People frequently talk about being haunted. Usually by spirits, both by the friendly Casper types and the decidedly less friendly Poltergeist types. Sometimes people are haunted by bad decisions. This is a spectrum too. Some must repeatedly face the time we developed a temporary and acute stutter during an eighth-grade presentation. While others face a scarier specter born of a truly terrible decision, like buying a monitor lizard as a pet. Perhaps one of the most pervasive and long-lasting hauntings of all is that of our hometowns. We swear that we’ll leave it forever. Pack our bags and only talk about home to family and in the occasional childhood anecdote while we live somewhere exciting and exotic. This attitude was especially pandemic to my hometown of Orlando, FL.

You see, Florida is often presented as an exciting place for people to visit. And they do, by the millions. Everyone eventually comes to Florida, at least for a while. To quote Jerry Seinfeld: “My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that’s the law.”

To offer a few examples of this phenomenon: The spiritualists founded the town of Cassadaga, FL (which still has a major spiritualist camp). Jack Kerouac bought a house in Orlando to quietly read and write. Laura Ingles Wilder briefly came to the state for her health. Ernest Hemingway, on the other hand, famously came to stay. He went so far as to buy a house and began a long line of six-toed cats. The cousins of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (grandchildren of Alexander II) came to South Florida after the Revolution. One even became the three-time mayor of Palm Beach. Florida is a holiday and a safe house. It is where people come to escape—they escape the grind of daily life, illness, political prosecution, revolutions, icy winters, writer’s block, and sometimes even the law.

In these imaginings, Florida then is understood as a land where people bring “culture.” The locals are people who supposedly accept “culture.” This view is pervasive, and many (including me in my teenage years) believed this. It was for this reason that my friends and I dreamed of leaving Orlando and go somewhere where things happened. It all changed one afternoon, thanks to a rather unexpected humanities moment.

How I got the book in the first place is part of its random charm. In 2005 or 2006, Tom Levine—a local fisherman, author, and “character”—showed up in my parents’ two-person CPA business in Orlando, FL. Levine periodically sells his books business-to-business or in farmers’ markets in Central Florida, using his charisma and humor in equal measure. My parents declined to turn their office into a small-scale bookstore but did buy a couple of his books—including Bite Me! I, a twelve-year-old girl who didn’t fish, was clearly not the intended audience. And yet, I quickly came to love this book.

Tom Levine’s Bite Me! is an admittedly unusual choice for an inspirational book. It’s a slender collection of essays about Levine’s travels. Described in one paper as “Part Hiaasen, part Hemingway,” Levine writes to celebrate nature, critique the overdevelopment of “paradise,” and of course to support his fishing expeditions. On the surface, his book Bite Me! is a humorous take on his journeys around the world. But what truly struck my interest was his deep and open love for the natural world of Florida. Levine articulates a clear argument for preserving our natural splendor. Not for tourists to ogle on vacation, but because the swamps, coastal wetlands, and pinewoods of Florida were innately valuable and worth saving—just as much as any mountain, scenic alpine lake, or rocky beach. It changed my relationship with my surroundings, I started thinking of Florida as a place within the world rather than a suburb outside of it.

This new appreciation, in turn, led me to investigate my state’s history, environment, and literature. I started reading in earnest the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Carl Hiaasen, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, and others. I realized that there was a cacophony of voices in the state who all have painted a full picture of Florida as a strange and special place that doesn’t need others to determine its worth. That the land and its many peoples are historied and important, and that Florida’s troubled past and diverse actors deserved consideration. The land they lived on transformed from a boring backdrop to a central part of the Flordia story.

This radical new point of view ultimately brought me to a MA and Ph.D. on Florida’s colonial past. You can say that Florida has become, to my great surprise, my life’s work.

When I moved away for graduate school, I thought I may feel triumphant in realizing my childhood goal of leaving. Instead, I have found myself longing for the woods and beaches I used to traverse. Every time I return to this unexpected book, I feel like I’m with Levine searching the waterways and coastlines of the world to rediscover Florida and an elusive bite. From where I sit today, the ghost of my hometown still sits at my side. It floats around in my thoughts and writing and appears to have settled in for good.

– Rebecca Earles (graduate student (Rice University))