embrace. One participant from Boaz, Alabama, water color specialist Alison Stine, admits that the squid festival is part of a longer Florida summer circuit: "If it was just this festival down here, I wouldn't make the trip. I make money, but not enough to justify the expenses."
At the center of the crafts show, the Lake Wales Little Theater and the Highlands Little Theater have joined forces to put on a production of Hines' "Dr. Johnson I Presume," a play in three acts that dramatizes important scenes from Edith Johnson's life, including her first encounter with the mayfly squid. In Sebring, naturalist Johnson is no more forgotten than she is in high school biology classes: she has entered the popular mythology of the festival as the first and only martyr to the squid. The tourist shops sell postcards of Johnson in her distinctive bathing suit alongside images of the Kraken, squid mills, and Elvis.
The pleasantly bohemian feel of outdoor theater permeates even the impromptu book stall, Hal's Book Corner, wedged between a jeweler and a wood carver. It features Hines' stories for children, in bright, glossy covers, and such staples of the squid book trade as Richard Ellis' overrated The Search for the Giant Squid. A few Dover editions of old marine biology studies round out the selection.
When I emerge from the narrow alleys formed by the crafts show stands, I am confronted by a ten-armed whirling dervish, a squid-themed amusement park ride borrowed by the town council from the county fair. The arm spokes end in carriages for the many tourists who like to be turned into centrifugal jelly.
Supersaturated with squid images, I retire to the Mayfly Saloon for a beer. The saloon is just beginning to fill up with festival memorabilia, from photographs to flags to bumper stickers. The walls are painted in the kind of palm tree mural motif more appropriate for a Jimmy Buffet concert, but you get the sense that in another 20 years the Mayfly Saloon will be as much a shrine to the squid as a passable eatery and bar.
As I sit there, I marvel at the level of identification with the squid displayed by many of the festival attendees throughout the day. There is no Manatee Festival, no Scrub Jay Festival, no Panther Festival, even though these animals, on the verge of extinction, deserve the attention. Yet the mayfly squid has its own festival. Perhaps helped along by the beer, I am tempted to attribute this sense of community to the squid's own sense of community, or to the way its short life cycle forces us to contemplate our own mortality, but I think the real answer is much more cynical: someone found a clever way to promote a summer party for in-state tourists, achieving a level of success in popularizing the squid that the Davids brothers, who established commercial squidmills in Lake Okaloosa around 1920, could not.
Outside, as the long afternoon shadows fade into dusk, the day concludes much as it began for mayor Scott Thomas and the other town officials: they are performing an official act, this time bringing the festival to a close. Thomas and about 50 stalwarts, including Townsend and balladeer Cruikshanks, have gathered lakeside to sing songs and light candles. The Sebring Children's Museum, the official sponsor of the sing-along, has thoughtfully provided both a DJ and a banjo player. The air is again cooler and full of mosquitoes. The lake is dark and still. In the morning, the first of the dead mayfly squid males will wash up on the very shore that the mayor now solemnly presides over.
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