Down a narrow dusty driveway along the Tiger Creek Preserve in Lake Wales rests a primitive cabin framed in an old Florida landscape. This cabin belongs to conservationist, philanthropist, and subject for an upcoming art exhibit, “Sticky” Steve Morrison.
“Why don’t I walk you around a little bit before we sit down and talk, and you can get a feel for the environment here – how I’m embedded in this place,” said Sticky after we exchanged introductions and pleasantries. We were invited to interview Sticky by filmmaker, artist, and organizer of the Sticky Steve Exhibit, Paul O’Neill. The documentarian known for his Eye for Art mini-doc series and celebrated mixed media artwork, set up his equipment to film our interview as Sticky gave us the grand tour.
“This is the Tiger Creek Ecosystem,” he began.
We walked down a steep decline to the creek. It was as if time stopped. It was quiet, it was still, it was calm. “I’m on the edge of this amazing place and that’s something that I’m really grateful for,” he said with reverence. Morrison explained that the creek starts up by Highway 60, flowing about six to eight miles through the woods into Lake Walk-In-Water. From there, it travels to another four or five other lakes before it reaches Lake Kissimmee which sends it off through the Kissimmee Canal into Lake Okeechobee. It flows into the Everglades, running off eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. You could realistically leave in a canoe from Morrison’s Tiger Creek home and go all the way to the Gulf – something he plans to do one day.
“We’re part of this amazing connection of the southern half of Florida,” he said. “The water from here helps provide nutrients and water for the Everglades.” The water is considered to be a blackwater stream according to Morrison. This designation comes from the rainy season when the water fills up the swamp and leaves and debris steep in the water creating a dark tea. At the end of the rainy season during the summer, the water is jet black due to the tannic acid in the leaves. During the winter, the water recedes and flows down the channel. Without the rainy season levels of tannic acid, the water turns a warm orange color and is almost crystal clear by mid-Spring.
This winter color is one theory he has for the area’s name. The orange-tinged water wrapped in bands of tree and foliage shadows resembles the markings of a tiger – especially when the water ripples and kicks up sediment and muck from the creek floor, said Sticky. Another theory is that early settlers of the area simply didn’t know what a tiger looked like, mistakenly calling panthers (which the area was known to have) tigers and bobcats, little tigers.
Regardless of the creek’s name origins, this wildland is a sanctuary to Sticky. Back up the incline, we made our way to his cook shack which used to be the kitchen for the house. They had a wood cookstove, he explained. The original residents cooked outside because it was too hot to do it in the house most of the year. He remodeled the primitive cooking area as an outdoor kitchen of sorts.
Adjacent the kitchen was a washroom and outhouse with an inviting claw foot tub completely open to the elements, begging for a bath under the stars. “I call this a Polk County Jacuzzi,” he laughed. The washroom and outhouse were complete with solar hot water and a composting outhouse made cozy by artwork, novelties, and other sentimental items with a large picture window capturing the wilderness. Sticky lives simply. He doesn’t have air conditioning or electricity and indulges in minimal modern electronic conveniences.
His father found the cabin in the 1960s and started fixing it up in the 70s. “We were on an exploration to see where Tiger Creek was because we’d heard about it but had never been to it,” said Morrison. “We stumbled upon this cabin which was abandoned, and Dad fell in love with Tiger Creek and this entire area.” His father contacted the owner and eventually purchased the property from the family.
“It was dilapidated and basically unlivable when I moved in. I had to fix it up quite a lot,” he said. Sticky put in new floors made from pine wood recovered from Hurricane Charlie and built the cabinets and shelves in his kitchen. His love of music was present in the guest bedroom where a row of string instruments hung decoratively on the wall. On the adjacent wall hung his old Boy Scout merit badges. Nature and music revealed themselves to be a central theme in Sticky’s life. A man with many hats quite literally, Sticky showed us his collection that he hangs from the ceiling for easy retrieval. His favorite was a worn leather piece that belonged to his dad. Another was made from a gourd, and a funny mid-century tourist hat that came with built-in “glasses.”
We made our way to the back porch which doubles as a dining room with an open window through to the kitchen. It was surrounded by preserve. His cabin was the epitome of home – a respite. We paused to listen to the nothingness. It was gorgeously absent of distractions. At that moment, I felt embedded there too.
Tied to the Land
Morrison’s family comes from the Midwest. They moved to New York City so his dad could work for the National Audubon Society in the 1950s. The family eventually moved to Florida when Morrison’s father obtained the position as the Director for Bok Tower Gardens. He was the second director of the gardens and worked there for 25 years.
Morrison came back to Lake Wales after graduating with a fine arts degree from Florida State University in 1972. He worked for a few years with the Polk County School System. “Then I got into beekeeping and a lot of other back to the land endeavors,” he said. “I had chickens and goats and ducks and a garden and lived really close to the land.” He acquired more and more beehives and became a commercial beekeeper in the 1980s, which he did for ten years. This is where his Sticky nickname, well, stuck.
Sticky is well-known for his conservation work on the Ridge. The Nature Conservancy purchased the land adjacent to his and needed someone to manage the property. They contacted Morrison. “They wanted to hire someone like a warden,” he said. “I didn’t think that fit with my personality.” They kept coming back. “I eventually told them if we could change the job from being a warden to being a caretaker, I’ll do it.” Sticky started working as the caretaker for the Tiger Creek Preserve 15 hours a week for $5 an hour. This initial part-time gig turned out to be a life-changing experience for Morrison. At the time, the Lake Wales Ridge was being discovered as an important area for biodiversity. Scientists swarmed the Ridge to observe and monitor the ecosystem, and Morrison had the opportunity to show them the preserve.
“All of a sudden I realized that in my backyard was this incredible world of nature that had worldwide significance because of the rareness of the species here […],” he said. “I started tagging along with these scientists and my 15 hours a week job ended up becoming an on-the-job education.” He got first-hand training on native plants, wildlife, and the ecology of the area. Morrison eventually became the full-time manager of Tiger Creek Preserve and five other Nature Conservancy preserves on the Ridge, specializing in “prescribed burn” or commonly called a “controlled burn.”
After 30 years in service to the Nature Conservancy, Sticky Steve Morrison retired about a year ago. He feels fortunate to have had, “a career doing something that was really challenging and educational for me and allowed me to share what I was learning with the community around me. I can’t overemphasize how grateful I am for this happening to me.”
A second-generation conservationist, Sticky has an incredibly strong tie to the land. “My parents were part of this wave of concern of the loss of what made Florida special – which was nature,” he said. “I developed my appreciation for nature by being reared by them and being taken to the special places in Florida, seeing first-hand what Florida was really about and observing them fighting to save the best of what was left of Florida.”
As a result, his parents became involved in the Nature Conservancy. “They spearheaded the acquisition of Tiger Creek Preserve,” he said. On more than one occasion during our tour of the property and interview, he referred to himself as being “embedded” in the natural habitat here as if, like the creek trickling past, the pine trees overhead he was an immovable fixture.
Though he has a degree in fine arts, Sticky said, “I’ve transferred my artistic talent into a whole variety of things in my life which don’t involve a canvas or sculpture.” One such creative outlet is music which has been a part of his life since he started playing guitar in high school and later fiddle in college. He became interested in Appalachian music and traditional American music.
He played music for many years with his wife, Sandy Greer Morrison, who passed away in 2014. “She was the main feature artist and I was the sideman, which I was perfectly happy with,” he smiled. Sticky has played with friends he grew up with around Lake Wales for some 45 years with their band Sticky Steve and The Pollinators.
At 24 years old, in 1974, Sticky started a Lake Wales tradition known at The Bass Tournament. “It was for myself and my buddies. It continued on and became more and more popular with the local group of friends and expanded to friends of friends. It’s become this really amazing congregation, a tribe of Polk County people who are all connected in some way or another and have come to look at the Bass Tournament as sort of an annual reunion of the tribe,” he said. “I call it a “fishing optional tournament” because so few people fish.”
He was one of the founding members of Lake Wales Mardi Gras. His krewe, the Loyal Order of Wild Shiners, dubbed him “Exalted Ruler for Life.”
Sandy’s MusicGirl Scholarship
When Morrison’s wife Sandy passed away, he wanted to find something that people could do in memory of her. He began to dream up a music program. “I had the idea of creating a scholarship program here locally,” he said. He planned to use the money to send local girls to a music camp. He partnered with the Lake Wales Arts Council to form the scholarship program, Sandy’s MusicGirl Scholarship. The idea took off. “It has evolved into this amazing program of helping inspire girls to develop music skills and self-esteem,” said Morrison.
The program offers a weeklong music day camp, private lessons, loaned instruments, jam sessions, family music camp-outs, and workshops for girls 6 to 19. Their first camp in 2015 served 19 girls and has grown every year since. Last year they served a total of 70 girls. “It’s become this amazing community-centered program to increase the number of girls and eventually women involved in music,” said Sticky. Seeing the girls develop their music skills and getting to know their families and work with the people who help with the program has been a gift to Sticky. “That’s one thing I’ve found is that the more good, the more love you put out there – the more that comes back to you and that’s been an amazing experience for me.”
“Sandy would have been extremely happy,” he said. An amazing musician, Sandy struggled with her self-esteem. “As good as she was, it was still hard for her to get up on stage,” he said. That inspired the mission for Sandy’s MusicGirl to not solely develop music skills, but also self-esteem and creativity. “I think she would have really liked that part of it,” he said. Sticky says he receives more from the program than he feels is fair. “To see the progress over time of these girls improving not just their music skills but their stage presence and their confidence is just this incredible reward,” he said.
Recently, SMGS had a guitar raffle to raise money for the program. A guitar maker offered to make a custom guitar entirely out of Florida wood. The raffle raised $6,746, of which, a portion will go to extending the camp by two days.
The Sticky Steve Exhibit, 2020
When Paul O’Neill came to Sticky Steve Morrison with the idea to do an exhibit revolving around his likeness, Morrison didn’t know what to think. “I have a little bit of trouble with the idea of having an exhibit be about me,” he said.
O’Neill documented Sticky’s reaction to being the subject of this exhibit which asked artists of varying mediums to create a portrait of Sticky. He first sent O’Neill names of other people in the community he admired and thought would make good subjects for the project. O’Neill wanted Sticky – so he obliged. He has since sat for numerous photographs, portraits, and even had a cast of his face done by a Bok Academy middle school student. Once all of the pieces are collected, the artists and Morrison will come together for one exhibit. Sticky says he likes the idea of bringing these artists together for an evening. “So far I feel like the beneficiary of this project, and I’m learning to adapt to the attention that it’s bringing me,” he said. The exhibit date and time will be announced soon. Fifty artists have committed to the project, including O’Neill himself.
Put Love in, Get More Back
A man who not only lives closely with nature but is himself a part of it – Sticky says he has much to be grateful for. His answer to the question, ‘What are you grateful for?’ was simple but powerful, much like his life, “I’m grateful for the generous universe we live in if we are receptive to it,” he said. “It seems like, when you put out positivity, it comes back to you.”
“It was a surprise to me when I retired that there was this bigger world out there of opportunity,” he went on to say. He encouraged people his age, nearing or already in retirement, “to be open to this generous universe, to participle in it and see what it will give you back that you can be grateful for.” Find something to immerse yourselves in, he urged – something that, “requires you to put love into it and then you’ll get more back.”
Before we left Sticky’s house, with a refreshed perspective on life, gratitude and giving love and positivity to the world – he played us a song, “The Gopher Tortoise Blues.” He strummed the guitar and spun a captivating tale of an old gopher tortoise who’s simply tired of all these critters using his hole. It was a front-row, one-man concert on Tiger Creek, I’ll surely not forget.