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Longtime park ranger tells tales of history, natural beauty

Last Updated Oct 19, 2017 at 9:20 pm EST

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After 30 years as a ranger at Jacksonville’s national park, Craig Morris has bucketfuls of good stories to tell, and a natural storyteller’s way of spinning them.

Ask him about the time a kid handed him what he said was a worm, which turned out to be a pygmy rattler, which then bit Morris. Or have him tell you about when a mama alligator treed him, bit his left foot and gobbled up his left shoe (a couple of years later Morris went through much the same thing, though that time it was his right shoe that become lunch).

But the best story he has?

“The best story I’ve got is the exploding possum in the moat,” he says.

That would be the possum, long since expired, that for several days was towed around the moat at Fort Caroline by an alligator named Little Stevie, who liked his meat really rotten.

A photographer wanted a picture of that, and Morris warned her that the decomposing possum was fixing to explode, but she got in close anyway. And sure enough, that’s when it happened.

“She had possum goo all over her. That possum just blew. It was on her camera, her clothes . “

Morris, 56, is lead ranger at the Fort Caroline National Memorial, which includes a scaled-down replica of a fort that was briefly home to a luckless band of 16th-century French settlers. He’s also lead ranger at the Theodore Roosevelt Area, the hiking trails that wind through the still-wild land once owned by Willie Browne, a recluse who lived in a one-room cabin on more than 500 acres. When Browne died he donated the property to the Nature Conservancy.

Both areas are now part of the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, part of the National Park Service. Morris joined the park in 1987, when he was 25 years old.

The park needed someone with some knowledge of the Timucuan Indians who had lived there. University of North Florida archaeologist and professor Robert “Buzz” Thunen, who had Morris as a student, suggested he apply. The park, though, was a little skeptical about the applicant.

“I had been arrested a couple of times, chaining myself to bulldozers to protest the destruction of burial mounds,” Morris says. He explains: That was before federal protections of the Indian burial sites, and he was a pony-tailed, idealistic 20-something with a strong sense that destroying artifacts was dead wrong.

Morris goes on: “The park service asked Dr. Thunen, they said, ‘Is this kid nuts, or can you get control of him?’ Buzz laughed. He said: ‘You put a badge on him, he’ll probably behave.’ “

Fort Caroline is a historical site, and Morris sees his main job as keeping that history alive — telling the stories of the Timucuan Indians who lived there for thousands of years, the French settlers who tried to make a go of it there in the 1560s, and the Spanish who quickly came along to wipe out the impudent French. He tells of the landscape and the plants, how the Timucuans used leaves and berries in rituals and for medicine, how the French quickly set about making thousands of gallons of wine from “little itty-bitty” Muscadine grapes that grew there.

“I love talking about ethnobotany,” he says.

During 30 years, he’s spoken to countless visitors, countless school groups. Some of those schoolchildren now have children of their own, and they sometimes greet Morris when they bring their family to the park: Hey, there’s the old ranger who told us all about this place.

He’s become the face of Fort Caroline, says Thunen, who’s worked with him on several archaeological expeditions there.

“He’s a local storyteller with a sense of the toil and the blood and the sweat that is the part of the history of this area,” Thunen says, “and I think he’s able to communicate that to almost anybody who walks into the park. He doesn’t use fancy words, he doesn’t use jargon. He’s at his best an interpreter, and that interpretation comes from his own lived experience.”

Morris has lifelong ties to the hills and marshes and woods in the Fort Caroline area. He grew up just a few miles away, on Mill Cove, and boated and hiked and adventured all around there. His childhood home was built on an Indian burial mound — something that his family discovered only when young Craig brought human bones to his horrified father.

He met Willie Browne too, the old hermit who gave so much to the park. Morris’ father, James, was a doctor, and he insisted on visiting Willie in his little cabin when he heard he was sick. Craig, who was 7 or 8, went along, and Willie, who was not comfortable with children, tried to gross him out by showing him a human skull, then showing him the outhouse where he did his business.

It didn’t bother Craig, so then Willie decided the kid was OK after all.

In terms of distance, Morris hasn’t gone far. You can almost see his house from the park, and it takes him just a few minutes to drive from there to the fort, to Willie Browne’s protected land or to the park’s granite monument to the French up on St. Johns Bluff.

“He is the monument. That’s our running joke,” says Lewis Prettyman, chief of operations at Fort Caroline. “But that wealth of knowledge — if he ever retires?”

Prettyman shakes his head. That would be hard to replace.

Many national park rangers stay a few years at one place, then move on, for opportunity or adventure. Not Morris. He had opportunities, but it didn’t make economic sense, with a family, to move elsewhere.

He tells of becoming friends with the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Bennett, who led efforts to create the park and who wrote extensively about the French who came there and died there. He told Bennett once how he was considering moving on, going someplace new.

Bennett’s reply? “Don’t. Stay. You’ve got the passion for the story.”

Besides, for Morris, this is home.

“I love the topography,” he says. “The hills, the river, the marshes. They’ve just always been part of me.”

He tells of taking a boat across the river into the vast marshes that stretch toward Nassau County. Turn off the boat engine, he says, and just listen:

“The sound of the wind going through those millions and millions of blades of marsh grass almost has a sound unto itself. And that feeling when you’re out there, like you’re the only one out there.”

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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com