WHERE THE LITTLE POT SITS: A Search for Truth in Florida
Plato is trapped in the Classical Athens section of the cave, next to his student Aristotle. Regarding the notion of truth, Aristotle says, “To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.” The Sophists collectively roll their eyes. Plato says, “You should not honor men more than truth.” Aquinas, who’s in the neighborhood, smiles and says, “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.”
You and I are in the Florida section of the cave. On the cave wall we see palm trees and beautiful beaches and tall condominiums and a couple of birds wading through a cosmic stretch of swamp. Nightclubs are throbbing. Churches are throbbing. A man is fishing off the edge of a levee and he’s holding a can of beer in his hand.
We try to imagine the outside of the cave, the feeling of real sunlight hitting our eyes. It feels toasty on our faces and shoulders. Have you felt this before? This is truth.
Though everyone knows this feeling of what truth is, the whole of human history has been spent trying to convince each other of how it feels outside the cave. And because of this, arguments ensue. Wars are fought. This is probably because none of us have actually been outside the cave. We all recognize that there’s no leaving the cave, and this fact is depressing. So we fight about it.
But let’s just imagine that you and I are able to leave. We’ve freed ourselves from the bondage of the cave and are sitting at a picnic table under a Chickee hut off of I-75. We’re looking at the stars above the cypresses, just over the horizon. We realize that truth is not only light. It is also the blanket of nighttime. “The moon/ Is at the mast-head and the past is dead,” Wallace Stevens wrote in his Farewell to Florida.
As we sit there, I’m telling you about my attempt to unravel the notion of truth.
I’ve been reading about these different theories, mostly in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and it’s making my head spin. From what I can gather, philosophers and logicians have worried themselves with issues of correspondence, coherence, and deflation for millennia. “If x then y” sorts of statements. The pragmatists seem to have it easy: truth is just what we hold to be true. “Truth is the end of inquiry,” Charles Sanders Peirce said.
It’s widely taught that Ponce de León was the first European to land in Florida, and that he was looking for a fountain of youth. The latter is a straight up lie, the former a likely falsehood. Not contested is the fact that de León was critically injured when Calusa natives resisted his attempt to set up the first Spanish colony in southwest Florida.
A century after de León died in Cuba, Thomas Hobbes wrote, “I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion… that the three angles of a triangle should be equal to two angles of a square; the doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.”
Truth and power are intimate bedfellows; truth is a colonizing assertion. And yet, truth is also the weaponized knowledge of resistance. “Speak truth to power,” the Quaker saying goes.
A frog and cricket chorus crescendos. We’ve been silent for a couple minutes. The sky is turning dark violet as the sun begins its daily climb.
I google “Floridian Philosophers” in the hope of finding some new insight. No names come up, but the fifth result is the Wikipedia page for Psilocybe tampanensis, a species of hallucinogenic mushroom discovered by Steven Pollock, who, the article claims, was bored at some mycology conference in Tampa and decided to wander around in the dunes nearby. Since then, they’ve been popularly sold as “philosopher’s stones.”
You suggest that we get some, but instead we just keep on talking. We talk about how, since the eighteenth century, science has been eking out its place as the ultimate truth teller. Rational thought, the scientific method, objective fact: these were the new pillars of truth. What bestowed power was no longer divinity, but mind and machine. This paradigm helped kindle liberal democracy, and vice versa, but also led to a new form of empire, one that sought expansion, one that desired always to be at the edge of what lay beyond.
By 1812, Florida, still a Spanish territory, had become a refuge for escaped slaves. Natives established shelter and a sort of feudal economic setup for them. This, of course, was unacceptable for Southern plantation owners. In 1818, General Andrew Jackson invaded Florida, thus beginning the expulsion and apartheid of natives and the re-enslavement of black fugitives. Florida became a state in 1821, and was firmly Confederate and mostly a swamp until the Civil War. After that, it would retain much of its Southern ideologies, and a couple of its swamps. Truth, we agree, is an ugly palimpsest.
Day is breaking more fully now. The cool night air is starting to humidify.
The canal water is slowly drifting. We spot a gator nose, which quickly submerges, producing radiating concentric rings in the water. At the turn of the twentieth century, Henry Flagler was, “The man who saw wilderness and out of it created an empire,” wrote Richard Edmonds. Canals, such as this quiet one, redirected the water to make way for a new empire.
I tell you about the time I tried to set up a phone call with Rick Scott, Governor of Florida. I had reached out to the press office and asked if I could get a comment on the Governor’s idea about the nature of truth. The office told me that Scott had answered a similar question that same day, a question by Brenda Medina, a reporter for El Nuevo Herald, during a visit to PortMiami. I reached out to her, and she referred me to the video that the Governor’s office had in mind. It was an investigation carried out by El Nuevo Herald and Univision, titled Nightmare Condos, “an investigation that revealed cases of electoral fraud, document forgery, mismanagement and embezzlement in South Florida condominiums.”
This was strange, since I hadn’t mentioned a single word about condos, or housing, or fraud whatsoever. I reached out again, clarifying that I would like to pose these two questions to the Governor:
1. I’m specifically curious about the Governor’s own standard for truth—how would he define truth?
2. And, if there is an essential truth about Florida itself, what would it be?
I got no response. I didn’t really expect to receive one.So instead, I decided to reach out to Houston Cypress. In Miccosukee, Houston’s name is Yahalétke. Yahalétke tells me that that’s just their current name, since names are replaced throughout one’s life in Miccosukee culture, signifying change and the multitudes within. Yahalétke tells me about their artistic and spiritual practice—they mention mosaic, collage, poetry, and cinema.
I pose the same questions about truth to Yahalétke as I posed to the governor’s office. What is the Miccosukee conception of truth? “I’m reminded of spiritual laws we’ve been given from the beginning of time by the creator, the breathmaker,” they told me. “We have our responsibilities to each other as a community, to the world and the universe as stewards. There are specific practices we must uphold as our own society.”
Truth, this two-spirited reverend artist made clear, is inextricably bound to systems of morality. Yet it is also to be found in the dirt, in the land itself. When I ask about a core truth to Florida itself, Yahalétke has this to say:
“…It’s a place of different kinds of pilgrimage. There used to be a diversity of plant medicines, roots and leafs. If you wanted to get this particular root or shrub, then you’d go along the coast and collect them when it was the right season. We follow our lunar calendar, so we know that we would gather on that sacred ground to have ceremony, or visit these sacred caverns over here, or visit this particular spring, hold ceremony there. A lot of that has been paved over, or destroyed to make way for development, or has been altered in such a way that these springs no longer flow. Some of these places are still accessible, but others are paved over and gone. Those are some things for me; what Florida could be, or what it has been, and what it meant to people in my community.”
The tree island that Houston and their family live on is called “where the little pot sits.” It’s called that because ancient cooking pots were found there. Yahalétke tells me about this island’s history, about shape-shifters, spirit-animals, “people that are unseen but still part of reality.” Yahalétke says it is important to walk in a way that is respectful and knowledgeable.
Perhaps, in the history of truth, there are only two ages: pre-truth, and our current era of post-truth. In pre-truth times, authority and legitimacy were imposed by force—the truth tellers included the state of nature, hegemons and leviathans. Truth was divine and direct, undisputable. Then, under competing claims of social organization, Western science and ideology became the dominant truth tellers. In our post-truth times, evidence loses relevance when data floods the field.
Truth is plural, whether anyone likes it or not.
There’s another quiet moment between us, and the day is fully broken now. We listen as the cars go by.
Rob Goyanes is a writer, editor, and aspiring truth teller.