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  • "We've Got to Be Awful Careful or We're Going to Lose It"Documenting Life Along Florida's Matanzas River
  • Anna Hamilton (bio)

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All photographs by Anna Hamilton.

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My Florida childhood was muddy, awash in alligators, salt spray, and briny oysters. I grew up on—and in—northeast Florida's Matanzas River, a marshy estuary snaking from St. Augustine in St. Johns County southward into Flagler County. Layers of history are imprinted on the Matanzas, from shell middens of early indigenous people, Spanish landmarks, and the sites of bloody battles, to remnants of 1900s homesteaders, hunting clubs, and kitschy 1950s attractions. The river supports robust commercial and recreational fishing, thanks to efforts of conservationists in the 1990s. It is one of the last places in only a handful on Florida's east coast where we can still harvest oysters. But to live in Florida today is to live in a paradox. The climate warms, sea levels rise, and storms batter us with increasing frequency, yet nearly 1,000 people move to Florida each day. The ramifications are a tired but dire story: subdivisions subsume floodplains, coasts erode, corals bleach, fresh water dwindles, species extinguish.

This is the backdrop of Matanzas Voices, an oral history initiative whose goal is to suss out this tension playing out in my northeast Florida home. Matanzas Voices documents the dynamic of a changing river and a changing populace by framing the Matanzas as a commons uniting disparate communities. It is equal parts oysterman, fisherman, park service employee, scientist, entrepreneur.

For coastal southerners like us, the debate over climate change's human provenance is a luxury we can no longer afford; the reality has already set in. Matanzas Voices is motivated by a belief that storytelling is inherently activist, that making smart decisions for communities necessitates harnessing the narrative from the ground up. One of the goals is to understand the importance of the river and associated natural areas from a local level, so that we might inform and fuel smart policymaking and planning decisions. Perhaps most importantly, Matanzas Voices positions itself as a documentary model for assessing how coastal communities react and adapt to the pressures of climate change.

At best, the project is a study in nostalgia, belonging, and sense(s) of place(s), capturing the lamentations of a community changing and growing. At worst, it is bearing witness to the last gasps of an overwhelmed organism—one unable to support human activity in the foreseeable future. When I was first drumming up support for Matanzas Voices, someone asked me, "How will a project like this save our oysters?" It's a good question: the river suffers the impacts of major storm events, population growth, and pollution. My hope is that Matanzas Voices joins the wider conversation about the value of localized knowledge in managing the South's ecosystems. By turning inward, perhaps we'll find solutions we didn't know we had. [End Page 21]

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marian kimrey

If I had a nickel for every shrimp I ever cleaned or breaded or whatever, I'd be the most wealthy person. My mother and father were Sterling and Shirley Andrew. They built the Matanzas Inlet Restaurant. Seafood was their specialty. That was what they were most known for.

Daddy, one of the things he was adamant about—if it wasn't fresh, then it was never served. What he was going to serve that day, he took care of that day. He breaded and had it ready that day. It was not something he'd hold over until the next day. He just knew exactly how to do it. Mother was never a cook. [Laughs] Mother ran the front. She was sort of the social director, I guess you'd say.

They lived here in the back of the restaurant. When they built the restaurant, they built a bedroom and bathroom in the corner on the back side. Years later, Daddy added a little bedroom on for me, so that my friends and I could come down and stay. It was not as large as it is...