By Linda Fensler, MS, CEAP
Driving through Umatilla, you might fail to recognize the value this small community brings to markets throughout Central Florida. These markets depend on the city known as “The Gateway to the Forest” to supply their fresh fruits and vegetables.
My mother moved to Central Florida over 25 years ago and has enjoyed the country feel and the fresh produce for many years. She hasn’t seen much change in Umatilla but speaks with fondness of attending their Christmas Parade each year and of canoeing in the Alexandra Springs, just outside the city limits. I remember leaving the state of Georgia and driving through the forest to visit my parents. Reaching Umatilla was like a breath of fresh air … literally!
Located at the edge of the Ocala Forest, Umatilla boasts of a higher oxygen level, promoting a feeling of well-being. This environment is better for growing things, whether you’re talking about plants, animals or people! Hipsters from large cities will be surprised to find a “Farm to Table” lifestyle in Umatilla, Florida.
Julie Rogers, Executive Director for the Chamber of Commerce, in Umatilla, moved here to find a small city, with a focus on outdoor sports. Julie was happy to tell me about the kayaking, paddle boarding, and other outdoor water sports that draw nature lovers to Umatilla. Hikers love the trails, with an abundance of wildlife. And the annual Wild Life Festival brings in Craft Vendors, musicians, wildlife experts and more. This year’s festival takes place on October 19th and runs from 11 am to dark, with a BBQ cook-off at 5:00 pm.
I must admit until I moved to Central Florida myself, I failed to see its value. Al-though my parents lived near Umatilla for over 25 years after leaving Indiana, I never understood the benefits they saw in living near the Ocala Forest. They settled in Central Florida because they appreciated the “Old Florida” feel. They believed it offered a healthier way of living. They went against the grain of their peers, who moved to the coastal cities. They never regretted it. When their friends regularly complained about traffic and the threat of coastal hurricanes, they quietly smiled a knowing smile. Fast forward thirty years and they outlived all of their friends.
So, are people healthier in Umatilla? Researchers at the University of Wisconsin think so. They found that people who lived near trees suffered less anxiety, stress and depression than those who lived in areas with a tree canopy of less than 10%.
Even stronger confirmation of this “healthy factor” comes from the research of Simone Kuehm, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in Berlin. He found a positive association between the coverage of forest and the amygdala integrity of the brain. The amygdala is part of the limbic system that plays a crucial role in processing emotions, including fear and anxiety. And we know that persistent anxiety can lead to depression. So, yes, perhaps people are healthier in Umatilla!
Umatilla is a farming community. Many of the restaurants serve local food. You will find more “ma and pa” restaurants than fast-food, drive-through, chains. I discovered that eating a wide variety of homecooked meals is never a problem in Umatilla.
As I continued to walk the downtown streets, I saw a familiar sight. I saw a three-tiered fountain. It was a smaller scale than my distant memory. When I remembered why it seemed familiar I chuckled to myself and thought, “It reminds me of a mini version of the Fountain in Chicago; the one in Grant Park. I found myself smiling again and thought, “the cities in our country are so similar, despite the scope of size and population. We all seem to appreciate the same things; we’re all looking for a place that gives us that cozy feeling of belonging.
As I continued to explore the surrounding areas of Umatilla, an old memory appeared from my childhood. I remembered getting into my Aunt’s fishing boat and finding an old, perfectly worn, fishing jacket from the year before. It was a good memory. In retrospect, I under-stand why my parents lived near Umatilla. Walking the streets of Umatilla will be a good memory. Thirty years later, I must admit that my parents were right! Central Florida is the place to be!