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Uneasy homesteaders in the promised land

Published June 4, 2006

We wanted to own a piece of the planet.

In the end, we learned that you can hold title to land, but you can't own it. We learned that fire ants will go to great lengths to defend their nests.

And we learned that you can drive naked over the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

It all started when one of the doctors at my husband's clinic invited us to his country estate in Manatee County. Dr. Roberts (I'll call him that here) and his wife owned 60 acres, on which stood a house, barns and 18 head of beef cattle.

The single-story wood house was built and furnished about 1960. It was farm retro, complete with a one-door refrigerator. After a simple lunch of cold cuts, hard-boiled eggs and iced tea, Dr. Roberts showed us his land.

The cows gathered along the fence when they saw us coming. Mrs. Roberts had given us a baggie filled with sliced apples and carrots, and the cows ate from our hands. We made sure the calf and the more timid animals got extra pieces. My son, who was about 8 at the time, giggled. He'd been to petting zoos before, but being this close to a herd of cattle was a new and exciting experience for him.

As we walked to the barns and other outbuildings, the cows followed, quietly and adorably. Then Dr. Roberts piled us into his 4x4 and drove to the edge of his acreage. We turned and looked. The cows were right behind us. Their big cow faces seemed almost human, the way, when I look at my cat for a long time, I can sense different facial expressions.

That's how we got the let's-buy-land-in-Manatee-

County bug.

Yada yada, we bought 40 acres in Myakka City, which is not a real city at all, just a gas station and general store on Route 70.

The past owners had rented the land to local farmers for pasture. That way they could get an agricultural tax deduction. But we knew the cows were going to be used for beef, and we don't believe in killing animals, so we decided against that.

We decided to let our land "go natural." That meant we would not mow it. My husband somehow thought the land would reforest itself. The trees would flourish, birds would drop seeds to generate new trees, and we'd have 40 wooded acres instead of overgrown pasture land.

Did I tell you we're both from New York City? You know, the place where skinny trees grow out of 3-foot-square plots along the streets?

We were going to build a home on the property. It already had a well and electricity because the last owners had a double-wide. We bought magazines full of home plans. We contacted builders in Manatee County, but none was willing to actually go to the land and look at it.

It was hot in Myakka City, but we drove down to visit our land every few weeks.

Even though the land was fenced, we had to dodge the ubiquitous cow droppings as we walked.

"If we find a cow here, it's ours," I told my husband.

We posted "No Trespassing" signs that I got at Home Depot, just to remind the locals.

In the spring, we decided to plant some fruit trees. We went to a nursery and bought orange, lemon and mango trees. We would let them grow naturally, watered by the rain, with no fertilizer.

My husband and I were busy digging and putting the plants in. My son was bored. He didn't like our land. He sat playing with a shovel nearby, asking when were we going to Olive Garden. We always stopped there on the way home.

"This is your land too," my husband said, but my son didn't care. It was hot, there was nothing to do. He didn't want to get a peanut butter sandwich and a bottle of water from the car. He wanted his friends and his video games.

I looked over at my husband and, for a second, I thought he was dancing. Then I wondered why he was jumping and flailing his arms.

When he screamed and threw down his shovel, I ran over to him. That's when I saw them. Hundreds of fire ants, engorged, red, angry, running up his pants, up his socks and under his pants, along his T-shirt.

Still screaming, he began tearing off his clothes.

My son had accidentally disturbed a nest.

And then, because this is Florida, a patch of clouds that had formed released a sudden downpour. The rain fell straight and hard, and the cool water eased some of the sting.

Now my husband was standing out in this field absolutely naked, rain was pouring on him, and he was covered in red welts. I used the falling rainwater to wash the ants off him with my hands, still in gardening gloves.

We quickly shoved his discarded clothing into plastic garbage bags, tied them up tight to suffocate the ants and stashed them in the trunk of the car. We found a long-sleeved cotton shirt in the car, and my husband tied it around his waist, like a beach sarong.

We abandoned the rest of our trees and our gardening gloves and hightailed it to Myakka City's general store for Benadryl. My husband swallowed six tablets with a long guzzle of water.

I drove home with a drowsy, naked man next to me and a stunned 8-year-old in the back seat. Now, if I could just get over the Skyway without arousing the suspicion of the toll taker.

My husband fell asleep, and my son found four quarters in my wallet. Thankfully, there was no agent standing beside the basket. I threw my quarters in, and we sailed straight home. No Olive Garden tonight. My husband was certainly not dressed for dinner.

A few days later, we called the real estate agent. Clearly, we were not meant to own this land. We sold it to a man who planned to put a double-wide on it and use the land for grazing.

Alice Graves is a writer in St. Petersburg.

[Last modified June 1, 2006, 12:57:32]

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