Posted by: floridanature | June 22, 2012

Silver Springs: A Troglodytic Myth, Realized

[The following story captures a moment in time diving in the main cave at the vintage Silver Springs tourist attraction outside of Ocala. In doing so, it retraces my own deep connection with this venerable spring—and intimates how extraordinary natural features like our rare freshwater Florida springs can leave an indelible imprint on the culture and memory of the people who care for the enchantment of our singular natural places here. This narrative essay is  excerpted from my latest book, “Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost & Found in the State of Dreams”]

At the mouth of Mammoth Springs—the main artesian gusher in the historic Florida tourist attraction of Silver Springs—I have only two choices.

The first choice is to go straight up, some 30 feet to the surface, where at this very moment a gaggle of tourists inside a World Famous Glass Bottom Boat is getting a classic theme-park spiel.  Within this reality, the spring beneath them is described as “a bottomless pit”, a dark hole in the earth that mysteriously spouts up millions of gallons of crystal clear water from somewhere deep and unknown.

The second choice is the bottomless pit itself.   It’s accessed by a slender horizontal gash in the limestone bottom—a doorway to a water-filled labyrinth of caverns, caves and tunnels. Like much of Florida geology, the deeper it goes down into the rock, the older the history of the rock will become. There are stories embedded here, some from long ago in geologic time, and some from long ago in my own life. One is told in millions of years; the other in decades.  

Down here, I settle on the sand-covered limestone bottom next to the dark cave mouth, my legs and fins tucked under me. The entrance to Mammoth is about five feet high and over a hundred feet wide, creating the affect of one giant smile, Batman’s Joker incised in the rock. There’s well over a dozen springs between here and the first half mile of the Silver River that seep or gush up from the limestone and dolomite, together creating a flow of 550 million gallons a day. Mammoth accounts for 45 percent of that upwelling, so the force of the water flowing out of its giant smile is mighty indeed.

Although my two choices today seem as if they’re exaggerations of reality,  they frame the very real condition of Florida. Like so much else that is beneath the veneer here in this tourist-happy state, my choices are characterized by vast incongruities between what is promoted and what is actually going on. Melodramatic theme park spin often seems more real to visitors than the true nature of the place itself.  And so, I hope to more fully realize—perhaps even to reconcile—the legends and dreams and real-life experiences that have conspired to bring me  to the bottom of Silver Springs.

Here, I’ll accompany a small team of cave divers exploring the underground plumbing of this famous, powerful spring system. Within this mission, our goals are to watch for unusual troglodytic life forms and rare fossils, to carefully monitor the air in our tanks, and—perhaps most importantly—to time our ascents so the Glass Bottom Boats and the Lost River Voyages on their way to the giraffe and porcupine show don’t run us down.


I have vivid memories of visiting this same Silver Springs as a bright-eyed eight-year-old on a family vacation years ago. We drove the “blue highways” in the pre-Interstate days, back when Mom and Pop motels and Monkey Jungles were far more common than chain hotels and corporate theme parks.

At the Springs, my Dad, Mom, younger brother Jack and I climbed aboard a wooden glass bottom boat that floated over water as clear as our aquarium full of guppies back home.  Beneath us, beach-white sand lay on the limestone walls of the spring basin like snow. We saw bass and bream and a small alligator swimming below us, as if we were watching a science show on television.

We were introduced to individual spring vents variously named the “Bridal Chamber”, “Spring of Fire”, and the “Catfish Hotel.” The set for the Sea Hunt TV series had  been built in one cove, some of it constructed on the spring bottom, and we could still see it there. Rhesus monkeys screeched at us from the jungle-like shore. All that was missing was Tarzan and Boy swinging on the thick muscadine grape vines. And of course, that had happened too, back in the 1930’s when several of those movies were filmed here.

As a sensitive little kid, I was enthralled with all the mysteries and legends woven into Silver Springs..  Where does all this water come from, I wondered—and is the pit really bottomless? I yearned to find out where the darkness beneath the turquoise waters might lead me. At eight, everything unseen or forbidden was a fairyland of possibilities, a place where the imagination could gift you with stories that, otherwise, would go untold.

It was a seminal moment for me, one that later would draw me to scuba diving soon after I moved to Florida as a young adult to live. As a diver and journalist, I went on to travel to some of the most remote sites on earth to report on the local marine environment—the distant islands of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the crater-like “blue holes” in the ocean bottom just north of Cuba, the isolated coastal reefs and cliffs off Panama, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and the sink hole-like cenotes of the Dominican Republic. All those explorations were revealing, rich with adventure and crammed with subsurface images I could barely imagine. My diving partners were marine biologists or archaeologists, all working on one project or another that would help the world learn more about their respective science. The places I visited were unknown to most tourists, sites where the unexpected became almost commonplace for me.

But, it wasn’t until Eric Hutcheson—a friend who was an accomplished cave explorer and cartographer invited me to join him in a mapping expedition to Silver Springs—that I truly became giddy with anticipation. As we geared up for the dive, I realized I was no longer the veteran diver-writer with a portfolio of rare and offbeat experiences underwater, a guy who would try almost anything, at least once. Instead, I was an eight-year-old again. And I was finally getting to go into inside the “bottomless pit.”   

Despite the fact that thousands of tourists still float in glass bottom boats every week atop Silver Springs, the caves that feed one of the world’s most powerful upwellings are what divers call a “virgin system”—largely unexplored or mapped.  Sport divers have long been barred from the spring since they would interfere with the theatrical business of spin making.  And, over the years, various owners felt the danger of even a professional dive expedition created a liability that might outweigh any benefits. A dead or injured diver was problematic on so many levels—not the least of which is that it would be difficult for the World Famous Glass Bottom Boat guides to explain in an entertaining sort of way.

And, there was this:  “This is probably the largest cave-spring on land in the U.S.,” a geologist who had studied the hydrology of the spring told me when I was researching the springs before the dive. “But it’s incredibly difficult to explore since most of the original cave has collapsed, and there’s a diversion maze right beyond the entrance.” A “diversion maze” means the soft limestone has dissolved and buckled over time, creating labyrinthic zig-zag like routes into the rock that are both difficult and dangerous for most divers to pass beyond.

My friend Eric had earned a stellar reputation as an artistic maker of underwater cave maps.  With (the late) explorer and cinematographer Wes Skiles from High Springs, Hutcheson had dived and mapped Nooch Nah Chinh, the extensive underwater system of caves linked by cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatan, as well as a number of Florida spring-cave systems.

Earlier, I had accompanied Skiles and Hutcheson on a survey of Silver Glen Springs in northern Florida. With just Hutcheson, I dove into a chimney-like cave in the side of a remote limestone island in the Bahamas near Man o’ War Cay. When Eric approached the managers of Silver Springs with the concept of mapping the main cave, they saw the promotional possibilities, and agreed.

Eric would chart at least some of the conduits inside Mammoth for the very first time, and when possible, collect small endemic cave-dwelling life forms for taxonomic study. As with other isolated caves, Silver was likely to harbor crayfish and shrimp-like animals that lived nowhere else on earth. Artifacts recovered from the cave could be displayed at the attraction, and later, included in a more complete exhibit  at the state’s Silver River Museum.

Eric sometimes brought along specialists, like cave-diving biologist Tom Morris, to more carefully evaluate the science of the  springs system, and to help identify some of the rare cave-dwelling invertabrates.    

From a more theatrical angle, tour guides could also point the dive team out to the passengers on the boats, weaving the divers into the myths of spring, just as they did for Tarzan and Sea Hunt, the “Bridal Chamber” and the “Spring of Fire”.

Silver Springs, after all, is the archetypical Florida theme park, one built around a spectacular natural geographic feature in a time when Florida had little else to sell.  By the 1870’s, steamboats traveled up the Ocklawaha River and then onto the seven-mile-long spring run known as the “Silver River” to the headsprings here. A luxury four-story 200 room hotel awaited them, making Silver Springs and its river a mandatory stop for anyone wanting to experience the exotic jungle mysteries of this off-the-grid peninsula.

By the late 1870’s, some enterprising soul figured out a way to put a slab of heavy glass in the bottom of a large dugout canoe; by the 1890’s, the first commercial glass bottom boat was developed, and guests begin to get their very first look at the magical subsurface world under them. The terrestrial Florida that had been all green and entangled with jungle-like moss and vines could now be enlarged. Other promoters followed the lead, and some springs around the state became portals into a mystical underworld.

For others, a vista of glass wasn’t even needed—most springs could be sold to tourists as health-restoring spas, providing tonics for any problem the northern “invalid” may have—from dandruff to consumption. It was not a totally foreign tradition: Native Americans had regarded springs as spiritual and life-giving for thousands of years. The extended heritage of our springs was rich, dramatically embroidered with both hope and hype.


Today, we assemble our gear, lights and line that cave divers carry atop a temporary floating platform at the shore atop Mammoth. From somewhere nearby the amplified voice of a tour guide from a glass bottom boat drifts over to us. “What is under the water, you will be able to see clearly,” he proclaims, as if he is as hypnotist putting his charges into a trance. And in a way, he is.

As we gear up, other tourists gather along the railing above and pepper us with questions, as if we are audio-animatronic devices made to look like scuba divers. How deep is it in there, and what do you see, and, is it really bottomless? Eric fields most of the questions good naturedly and, thankfully, we soon enter the water, sinking under the clear surface of Mammoth Springs, down to where the only sound is our exhaust bubbles.

At the edge of the natural spring pool above us, I see a seven-foot alligator slide down into the water from his log on the shore, and then— spooked by our exhalations— quickly swim away, swaying its giant prehistoric tail side-to-side as it goes. I notice the gator is far more graceful underwater than gators ever are on land.

I settle on the 30 foot bottom outside the cave mouth, and wait for the others.  The water is clear, but not as transparent as I remember it as a boy, shards of stringy algae now swirling about us from problems with nutrients in the uplands that recharge these springs. I push against my mask to clear the pressure in my ears, and then ascend a few feet above the wide grin of a cave mouth— which seems to be blowing out water with the force of a very large fire hose.

The author at the surface before the dive

Hutcheson had earlier advised me of this, suggesting the best way to enter is from the top of the vent rather than the bottom. As I force my way in, I am against the cave ceiling, just above the concentrated force of the outflow.  With my mask right next to it, I notice the ceiling seems to be made from thousands of fossilized sand dollars, left from when all of Florida was once covered by the sea.

Once inside, the narrow mouth-grin opens into an expansive cavern and the constricted, powerful flow has a chance to spread out. It ‘s not unlike how the energy of a swift stream dissipates when it meets a wider river or bay in the lighted world above.

From deeper in the cave, I see flickers of Hutcheson’s light in the darkness and move towards it. As I do, I fin over the boulder-strewn floor and see remnants of large prehistoric animal bones.  They are mineralized black,  gargantuan in size. Long before the Europeans ever arrived, the few springs that were then flowing were favorite sites for Paleo-Indians who stalked mastodons and giant sloth and bear over 12,000 years ago.

  With the outsized bone yard below me, I am literally treading a fine line between myth and reality, part of me thinking this is an old stage set, part of me knowing it is real. Taken wholly, it is an eight-year-old boy’s fairy tale come to life.

The cavern is massive, and boulders that have collapsed from its ceiling over time have created small cave-like alcoves amidst the rubble of bone and rock on the floor. I squeeze inside one of the dark openings. Down in here, I hold my light with one hand, and use the edge of the palm of the other to gently fan across the sand, as I have seen archaeologists do to find artifacts. When I stop fanning to allow the tiny vortex of sand to drift away, my light beam reveals a four-inch-long spear point cared from chert. Hidden here for centuries in the rock and sand, it looks as if it was carved just yesterday.

I gingerly turn and pull my way out of the little cave, and poke around some more on the bottom, exploring other rocky dens. I see more paleo-artifacts, and finally, spot a tiny albino arthropod, a shrimp-like crustacean, flipping about in the crack of eternal darkness. I remove a small specimen collection bag from my dive vest and carefully coax the little animal into it.

Since the science of cave animals is so new, there’s a good chance the little shrimp may be endemic, found nowhere else on earth.  At the Smithsonian Institution, scientist Horton Hobbs once specialized in classifying such animals for years; his last name appears at the tail end of many Latin taxonomic descriptions of cave-dwelling life forms. (Later the little shrimp I captured will travel to that venerable institution, and will go through the complex naming process that separates the known animals from the unknown.)

From the far side of the cavern, I watch as Hutcheson removes his tank from his back and pushes it ahead of him into an even tighter “restriction” until he disappears in a cloud of silt and churning water. The conduit he has entered will take him farther back under the land above, following a route that—if he were the size of a tiny shrimp in my baggy—might lead him miles through soft limestone fissures below the distant uplands where fresh rain fall seeps down into the springshed itself.   

I poke about some more on the bottom, following the edges of the cavern as far as I can. Under another boulder pile, I see large wooden timbers, charred black from a fire long ago. There is no way of telling for sure, but I know that the old hotel that once hugged the edge of Mammoth Springs burned back around the turn of the last century.  Famous tourists had stayed here, since that is what they did when they came to Florida over a century ago.

Poet Sidney Lanier once rode the steamship “Marion” to Silver Springs, and I wonder if this wood—as black as any fossilized tibia or femur—might once have sheltered him inside the hotel. If it did, would it have absorbed an unwritten lyric of the poet’s sensibility, a fragment that drifted up from a forgotten dream ?

Minutes later, when Hutcheson returns from the narrow tunnel, he carries a clam fossil the size of a breadbasket. I fin over to see it and marvel at its heft, of how clearly defined the striations of each rib still is on the surface of its shells, a bivalve forever welded shut by time. Later, after we finish the dive, he will tell me there are scores of such clams along the base of one wall, a bed of giant seabottom mollusks long extinct.

Mapping of the sort that is being done here helps scientists better understand the limitations of our Floridan Aquifer. The cave does stretch for miles into the limestone under the rolling north Florida landscape, veining out into tiny crevices and fissures, sometimes opening back up into gigantic cathedral-sized rooms. But it’s not truly “bottomless”, nor is its water supply endless. It’s a  hard lesson we are now learning throughout Florida as the magnitude of our major springs declines, and our potable water supply ebbs away. It is a lesson the extinct seabottom clams learned long ago.

It is time for the dive to end, and so I fin up and over to the cave mouth and let its energy literally blow me out onto the bottom of the spring basin. The force of the upwelling tumbles me, almost sideways, and just as I am regaining my composure,  a load of tourist families in a glassbottom boat moves silently overhead.

Despite the algae, the water is still transparent enough that I can look up through my mask and make eye contact with a little boy sitting in the boat, intently looking down at me. His eyes are big, and he seems entranced, pushing his face closer to the glass than the rest.

It is a true Florida out-of-body moment, where the transect that connects us seems to shift there, for just a split second, and I am now the little boy in the boat, looking down at the bottomless pit and at the mysterious man in the mysterious suit who has emerged from it. And all the years in between disappear as if they’ve never been.

Can there be any difference between me, the bass and gators, the old Sea Hunt set, the imported monkeys, the bottomless spring?  Another myth, a sacred story,  in a little boy’s imagination has been created. I don’t know where it will lead him, long after I’m physically gone from this spring, this earth.

Still, it gives me great joy to know that, in some way, I have entered the sacrosanct dreams of a child, an inviolable place. If he is careful, he might also store this moment away for a lifetime, just as the cave has stored its own relics from so long ago.

From behind my regulator, I smile broadly, watching the  boat putter slowly away until all I can see now are the swirls in the water it has left behind. The other divers emerge and as they ascend, they motion me to join them. I shake my head as if waking from a long and heartfelt dream, and drift slowly upwards, towards the light.

Posted by: floridanature | August 28, 2011

B.B. King & Beluthahatchee in St. Augustine

It’s midday Friday and I’m on I-95, moving upstream towards St. Augustine in an asphalt riptide. This is not a particularly comforting behavior for me, so I calm myself by slipping in a CD and listening to B.B. King. B.B. is telling of meeting the Queen of England early one morning on the streets of London. The Queen, just back from a party, rolls down the window of her limo, and—lamenting the great confusion she must face in the world—asks B.B. for some advice. The bluesmeister tells her: “Better not look down if you want to keep on flying….You can keep it moving, if you don’t look down.”

And now I am passing over the rain-swollen St. Johns, traveling beyond the Tomoka—which I make a point to always see because its subtropic shores enthrall me—and then, farther north, over the spartina marsh that leads to this oldest of Florida cities. Once here, I dodge the horse-drawn tourist carriages, and at the ritzy and historic Casa Monica relinquish my car to an enthusiastic valet kid and check in. I’m here for a writers’ conference, one of those miraculous events when people who spend an inordinate time inside their heads actually attempt to communicate with their fellow humans.

I see Bob Morris right away, slouching in a comfy old sofa; Bob’s an old bud, and a fine writer, now specializing in black comic mysteries set in Florida and the Antilles. We walk down the street to where we are both to speak in different sessions, and on the way, run into Stetson Kennedy, who is walking the same street by himself. Stetson’s a living icon, having infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan, and then written an undercover book that exposed the power of that racist militia in Florida—“The Klan Unmasked”.  In the pre-happy face Florida of the 1940’s, this was a very dangerous behavior indeed, and the Klan—which included some lawmen and elected officials— promised to lynch Stetson for his work. Thankfully, they were unsuccessful.

In addition to other books like “Palmetto Country”, Stetson also wrote perceptively about the real Florida for the WPA Writers’ Project in the 1930′s beginning when he was 19. He’s 91 now, a little trick of time switching those digits around backwards, like someday they will do for us all. He’s in a guyabera, small guy, but with a strong sense of life engagement about him. I embrace him, and we walk into one of the old Flagler buildings.

When researching the WPA Guide, Stetson roamed the state for five years—often with author Zora Neal Hurston—talking in great detail with black folks to better understand how they saw the world. It was a brave thing to do in a time when the fiercely racist Florida was still deeply segregated. The richness of the oral histories was stunning: Stetson learned of mythic places like “Beluthahatchee”, a blissful refuge where “all unpleasant doings and sayings are forgiven and forgotten.”

Back in the 1950′s, Stetson bought a remote slice of land and water south of Jacksonville to live. Friends like Woody Guthrie would come and hang with him, rejoicing in the spirit that bound creative and caring souls together against the big chill outside. Stetson named his spread “Beluthahatchee.” Guthrie wrote some 80 songs while staying there, including “Beluthahatchee Bill”,  an ode to Stetson and his indomitable spirit and courage.

This Flagler College is a compound of hotels once built by railroad czar Henry Flagler in the late 1800′s, a Spanish Med style as grandiose as it gets, lots of steeples and cupolas and an intricate weave of bas relief of fish and frogs and angels, all together at once, a whack-up-the-head reminder that the rich are, indeed, different from you and I. Like so many obsessed & very rich Florida folks, Flagler was way off the grid, but the best of his insanity remains here, imbedded in the architecture. His contemporary, the renegade Ed Watson, wanted to be the Flagler of the western Glades, but destiny would have it otherwise.

I find my way to my two-person session in which writer Les Standiford and I are to talk “In Conversation”. I’ve read Les’ work—he is a skilled storyteller of both fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve always looked forward to chatting with him, although not necessarily in front of a group of people. A guy who impersonates Mark Twain introduces us to the audience—this is, after all, Florida, and people can be just about anything they want. And then Les and I chew the fat for 45 minutes or so until Mark Twain asks the audience for questions. I make a point to remind folks that Kipling once wrote that the magic of literature is not in the man but in the words. Les and I chuckle at this, knowing the best of ourselves is not in this public moment but in the doing, in wanting to raise higher ideals to a place we can barely describe right now.

The session over, I walk out to sign books. An attractive dark haired woman in the session walks out with me and tells me of once reading an essay of mine in which I wrote about bears in the woods, a narrative that laments the way we are losing our wildness in modern Florida. She said it moved her to tears, and I thank her for having the heart to tell me that.

I sign books, shake hands, go back to my fancy hotel and put on a sport coat, and return for a showing of our PBS film “In Marjorie’s Wake” in the massive Flagler-era dining room. Like much of the rest of the compound, the room is over the top in aesthetics and its own mythology: More angels and seraphins and gargoyles and cosmic stuff going on in great arched domes and atop stained  glass windows. When I arrive, young students from the college are finishing up their cafeteria meals; in one corner, there are inflatable plastic palm trees and sharks, and Buffett’s “Fins” is playing. Another out of body Florida moment.

I meet Holly, a cool young undergrad who helps me set up the a/v for the doc screening. Students are leaving and the high backed, ornate wooden chairs are rearranged to accommodate the newly arriving audience, which is now pushing against a rope across the wide dining room entrance. The rope opens, the crowd descends, and our movie—which tells of a 1933 river trip author Marjorie Rawlings once made on the St. Johns with her friend Dessie–is ready to play. I briefly introduce the doc, and then stand back while the 150-odd folks soak it in for the next hour. I notice the plastic palm trees and sharks have deflated by now.

After the film, Betty Jean Steinshouer, a quite-brilliant scholar who impersonates Rawlings, spends the next 45 minutes, nailing both the mannerisms and the persona that once distinguished the mercurial Florida author, no script, just going with it from the heart. Rawlings leaves and Betty Jean returns as herself, filling in the blanks about why she is impassioned to do what she does. She then generously praises both Stetson, who is still here, and myself, as “national treasures.”

The show is over, and I mingle out into the grand lobby. Several folks say very nice things about the film. One clearly unhappy woman— reminiscent of Rawlings’ own description of a Cross Creek neighbor as an “efficient, angry canary”— accosts me, trying to make fun of the “national treasure” thing. “Does that mean you’re irreplaceable,” she says, intending to mock. “No, I say. “It means I’m recyclable.” She mutters something and walks away.

It’s hot here in Florida, even by 9 pm. and, sweating, I walk out by myself, over to my old hotel, and standing there on the outside patio, watch the grand old Florida architecture flicker to life around me. It could be an intricate movie set for a Gatsby scene, but the solidness of the structure communicates far more to the soul. It is Florida, but like most of our place-based romantic tableaus, it is so much more—almost more than the human imagination can absorb. I think of the woods and creeks of Stetson’s real-life Beluthahatchee, think of all those brave, off-the-grid writers and artists with kindness in their hearts, and realize how fortunate I am to know, and to newly meet them, every now and again.

And then I exhale big, like I always do when clearing my spirit of confusion.

And I think finally:

Better not look down if you want to keep on flying.

You can keep it moving, if you don’t look down.

NOTE: When I used to contribute to the Christian Science Monitor, I once covered a conference about emerging water problems at Rollins College in Winter Park. I recently found the piece posted on the web, and thought it would be fun to share. It’s not that I was particularly prescient—I simply listened to what the hydrologists liked the esteemed Dr. Parker and other scientists had to say, and then I reported it straight. In short, they warned of a water shortage if Floridians—and its elected officials—didn’t change their water squandering to water sustainability. And, since we haven’t,  the warning has come true, in spades. I’ve spiffed this up a bit with some photos I’ve taken that all illustrate some aspect of our water-driven peninsula—from springs fed by our Floridan Aquifer to our surface waters.  The article, with its original headline, folows:


By Bill Belleville

Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1982

Fern Hammock Springs in the Ocala Nat. Forest

Winter Park, Fla.

The Florida peninsula is in the midst of an unprecedented water crisis that will literally shut off the faucets in parts of the region in the next five years, if drastic steps aren’t taken.

That’s the collective opinion of hydrologists and other scientists who recently met here at Rollins College to discuss how the crisis developed and what — if anything — can be done to avoid it. The current crisis was sparked by a severe decrease in rainfall over the last two years, but its long-term causes run much deeper. For instance:

* Recharge areas where rainfall could percolate into underground aquifers have been developed for commercial or residential purposes at an alarming rate over the last decade.

* A state where half of the terrain once was flood plain has been ditched and drained so that low-lying areas could be used for development. Ground water seepage and rains are then channeled by canals into rivers and eventually into the ocean, where they are lost for practical use.

* Heavy irrigation by the citrus and other agricultural industries and seasonal home irrigation during the warm, but dry, spring months have put even more demands on an aquifer that is as much as 12 feet lower than normal in some areas. Shallow wells are drying up. Sinkholes — of which there were over 200 last spring — are becoming more frequent. In these, the ground literally opens up to swallow what is above it.

The shallow lakes and streams of Florida’s flat topography don’t have the ability to hold much water, so over 90 percent of the supply must be groundwater. Since up to 70 percent of all rainfall is lost to evapotranspiration, even heavy rains associated with tropical disturbances won’t help restore the groundwater supply.

Florida is one of the few subtropical peninsulas in the world that is not a desert because of the abundance of water stored in its four limestone aquifers. The capacity of the major source, the Floridan Aquifer, which stretches up into Alabama and Georgia, rivals that of all the Great Lakes. It was once believed that the Floridan Aquifer alone would provide all the water future generations needed.

A Typical blackwater Florida River (Click to enlarge)

But, ”only a small part of that capacity is actually potable,” says Dr. Garald Parker, a private hydrologist who identified and named the aquifer while serving as head hydrologist for the Southwest Florida Water Management District. ”Most of it is in dead storage. Everywhere, at some depth, the aquifer is underlain by salt water.”

As the aquifer level drops, salt water intrusion occurs both vertically and horizontally. Management officials in Volusia and Brevard counties along the mid-Atlantic coast have already reported salt water intrusion this winter. When the temperate winter months give way to the warmer, water-use months of March and April, that intrusion is expected to worsen.

Intrusion has even been detected 40 miles inland from Tampa, where heavy use of water by the phosphate industry has created a hydrological ”Red Hole,” lowering the aquifer 10 feet beyond that of the rest of the state. ”In five years they’ll be taking out more than they’re putting in. I don’t think they’ve made provisions for the crash that’s coming,” says Dr. Parker.

Ironically, Florida passed some landmark environmental laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s — most notably the state Water and Land Conservation Act and the Water Resources Act. But, the effectiveness of the laws in conserving either water or land depends on the local politicians charged with administering the statutes. ”The local (environmental) management plans range from the sublime to the ridiculous,” says Dr. John DeGrove, who helped write the Water Resources Act. Development-oriented realtors either influenced elected officials or got themselves elected and circumvented the state-wide plans.

Instead of resorting to emergency water-use plans, the high-density coastal areas in the state, where 75 percent of the population lives, appear to be taking a more expedient route. ”When their water starts running out, those coastal areas will vote in the legislature to ship water down from central and northern Florida by pipeline,” says Dr. William Taft, Director of the Mote Marine Laboratory.

For instance, the Tampa Bay area needs 70 million gallons of water a day. It can no longer depend on the flow of the Hillsborough River which only provides up to 32 million gallons a day during the dry season. Lawn watering and car washing are prohibited during those times. But the population is still growing. Local government leaders have already discussed piping water from inland springs , such as the abundant 500-million-gallons-a-day Silver Springs in Ocala, the world’s largest spring. Initial reaction from inland governments has already proved hostile.

The remote Helene Spring, one of the 35 springs in the Wekiva system

Dr. Parker claims that the five regional water management districts throughout the state have ”knuckled under” to agriculture, citrus, and phosphate interests. This is also suggested by the fact that pending legislation to require the local districts to inventory available supplies and emphasize conservation before issuing water-use permits is now under fire from water-supply lobbyists. They want to delete a portion of the bill that would allow the districts to judge the negative impact a water-use permit might have on surrounding property.

Yet, there are some measures that can be taken to head off the predicted shortage:

* The most immediate of those solutions is reclamation of those river basins that are threatened with dredging and filling by private owners. On the upper east coast, the St. Johns Water Management District agreed to spend $80 million to buy critical marshlands in a three-county area along the basin of the St. Johns River. The once-healthy river flows through 18 counties and was a major source of water until dikes and drainage began destroying the river’s natural water-retention and cleansing abilities. Funds for the purchase of the 38,000 acres come from a ”Save Our Rivers” state trust fund derived from a 5-percent property sales tax surcharge. The trust fund, recently mandated by the state legislature, is expected to generate $320 million over the next 10 years. But with all the districts splitting the funds, it may be another case of too little , too late, especially for the St. Johns, a 320-mile tract that is prized by developers.

* The extension of mandatory water cut-backs. During last spring’s dry season , some high-density areas of the state were under 25-percent mandatory rationing , while less affected areas were put on a 15-percent ”optional” program by the water management districts.

* A significant price increase, as high as 10 times the current water rates, to discourage excessive use. As Dr. Thaddeus Seymour said at the Rollins Conference: ”We love our lawns more than our children.”

* Mandatory programs for recycling agricultural water. ”Water from the lower ends of the field should be pumped back up over and over again until it becomes too saline to use,” said Dr. Parker. More efficient irrigation methods, such as drip irrigation which doesn’t lose water to evaporation, should be required. ”In the American Southwest, you could be fined heavily for allowing irrigation water to waste,” said Dr. Parker.

* An emphasis on landscaping with native plants. The Florida Conservation Foundation has even formed a ”Native Plant Society” which stresses the use of local plants to save water, as well as conserving wildlife habitat and controlling surburban sprawl.

* Recyling dead anaerobic settlement ponds formed by the run-off from processing plants and other industries into aerobic ponds suitable for use as an alternative source.

A dead dwarf cypress tree in the St. Johns River

Despite these positive recommendations, hydrologists remain skeptical about the willingness of local governments to comply. Some cited a 1971 emergency conference on water management called by former Gov. Reubin Askew. The summary report of the conference warned both that there was an impending crisis in South Florida and the potential for similar shortages elsewhere in the state. It urged that corrective measures be taken.


Posted by: floridanature | March 17, 2011

In Loving Memory: Zona Beckwith March 17, 1925-March 2, 2011

A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled “Losing it all to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape”. The narrative below this intro is excerpted from that book. It describes my meeting with Zona Mathews Beckwith, whose father originally built my Cracker-style home with a hammer and hand saw in 1928. Her family lived in it until they moved into “town” of Sanford, Fla. in the late 1930’s.

I lived in that home for 15 years, and after I sold it four years ago, I too moved into “town”.

I was very fond of Zona, and felt a strong kinship with her. Even after I moved, we stayed in close touch since she and Art lived only a few blocks away. She was kind and bright and wonderfully unique. And she seemed a reservoir of ineffably sweet memory and caring. For me, she symbolized the very best of a particular place and time that once existed in Florida.

Zona had seemed touched that I had included her in the “Sprawl” book. But in reality, it was I who was deeply moved—and honored— for having known her at all.


Excerpted from “Losing it All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate my Cracker Landscape” :

I know my homestead will one day vanish from the earth, and there are still many things I want to know about it before it does. As I am sifting through all of this, I get a call from a woman with the unlikely first name of “Zona”. She had seen my name in an article in the local Sanford paper. In the piece, I had mentioned living in a ‘Cracker house’ on Sewell Road. Zona took note of this because, as a young girl, she had also lived on what would become Sewell Road.

She looked up my address in the phone book and found that, indeed, I did live in the same home. She wondered if I would mind if she and her husband, Art, came out to see her old home.

Zona had a soft Southern accent and a gentility that had been forged in another time. She and her family, the Mathews, were the first occupants of my home, and when they moved, her father had sold it to the Durak family. ‘I am not sure what a ‘cracker house’ is,” said Zona, “but my daddy was a Cracker and he built it, so I guess that makes it a Cracker house!’

Little Zona & Daddy, when the house was being built around 1928

I was struck by the absolute completeness of that moment, of how I begin to ask for information, and how that information in turn made itself available to me, like ancient artifacts newly upturned from the ground. I couldn’t wait to meet her.

We set up a time for Zona and her husband Art Beckwith to visit. Meanwhile, she sent me several old sepia-tinted photos from the era of the homestead. The earliest was of her as a little girl standing next to the house as it was being constructed. In the photograph, she was a toddler, maybe one or so, and was standing by herself in a yard that was full of lumber. Long planks of heart wood cypress were variously leaning against the house or, as tongue and groove siding, had already been nailed onto it. There was a small house or large shed standing nearby.

Tall pines, which looked like long leafs, towered in the background. The roof was not yet on, and the doors and windows and even parts of the walls were unfinished. Both the house and the shed were up a foot or so from the ground atop concrete blocks. There were no electrical or telephone lines or any signs of power tools or other modern conveniences.

Zona the little girl stood, legs apart and lips pursed, a little child’s peaked hat on her head and a bow under her chin, an outfit with long sleeves and short pants. She had a chubby, contented toddler’s face. It was 1928, but it easily could have been a hundred years earlier.

Another photo was taken maybe six or eight months later. Zona was in a little white dress, with socks and sandal-like shoes. The house was finished, and she was standing next to the front porch with her father. She held one tiny chubby arm up in the air, and her father reached to grab it, rather than pulling her to him.

He seemed to be a strong young man, sharp, clear features and a full head of jet black hair, slicked back. He wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t frowning either. He was dressed in tight black pants with a watch bob chain from one pocket, and white shirt with tie. He had taken off his boater-style hat for the photo and was holding it in his left hand. He looked like a man to be reckoned with.

Sewell Road was to the background, and it was only a two-lane rut in the sand then. Behind it, to the west, there was nothing but forests of tall pines.


Zona later wrote a note to me about her own place she knew as a child:  “Our road had no name and the house no number. We had no electricity at first. Daddy built the house and cut the wood with a hand saw. He was pretty adept with that, even able to make music with it, and it was great fun for us girls. All the children in the neighborhood gathered on the road in front of our house after school to play ball (usually Daddy was out there with us), hopscotch, hide-and-seek around the house and garage, and various other childhood games. He was a great father. He taught me how to read music and to play the piano.

Zona as a young girl at Easter in front of the house with her dog

When we moved into town and left the house, Mama cried. She loved it, too, as we all did. I would love to see the house and see the changes and improvements over the years. And to meet you, another happy occupant.”  —————————————————————————————————————-

Zona and her husband Art pull in my driveway this afternoon and I go out to greet them. They are both dressed neaty, almost as if ready for church. Art was once clerk of the circuit court in Seminole County before he retired. Zona raised their family. They are healthy, slender, but somewhat stiff from age, walking cautiously now. Although they look younger, I figure they are close to 80. Both are wearing glasses. Zona is smiling broadly, and it is a nice open smile, as if she is a friend and we are meeting again, after many years away.

This is the first time she has been to the house since she left almost sixty five years ago. They are both clearly happy to be here. Right away, I ask Zona why her family had moved. “We were way out in the country then,’ she said. ‘And I was a young girl getting ready to start high school. So we moved into town so I could have more extra-curriculum activities and such. There just wasn’t much out here at the Lake Monroe School for that sort of thing.”

When Zona says moving into ‘town’, she means Sanford. And despite the scant four mile distance between here and there, in her time, that was a lot of territory to cover.

I take them inside the house and Zona stops in the kitchen and looks around. She is trying to find something she remembers. “I was so little then. It was so long ago.” We walk into the living room. ‘It was turned around,’ she said, meaning the room and most of the bottom floor of the house itself. “After Daddy built it, in the early 1930’s, he added on to it, and then had it picked up off the blocks and turned around.’ The side that now faces the driveway once faced the road itself.

An upper floor had since been added, and the Duraks had put in a fine hardwood floor over the planked pine that was first here. Zona remembers she and her sister playing in a closet here, back when all the walls and ceiling were covered with the narrow batten board. I open the door to the closet under the stairway. Inside it is still lined with batten. She looks at it silently and shakes her head, as if the  remembrance is settling in.

Vintage postcard showing celery fields & workers with a steamboat on Lake Monroe in 1912, just 13 years before Zona was born

We walk outside and Zona takes in the back porch, now enclosed and partially fitted with the jaoulisie windows. ‘The porch used to be open. My sister Evelyn and I used to play on it for hours. We had big chairs there and we would prop up our teddy bears in them. We had a great time.”  I look more closely at her now, and see the little girl there in the early photos, still bright eyed, intense, still room for some wonder left to be found in her world.

We circle the house, slowly. “I remember as a little girl playing in a big ol’ concrete culvert or something or the sort. It was almost like a kiddie pool for me, I was so little. Daddy would fill it up with the well that was next to it. It felt so cool in the summertime.” I know the culvert she means, and we walk to the cactus and I pull back the thick bush of privet there. Under it is the mouth of the culvert, nearly a yard wide, and sticking a few feet up out of the ground like a concrete barrel. Next to it is the now-dry artesian well encased in a smaller metal pipe.

When I first moved here, the culvert was empty. I couldn’t figure out a use for it, so I filled it with dirt and planted the seeds I had gathered from rain lillies there. Art and Zona look on at the little ‘pool’, and she smiles now in a different way, more pensive, seeing something as intact as it used to be.

I feel an instant kinship with Zona, almost as if I had known her before, perhaps in another life. But I know it is because she is here and expressing her quiet delight and reverence for a place that I have also come to love. Her experiences here were vastly different from mine–she was a pretty, young independent-minded girl in the remote countryside of Florida coming to know the world for the first time, and I am a middle-aged man. But we have both found solace and peace here in our own ways, and the affection we both feel for it can’t be any more actualized than it is at this very moment.

A stone bench next to the turks cap bush in the side yard of "our" home

We sit for a while on the concrete bench. It is cool now, and pleasant to be out. A pair of cardinals flit and chirp sharply nearby from the prevett. A zebra longwing drifts through as if following an unseen trail of infinitesimal updrafts,  heat rises too slight even to be felt by the birds.

“Daddy had a garden right over here–a garden of zemias–the butterflies just loved them! And there was a turks cap just like you have–we would take the blossoms and suck the nectar out of them. And there was a fish pond with gold fish in it.” She pauses. “And the nights.  I vaguely remember the kerosene lights before the electricity. I loved to read and I would read by it.

“Well, let’s see, what else? Mama would wash our clothes, and boil them. And we didn’t have any plumbing–we had an outhouse, of course. Our neighbors were the Draas, the Fredericks, and two Dunn brothers across the street, and Daddy’s brother Dewey, just to the south of us. Mrs. Frederick was my Aunt Thelma, Daddy’s sister.  Daddy came here as a young man from North Florida and worked for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. So did Mr. Frederick.

‘That’s all anybody did–farmed or worked for the railroad. We had two passenger trains going each way, every day, and of course, there was all the celery and citrus to be shipped and all that. And here on the road, we had chickens and a food garden and shared a cow with Dewey. We’d take turns milking it every day.”

There are so many subtle updrafts that have risen and fallen in Zona’s life here that I feel nearly overwhelmed by the pretense of trying to grasp it in so brief a time. And how bright were the stars in that pure night, and how sweet was the scent of the wisteria with no automobile exhaust to diminish it, and how complete in its quiet was an early Sunday morning in those few precious moments of a false dawn?

Zona, when she was a senior at Sanford high school

I can’t ask these questions with any sense of confidence, and instead I wonder how far the sense of community stretched then. ‘Well, we were outside the edge of the ‘town’ of Lake Monroe. We were probably more associated with Paola. Up on the ‘hard road’ at the corner there was a little general store with a barber shop. We called it ‘Monroe Corner.’  Everyone would go up there, it was a big social place to gather. And the ‘hard road’ was just one lane, you know. If another car or truck was coming, you’d have to pull over to let it pass.”

The old grove was not yet planted, but instead was an open ‘flatland pasture’, left after the long leafs had been logged. “On the other end of that field was the canal—-is it still there?” I tell Zona that it is, and that it still flows down to the St. Johns, draining the historic pine flatwoods as diligently as it always did. “It was cut down deep into the ground, and Evelyn and I would go there and gather clay from the sides of it. We’d bring it back. It was a great treat because you could mold it into things.

“It was a whole different way of life, we just made do with what we had. And we were never afraid of anything, even out here in the woods.” Zona pauses, then re-considers. “Well, there was never anything to be afraid of !”

From somewhere down the street comes a long, loud string of profanity, a mindless bray from one of the slumlord’s feral renters. Zona looks up at me, less embarrassed than I by the outburst, and turns back to the past.

“And we had a whip-poor-will. It sang to us at night. Do you still hear it?”

Posted by: floridanature | February 20, 2011

A Florida River at Night: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I drive down a dirt road atop a massive pre-Columbian Indian midden, bleached and knobby snail shells packed tightly just under the patina of grasses and fresh, white modern gravel. The river is flowing ever so gently just as it has for thousands of years, and the midden slopes down as if to greet it.

I park as close to the shore as I can, and undo the straps holding down my kayak on the car roof. The sun will disappear below the horizon in less than an hour—but it will hide behind the tree line of cypress and sweetgum and bay well before that. The residual light of day is a luxury now, and it allows me the clarity to get my small boat down and into the water without hesitation. When I return to this shore later in the night, it will take me three to four times as long to re-load in the dark.

"Sunset on the St. Johns River" by George Herbert McCord (1878) click to enlarge

We’re here for the rising of the full moon over this subtropical Florida river, an event that will take place in a few more hours. The sight of a full moon over water has always fascinated me, something in the way the pale light glows on the dark liquid that just makes it feel righteous. When I started paddling years ago, I realized I could go beyond the role of a mere spectator and actually become a participant in this aesthetic of nocturnal light, and so I do.


Certainly, it’s an aesthetic that goes far beyond the visual image— particularly one seen from a remote or safe distance. It’s a whole experience of the senses, one you can at once smell, feel, hear, taste, maybe even intuite on a more sublime level.

And you can also move atop the actual liquid itself, allowing the reflection of the pale light to close around you. Early lyricists—like the Chinese poet Lu Yu—were taken with this notion, even when it happened on land. To walk in the moonlight, the 12th century poet wrote,  is to “ride the moon.”

We push away from shore, my fellow paddler and I, catching the slightest flex of the current that pulls us downstream. Instead of staying in the main channel—which I seldom do, under any circumstances—I firmly plant my paddle to turn the kayak, and then head for an opening in the shoal of vegetation at mid-river. There’s enough room for us to make it through, although barely. As we go, large mullet spook in the shallow water around us, some of them creating loud sploshing sounds with silver bodies, fins, and tails.

The water plant known as pennywort is thick here and I notice the round heads of the plant are larger than usual, each the size of a small, green saucer. Although gentle, the current is ceaseless, and has neatly trimmed the edges of the fields of pennywort so rigorously it almost seems human-made.

”]The sun has fallen below the top of the tallest cypress now, and the refracted late day light is working its particular magic on the river world, tracing a delicate balance between fading sunlight and gathering dusk. Twilight does this most everywhere, of course. But it seems particularly pronounced here in Florida, where the ever-moist subtropical air imbues the sky and water with a thousand versions of crimson, saffron, ochre.


Just ahead atop a snag, a black-crowned night heron—a rare wading bird that hunts after dark—crouches, looking more like a skinny owl than a heron at all. Elsewhere, great clumps of dry vegetation seem poised like topiary, mimicking the mastodons that once hunted these same waters, an Ice Age or so ago.

It’s still February, but the bare trees are sprouting new green and the animals are beginning to wake from the mild dormancy of our Florida winter. The specks are bedding, and some of the birds beginning to nest. A flock of large red-breasted birds flitter in the tree tops, and I see it’s a band of robins headed north to announce the arrival of Spring. 

There’s something ineffably lovely about the light and the way it lays upon this place. It helps me understand better why the landscape painters from the northeast traveled here in droves by the 19th and early 20th century—Heade, Hunt, Herzog, McCord, Moran, and more. The images of water and light they captured spoke to an intimacy with a landscape—but, it also spoke to a precise art able to capture a fleeting moment in one special place on earth.

If twilight is ephemeral by its nature, it most certainly is here on this Florida canvas where one color morphs into another, before splitting again and then fading forever into night. Art historians describe the style of those early Florida landscape painters as “evanescent”— each precious and heartbreakingly lovely image they captured looked as if it were ready to dissolve into the ether. And, of course, that is exactly what that real life moment was also preparing to do.

All of life is that way, of course, far more fleeting than our ego-driven mammalian brains would ever allow us to admit. But here, on the cusp of light and darkness of a Florida river, it is not a matter of intellectually accepting or denying truth.  The half light of this river will quickly be gone; and like a stunningly brilliant and beautiful woman you once knew, the aesthetic of it will be made even more so by the knowledge of its transience. It is not a choice; it simply is.

A few yards away, a large gator—startled by my noises—nearly propels itself entirely out of the water, vertically. Its loud splash interrupts the silent grandeur of the moment. But, within seconds, all is calm again, as if the river has transported the memory of the experience downstream with its flow.

The full moon-rise lays ahead, and in time, will announce itself from inside another tree line, ascending into the eastern sky, nearby opposite from where the sun has now disappeared. Vines in the forest seem to become animated by the light, quivering in situ like large bodied snakes.  

If transience fuels this moment in nature, so too does the rich diversity of color and life—it is so much more than what a temperate landscape would support. I figure if the sheer lushness of this place wasn’t enough to overwhelm the senses of early visitors, artists, and writers, then the surreal opportunity of being attacked by giant lizards, cougars, and assorted vipers likely was. If La Florida wasn’t too pretty and too luxuriant and too ripe, then it was too dangerous.

We paddle nearly instinctively now, and I notice that the energy of the senses has created its own momentum, as sure as the V-line of a wake my hull leaves behind in the dark liquid. The particular scent of the water can be acknowledged; the fresh coolness of the air can be absorbed by the pores of the skin; the calls of the birds and the animals can be heard, somewhere beyond sound.

What emerges is a profoundness of being, one that trumps any intellectual pretense that may have tried to smuggle its way along. Despite all we have done to sweep it clean from the imagination, the true natural Florida remains, inextricable and sure, and I am thankful for the everlasting possibilities of its soul. More fish jump and splash, a gator groans, and a radiant, pale glow rises from behind a crown of cypress to the east. Paddle in hand, I push forward, riding the moon into the Florida river night.


Another ephemeral Florida image by George Herbert McCord from more than a century ago.
Posted by: floridanature | January 9, 2011

Sea Turtle Dreams: Are They Even Needed ?

[A few years ago, I spent almost seven weeks in the Galapagos Islands as part of my life as an itinerant nature writer. I was required to write and help with a film when I was there. But when I had a spare moment, I wrote another piece, one that came much closer to describing my own relationship with this strange and wonderful place. Here it is.]

Ashore on Tagus Cove in the remote Galapagos Islands, some 600 miles offshore Ecuador,  I need the perspective of a steady uphill hike to tell me what I couldn’t begin to know at sea level: This nicely rounded natural harbor cut into the side of a mountain was once a volcanic crater. Time and tide took its toil on one wall of the caldera long ago in prehistory, letting seawater sluice into a geological bowl where magma once roiled.

The trail I follow today at the edge of Isla Isabela winds through a rocky culvert,  onto the dry reddish dirt that lays on surface of this island like a patina, up to where the ghostly, bare-limbed palo santo trees cradle the finely-woven nests of the ground finches. Looking around, I find I’m atop a rim between  the sloughed-off crater of Tagus, and the wholly intact bowl of another volcano, a few hundred meters inland.  A young naturalist named Charles Darwin stood near this same vantage point after putting ashore at Tagus in the HMS Beagle 160 years ago, carefully recording his visit in his journal.The landlocked crater holds a small, sullen lake at the bottom of its bowl.  It is a steep walk-crawl  down the sides, almost 1,000 feet worth. Darwin, who was here in the heat of the midday sun—and thinking the lake might quench his thirst—had scrambled down the crater with no hesitation. When he cupped his hands  to drink, he was startled to find the water was saltier than the ocean itself. All was not lost: Mapmakers  named the crater “Volcan Darwin” in his honor.

Our deep diving submersible, preparing to launch during the day

Like Darwin, I  too am here on an expedition.  The sails and wood of the HMS Beagle are modernized  into diesel and steel; the transoms  that once navigated by the stars are buzzing  computer screens that now chart  nearly  every  thing there is about our position here on earth. What the technology of our  oceanographic ship cannot read, though, is the feeling of the place.

I look down on the sea crater of Tagus where a half dozen green turtles are mounting the shells of each other, frothing the water in their passion.   As I watch through my binoculars, I see them raising their ancient, armored heads up out of the water, gulping air in sheer turtle bliss.  I have seen the turtles underwater often during my month here in this isolated archipelago.  And, each time I have been struck by their primitive grace, the way the glint of another millennium shines  in their eyes.

I hike back down to the craggy shore of Tagus just as the sun dips below the volcanic peak of nearby Isla Fernandina. In the scarlet light of early evening, I see Jupiter and Venus burning atop each other next to a crescent moon, watch the brightest meteor I have ever seen leave a long white trail next to them both, like a cosmic hand checking off one more day of life.

Tagus Cove, during the day

After dark, I put on scuba gear , and with a marine biologist, slip under the black water at the edge of the cove. Here,  with our dive lights turned off, we settled to the bottom at 80 feet, flashes of bioluminescence sparkling in front of my mask like the fields of fireflies I used to see as a kid. I look for my dive buddy  but he seems to have been swallowed up by the ebony sea. Finally, he exhales, and the upwelling of his air exhaust tears through the plankton over his head, outlining each tiny bubble in a rim of blue-green.

Briefly,  we turn on our lights and shine them under the rocky ledges, down into places where the molten lava flow from the craters ran so long ago.  The sea has done a magnificent job of colonizing itself over the eons, upholstering the old lava with a thick fabric of coral and worms,  sponges and tiny invertebrates, all united here  in their isolation from the mainland.

From under the ledge, a Port Jackson shark swims excitedly out, a slender and spotted dwarf-like creature no  bigger than my arm.  In doing so, it pinballs off a rock, and my light and  my attention ricochets with it.    I hesitate at the rock and see a tiny nudibranch the size of my little finger.  Striped and iridescent, like a Day-glo  poster from the sixties, this marine slug  is speciated, custom-designed by its own special needs in the cosmos. Local fisherman, in awe of its bright strips, call it El Tigre, the Tiger.

We flick our lights off again, plunging us back into primal darkness.   I watch as a large discus-shaped form moves easily away from us in the water,  its shell and flippers clearly outlined by the broken bioluminescence, a sizzle of blue-green.  It is a sea turtle, perhaps one of those I saw earlier on the surface.

They tell me reptiles don’t dream, having evolved long before the rest of us earned the right to that  luxury. But do they even need to, out here in the Galapagos, a place that is still part dream itself, gliding underwater like colossal, heavy-trunked birds, tiny wings of scales moving them as fast as they ever need to go ?

Perhaps they don’t, but who can ever say with certainly but the turtles themselves.

Posted by: floridanature | December 11, 2010

Apres-Wild Boar: The Effigies Hidden in the Pine Flatwoods

It’s sunny and brisk out here in a broad field of pine flatwoods, skinny slash and loblolly poking up randomly from the sea of saw palmetto like utility poles, green fringe bristling from the tops.

We stop to get our bearings about two miles in at the side of the trail. As we do, my friend Bruce casually looks up from his GPS and asks, in a conversational tone: Is that a bear?

That’s exactly the sort of thing I always hope to hear, and so I look up too, and farther along—downstream?  —on the trail, some 200 yards away, is a blur of spiky black hair, down on four legs, trotting along. As a blur, it could be a bear—certainly, we’ve been seeing generous piles of blue-black scat already. So we know they’re back in here, local bears loading up for their truncated version of “hibernation” with fat acorns and berries, maybe the occasional walking stick or a particularly slow moving armadillo.

But a few seconds more worth of visual information tells me this would have to be the leanest and fastest bear I’ve ever seen.  

Another nano-second, and I see it is actually a large wild boar, and with his head down—following some sensory path only he knows—he doesn’t even seem to realize we’re here. I often run across signs of wild hogs out in the woods and swamps around Florida, earth tilled for roots as if a small buldozer has moved through. Sometimes, I see the hoof tracks in the hard sand, and once in a while, I’ll catch sight of a few of them way off in the distance, running the other way.

But to be on a trail atop a wide, flat terrain under a bright Florida winter sun and see a wild boar moving on a fast trot towards you is, well,  unusual. This is not a real trail, but an unmapped fire break road with two ruts where a vehicle’s wheels have traveled. And, the boar is very politely running in the opposite rut as he approaches—as if he understands the American style of driving on the right side of the road in order to pass oncoming vehicles on the left.

The first domestic hogs were shipped here by DeSota 500 or so years ago for food, and were later joined by others introduced by settlers. Left to their own devices, the survivors turned feral,  learning to eat nearly anything that would sustain them, including rattlesnakes and berries. Unlike most wild animals, the males have a reputation for attacking when cornered or threatened—even towards other hogs. I think of them as the litigators of the animal world.

As he closes on us, I see his tongue is out, and he is panting like a dog on a brisk run. Except for the long, rather lethal curved tusks, he could be a dandy Disney animal, one of those animatronics that are programmed to perform entertainingly on demand.

But of course, he is not. So, I figure I ought to at least get my camera out, since whatever happens next, it should be worth a picture. As I fumble with my camera, Bruce and I continue to talk; clearly, the animal doesn’t seem bothered by the fact that, in another ten seconds or so, he will pass us in the opposite rut.  I  remember wild boars have a great sense of smell and of hearing—but they don’t see all that well. The wind is blowing towards us, so the scent reception is lost.

Bear scat thick with acorns

Yet, in another second or so, he finally hears us and then does a cartoon-like doubletake—skidding to a halt in the sandy trail, spinning as if on a lazy susan, and galloping away in a cloud of dust, seemingly all at once.

The whole experience, from beginning to end, was actually very brief in linear time. I figure it’s a testament to how the human senses stretch out each real moment to its fullest potential when the immediacy of a brand new experience is trotting towards you with its tongue out and its tusks gleaming in the sun. In such cases, our large mammalian brains sort of step back and default to the zen viscera of the now.

A friend once told me that of all the animals, wild hogs will actually hold a grudge, although I’m still not sure where she learned this. I’m pretty sure I didn’t do anything to aggravate this particular boar. But then again, I am a human, and from the perspective of a wild hog, we upright walking mammals probably all look alike. Hogs are hunted nearby on the other side of the river and maybe he lost a colleague or two to that behavior. Perhaps they were out one moment, strolling through the neighborhood with great porcine camaraderie and glee—and then, the next, the former buddy was being ground up into pork patties in some hunter’s garage in Umatilla.  

I’m sorry to miss snapping a photo of our fellow traveler, but am also a bit relieved that any grudge he may have carried won’t have a chance to be realized today.

On we go, deeper in through the flatwoods. We had seen a good dozen would-be hikers back in the parking lot. They appeared to be preparing to stage some sort of organized hike, maybe orienteering or some left-brained activity that required actual planning. I figured they stuck to the marked trail, which looped a couple miles back through a longleaf forest to the west. Since the trail head kiosk for this land doesn’t even include a map for these easterly fire roads, most causal saunterers don’t make it back this far. Which is one of the reasons we are here.

A pine flatwoods—also called “pine barrens”— is exactly what its name implies: A nearly flat, low landscape colonized mainly by pine with a thick understory of saw palmetto, maybe with some gallberry bushes and wildflowers. Today, there’s also a mild scent of wild vanilla in the air. Often, the soils are  underpinned by clay, which means the land is seasonally wet, and the occasional open pocket of grasses will hold water, becoming ephemeral ponds. I get a kick out of the fact that the most common terrestrial habitat in Florida is more aquatic than not.

wild vanilla

As we move deeper in, the sun warms me, seeming to radiating into my bones, replacing the earlier chill. The flatwoods is bordered on horizons to the east and west with great thick tree lines, as if we are strolling through a giant natural ailseway. The farther north we go, the more narrow the aisle becomes, tree lines moving in closer. We are headed for the St. Johns, near where the Wekiva confluxes with it. The fire roads sometimes loop around, but I figure if we continue in the same direction we’ll eventually make it to the rivers’ wetlands, regardless of which road we take.

My hiking partner is a former planner who teaches environmental studies at Rollins down in Winter Park. We hike together a few times a year, and once in a while, I sort of dress up and actually drive down into there to speak at that college, either to a class or to a larger public gathering, maybe about a book or a film.

When I’ve hiked here before, the wetlands to the north near the river will eventually sweep down into this low landscape, making a complete passage impossible. But today is different: We’ve been without heavy rain storms for several months now, and if there’s ever a chance of making it all the way into the actual wetlands, it’s now.

Where the flatwoods gives way to hammock

Finally, the tree lines meet, and we head off into a trail that takes us northeast, inside a thick hammock of live and water oak, hickories, a few pines, and old sabal palms. As we go, the ground is thick with fat acorns, much larger than I’ve ever seen them before, and Bruce wonders if the bitter cold of last winter has maybe inspired the trees to grow bigger seeds, offspring more able to withstand the cold.

Surely, a larger acorn is also good for the animals—such as the black bears—who must bulk up on fodder for the winter. Bears, smarter than we give them credit for, have actually been seen shaking trees to make the acorns fall. Indians who invested all of their intellect and emotion into the landscape and its gods must have known the “particulars” of this. Maybe they didn’t have a written language, but they knew more luxurious fodder would also meant fatter bears, hogs and other wildlife.

It’s not surprising that most anything in nature that has a use has been historically woven into the lifeways of both animals and people over time. The “earth people”—as Peter Matthiessen describes the indigenous, pre-industrialized cultures—-took full advantage of Florida’s rich diversity and long growing seasons. They ate wild grapes, hickory nuts, both the roots and vine of the cat briar, turtles, gators, panthers, manatees, pocket gophers, and even the inner bark of pine trees.

Timucua with their distinctive acorn-like topknots

The simple acorn was so important to the Timucua of Florida that they actually created effigies to that oak seed, little totems  in clay. In the Thursby Mound at Blue Spring, at least four different types of oak effigies—about two inches long each—were found. The symbolism seems clear: Like a hormonal-driven college freshman who puts a larger- than-life, airbrushed pin-up on his wall, effigy makers visualized the world’s most perfect, fattest acorn in the hope nature would oblige. And, if you dream it, it will come.

I also think of the actual hair style of the Timucua, in which long hair was bound tightly into a bun, fastened with bone pines. It looks all the world as if the heads of the natives have become giant acorns, stem clasped at the very top.

Inside the canopy of the hammock, the microclime cools us. We’re atop a higher berm now, one that either held a tramway for a railway or maybe a horse/cart trail. It would make sense for it to would lead north to the river, since the St. Johns was the both the highway and airport runway of its day: Steamships serviced it, offloading people and necessary things, or transporting them away.   

Large, heavy bodied birds flit through the trees in a small flock, and although they seem to be migrates, they’re much larger than the other warblers we’ve been seeing. Then it strikes me that they’re robins, and I have done a reverse acknowledgment of their arrival:  As a little boy growing up on the then-rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, I was infatuated with spotting the first Robin of Spring. And now, years later and many miles away, I’m delighted to see the first Robin of Winter.

To the west, I look down between the thick line of tupelo and hickory and see the dry swamp below. Bruce and I walk down into it, stepping around the cypress knees. Sharply defined watermarks on cypress and other buttressed trees here clearly remember when the wetlands were four to five feet above the dry swamp bottom under us.

Back on the berm, I see several wild orange trees, and we stop and shake them, just as a bear might do. Several come plummeting down and Bruce scores one and tastes it. Unlike most wild citrus, these are sweet tasting. I wonder if the trees aren’t a relic from the old Blackman Ranch that once sprawled over this part of the terrain. More irony: William Blackman was once the president of Rollins, where Bruce teaches. He owned about 4,000 acres of land here in the 1920’s, trying to raise sheep, cattle, mules, hogs, veggies and citrus. 

As an academic, he was a great success, but as a farmer, he performed on the same level as other brilliant artists did who tried to farm in this river basin—Delius, Bartram, Stowe, even Rawlings. Perhaps its to our credit that the words, lyrics and poetry they left behind may have been otherwise diluted with their industry, had they been better planters.

Nearby, a red shouldered hawk—the raptor of the subtropical swamp—calls out, and then, a few minutes later, we hear the clacking of sandhill cranes from somewhere high overhead. Finally, the berm of hardwoods gives way to more wetlands. But this time, the dry swamp is bereft of trees, thick instead with the herbaceous water-loving plants that hug rivers and creeks. The dominant plant is now is spartina,  at least waist high, and we follow a very rough trail through it that winds north to the St. Johns. The soils under us in this spartina “forest” are as dry as they will ever be.

Bruce saunters through the now-dry Spartina

Despite all we’ve done to it, Florida’s nature has sustained an essential energy. There was also a fort named “Florida” with a landing just across the river from here, nearly contemporary with the ranch. Yet a century is a long time in a relentless subtropical climate of of sun and rain and decay, and today—except for the orange trees—there’s little left of either development.

We are almost six miles in now, and we stop for a lunch break near an old shallow canal that spindles it way from the St. Johns, The mid afternoon air is pleasant, and there is absolutely no sound back in here except that which nature allows. I’ve traveled several miles beyond where I’ve ever been on this trail, finally having a chance to descend into the wetlands, to be surrounded by a new “hammock” of strange grasses.

There are no watermarks of memory here, except maybe the ones the Timucua left behind. It was all in the doing, in the gathering of fat winter acorns and the grateful bliss for a sunny winter day that allowed the collectors to freely roam.

If I could mold clay, I’d create an effigy that might conjure a single glorious moment of exhilaration in their honor—one that is at once natural and particular, thankful and whole.         

Posted by: floridanature | November 10, 2010

Me & Buddy & the Speed of Light on a Florida Lake

It’s Tuesday, early evening, and the crescent moon is a sliver in the southern sky. It’s waxing, as I speak, and is 17 percent of full; by the time I am done writing this, it will likely be just a little bit more so.

I walk my sheltie, Buddy, down Park Ave. to where it dead-ends into the southerly edge of Lake Monroe. It’s only 5:15, so the crescent is still a lighter shade of pale, no dark sky yet to backdrop it.

Buddy is still a bit half wild, not quite used to walking, even after a year, so he tugs and pulls, for no reason— other than the one only he can sense, his olfactory world so more fully defined than mine. I smell the lightest hint of a barely flowing freshwater lake, a burst of an auto exhaust, and that’s about it.

Buddy, on the other hand, acknowledges the golden retriever who lifted a leg here in the strip of St. Augustine between the sidewalk and the road two days ago; the young standard poodle who pranced through the same grass a day later; the lab-sharpei who trotted nearby, exhaling one very deep bark, the vibration of the sound settling into the tissue of the scrubby little wildflowers nearby, oaxalis, cupid’s paintbrush, something that looks like innocence. All this happens in maybe ten seconds, and by then, caught up in my higher mammal quest for movement, I urge him onward.   

We walk out across the street next to the river, stopping briefly to watch the local drivers here in Sanford confuse themselves with the traffic circle—rotary, round-about—that the city installed a couple years ago. I stood here one evening and watched a guy in a beat up American pick-up drive around the circle three times before figuring how to get out of it. Cheap entertainment, I guess. Across the river street is the river, natch, and a small, human-built peninsula that juts out a few hundred yards into it, a smaller mimic of the much larger “Marina Island” between the boat slips of the downtown marina.

Many years ago, when Sanford was a functioning small farm town and most of the people who lived here had grown up in town or somewhere nearby, there was a bandshell at the end of the peninsula. I’m guessing small bands would come and play here, maybe on a Sunday, just like they did in the big gazebo of a bandshell in the city park of the small town where I lived. And locals would come in with blankets and chairs and wicker baskets of fried chicken and iced tea, families and friends letting the glorious richness of the moment fully settle in, not unlike Buddy allows all of his senses to settle in today, informing him of things he would not otherwise know.

The bandshell is gone now, and the peninsula has been renamed to its theme: Memorial Plaza, because it memorializes various wars our country has fought, from the very un-Civil one, to World War I and II, to Korea and Vietnam, and some in between. Interpretative signs with historic photos explain the various conflicts, and granite place-markers engraved with the names of soldiers rim the inside of the walk. A large American flag flies overhead, one that when unfurled, looks as if it could shelter an entire platoon of soldiers. There’s more “hardscape”—as the landscape architects call it—deeper in atop the peninsula, and it seems to create a stylistic stage, one made of some sort of igneous rock, polished smooth, like the granite.

The broad, shallow splay in the St. Johns known as Lake Monroe

Buddy and I walk the U-shaped sidewalk that follows the perimeter of the peninsula, Buddy stopping to lift his leg every so often to communicate with a departed scent, and me, with my eyes on the flat blue-grey of the lake-river surface, a massive body of water that is now as gentle as the bath drawn by loving parents for their small child.

A very pretty woman jogging looks at Buddy, and then at me and smiles engagingly, and the aperture of my own senses seems to quiver in a pleasant way, as if it’s proud of itself for ushering that information inside. Then, a young boy with his dad sees Buddy—and since Buddy is a sheltie, a miniature collie–he calls out excitedly: “Lassie !” and his dad grins. I walk to the end of the peninsula, as close to the water as I can get, and stand on the flat concrete ridge that overlays the bulkhead. The sun is at the horizon now, and the water around me is a light scarlet with its reflection. The heavy, strong fronds of the Washingtonian palms rimming the peninsula, respond with just the slightest hint of the reflected scarlet.

Nearby are two homeless people, with a small chicken, sitting in the grass at the edge of the bulkhead. I have seen them here before, and have talked a bit with them.  They seem worn, beat, but they remember me and the woman gets up to come over and say hi. I ask them about the chicken and they say they had it since it was a little yellow biddy. The chicken looks up from its serious chicken business of pecking at a piece of discarded potato chip and cawwks on over until it is just a foot from Buddy. The chicken then stops and looks at him, and they are both eye to eye, and snout to beak, neither moving nor making a sound for a good minute. “Mexican Standoff”, I say to the homeless woman, and she thinks this is hilarious and laughs a long hearty laugh, one that she may have first knew when she was a young woman, maybe with a family and a dog and a home with a roof. My heart goes out to her, and the notion of “six degrees of separation” is squeezed down to barely less than one.

A third homeless man is nearby, also near the water, and he comes and pets Buddy. Then after a minute or so of this, he looks up and says: When was the last time this dog was bathed? In my mind, I wonder somehow if he isn’t trying to sell me a sort of doggy bath deal; and then I realize, it’s been a few weeks. Buddy’s mostly an outdoor dog, roaming the dense jungle that is my enfenced backyard, having serious dialogues with the grey squirrels that forever challenge his territory. A lot of running and wallowing and stealthful hunting from the high weeds come into play. Nonetheless, the fact that a homeless man has been commenting on my dog’s hygiene is one of those deeply ironic moments that Franz Kafka would have appreciated.

We walk on a bit, and then sit on one of the wooden benches at the water’s edge, me on on corner next to the arm rest, and Buddy jumping up right next to me. Usually, he stands and puts his face into the wind   —even if it’s the slightest hint of a breeze—that usually rises up by early evening from the river/lake. I look up to the South at the crescent moon, and see that the quickly darkening sky is contrasting nicely with the new white of the crescent so that the moon seems to almost pop out, as if being rendered in 3-D. There is a bright star-like glow, also in the south, and I know that to be the planet Jupiter, since that’s where it should be right about now.

I look for Orion because that is what I also do when I look into the night sky. Just south of Orion’s Belt, I also see the faintest traces of the Orion Nebula, a massive clusters of distant stars, emitting a light I couldn’t have seen at all when I first walked out here. I traveled to the Yucatan once and saw some of the Mayan ruins, including a cenote. I would dive into a sacred cenote years later in another part of Latin America to watch scientists retrieve the relics of a vanished civilization from its forever-dark and deep bottom, and my life would forever change because of it. But before that, in Mexico, I learned essential information about the Maya, and some of it had to do with the stars, because the night sky–indeed, all of nature—was embedded into a complex mythology of honor and fear. Orion, the Mayan believed, was Xibalba, the Underworld.   

We go to the car now and drive home, some blocks away at the southerly edge of the historic district, atop the brick streets and their delightfully uneven Augusta Block bricks, under the boughs of live oak thick with moss. I pull into my driveway, next to the front walk I lined with the little coonties last year, the palm-like cycad finally coming into its own this Florida fall evening.

Inside, I feed Buddy and then turn on the water in the tub, down the hallway. Righteous observations can be found almost anywhere these days, and just because the guy making the doggy hygiene comment was homeless doesn’t make his opinion any less. Odd, yes, but not untrue.

As I wait for the tub to fill for Buddy’s bath, I check the status of the crescent moon. It is 18 percent full now, bringing just a bit more cosmic darkness into the light. I check some figures on time-light travel, and find that it takes hardly two seconds for the light of the moon to travel to the earth; for Jupiter, it takes 43 minutes. For the Orion Nebula, it takes 1,500 years.

I wonder absently how long it will take the exhalation of a large black dog to reach Jupiter,  the smile of a pretty woman to finally reach Orion, the sweet and nostalgic music from a town’s band shell to reach the outer edges of the universe. Am figuring, finally, it doesn’t much matter. What matters, really, is that those behaviors have happened, if only briefly, and that once exuded, they may take on a life beyond the curvature of the human heart—perhaps even beyond the surface of the earth.

There’s no telling, really, how far the energy and light of any action—any journey— will travel, and where, if ever, it will really end.

Posted by: floridanature | September 21, 2010

The Way Poetry Offers Both Myth & Real-life Solutions

Man, I could go pretty far afield with this one. Maybe ruminate on Eliot, Frost, Merrill, Whitman (again!) and some of the Latin poets—from Neruda to Cuba’s Carpentier and Guillen. Could name some of my favorite living American poets, including Stephen Dunn, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Lola Haskins, and Ann Fisher-Wirth. Fortunately, I’ve known some very good poets in my time —including the three American women, who are all great sports—and have staked more of my heart inside the comfort of a lyric than most guys would care to admit.

Me, on the edge, as per usual. © Blue Legacy/Oscar Durand

But when it comes to figuring out the shadows that dance about behind the silhouette of myth, I repeatedly turn back to Elizabeth Bishop, an excellent poet who is just now beginning to earn the widespread praise she deserves. Bishop, who earned her undergrad degree from Vassar in 1934, was independently wealthy; as such, she was able to travel widely, living for many years in Brazil and then Key West, Florida.

A few years ago, I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon, upstream of Iquitos, to write a magazine piece about the “Boto”, the Portuguese name for the freshwater river dolphin. I had first learned about the Boto when, as a younger man, I watched an episode of Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso adventures as it went in search of this rare, pink-colored mammal in South America. The Boto was compelling, to be sure, with its elongated snout, and its un-fused vertebrate—which allowed it to poke its head out of the water and turn around to look, just as humans do.

Although it was a bit of a throw-back to an earlier era of time when nature and evolution experimented with its world, the dolphin was particularly suited for where it lived. The Amazon seasonally is swollen by a great rise and  fall of its waters—sometimes up to 20 and 30 feet—as a result of its rainforest climate. At those times, the river would flow back deeply into the surrounding jungle, and the Boto—who took advantage of its un-fused backbone to twist and turn through the inundated trunks and vines—made a very good living by catching fish back in there.

Bishop, who learned about this odd animal when living in Brazil, also came to understand the mythology that surrounded it. Because of its pink skin and its human-like ability to move its head, the Boto was considered encanto—enchanted. Wonderful tales were told then, indeed, were still being told when I arrived on the river and its upstream tributaries, the Rio Samaria and the Ucayali, and all the rest. The poet wrote of this mystical animal, one that natives believed had great powers. Like with most of her other work, she used exacting descriptions and great subtlety to report on the physical world around her, packing a lot of information into a few lyrics.    

And while Capt. Cousteau first introduced me to the Boto, the poet entranced me—just as the Boto could do to the natives in the villages along the Amazon. Bishop wrote of certain men transforming into the Boto—and then, wrote of the dolphin reshaping its own self to become a handsome man. In the stories that are still told, the transformed Boto then walks into a village late at night during a fiesta, after lots of mosato has been consumed and all is right with the world. In those times, the handsome man-dolphin is dressed in a white suit with a white hat. The only way you could tell he was a dolphin at all would be if he removed his hat—because, under it, would be a blowhole. Sometime during the masato-soaked fiesta, the handsome man in the white suit would then select the prettiest girl in the village and take her away to the jungle where they would become intimate. Later, she would return to the party and he would return to the river.

A few lines of her great poem “Riverman” describes the beginning of this transformation:

I got up in the night

for the Dolphin spoke to me.

He grunted beneath my window,

hid by the river mist,

but I glimpsed him – a man like myself.
I threw off my blanket, sweating;

I even tore off my shirt.

I got out of my hammock

and went through the window naked.

My wife slept and snored.

Hearing the Dolphin ahead,

I went down to the river

and the moon was burning bright
as the gasoline-lamp mantle

with the flame turned up too high,

just before it begins to scorch…

This man-to-dolphin-to-man myth is intriguing all by itself. But it was so much more than that. The enchanting Boto also knew the secret to a life that never ended. And this unending life was sustainability—in this case, expressed in an abiding need to protect the river because it provided anything a human could possibility desire.

And in a later stanza, Bishop shares this vital knowledge with us:

Look, it stands to reason

that everything we need

can be obtained from the river.

It drains the jungles; it draws

from trees and plants and rocks

from half around the world,

it draws from the very heart

of the earth the remedy

for each of the diseases—

one just has to know how to find it.

And so the poem captured the sacred wisdom of the cultural myth.  For a long time, the Boto’s world was protected because of its sacred quality. But if the safeguards were grounded in mysticism, they also sustained the very real physical world that gave life to the people who lived in it.

It’s no accident that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our own “Rio San Juan” right here in east Central Florida. A few days ago, I was on a panel in a “summit” devoted to it up in Jacksonville. It was a venue in which the river was diced and sliced, turned into graphs and charts, much talk about numeric nitrate standards, and TMDL’s, and very little about the river as a vital energy source in our broader ecology, and in our imaginations.

A day or so later, I spent a bit of time here with Jacques’ granddaughter, Alexandra Cousteau, on the St. Johns in Sanford. Alexandra, who is on an extended “Blue Legacy” expedition to bring attention to our fresh and salt water systems, helped with a river clean-up, and provided inspiration, simply be being here.

Alexandra Cousteau & me

There were no Botos to be had on this very real Norte Americano event. But there was hope and optimism—a belief that individual people *can* make a difference, if they really want to. That knowledge alone is the antidote to every false-talking politician who wants to exclude everyday citizens from the decision-making process. This antidote is empowerment, a never-ending desire to use thought and action to do the right thing. As Ms. Bishop reminds us: “It stands to reason/That everything we need/Can be obtained from the River..”

After all, “..It draws from the very heart /of the earth the remedy/for each of the diseases.

One of the most damaging human diseases today is apathy, a malaisse that’s revealed in a loss of hope. It’s a condition in which there are few remedies, because the heart has been disconnected from all the rest of life, and we are left with a reality in which an engineering spreadsheet carries far more weight than a poem, a song, a book.

It’s not enough to simply *care”. If we don’t act on our caring, then we will ultimately vanish as functioning humans—and nothing will be left but the fleeting shadow of a human spirit, and a green puddle of water where the river used to be.

Thank you, Ms. Bishop and Ms. Cousteau, for reminding us it can be otherwise.

Posted by: floridanature | September 18, 2010

River Summit, via Walt Whitman

THE ST. JOHNS RIVER SUMMIT is hard to fully characterize. Some great folks there, some folks who weren’t so great, and a bunch of folks there to promote agendas that were selfish–whether they were agendas driven by an affluent polluter, or by an agency that allows pollution.

Lots of folks said some neat things. But the only “presenter” who was a “Hero”–in the truest sense of the word—was the St. Johns Riverkeeper. I don’t have the courage it takes to do what he does. Thanks, Neil, from the bottom of my heart.

Am figuring this wonderful lyric from a century and a half ago might characterize a bit of the way I felt. And it doesn’t even begin to get into the Faustian trade-offs. Walt Whitman knew this stuff long before we did:

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding outI wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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