The Sage of Biscayne Bay


 If it hadn’t been for a Memorial Day trip to the middle Texas coast and the discovery of a slightly misplaced pair of purple snails, I never would have heard of Charles Torrey Simpson. The story of finding and identifying the shells can be found in my blog The Surprise of Tiny Purple Things, where Simpson makes an appearance as an obsessive shell collector and witness to a huge influx of purple snails onto a Key West beach. But Simpson’s story is more complex, far more intriguing and certainly more relevant to contemporary concerns about preservation of the natural world than I could have imagined when I first read about his exploits.

Charles Torry Simpson was as respected in his field and well-known around Florida as John Muir ever was in California. But Muir’s name and reputation grew and became familiar throughout the country, while Simpson gradually faded, like an early morning mist in the Everglades he loved. “Most people don’t have the foggiest idea who Simpson was,” says Rick Ferrer, of the Miami-Dade County Office of Historic Preservation. “He’s sort of an unsung hero.”

Born in 1846, in Tiskilwa, Illinois, Simpson started collecting shells as a child. Encouraged by his mother, he continued collecting well into adulthood and by the 1880s was a well-known conchologist – an expert on various species of shelled animals. He wasn’t well educated and he wasn’t an academician. He was an asute observer with a love of detail, and by 1889, he could identify nearly 10,000 shells by sight, and give their Latin names. With barely a high school education, he was hired by the Smithsonian to help catalogue their collection, and began to connect with other collectors and specialists.

After quite literally falling in love with Florida, and moving there in 1905, Simpson wrote four important books about nature in South Florida: Ornamental Gardening in Florida, In Lower Florida Wilds, Out Doors in Florida, and Florida Wild Life. In 1923, at the age of 77, he received the Meyer Medal in botany, and The University of Miami gave him an honorary Doctorate of Science degree in 1927, the first awarded by the university. By that time, he was known quite commonly as “The Sage of Biscayne Bay”, and acknowledged as a legitimate researcher as well as a bit of an eccentric.

When he finally settled in Lemon City, a few miles north of Miami on Biscayne Bay, Simpson built his own home, using the carpentry skills that had supported his shell collecting habit for a few years. The landscaping was gorgeous, and the home, raised on stilts with galleries all around, apparently was quite a subject for conversation. There were two tall Caribbean pines at the front of the property, and the trees gave the estate its name: The Sentinels. Simpson loved the property as much as he loved the state, and made it a center for naturalists and those who would be known today as environmentalists.

The first meetings to discuss preservation of the Everglades were held at The Sentinels, as were intense explorations of the wisdom of incorporating exotic flora into the ecological systems of the state. According to Antolin G. Carbonell, a resident of Dade County who studied Simpson extensively, “You could say the whole environmentalist movement in South Florida began with him,” Michael Browning of the Palm Beach Post agrees. In his July 30, 2006 review of Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp, which he describes as “a brilliant work of research and reportage about the evolution of a reviled bog into America’s — if not the world’s — most valuable wetland”, Browning calls Simpson “a saint”. Like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a former Miami Herald reporter who penned the classic Everglades: River of Grass in 1947, Simpson cannot be ignored. Browing suggests that “Douglas poses a figure much like that of Faulkner for Southern novelists: you can go around them or go through them, but one way or another you have to reckon with the crusty old warhorses.” The same can be said for Simpson.

Prior to moving to Florida, Simpson produced (1887-1889) the first effective Florida Keys checklist by including a separate column in his tabulation of Florida mollusks. This included 98 bivalve species names, 86 of which still are recognized as valid. Between 1910-1916, he joined John B. Henderson Jr.’s dredging expeditions off the Florida Keys. The annual cruises aboard Henderson’s motor yacht Eolis sound like a Parrothead’s dream, or a lost chapter from one of John MacDonald’s novels: Key Largo, Tavernier Key, Indian Key, Key Vaca, Hawk’s Channel, Sand Key Light, Key West, Loggerhead, Garden Key, Dry Tortugas – all were rich shelling grounds. By dredging or hand collecting, Henderson and his crew deposited tens of thousands of specimens into the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) collection, and contributed immeasurably to our understanding of that world.

Florida is more than mollusks, of course, and Simpson loved it all, especially the hardwood and palm hammocks. Non-Floridians may think of hammocks as those cozy woven things that swing on the sterns of boats or between tropical palms, but this picture of Simpson with his journal was taken in his “hammock” at the Sentinels, and it shows something quite different.

The Floridians will laugh, but in all my years I never have heard the word “hammock” used to mean anything more than a woven swing. Apparently the word was used by early inhabitants of the area to mean a cool and shady place. (In Texas, we have “motts”.) Later settlers of Florida used the word “hummock” to indicate areas that were slightly higher in elevation from the rest of the land. Today, “hammock” is used to describe forest habitats that are typically higher in elevation than surrounding areas and characterized by hardwood forests, broad-leaved evergreens and tropical plants. Tropical hardwood hammocks occur in south Florida and along the Florida coastlines where danger from frost is rare and tropical trees and shrubs common to the Caribbean islands are able to survive.

Between explorations and collecting forays, Simpson loved to be at home in his beloved corner of the world. Describing his retreat, he could become lyrical:

There were two magnificent Caribbean pines in front of the house, eighty feet high and in the full glory of robust life. I called them the Sentinels, and from them I named my house. I felt they would watch over and guard me and mine. But the glory of the place was a couple of acres of fine young hammock that lay within a few rods of my door containing a large variety of mostly tropical growth, a thing of joy and inspiration. Year in and year out its greenery, its peace and quiet have appealed to me and from it I have learned some of the most important lessons of my life.

I know of no greater pleasure than that of a naturalist or collector, in the woods, the swamps, along the streams of upon the open seashore. I pity those whose entire life and energies are devoted to money making, who have never revelled in the beauty and freedom of the great out-of-doors. Here is opened wide the great book of nature, the gleaming page filled with wonders. Here, too, is health, peace and contentment, and a new life for the soul cloyed with the artificialities of an overstimulated civilization.

Until I found the purple shells that led me to Simpson and his experience with Janthina janthina on that Key West beach, I knew nothing of conchologists, or hammocks, or Marjory Douglas and her “river of grass”. But like Simpson, I know a bit about the artificialities of an overstimulated civilization, and the ability of the natural world to counteract its effects on the human soul. Like John Muir, Roger Tory Peterson, John Burroughs, Loren Eiseley, and all the other collectors, observers, cataloguers and explorers through the American centuries, Charles Torrey Simpson still stands: a sentinel to guard against forgetfulness of the beauty and freedom we are called to preserve. Rick Ferrer was right. He’s “sort of an unsung hero.”

COMMENTS are welcome.  To read previous comments or post one of your own, please click on the tiny “Comments” link below.  Eventually, I’ll learn CSS and revise the template, but this note will have to do for the time being.

One thought on “The Sage of Biscayne Bay

  1. Thanks for the info on Simpson. I think he might be very distressd if he saw today’s Florida. Came back from the road trip to NC by way of Florida, and dropped down to Port St. Joe and came up the gulf coast. I couldn’t even find the marina where Bligh, Bligh Jr, and I found the Pearson Gemini in Panama City.

    Hi, Barb,

    Had an interesting discussion on the other site with a fellow in the Carolinas. Part of George Mitchell’s family is over there doing the same thing with an area they did in the Woodlands. Even though the in-your-face commercialization is covered with an attractive veneer, we agreed it’s the “boardwalk-i-zation” of the world. One of these days folks will come down here to ride the coaster, eat high-end franchise food and say to one another, “Don’t I remember hearing that this place had something to do with fishing or whatever?” Portofino will have been filled in and made into a parking lot for everyone coming down to get on a StarFleet boat. They’ll dance to who-knows-what on the upper deck for two hours while they putt down the channel, and then go home and talk about what fun it is to be on the water….

    Now, just how grumpy is that for 6:30 in the morning? Here’s a cheerful “welcome home”, and a suggestion we enjoy what’s left before they pave the rest of it over!


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