Magic Primeval, Part 2

On the eve of its permanent disfigurement, the Miami Circle unleashed its mysterious powers of survival

Carr had heard similar, if less ominous things from other Native Americans, including one of the younger members of the Oklahoma Seminole delegation who had come to the circle with the medicine man. And as far as the Indians and others gathered to defend the site were concerned, cutting the circle out of the rock would be tantamount to destroying it. Carr held much the same view; to him removing the circle from the site surrounding it would diminish its scientific value enormously. And yet that was what he probably was going to have to help someone do unless the county managed to get its act together very quickly on eminent domain. This seemed unlikely. While one major positive development had come out of the first meeting of Merrett Stierheim's task force on February 5 -- Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas had announced that he supported buying the property -- getting the tens of millions of dollars needed for the purchase, convincing the rest of the county commission to go along with the plan, and overcoming the legal problems posed by a hostile buyout all loomed as daunting obstacles. In addition, by calling for county action that would stop a development in the city of Miami, Penelas was stomping down hard on the territorial toes of Joe Carollo, enraging the Miami mayor and stiffening his opposition to the preservation plan. The county would get no help from the city if it tried to force Baumann to sell the land; in fact it might even have to fight the city along with the developer. Considering all this, Carr recognized that the most realistic course was to assume that the circle was going to be removed, and do his best to make sure the delicate job was done right.

That prospect weighed heavily on his mind the night of February 10, as he spoke before an audience of more than 300 people jammed into a University of Miami auditorium. Spilling into the aisles and standing along the walls, the crowd listened to Carr's talk in rapt silence. But when he opened the floor to questions, anger and frustration boiled over. People demanded to know how it was possible that the community could allow such an artifact to be desecrated by power saws and jackhammers. One man claimed to be aware of a treaty protecting the sacred places of indigenous peoples and called for the federal government to step in and enforce international law. And although Carr counseled moderation, a number of speakers pushed for direct action to keep the circle from being cut out, talking of chaining themselves to bulldozers and invoking the spirit of Tiananman Square.

Ironically the man whom Baumann had hired to remove the circle was well acquainted with such actions. Coconut Grove stonemason Josh Billig, recommended by Carr as an expert in working with Miami's fragile oolitic limestone, also was a veteran of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. Billig's activism had been a natural outgrowth of the Grove's then laid-back scene. Twenty-odd years later, Billig still wore his hair in a ponytail and referred to a good day as one when his "moon was in the right place." But he also was a serious and successful businessman whose work could be seen in rock walls surrounding some of the Grove's most expensive real estate. He originally believed cutting out the circle would be an intriguing technical challenge, a difficult surgical job to be performed on a piece of limestone with all the structural integrity of day-old coffeecake. Confident that his plan -- slicing the circle up like a pizza into 20 or 30 pieces -- would succeed, he told Carr and Baumann he could be ready to go right away.

Seminole spiritual leader Bobby C. Billie persuaded stonecutter Josh Billig to leave the circle untouched
Mark Diamond
Seminole spiritual leader Bobby C. Billie persuaded stonecutter Josh Billig to leave the circle untouched
Seminole spiritual leader Bobby C. Billie persuaded stonecutter Josh Billig to leave the circle untouched
Mark Diamond
Seminole spiritual leader Bobby C. Billie persuaded stonecutter Josh Billig to leave the circle untouched

The news that Billig had agreed to remove the circle appeared in the Heraldon Saturday, February 13, 1999. That morning, the stonemason's phone started ringing, and it didn't stop. "People really were very dedicated to the cause, and they called me and would spend like 45 minutes pleading with me on the phone and giving me their best arguments," he remembers. "They got me thinking more." That night Billig and his wife, Michelle, went out to celebrate his 41st birthday and Valentine's Day. "We were having dinner at the Big Fish, which is only a few hundred yards up the river," he recalls. "During that time somebody from the Herald called and asked if I knew anything about this backhoe that had been delivered to the site." Billig didn't, and the question aroused his curiosity, because he was supposed to be supplying all the equipment for the circle's removal. "Because we were so close, Michelle and I just decided to walk over there and look," he says. "I thought, Somebody's getting anxious. Let's see what's going on."

When the two arrived at the mouth of the river, they were surprised to see a large crowd gathered, even though it was after 10:00 p.m. The Brickell Avenue Bridge was full of protesters carrying candles, and near the top Billig spotted one person he recognized: Bobby Billie, whom he'd seen on public television speaking before the county commission. "I thought, of all the people going up there [at the commission meeting], he was the only one who was not bullshitting around," Billig says. "He was very clear and to the point with his choice of words, and I thought then, There's somebody I ought to talk to." Now Billig was only a few hundred feet from Billie. "I worked my way up the bridge, and my wife -- she knew I was really itching to talk to him -- kind of deflected everybody for me, like a linebacker, but in a nice way," Billig remembers. "We had like five minutes to speak, and he told me to just wash my hands of it, to just not do it. If somebody else would do it, let them, but I shouldn't do it."

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