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Saving the sacred night
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[Times photos: Kevin Sullivan]
"Let's keep Myakka City Myakka City and not let it become Miami," Melissa Sue Brewer tells friends. This time exposure shot shows stars streaking the sky over the town, but Brewer In her community, folks can still enjoy the stars. But she worries about approaching development.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 2000


No Light, but rather darkness visible.

-- John Milton, Paradise Lost

* * *

"We like the dark in Myakka City,'' says Melissa Sue Brewer. In her tiny town, folks can still see the stars from their front porches, and she wants to keep it that way.

MYAKKA CITY -- Try an experiment tonight. Wander outside and aim your nose at the heavens.

If you like stars, if you grew up in a dark place where the night sky inspired wonder, crowded coastal Florida is something like a paradise lost.

Maybe a street lamp blocks your view of the constellation Leo, or your neighbor's porch light blinds you to the Milky Way. Comets? Maybe the Space Telescope will post cool photos on the Internet.

Away from coastal Florida, away from big cities and light pollution, the sky puts on a grand show.

"Looky here," Melissa Sue Brewer says, stabbing air with a glowing cigarette on a summer evening, "when it's dark here it's really dark. We like the dark in Myakka City."

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Melissa Sue Brewer, the grand dame of the night, stands in front of her favorite shielded light pole, the one on Verna Bethany Road near Classie Farms.
Brewer, blond and tan at 50, has been a conscientious cop, a compassionate nurse, a tireless tree planter, an ardent bird watcher and a burr under bureaucratic saddles.

Now, in what might seem like a hopelessly quixotic gesture, she is rallying neighbors and arranging sit-downs with bureaucratic big shots she hopes will help her ward off the lights that come with the progress marching inexorably toward Myakka City.

Brewer wants dark skies for reasons beyond just enjoying the stars, which, by the way, can be spectacular here in eastern Manatee County. She is convinced that for quality rest, her precious birds and foxes and snakes need a black night.

Then there's the innocence factor. She wants her community to stay a community, a town with old-fashioned front porches where lovers can rock together on the swing, gaze into each other's eyes and admire a starlit black sky.

"We're not against progress in Myakka City," Brewer says in her fried catfish accent. "But goldang, why can't you have stars and have progress?"

There's one more reason Melissa Sue Brewer wants to keep the skies dark. For more than a decade she grew sad and afraid after dusk, a natural consequence of what happened to someone she admired a long time ago, in the deep woods, on a dark night.

"A bad man took the dark away from me," Brewer says. "Myakka City gave it back."

'The people are coming'

Myakka City has no traffic light, unless you count the blinking beacon at State Road 70 and Wauchula Road. It has a convenience store and a restaurant and a place to buy feed. It has a medical clinic but no hospital. It has a fire station and a school but no library. It has churches and tomato fields and sod farms.

But mostly Myakka City has pastures and orange trees and maybe a thousand or so folks spread far and wide, in fine ranch homes, tin-roofed Cracker houses and dilapidated trailers.

Brewer moved here from Pinellas County in 1996. Her cute white house lies among the palmettos and pines in woods filled with the music of twittering birds. Even with detailed directions, her property is a pain to find.

Park by the back door and be careful exiting the car, in case rattlesnakes are warming themselves on the driveway. Ring the bell and brace yourself for what sounds like the Hound of the Baskervilles. The mighty roar alerts the household that a stranger is about.

Melissa Sue's husband, Phil, creaks open the door. Blackie, their ferocious Lab, tries to lunge past. Phil gets cheese from the fridge and hands it to the visitor, who hands it to Blackie -- with care. Blackie settles down but never stops watching.

Phil, a police sergeant in St. Petersburg, commutes about 100 miles a day. Many folks from Bradenton, Sarasota and St. Petersburg discovered Myakka City in the past decade. If Paul Revere were alive, he'd be yelling "The people are coming."

Melissa Sue and Phil tell their neighbors: "That's right. People are moving in. But looky here. Maybe we can get them to turn off the lights and hang on to the dark and our country life."

After sundown, looking west, they see progress headed their way. They see the bright lights of I-75 15 miles away, and beyond it they see the glow of Bradenton.

Closer to home, the Amoco under construction on the corner is sure to feature that wonderful gas station lighting. The Brewers have a growing galaxy of neighbors who love porch lights and have pole lights next to their garages.

Brewer and her husband know an astronomer in Bradenton who once was arrested for shooting at the street lamp that ruined his view of Mars. Melissa and Phil intend to keep their pistols holstered.

"I'm asking folks to turn their lights out," Melissa Sue says. "I'm asking real nice. I'm hoping it'll be easy peasy."

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Melissa Sue Brewer wants Myakka City to retain old-fashioned values that include looking at stars without too many annoying street lights. Gina Castellanos, 18, and Chris Hamrick, 19, wait for the sun to go down.

A cactus rose

Imagine how your neighbors would respond to such a request. As the Bible said about those unfortunate wretches who were cast into darkness, there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

"Are you nuts?" somebody would ask. Someone would tell you about the great-aunt who got mugged on a dark night. Someone else would wonder what's special about stars.

Maybe it's luck, maybe it's Melissa Sue Brewer's steel magnolia personality, but so far things have been easier peasier than she hoped.

Like a cactus rose, Brewer is prickly yet sweet. She's a sophisticate who visits Manhattan for the theater and an earth mother who would like nothing more than to plant an oak, an intellectual who likes philosophical discussion about new ideas and a conservative with old-fashioned values. She acts soft as a summer dress -- "oh, lamby," she calls people she barely knows -- but she cusses like a saddle-sore cowboy who got caught in the rain.

She avoids alcohol but smokes Carltons as if they were contraband candy cigarettes. She almost never answers the phone -- the news of the murder reached her by phone -- but chats with strangers and friends via the Internet. Or she accosts them in their driveways.

"You know, I never even thought about it," said Daniel Bryan Beachler, who lives on the other side of the woods. After a talk with Brewer, he extinguished his porch light.

Neighbors Polmerine Hamilton, Jack Routsong, Bernard Borgeron, Scott Runge, Pedro Martinez and Carl Blue were persuaded, too.

"Good idea," agreed GinkiMiller, editor of the Myakka City News, which published an item about the splendid advantages of the dark. In the next week more porch lights switched off.

An Air Force brat, Brewer grew up all over the place and was interested in everything, especially literature, especially William Faulkner, he of the stream-of-consciousness prose and Southern Gothic sensibilities. After she and Phil moved to Myakka City, a pair of rare scrub jays built nests in their palmettos; Brewer named them Sartoris and Snopes after Faulkner characters.

But that's getting ahead of the story. As a kid, Brewer considered becoming a nun but discovered rebellion. In college, she studied chemistry and ended up in St. Petersburg inspecting sewers, "where I knew every albino cockroach by name." Then she tried police work. It was noble toil, though she hated the domestic squabbles and calling for a backup only to learn the other cops were busy and she'd have to go it alone with some drunken lout who had just knocked the hell out of his wife.

Eventually she joined the game commission. An animal lover, she became an expert at gutting hunter-slain hogs so scientists could study the remains. She didn't join the wildlife agency for that: What she wanted was to be a game warden, like Peggy Park.

She and Peggy would shoot target practice at Lower Hillsborough Wildlife Management Area and swap tips about strengthening their trigger fingers. Afterward, they would wolf down boiled peanuts and roll their eyes about the good old boys they worked for and policed.

Peggy Park became a regular officer; Melissa Sue Brewer joined the reserves. Peggy's territory was the last real wilderness in Pinellas, a 10,000-acre preserve near the Pasco-Hillsborough line known as Brooker Creek. But Pinellas is so urban she spent most of her time writing traffic tickets on U.S. 19.

Patrolling the woods one night in December 1984, Peggy Park came across two men in a van. Hunting is illegal after dark in Florida. They told her they had no guns, but she found a Luger under the front seat. Peggy asked for the big man's driver's license.

Walking to her patrol car, he smashed a flashlight over her head. She squeezed off a shot but missed. Martin Grossman was 6 feet 4 and weighed 225 pounds. Peggy Park was barely 5 feet 4 and 115. He wrenched her gun away, breaking her fingers.

About an hour later, the phone rang at the Brewer house in St. Petersburg. Phil answered. A colleague told him a wildlife officer was dead at Brooker Creek.

Even now, people ask Melissa Sue Brewer why she moved to Myakka City. She tells them:

"On account of I was tired of having eyes that saw bad boys wherever I looked."

* * *

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

-- Gospel according to St. John.

Looking for allies

She quit law enforcement, went back to school and got a new degree in nursing. She went to work on the AIDS ward at Bayfront and the VA and at private homes. Her husband stayed in police work. They scrimped and saved to buy their land in Myakka City, where the night soundtrack is not provided by sirens, but by hooting owls. She wakes early and puts feed out for the birds, mows 6 acres and plants her oak trees.

Her trees introduced her to crime, Myakka City style. One morning she heard the roar of a helicopter. It was hovering over the pots in which she grows her oaks.

The police wondered if she were growing pot in those pots. Marijuana long has been a lucrative sideline for some people here.

Crime makes Brewer nervous. That's why she values snakes. A big one, coiled fearlessly, sometimes waits in the dark of her driveway. It's the rubber snake she put out to scare would-be burglars.

"Looky here," she says, "folks round these parts are more scared of snakes than the dark."

People here have a healthy fear of the rattlers that lurk in the ocean of palmettos. Pickup trucks go out of their way to run them over. Folks shoot them on sight.

"I like snakes," Brewer says. "People tell me they kill snakes and I want to slap them bald-headed."

She does not despise rattlers even though one bit her on the right shin. She figures snakes have the same right to happiness as she does. She also figures they prefer sleeping in the dark.

Looking for an ally, Brewer contacted a notoriously cranky ornithologist to chat about the needs of scrub jays. Hers, the ones she named after Faulkner characters, visited her for years. Then they up and disappeared. Was it the outside lights of her new neighbors? The scientist pooh-poohed her dark theory. But he also admitted that nobody has studied the impact of light on birds.

Brewer, happy that she planted that bug in at least one scientist's ear, is now planting others. Recently she invited federal wildlife biologists to her home to discuss not only scrub jays but panthers. She and her husband are sure they saw one. Panthers, one might assume, would just as soon not live under a neon billboard.

In some parts of the world, especially near major astronomical observatories, light pollution is an expensive problem. Cities have spent millions of dollars to reduce the glow.

But even non-astronomers resent that they can't go outside and show their kids Betelgeuse, Vega and Rigel. No city kids can admire the neat globular star cluster in Hercules or this year's comet.

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Juel Gill shares a story … and she's got millions … with Melissa Sue Brewer's husband, Phil, at the United Methodist Church Fellowship barbecue dinner.
Star-hungry people aren't mounting a national campaign. If they do, Melissa Sue Brewer wants to be on the board.

She knows other folks who would join. They will speak in soft Southern accents, eat grits for dinner and fried chicken for supper. The cook will be Juel Gill.

At 80, Juel Gill is Brewer's hero and the matriarch of Myakka City.

Juel Gill has been a farmer and a cowgirl, a waitress and a real estate agent. She was the postmaster and a schoolteacher, writes a column for the Myakka City News and proclaims herself the best fried chicken cook in Myakka City -- even if she isn't eating chicken these days.

"I'm on the hallelujah diet," she says. "I'm eating fruits and vegetables like they did in the Garden of Eden."

A road is named after her, though she puts on no airs about it.

After all, there's also a Knucklehead Boulevard only a country mile away.

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Knucklehead Boulevard: It's just down a gravel lane from another famous road, the one named for Juel Gill, who has lived nearly 80 years in Myakka City.

The big meeting

What was Florida like before all the bright lights? Juel Gill has told Melissa Sue Brewer all about it.

Her mama, a schoolteacher, rode a horse. Her daddy, a Baptist preacher, got a Model-T. Juel learned to drive when she was 13.

Sometimes she rode the range on a horse and carried a rifle. She remembers when people first put screens on windows. She remembers being invited to a pot-luck supper where manatee was in the pot.

She spent a teenage winter working as a South Florida waitress and bought the first electrified iron she laid eyes on. Alas, there was no place to plug it in at Myakka City, which finally got that modern convenience just before World War II.

Now every Friday morning she throws her little three-legged mutt, Buttons, into the back of an ancient Chevy with 180,000 miles on the odometer. It's her day to deliver Meals on Wheels. Maybe she'll get a chance to promote dark skies, too. People listen to her; she has known some folks since they were in diapers.

"People who have just moved here from the city, they're scared of the dark," Juel says. "It takes 'em awhile to get comfortable with it."

Juel squints; something is wrong with one eye. But she sees better with one than most people with two. At night she sees the stars just fine. Even in the rain she keeps her car mostly on the road.

"When I get to the age when I can't drive, they might as well dig a hole and put me in," she declares. "I'll make a lot of lives miserable."

She outlived one husband and divorced another. Her kin grew up fine. They went away, saw the world, returned to Myakka City. Now they're fighting for the dark, too.

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Cassy Hildebrand, 7, heads the line of children waiting for snacks at the Myakka City Community Center canteen after an afternoon of play.
Her son-in-law, retired engineer John J. Miller, thinks keeping out the lights is a good idea. He was at the big meeting Melissa Sue Brewer called two months ago.

Brewer invited big shots from Manatee County, from the Sheriff's Office and from the Peace River Electric Cooperative.

"They think we're all hayseeds out here, with straw between our teeth," Brewer says. "I am sure they thought I was the lady of the corn."

They learned different; she was as serious as a bad case of ringworm. A sheriff's deputy told the group that when it comes to crime, bright lights aren't all they're cracked up to be. In fact, in a dark place, lights often show burglars where to go. Nervous folks are better off with motion-detection lights; at least they go off after a while.

A county commissioner, Jonathan Bruce -- "He's my lamby," Brewer says -- said he was all for dark places. He tried in vain to stop the new Hess gas station near the interstate from installing stadium caliber lighting, which is visible for miles.

William Mulcay of the power company was cooperative, too. A missionary's son, he grew up in Africa and in rural Florida and remembers what the skies were like. He told Brewer he would make shielded lights available to anyone in Myakka City who asks.

"We haven't gotten that many requests in the past, but maybe we will now," he says.

Brewer told him the shielded lights he's offering are no good at all. One neighbor, Arvind Rawana, got a shield, but it didn't do the trick. His light still intrudes on Brewer's dark.

Brewer told Mulcay that she had researched the subject of shielded lights on the Internet and found out where he could buy better shield lights, in bulk, for a good price.

"That's the carrot on the string," she says. "If the power company doesn't provide better shielded lights, some people will request the power company to disconnect the light poles they have. That would be expensive."

She pauses.

"Myakka City isn't going to roll over and play dead."

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The Myakka City Grocery is the place to go for vittles and society. Customer Linda Werlein shops for both.

Dark nights of the soul

At night, if you want society, the Myakka City Grocery on State Road 70 is the place to go. Teenagers in cowboy hats park their pickup trucks and play hip-hop over radios; their barefoot girlfriends sashay in for Pepsi and pork rinds.

The only place within 25 miles to buy serious vittles, the store is always busy; residents call it Downtown Myakka City. Some folks just hang out, some go to admire the stuffed animal heads on the wall and some to read the notices taped to the window. Recently somebody put one up about a lost puppy. There was a note about a gospel show. But nothing about keeping Myakka City in the dark.

Linda Werlein stands outside the store wearing a cowboy hat and a scowl. "Who needs lights," she growls. "People here are armed to the teeth."

Cleaning closets one afternoon, Melissa Sue Brewer found the old photo that reminded her that the world is a violent place, a photo of her old game commission friends. It flooded her with memories: Peggy's little hands, her broken fingers, the bloody handprints inside the patrol vehicle, her shattered skull.

"Her cute little selfy."

Martin Grossman has been on death row for 16 years. Brewer thinks of him often. She wrote him in prison.

"Because I never looked the monster in the eye," is her reason. "Looked him in the eye at the trial, yes sir, did that. But hid the part about how sadness can eat your soul."

She says she wrote him about the dark nights of her soul. Months passed. One day she opened her mail and found his Christmas card. That was their last correspondence.

In Florida, condemned prisoners have the option of choosing lethal injection or the chair. Brewer hopes Grossman chooses electricity; she'd like to throw the switch.

"I'll flick it on and off a few times."

Her enthusiastic switching might cause a power outage and put out the lights for miles.

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Farmworkers play basketball at dusk at the Myakka City Community Center. If Brewer gets her way, the electric company will put a shield on the light, focusing its beam at the ground and away from the sky.

One with the universe

Melissa Sue Brewer hates to hurt mosquitoes. She never slaps them; that would be killing. She fans them away.

"It's not a good day unless I'm bitten at least once," she says. In the summer mosquitoes accompany the dark skies of Myakka City. Even biting things make her philosophical.

"You a creationist?" she asks from her pitch-black driveway. She's science minded, but she also likes provocative talk about how the universe was formed. Did life originate out of thin air? Was there a mysterious Big Bang, an explosion of star stuff that got everything going?

Did God create the universe? If there is a God, is he or she responsible for everything good, from the awesome bowl of stars and the sassy scrub jays to the rambunctious foxes that show up in the garden at dusk? If God is responsible for good, what about evil, like the evil that happened to Peggy Park so long ago on another dark night?

The heavens answer those questions the only way they can.

The constellation Scorpius shows starkly against the southern sky. The Big Dipper is prominent and bright; Virgo is rising, Hercules blinks down from the zenith.

* * *

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[Photo: Defense Meteorological Satellite Program]
This satellite image shows fields of light spilling across Florida at night.
For more information about light pollution, check the International Dark-Sky Association's Web site at http://www.darksky.org. The Bishop Planetarium, at 201 10th St. W, Bradenton, is showing a light pollution documentary, Saving the Night, along with its usual programs. For information, call (941) 746-4132.

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