About three-quarters of a mile deep into the grounds of the 444-acre Deering Estate at Cutler, the ecosystem seems to exist in another dimension
Indeed, the 16,000 or so annual guests who walk through the hammock on paths once trod by Native American cultures including the Paleo-Indian, Tequesta, Seminole and Afro-Bahamian will notice a distinct change in temperature and a permeating peace.
“When you take this walk you can feel yourself leaving one ecosystem and entering another. The whole environment feels totally different,” observes Mary Petit, executive director of the Deering Estate Foundation.
“The hammock is five to 10 degrees cooler in the summer months and five to 10 degrees warmer in the winter months. It maintains its own biosphere,” explains Jennifer Tisthammer, the Deering’s assistant director.
Here, on dirt path grounds once groomed by the ancient residents of South Florida dating back some 12,000 years, today’s texting, plugged-in South Floridians come upon one of the most peaceful spots in the county: the Cutler Burial Mound.
On this tranquil, lush spot lies the remains of about 12 to 18 Native Americans, mostly women and children, buried face-down in a circular pattern, much like the spokes of a roulette wheel. An oak tree said to be between 400 to 600 years old protects the burial mound, its roots extending majestically outward and deep to cradle the Tequesta’s beloved who are buried beneath.
Also here, a sturdy new boardwalk affords visitors, school kids and nature lovers a safe passage over and around the protected grounds. The new bridge, recently opened, replaces one built 20 years ago by a group of local Eagle Scouts. That labor of love project lasted many more years than anyone expected but had grown worn with time. The new boardwalk, built with pressure-treated pine at a cost of $90,000 and funded by a challenge grant from the Batchelor Foundation and Deering board members John and Suzuyo Fox, will play a role in the Deering’s educational programs for school-age children as well as for regular park guests.
“The significance of the bridge is that the boardwalk was created to help give the public access to a very sensitive archeological site on the grounds,” Tisthammer says. “The boardwalk circumnavigates the whole site and is built organically into the natural landscape but it also hugs the exterior of the mound itself.”
Constructing the boardwalk wasn’t as simple as designing one for the average backyard or park, however.
Due to the sensitive nature of building on a burial site, the boardwalk’s wooden pilings had to be placed in the footprint of the earlier boardwalk, despite the new structure’s slightly larger scale. A cantilevered system helped achieve its grounding. Workers could not use machines to dig so all the digging was done by hand. Saplings could not be disturbed and ground cover was minimized as much as possible. Representatives from DERM, the National Forest Community, the Village of Palmetto Bay and the county’s resident archaeologist were on site during construction so as to maintain proper regulatory and stewardship responsibilities, especially during the movement of any soil, said Petit. “It was slow and arduous, but it’s finally done. I don’t think at the time the Scouts built it was going to be such a central piece to our archaeological program.”
In fact, the construction of this seemingly uncomplicated wooden structure turned into the most substantial collaborative effort since the reconstruction of the park following the destructive Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
“One of the biggest challenges we have as resource protectors and yet creating programs and providing access to the estate, is how do you give appropriate access and how can you talk about this lost history in the best way possible while respecting these cultures? The boardwalk allows us to do this,” Tisthammer says
Once daily, except during the summer months, Deering offers tours to the burial mound.
The mighty oak stands guard, framed by the new observational boardwalk. The artifacts it hovers over will remain, rather than be unearthed and placed under glass in a museum.
“From a Native American standpoint, and from an environmental or ecological standpoint — the social, cultural, ecological issues there — the best thing about this site is to leave this site as is,” Tisthammer says from the boardwalk, shaded by the foliage in the stillness of a recent afternoon.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.