Posted by: floridanature | February 16, 2009

Wekiva Satori: Sorting the Real from the Make-Believe

She’s a brute of a reptile, as large as my kayak, and she’s up on all four legs, running towards me like a giant lumbering dog. I’m wedged into the cockpit of my small craft, its bow grounded atop the mud at the edge of her bulrush hideaway. I’m holding my paddle in a white-knuckled death grip, but am otherwise paralyzed.
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My only reaction is to exhale in a low distressed groan, of the sort bad movie actors use when mutant zombies have a full face grip on their heads.

As the gator reaches the edge of the low bank she actually launches herself towards me, becoming airborne for the briefest moment. Then she belly flops into the river, splashing me with water and duckweed and mud. Within seconds, she disappears beneath the surface, only the swirl of small eddies—and the thump-thump of my heart—left to remind me she was here at all. My intellect tells me I frightened her and she was only trying to escape to deep water. But my gut tells me I was almost toast

Around me on this spring-fed subtropical river, bald cypress are bursting with soft needles and the blooms of the river iris are glowing like neon in the green understory. I am deep inside an east central Florida landscape that seems as feral as the day it was birthed from the sea.
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Ironically, there are dozens of contrived theme park “experiences” not so very far away that promise to scare the living bejesus out of you in exchange for pricey admission fees. But there is no scare like the real scare, and no aesthetic like the one the native Florida terrain can deliver.

I didn’t come here for the scare, of course. That’s the realm of extreme sport junkies who are in it just for the thrill. While I have done my share of exploring the swiss cheese limerock under foot, I did so to enjoy the discovery of a rare place. That promise of discovery is what keeps me here, what allows me to believe the natural world still has a chance to prevail inside a peninsula that is busy reshaping itself so that it resembles something other than its true nature.waterlettuce

The truth is that Florida is a wonderfully odd and biologically diverse state managed by a bunch of screwballs who are big on spin but dangerously out of touch with real-world constraints. Although Florida is one of the few to require “growth management plans” to balance use with preservation, the powerful real estate industry has rendered it useless by pressuring local officials to exempt such laws when their needs are at stake. With no realistic plan to guide growth, Florida is open game to all manner of schemes that end up grafting illusion onto its landscape.

The most ludicrous modernism was a new development that, after the native baywood and sweetgum were clear-cut and clay was pilled atop the rich black wetland earth, became the “Bella Foresta”, a enclave of ritzy new homes guarded by a gate. Like other developments that are ironically named for wildlife they displaced—Eagle Ridge, Black Bear Estates, etc.—Bella Foresta is simply one more fancy name with great irony. It is as if the just-pretend delusion of Disney has spilled over its fence and rolled pell-mell over the countryside.

But here’s the kicker: This Florida also has one-fourth of all its landscape protected as parks and preserves, thanks to ambitious land buying programs. So there’s enough of its extraordinary terrain left to still deliver an authentic wilderness punch, to allow me to bore into its relic geography. I can do that by visiting these water-logged time capsules that have changed the least since the gentle naturalist William Bartram first journeyed into the peninsula over 240 years ago.billnkayak1

And so, after driving past the make-believe Bella Foresta, I am now deep inside the real one, an enchanted place surrounded by over a 150 square miles of scrub and forest, river and swamp. It is a wilderness with alligators and coral snakes and bears, only a few miserly miles from one of the most gridded-out and congested fantasylands in all the world. One single major asphalt road runs through it all, and it is lined with Bear Crossing signs that, sometimes, are not too far away from little kiosks selling knockoff designer sunglasses. If this surrealism didn’t exist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have to make it up.
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After my gator encounter, I continue paddling downstream on the Wekiva, past the remnant Native American midden mounds still packed tight with the snail shells and manatee ribs and rattlesnake vertebrae, headed towards the mouth of the Blackwater Creek. This was once the territory of the ancient pre-Columbian Timucua Kingdom of the Sun. Nature and the wildlife that populated it were revered. The lives of the Timucua were woven into the environment, and not separate from it. The natural world of what would become Florida evoked awe, beauty, respect, fear. It cost nothing to get in, except an appreciation for its sacredness.

Five more miles and I find the mouth of the Blackwater, tucked away under a foliage canopy on the opposite shore, modest and unassuming for a waterway nearly 20 miles long. I poke my bow into it, stop for a granola break, check the time. The sun is dipping towards the tops of the highest cypress now, and the osprey are flying back home to roost in the golden light. Once, on an earlier trip here with a friend, one of the raptors soared right over us with a huge mullet in her talons. She landed on a tall cypress branch to get a better grip and when we looked up, all we could see was the large mullet tail flapping from the tree tops.
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On I go, pushing against the outflow of the gentle current, spring-fed like the larger Wekiva, but tea-colored from the tannins leaking out of the surrounding swamp. Alone back here, I listen closely for sounds: The barking of tree frogs in the new dark, the call of the pileated woodpecker, the rustling of a large mammal—bear, coyote, boar ?—from back in the woods.

The golden light changes now to a darker umber, and I breathe slowly, using my paddle sparingly so I make almost no sound. A wading bird known as the limpkin screams like a panther from around the next bend. Bartram first described this bird, and I smile to myself knowing that he heard this same cry. Fish are smacking the surface to feed, and small alligators are beginning their slow patience survey of the dark primal water, reclaiming this wild river as completely as the coming night.

Without the noise of my clumsy modern ego to drown everything out, the river regains its preeminence and grace, and seems to reach up and touch something in my soul. The Timucua carved totems to their gods, and planted them at the edge of their mounds on the shores here to protect them, iconic light against the vast darkness.lemoy335

The wilderness like the one that now surrounds me is among the last repositories for the sacredness that once guided entire lives, that forged everlasting bonds between mortals and the gods of the natural world on this peninsula. I paddle deeper in now, paddle until it is full dark, until I am safely beyond the contradictions of modern Florida.

I am in wonder and awe with the evanescent quality of this real bella foresta, a place that truly seems on the verge of dissolving into vapor. I have finally broken through the artificial surrealism of the fantasy worlds, and found my way to one that mindfully threads its way through time.

Back here, everything seems to make sense. Mullet in the tree tops, alligators soaring through the air, wildflowers glowing as if lit from within. Awe, beauty, respect, fear.

I pretend I need to do nothing more in this world than to acknowledge the iconic light. And for all the many hours back home, right up until I reach the major asphalt road, I succeed. Then, I drive out of the relic Florida and into the human-built one, and the warmth of my own delusion vanishes in a volley of oncoming headlights and the nervous bleet of horns.

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