Sunday, March 18, 2018

Local Review: Mounts Botanical Gardens & the Washed Ashore Exhibit

I do not have a green thumb.

I managed to kill an air plant - an air plant. They survive and thrive without roots.

Air plant growing upside down in the test of a sea urchin

When invited to join the Master Gardeners, I politely explained that I respected what they did and it was out of such respect that I chose to steer clear of their hard work lest I inadvertently destroy their efforts entirely.

My husband doesn’t let me water the plants unless it is the middle of the summer and he is on a 48-hr shift, and we are in the middle of a drought. He actually has our 8-yr old do it whenever possible instead. The two of them will go outside and talk to plants like the ever-blooming bleeding-heart vine behind our house or the cucumber seedlings on the back porch – even the avocado tree they are growing for me (since I’m the only one who likes them) gets a pep talk. I am not permitted to speak to the plants.

I am the evil mustache-less twin of the Lorax.

I killed the snapdragon bestowed upon me by the fabulous Farmer Jay (Farmer Jay's Pure Organics). That hurt. His motto is “grow something” and I felt particularly embarrassed when the plant died. (Incidentally, Farmer Jay’s Ted Talk is very much worth the time too)

So how does Mounts Botanical Garden, an iconic place with a huge following, get a sworn “not a plant person” onto the property? Simple. Host a special exhibit with a connection to the OCEAN. Of course! Why hadn’t they thought of it before? I’ve been in south Florida for nearly 20 years now and never set foot on the grounds. I finally realized where it was just in the past 2 years. But I am not a plant person. I’m a water baby.

I am also, as you may have read in previous posts, a person who has a penchant for picking up trash. I present to you the coup de grĂ¢ce on how to get a beach person to a land locked garden: host an exhibit of giant sea-inspired statues crafted entirely out of trash pulled from the surf and sand.

One of my goals (some people call them resolutions, but I tend to break those pretty quickly) this year was to try 30 new things. This includes visiting places buried on my to-do list and over the years I crossed paths with many wonderful people who volunteer, work or regularly visit Mounts. It was on the list, but as we have established, I am not a plant person. I needed a push.

Not only did this exhibit inspire me to visit, the magnitude and message were not lost. I enjoyed the project a great deal and even managed to explore the entire garden on my own armed with a camera to keep me from touching, and possible placing a curse on, any of the flora. “Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea” is running for six months – with the exhibit concluding in June 2018 and I highly recommend giving this moving and intense exhibition your time.

So this is how starfruit grows!

Temporarily “planted” along the paths throughout the 14 acres of MBG are ten massive statues, each telling a tale of both sadness and hope. This is just a sample of artwork from the project, however, as they have a home gallery in Oregon, and traveling exhibitions currently in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Sarasota. There really is no excuse not to find visit when it comes to your area, and you will not likely see works of this magnitude elsewhere.

I have seen trash-based exhibits before, often at museums or science centers, but those were usually only one or two marine themed pieces comingled with other constructs. The Washed Ashore not only has a clear message about plastic in our oceans, but even the sculptures themselves have a very specific theme based on their components. One thing that struck me in particular – the use of color without the use of paint. All the colors and textures you see in these statues are intentional and still true to their former life as a piece of flotsam.

My visit took place on a cloudy weekday, and even then, the basic parking lot was full. There was a workshop going on for actual plant people, and combined with the guests walking in I chose to take my map and go through the gardens in reverse. In respect to the works and direction in which the items were actually placed, however, here is the special exhibition for you to enjoy. Know that these photos in no way do the statues justice as they are huge and, in some cases, downright imposing.

“American” Sea Star is based on items leftover from Independence Day celebrations in America. The marine biologist in me must point out and give a heartfelt thank you to the artist for not calling it a ‘starfish’.

I was particularly disturbed by the shotgun shells. Not exactly expected marine debris.

Marine Debris Anemone focuses on single-use plastic bottles, but I found the most moving part of the work the use of color derived from unwound sections of rope and line.

Priscilla the Parrot Fish, while colorful and apparently a poster child in many of the articles and media posts I have seen, was not my favorite piece in this collection. The items are bit more random and did not have the same intensity as images such as the Sea Star.

Sebastian James the Puffin shares a sobering quality with its real-life counterpart, the statue has a comical quality and an inquisitive expression. Puffins were the creatures behind the creation of the 'porg' species in the most recent Star Wars installation, and the quirky little birds are prone to exploring trash in search of food scraps, and are particularly susceptible to ingesting plastic. My favorite detail of this particular piece was the hook at the edge of the beak. Despite it being much longer than on the actual birds, and more so like that of a raptor’s beak, it still captures the animal’s nature and not just the cuteness factor.

Grace the Humpback Whale Tail / Hugo the Humpback Whale Tail

This pair of sculptures showcases the research done by the artist, making a point of differentiating the Pacific humpback from the Atlantic whales. In reality this species has benefitted greatly from conservation efforts over the years, but personally I cannot help but attribute some of the interest and support in humpbacks back to Star Trek IV and the plight of “Gracie” and “George” – mostly because that movie inspired me, an 8-yr old land-locked kid living in the Midwest – to learn and appreciate marine life for the first time.

Musical Seaweed is meant to be an interactive exhibit, but during my time instead the sky was filled with the roar of planes landing at the airport nearby. It was the first time I truly noticed the noise, but am reminded how creating beautiful spaces in areas that many people would not wish to live is exceptional strategic planning. The areas in and around airports are great for natural areas and in this case, an amazing garden.

Water Bottle Jelly

I fell in love with the statue from a distance and was not disappointed up close. It was placed off the paved pathway, up on a little knoll. There was no resisting the opportunity to lie down in the grass and look up to the sky through the waving tentacles of plastic. This massive reminder speaks of the plastic bags resembling jellies in the ocean – confusing the living dinosaurs (in this case sea turtles) of what is food and what is dangerous.

Flash the Marlin

This cool fish is constructed from reflective materials such as sunglasses and beer cans. Check out those choppers! Some people are able to stare at a piece of art and 'see' things within the picture such as sadness, faces, or ghost-like apparitions buried within the image. What I love about this exhibit is how it doesn't matter if you are a big fan of the arts, or even over the age of five, you can still find so many things within each of these pieces. You can observe tactile metaphors and see the reincarnated spirits of old shoes repurposed as the original builders never imagined.

Lidia the Seal has a significant portion of the structure being provided by various lids of items, hence the name Lid-ia. I am always a fan of a good pun, but found this sculpture personally more disturbing that many of the others. The irony behind the ‘smile’ will haunt my dreams for some time.

While this special exhibition drew me in, I was still compelled to explore the entirety of the grounds and gift shop. Some of the flora enjoyed throughout the gardens were familiar let lacked nomenclature, and I was glad to have adequate signage without it distracting from taking photos. There were plenty of guests in the area, but it was not difficult to find solitude amongst the leaves. The layout of the gardens lends itself to reflection, and the volunteers/staff were not invasive. One can be engrossed in the vegetation, or simply a temporary observer.

For those who love plants, this is a must visit. For those who want to feel peaceful, Mounts Botanical is a great option. For others who wish to learn more about the greener side of life, MBG offers a variety of classes and workshops. Visit them directly for more information at: Mounts Botanical Garden.

Let’s take the time to give attention to the project that created these inspiring pieces that travel the world, spreading the message of Art to Save the Sea. Be sure to check out Washed Ashore  for details and the locations of other exhibits currently traveling around the country.

Whatever it takes to hook you into trying something new, keep an exploring eye out as there could be great new experiences waiting to inspire!


Friday, March 2, 2018

Local Review: Sandoway Discovery Center

The Sandoway Discovery Center, also known locally as Sandoway House, is a historical building tucked away in Delray Beach. Built in 1936, the facility has transformed from a sleepy depression era home meant for retirement, to an amazing nature center that provides a variety of programs ranging from tales of history to addressing modern environmental issues. The facility has been open to the public for 20 years, and yet remains like so many other places in South Florida, practically undiscovered.
Whether looking for a low-cost way to spend time with small children, or interested in delving into the history of the area, Sandoway Discovery Center is a fantastic place to visit each year. The exhibits and programs are always rotating, meaning that while history may not change, the things to do on site most certainly evolve. This was the location of my son’s first beach cleanup, and taking him to the facility afterwards was a reward for both of us.
I have watched Sandoway grow and face challenges ranging from someone literally driving a vehicle through the wall and into the historic structure, to severe power outages during and after Hurricane Irma. The staff is dedicated to what they do and above all else – the volunteers and staff there seem genuinely happy; this is a key component to the long-term success for a small non-profit. For anyone who likes to visit smaller facilities that ‘the locals know’ and support grass roots organizations with boots on the ground, then this is a great place.

Visiting a facility that expands and grows is great, and watching your local nature center sprout new wings to accommodate programs is no small feat. However, Sandoway has a unique situation – being a historical building found officially on the lists for Delray, the state of Florida, and the National Historical Registries, they are incapable of physically altering the building for expansion and must work within the given walls.  This challenge means the staff and facility are particularly creative with the exhibits and programming.
So, let’s chat about those awesome exhibits. The unassuming entrance to the home is a screened in deck called the Discovery Porch where they house some cool locals and my personal favorites – the turtles. A box turtle, gopher tortoise and freshwater turtles are flanked by Mr. Crystal, the blue and gold macaw. Parrots, and macaws in particular, remain my personal adversaries dating back to my days as a zookeeper and this bird is no different. Do me a favor and never reach over and try to pet an animal on display anywhere you go, ok? Consider that my public service announcement for the day.

Once inside, for a paltry fee, kids and adults alike can enjoy a variety of live animal and interactive exhibits. After giving Mr. Crystal his respectful space, guests are rewarded with opportunities to touch a variety of invertebrates with the guidance of staff or volunteers. Saltwater fish tanks and reptilian displays abound before venturing toward the back of the facility. The Microscope Room is a great space for those kids who get bored with coloring but aren’t big enough to fully appreciate the historical exhibits. My 8-yr old found this a space of great discovery while looking at – SAND. Yes, this place got my Minecraft-loving, Lego building, taekwondo kicking kid intrigued with sand.

Currently, the rotating display area is showing off some unique images and items from the Florida Surfing Museum’s collection. In the past I have seen this space used for showing off one of the largest shark jaw exhibits and other traveling displays as well, making return visits particularly rewarding because you can actually see something new and different every time. Coming up this summer, from June - August, the main exhibit room will be transformed by an array of spectacular shark jaws on display.
Inspired by the photos!

Before heading outside to catch the live stingray touch tank, be sure to run upstairs (or ask for assistance using the antique elevator) and check out the Templeton Shell Gallery. A staple of the facility for many years, this is a great way to satisfy the inner shell nerd that always wondered which strange seashells are buried in the shoebox collection back home. Also, upstairs is a great area for smaller kids to enjoy fun books, coloring and activity station. While on the second level be sure to venture outside, yes OUTSIDE, onto the observation deck. Binoculars are provided, but feel free to enjoy the salty breeze and a spectacular view of the ocean from across Ocean Blvd. I cannot skip the Nocturnal Room either, but it is easy to pass by as the animals in this room are, well, nocturnal. The screech owl might be camouflaged or the opossum taking a nap, but it is still a great use of space and see some cool native animals. I still do not know how staff keeps the small room from smelling a bit ‘off’ considering the inhabitants, but kudos to them!

There is no way one can visit Sandoway, though, and not see the sharks. Everyday, staff hosts an informative yet informally comfortable talk about sharks and stingrays, and conducts a public feeding demonstration with each. The large saltwater swimming pool is one of my favorite features that embodies both the history and the future of the Discovery Center. Back when the house was first built, getting enough freshwater at once to fill a swimming pool was impractical and many historic places upgraded their pools to freshwater systems later but this one remained – which is why you see steps at one end of the pool. No, this is not an invitation to go in, and the public do not feed the large nurse sharks living alongside a variety of other fish in the retrofitted tank. Be sure to ask which one is “Mr. Bubbles” before you leave!

Living in south Florida leaves one quite spoiled on outdoor activities year-round, but I have found this lovely little place to always be welcoming regardless of the beach conditions. Whether at the fossil dig, touching stingrays, or simply enjoying the sea stars stuck to the tank walls, Sandoway Discovery Center is truly a local treasure for all ages. Be sure to add it to your “Fun Things to Do” list!

and, remember to just keep swimming-


For more information on visiting Sandoway Discovery Center, check out their website:

And to learn more about the Florida Surfing Museum, visit:

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Protecting History: The Rough Road and Resolve of the Palm Beach Maritime Museum

Since 1996, the Palm Beach Maritime Museum has provided ambassadors to our nation’s past with truly one of a kind exhibits and content.  The PBMM is – well, was – located on Peanut Island in Palm Beach County. This location proves to be both urban and remote simultaneously as thousands cruise by on ships, small boats, kayaks, bridges and roadways. The Island is not accessible by land; one must take a personal vessel or one of the local ferries on a 15-20-minute ride across the waterway. This seemingly trivial matter was perhaps one of the greatest obstacles for the Museum to deal with on a regular basis – it is most certainly something that kept me off the Island for over 15 years.

The Palm Beach Maritime Museum consisted of three different buildings: the Museum proper (gift shop, lobby, and beginning of the tour), a retired United States Coast Guard Station, and a fallout shelter created specifically for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. To join a tour, all one had to do was walk up during operating hours and pay a modest fee to the non-profit.

US Coast Guard Station, active from 1936-1996
So, what prompted me after so long to take my 8-yr old son and also invite my history loving in-laws to join us? Closure. The chance at catching a glimpse of something truly special before it changed forever. I learned through my network of friends and colleagues that the PBMM was going to shut its doors, potentially forever. The partnership with the local county government had dissolved and the Museum would have to move. The buildings would remain, but be closed up for an unknown length of time and all of the artifacts would be gone regardless. I am embarrassed to say it was the inevitable closing that truly lit the fire under my backside to finally get over to the Island on one of the weekends before it closed on October 22, 2017. I hate visiting busy places on the weekends, and worked during the week, but I was not disciplined enough to make the time before – now I had to do it. My in-laws had lived in South Florida for over 30 years and had never been. They were surprised to hear of the Museum’s existence (WHAT??!) and wanted to join me one Sunday morning before the facility shut down.

Then, nature kicked in and I realized I may not get the chance after all. Hurricane Irma visited our shores during the second week of September with what could have been a much greater force than realized. Schools were shut down for over a week. Streets were flooded. The docks in front of the Museum were wrecked and boats strewn along Peanut Island’s shoreline. With the contract ending, would the Museum even bother to open? What beautiful opportunity had I squandered?!

The staff at the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, passionate about what they do, decided to stay open until the last possible moment. They led tours on the weekends and during off hours packed up exhibits. They had no dock, but chose to run the ferry despite the now lengthy walk each way that visitors would need to take because they knew there must be procrastinating munches like myself who would jump at the last chance to see history frozen in situ. Stalling was no longer an option and we were going on a backyard trip through time. 

Broken docks that won't be repaired.

Upon arrival to Peanut Island on a typical hot Florida day in October, we began our walk to the Museum. This was very hard on my mother-in-law, who has difficulty walking for any length of time, and we were quite moved when the staff immediately offered her a wheelchair for the walk to and through the USCG Station and to the shelter. The fallout shelter itself is not wheelchair accessible, but she was still able to walk inside and enjoy the underground portal back in time.

Since those of you reading this will never have the same experience we did, I chose to smatter you with photos in a pathetic effort to show what we enjoyed that morning. The history of the Island came first, with a special treat since the Curator, Ruth Pelletier was our guide on that busy day (she told me later that the last two weekends of the Museum were perhaps the busiest they had every witnessed with hundreds and hundreds of people coming through; and if in fact, there had been that type of support from the public beforehand, the Museum might have gone down a different path). The groups were kept small to allow for everyone to see and hear without crowding in some of the tighter areas of the tour.

With about 20 people ranging in age from small children to those who lived in Florida long before the Island was accessible to the public at all, we set out on our adventure to the US Coast Guard Station. The station was fully operational from 1936 to 1996 and was also the home to three very cool cats – literally. “Jack”, “Jackie” and “Marilyn” lived on the island and were quite friendly to visitors and staff alike. The old photographs, nautical artifacts and depth of history living in the walls was fascinating.

The wooden floors did not creak as expected, and the group was respectfully quiet as our guide gave more information than I could ever keep in short-term memory. I wish I had brought a notebook and not just a camera, but with an 8-yr old that can be a little tricky to juggle without incident. The smell of the Station was salty and old but comforting. The displays commanded respect while remaining welcoming, and throughout the building were signs bearing information that again, far surpassed my ability to process in only one short visit.

Yes, that is a real cannonball!

After leaving the Station house, we took a lovely and rather short walk to the Kennedy Bunker. This fallout shelter was nothing like I had ever experienced, nor might ever again. Designed as a shelter post-bomb drop for use by the President and staff whenever he was at his winter home, the Bunker begins with a rather imposing door. Once opened, the group walked down a dark declining ramp into the pit. The air was different – thicker and warm. I had no idea that going back in time would be so foreboding.

The shelter itself is precisely that – a sparsely furnished, reinforced hole in the ground. Perhaps the most intense feature is the giant presidential seal in the middle of the space. It is the only official Presidential Seal in the State of Florida. The bunker was also kept true to its originality, save for the emergency exit added into the main room – this is the only way the Museum could gain authorization to have public tours (visible in the background).

The original exit from the bunker was an old ladder going straight up. The cubby leading to this exit was at least 15 degrees hotter than the rest of the shelter, and looking up the shaft is daunting. The walls of the entire were corrugated metal and gave a distinct military feel to a non-service civilian like myself. Voices echoed in the chamber. Walking through a giant metal time capsule, wondering if the world would look the same upon exiting, I could not help but be consumed by self-reflection. One feels small in a place of such astounding preparation. Knowing technology must have affected any modern-day fallout shelters I can only speculate on what they may look like now.

But you may never know, never experience it for yourself. After the fact, I began thinking about other iconic buildings and places and activities available that may some day be lost. Will we always be able to walk to the crown of the Statue of Liberty? Will the Mona Lisa always be on display at the Louvre in Paris? How many animals will go extinct or ecosystems change until they are unrecognizable? Will the rocky edges of the Grand Canyon someday become unstable and the public no longer able to raft that section of the Colorado River or stand on the edge and shout – waiting for an echo that will not come? (Seriously, the Canyon is waaayyyy too vast to hear your echo, sorry for the spoiler. For what is it worth, I still yelled while on the cliff’s edge anyway)

Fortunately, those dedicated to the history protected by the Palm Beach Maritime Museum found another way to share the stories. They found a new partner in the City of West Palm Beach and are currently working on new exhibits – a new museum essentially – located in Currie Park. The Museum may not have the same structure, but the artifacts and passionate staff will be there to guide visitors back in time. No longer locked by a barrier of saltwater, I cannot wait to experience the new Maritime Museum when it opens – expectedly in 2018.

Here are some great places to learn a bit more and watch for progress on the Palm Beach Maritime Museum:

I challenge everyone, myself included, to take the time and enjoy the local treasures. Don’t wait for family or friends to visit from out of town. Don’t assume these wonderful places will always be there, idly waiting for you to drop by when convenient. Anything worth keeping requires education and support. Whether it be protecting history or waterways, reefs or forests, honey bees or family bonds – do not allow the self-disappointment found only by a lack of participation.
Who knows when, if ever, the bunker will re-open to the public

Swim often.

Laugh more.

Hug your family and fur-babies too.