At Home in the Wild

Photography by Jason Stephens

At a young age, Cody O’Gorman was surrounded by influencers who instilled in him an appreciation for the outdoors. Today, this passion is evident in both his personal and professional endeavors as he aims to conserve the beauty of our land.

In the early morning hours, well before sunlight has begun creeping across the horizon, Cody O’Gorman is already up and preparing to start his day. Most mornings, O’Gorman moves quietly throughout his South Lakeland home so as not to stir his wife, Sabrina, or his dog, Beau, on his way out the door. Where exactly O’Gorman might be headed and what he’ll be doing is a matter of day and time, but you can be sure it’s not a climate- controlled cubicle. He’s not built that way. No, his calloused hands and tanned skin tell of a person made for the soil and sun. His slight Southern accent, impeccable manners, and cup of sweet tea on the table in front of us tell of a person who has lived most of his life under the Lakeland sky.

O’Gorman spent much of his youth outdoors. His mom, Shannan, works for Polk County Public Schools. She would often enlist O’Gorman to help her with school beautification projects.

“Growing up, I remember going with my mom to a bunch of different nurseries, loading up her vehicle with all sorts of different plants, and taking them over to whatever school she was working on at the time,” O’Gorman laughs as he thinks back on those summers spent doing landscaping projects with his mom. “It’s funny because as a kid you’re like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to be doing this! It’s my summer break!’ But now when I drive around town and pass by one of her old schools and see some of the plants we planted still growing and thriving, it definitely gives me a sense of pride and satisfaction.”

While O’Gorman’s mother cultivated his passion for plants and landscaping, his grandfather was the one who gave him a love for the water. “My grandfather was the one who introduced me to fishing and being out on the water. Looking back, it seems like he took me out fishing every weekend. Whenever we were on the boat, he would always be teaching me about the different species of plants and wildlife. He was also really good about explaining to me the importance of the different rules and regulations when it comes to fishing and wildlife preservation. That’s where my love and appreciation for the outdoors and for being out on the water really began.”

(Pictured Above): Cody O’Gorman with his wife, Sabrina, and their German Shorthaired Pointer, Beau

Now in his early 30s, the effects of O’Gorman’s time spent planting and fishing as a kid are undeniable. If you were to look up Cody O’Gorman on Instagram, you would find his feed dominated almost exclusively by pictures of scenic landscapes, somewhere he and Sabrina are off exploring, and videos of his dog, Beau, a four-year-old German Shorthaired Pointer (who Cody tucks into bed on the couch every night) staring off the edge of his airboat.

While some couples might enjoy date days eating at food trucks in Tampa or exploring the outlets in Orlando, the O’Gormans often prefer to hitch the boat trailer to the back of Cody’s truck and head off towards the lake. “For Sabrina and [me], it’s not this thing where I like to go out on the boat and I either have to talk her into going out with me or she’s always trying to get me to do something else. We really enjoy that time together and try to block out as much of it as we can, especially when the weather’s really nice.” He laughs, “Sabrina definitely prefers it when the weather’s nice.” However, O’Gorman’s affinity for the outdoors extends well beyond his free time.

He works for the City of Lakeland in the Lakes and Stormwater Division. He and his team are tasked with monitoring the health and quality of the city’s waterways, facilitating the removal of harmful plant life, and educating people about how the water system works and how to better care for our environment. The Lakes and Stormwater team even has a mascot, Toby the Turtle, as a part of their environmental education initiative, “Toby’s Water Warriors.” O’Gorman and his team hope educational tools like Toby can begin to instill an awareness and appreciation for the city’s ecosystem in the next generation of Lakelanders.

At the same time, he and his team are constantly at work managing the present-
day issues the lakes are facing. “Our goal is to allow the lakes to exist as naturally as possible. Unfortunately, here in Florida, we face a lot of invasive species. Plants and animals that aren’t native to the ecosystem can have devastating impacts on our lake system,” says O’Gorman.

“These lakes are what I care about, they’re where I spend my free time. We take a lot of pride in what we do, and we see the importance in it.”

In October, the team took on a massive project, harvesting an overgrowth of hydrilla plants from Lake Wire. Hydrilla is part of the “Big Three” according to O’Gorman — the other two being water lettuce and water hyacinth. The Big Three are fast-growing aquatic plants that can choke out a lake’s natural aquatic life and create a ripple effect that could take years to reverse. Combating these invasive plants also requires the Lake Management team to stay current on the latest scientific advances. To do so, O’Gorman and his team attend conferences throughout the year to learn the latest tools and techniques from various scientists and water management experts.

The work involved in maintaining Lakeland’s waters is both extensive and intensive, but if you ask O’Gorman, it’s the best job he could ever have. “The people in our field of work care so much about what they’re doing because these habitats are what we’re passionate about. I tell people all the time, ‘Hey, I have the best job in the world!’ These lakes are what I care about, they’re where I spend my free time. We take a lot of pride in what we do, and we see the importance in it.”

 

In addition to taking the boat out fishing and caring for our waterways, O’Gorman is also a bow hunter. To some, this might appear to be contradictory to his caring attitude toward the lake system. O’Gorman, however, would politely disagree. “For myself, and the people I know who hunt, we care deeply about the environment and about the animal populations we’re harvesting — and I say ‘harvesting’ because I’m benefiting from this animal.
Whenever I take the life of an animal, I’m doing so with the utmost care and respect I possibly can, because I love our wildlife and I want to do everything I can to maintain them. My approach is always: if I’m not going to eat the animal, I’m not going to take it. And if I’m going to take it, I’m going to make sure I do so in the most ethically responsible way possible.” To that end, O’Gorman spends hours assembling his arrows by hand and practicing his technique from a deer stand he assembled in the tree in his backyard.

“Our goal is to allow the lakes to exist as naturally as possible. Unfortunately, here in Florida, we face a lot of invasive species. Plants and animals that aren’t native to the ecosystem can have devastating impacts on our lake system.”

O’Gorman understands his life has been shaped by the beautiful habitats so common to Central Florida. They can often go overlooked or taken for granted. Not by him, though. No, Lakeland and all of her lakes and swamps and nature preserves are his home. They raised him, after all, and he’s determined to make sure they’re maintained so many more young kids like him can grow up planting trees with their mom and taking the boat out fishing with their grandpa. In turn, perhaps many more young people will grow up to look at the world and all its creatures with the same care and compassion as O’Gorman.