One With Nature

By Mary Beth Erskine



TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 2, 2010) – Across the USF campus, towering cranes poke the sky, thundering trucks rumble the ground, and the skeletons of new construction rise upward.


The Dr. Kiran C. Patel Center for Global Solutions. The Interdisciplinary Science Teaching and Research Facility. The Student Wellness and Nutrition Center. The Music Teaching and Performing Arts Building. These will be sophisticated facilities of concrete and glass featuring all the functional and technical capabilities needed for the innovative teaching and research that will take place within their walls.


Tucked inside the USF Botanical Gardens is another example of new construction on campus, and while it epitomizes sustainability, it is far from a model of contemporary design.


Between the closed canopy of the garden’s oak hammock and its narrow dirt driveway rests a Native American chickee – a modest shelter of cypress logs and thatched palm leaves that offers a glimpse into Florida’s heritage. It’s a structure so simple in design, it is has no walls to keep out heat or mosquitoes. Rather, in Seminole and Miccosukee tradition, its openness is an invitation to step under its roof, uniting all visitors – the occasional gopher tortoise and elementary school children alike – with nature.


USF’s Seminole-style chickee, which means “house” in the Creek and Mikasuki languages spoken by the Seminoles and Miccosukees, is the brainchild of Kim Hutton, the Botanical Gardens conference and events planner for the past fifteen years. She says the chickee’s location in an open area on the well-drained soil of a sandhill ecosystem amongst native pine trees, grasses and ferns is the ideal spot for such a structure.


“This area of the gardens represents a part of Florida that visitors from out of state don’t see that often,” she says, “and they appreciate the native plants that are showcased here. It helps them understand why natural lands are important.”


The 16-by-20-foot chickee serves as an important tool in accomplishing the educational mission of the gardens. “We use the chickee as a teaching facility for many of our workshops and programs,” says Hutton. “Elementary and middle school students, in particular, love sitting in it when they come here as part of their Florida history or environmental science studies.”


Hutton says visiting school groups learn about why the chickee style of architecture was used as a quick-and-easy shelter during the Second and Third Seminole Wars when tribes were frequently on the move to escape U.S. troops. They also hear about the various kinds of chickees that were built for different purposes – cooking, sleeping and eating – and were organized within a camp-type community. She tells them that USF’s chickee would have been used for cooking since it does not have the traditional raised-platform floor.


She doesn’t tell them, though, that while she had been intrigued by the idea of building a chickee in the gardens for years, she almost tossed the idea because she couldn’t find someone to build it.


“I was cleaning out my desk drawer one Friday and was ready to pitch the file with all the research I had done on chickees. But we had a volunteer orientation the next day and I mentioned it. Next thing I know, one of the new volunteers stepped forward.”


That volunteer was Dennis Lindeman, a senior vice president at Raymond James & Associates. “I told Kim that while I was not a skilled carpenter, I had worked on many ranches building barns and doing fence work,” he says, “and if I could find the materials, my son and I would give it a go.”


Using the Internet, Lindeman pulled photos of similar structures from all over the world so he could study pole and palm roof construction, and he built scale models from bamboo. He says that the greatest challenge was finding the perfect cypress poles, but that hurdle was overcome when local lumber company R.J. Nathe & Sons donated and delivered all that was needed.


“Mr. Nathe was incredibly generous and helpful. After receiving my e-mail request with numbers, lengths and diameters of the cypress poles, they were delivered two days later,” says Lindeman. “And if you examine them, they’re beautiful – each and every one. He brought in a second delivery for the roofing and another so I could build the fencing that leads into the chickee.


“If there had been no poles, there would have been no chickee.”


Finding contributors for the fasteners as well as volunteers to cut and haul the 1,100 palm fronds it would take to thatch the chickee rook were the next steps. “We could only handle about 75 to 100 palms at a time due to having to cut, gather, transport and install each set of palms on the same day while they were still green. So that took 10 full days.” Lindeman says his son, Hank, had the most difficult job of all: thatching the endless supply of palm fronds.


It’s been months since the project was completed, but Lindeman says he still gets excited watching anthropology documentaries on television, “seeing the size and detail used on chickees up and down the Amazon, throughout Africa and all over the Asian Pacific.” He’s quick to add, however, that the real satisfaction comes from knowing that school children are using the chickee as a classroom to learn about native Florida plants and Florida’s early history.


“That’s the reward we all got and didn’t really think about while constructing it.”


The chickee is also opening the door to a related initiative at the Botanical Gardens. Hutton, who is a student in USF’s master’s program in biology, is conducting research on medicinal plants used by the Seminole and Creek tribes. She plans to create a garden in the chickee’s sandhill area showcasing native medical plants. The native garden is part of an effort to develop a separate and larger medical plant garden on the grounds featuring plants used by a wider variety of cultures for different treatments.


“The University of Mississippi has donated a number of plants to get us started,” she says citing several examples: Morinda, citrifolia, also known as Noni, which was used by Chinese healers to boost energy and improve the immune system and Ferula assofoetida, also called Devil’s Dung, the world’s smelliest spice, which dates dates back to eighth century B.C. Babylonian gardens where it was used to treat scorpion bites and aid digestion.


Native plants currently found in the Florida medicinal plant garden around the chickee include Persea borbonia, or red bay, which was used by the Seminole Tribe for many treatments such as a laxative, febrifuge, and love medicine and Salix carolinana, a willow the Seminoles used to treat diarrhea and treat skin ailments.


Meanwhile, the chickee continues to be a focal point for the garden’s extensive community outreach, as well as a place of peace and solitude within the oasis of the Botanical Gardens – an opportunity to connect to the faint flutter of palm fronds and the pungent smell of cypress logs.


“The best thing about the chickee is coming out and sitting in it and enjoying what the Seminoles enjoyed,” says Hutton. “Being at one with the surroundings. It’s a wonderful way to enjoy the Florida environment in the same way the people who lived here close to the earth did.”


Photos courtesy of David Lindeman



The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.