Posted by: floridanature | June 9, 2008

Inside a Puzzle, Once More

Puzzle Lake captured us again, luring us here for the weekend. Odd, but folks sometimes go to excessive lengths to keep from traveling through this stretch of the St. Johns River. And here we were actively seeking it out, preparing to revel again in its mystification. We earlier had studied a topo chart and packed a compass, but we carried no map since—really—they do little good here. Under a kayak you can feel a river, especially a slow moving blackwater one, and if you pay attention, it will show you the way.

I have known of other paddlers to navigate these more remote reaches of the river. But their necks were perpetually bent in the GPS Crouch, a condition in which the eyes look down to see digital numbers and images on a little screen and nothing more. That’s the malaise of our post-industrial age, I guess, this odd paralysis of spirit in which we actually trust technology more than our own senses.

Although we would paddle back out tomorrow, my friend Michelle and I rode deep in to Puzzle with Tree, the Vietnam vet who’s been squatting out here in his little camp on the prairie ever since the state escorted him out of his last squatting site on the Econlockhatchee. (See earlier post on Tree & Puzzle). His prairie camp—far more easily spotted than his previous home tucked away in the hammock—only lasted for a few months before the law found him. Now he was getting ready to break down his camp here, too, and we had come to watch him go.

Today, Tree is with a friend, April, a gentle-spirited woman who teaches swimming at a private school for a living. She has known tree for years, since she and her friends first stumbled across him back on the Econ. April is in a black two-piece bathing suit and is deeply tanned. Tree is in his usual uniform of cut-off’s and rubber sandals, accessorized with a floppy camo hat. He bungies our kayaks to his motor boat and into the lake we go, traveling upstream on the St. Johns from where we put in at SR 46 east of Sanford, crunching along at the speed of four mph, watching the day slowly reveals itself.

We will of course, paddle back by ourselves in the morning under the 95 F degree Florida sun, baking like clams over the coals on the simmering prairie during the five hour journey. But for now, we simply relax and enjoy the rare treat of a motorized pull, watching as the black-eyed susans and the cerulean skyflowers push out from the tops of the low, black marly banks. And do you know that the wet southern prairie warmed by the sun has a scent to it that is at once primal and sweet ?

Moorhens with white beaks run like a wind-up toys wound too tight, and red-winged blackbirds call from the maidencane and duck potato. At one corner, we come upon a flock of nearly 200 black skimmers, their pipe-like orange beaks marking them distinctively. Mullet leap into the air like large flat silver pebbles tossed into a pond, skipping two, three, even four times. We pass one lone fisherman at anchor under an umbrella, and two zooming airboats, and that’s it for river traffic.

The river here is shallow and so we ground a few times on shoals, Michelle and I helping to push off with our kayak paddles, refloating Tree’s small v-bottom metal boat in just inches of water.

About 90 minutes of this takes us to within sight of the black POW flag that Tree flies over his camp. From there, we unleash the bungies and paddle in by ourselves.

The camp of wood and fabric and tarps will come down in the morning, but for now, we set up our own tents nearby and then scout around. Tree takes April in his boat and tries to make it south to Bear Island, which is really a large midden covered with old persimmon and sugar hackberry trees. But our prolonged drought has left much of the route high and dry, and they will end up turning back before they reach it.

While Tree tries for Bear, Michelle and I walk to the top of a perfectly formed hill bulging up from the flat dry prairie behind the camp. Like Bear, it too is a midden, but here in the marsh, it is covered with grasses and sedges rather than hardwoods. The bulge rises a good 15 feet into a gentle-sloping mound and the summit gives us a superb view of the rest of the flat marsh, including a much larger midden barely a mile to the west. About ten miles to the north, we could make out the tiny bridge that was SR 46, floating on the horizon like a mirage.

Pre-Columbian Native Americans had lived here on these middens in the marsh for thousands of years, and the detritus under our feet was the residue of their lives—the ever-present banded mystery snail shells, the apple snail, animal and fish bones, and a multitude of clay pot shards.

From our catbird seat atop the mound, we looked down at the river as it carved its way in slow motion through the prairie, sun moving low in the sky and backlighting the bank of low cumulus to the west. Like the clouds over the Glades, they were pumped up by the richness of the hydrological cycle, infused with moisture from the streaks of marsh and water below. The sun moved lower and the light changed, animating the clouds as if they were all in one long procession of half-dreamed images marching soundlessly across the flat tropical floodplain.

The old naturalist Billy Bartram made it upstream to this “lake” during his first visit to Florida in 1764, and thinking he had dead-ended into the headwaters of the St. Johns, turned around. Others saw a swampy morass inside of La Florida, a place that needed to be drained and tidied up. But for Bartram, it was all a great natural cathedral—a place where we “learn wisdom and understanding in the economy of nature, and be seriously attentive to the divine monitor within.”

Later, Tree and April return and we cook meat on the grill and eat under the vast coliseum of stars that shine with all the intensity God once gave them. And I put my head back in the camp chair and feel the light that had started its own journey centuries ago, when other people slept here on these mounds and paddled on these waters. And that light was finally consumed by the black river as it moved through the black night, its passing marked only by our vague awareness of it, humans sleeping on the marsh, a few millennia apart. And that great natural cathedral surrounded us, dwarfing our tiny human egos and humbling me deeply, as it can always do.

And nothing in the whole world counted at that moment, except the way the landscape absorbed the starlight. Everything else that was man-made and rigid, domestic and socialized, seemed puny in contrast. And then later, it rained lightly on my tent, tap-tapping gently in a rhythm of tropical starlight and the prehistoric vapor of river time. And then I fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

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