Posted by: floridanature | February 21, 2009

Inside a Florida Spring: Far More Than a GPS Coordinate

I always look forward to a midweek run up into the Ocala National Forest because it reminds me of how diverse our peninsula can be— and, of how distant our interior is from the vision that is so often peddled to tourists. On the drive today, the brilliant Florida winter sun illuminates the ancient white sand under the gentle, rolling hills and swales of pine and scrub.junniper

In no time, I’m off of US 19 and onto the old Ft. Butler Road (US 40) that will lead me to the entrance for Juniper Springs. Although I was here to paddle the run of Juniper not so long ago, I’ve actually spent little time poking around in the woods behind its stream. And now, I’m headed “backstage” to absorb more of the dynamics that bring this sweet spring system to life, that keep it alive . Today is special for another reason: I’m particularly keen on meeting Margaret Ross Tolbert here, an artist who has, over the last 25 years, literally immersed herself in the springs of north Florida.

boilOn my way in, I get directions that will take me beyond the main headspring of Juniper to the second set of springs—Fern Hammock—that are a bit farther back in the woods. I park and walk there, up and over a little wooden bridge. Unlike the larger main spring, Fern Hammock is not bulkheaded; nor is it as open. The oaks and sweet gums and sabal palms here close in overhead on the transparency below, as if protecting it.

There is not one spring here, but many small ones. Some seem as blue as windex, some white from the fine sand that roils up from the soft limestone karst underground. It looks almost like a diorama someone dreamed, so electric it seems plugged in., Margaret arrives soon enough. She drove down from Gainesville; our plan today is to come up with a strategy for a joint presentation we’re to give on the springs of the St. Johns. We figure it makes a lot more sense to meet outdoors at a spring, than in a classroom or other enclosed structure somewhere.

margaretShe’s a striking woman with black hair and dark eyes, a talented artist who also has a wonderful sense of humor about where we are on earth, just now for this moment. We sit on a wooden bench at the edge of Fern Hammock, and I think the many little springs in front of us seem to be re-creating themselves, painting their lives into existence with water and color and light.

We chat some, share some ideas. I know several brilliant artists who paint nature—some are wonderfully enriched souls who render their singular visions of landscapes onto canvas with verve and wisdom. But I’ve never met one of this quality who also has the spirit to go under the surface of our springs.

I do this myself, of course, with my own research, snorkeling and diving into springs and the rocky chasms that funnels water to them. But I’ve done this only as a means—as a tool—to understand, to feel. With the exceptions of a rare few souls, most who do so are caught up in the logistics of the behavior, not unlike those who make adventurous topside journeys on rivers. For almost all, a GPS coordinate has far more meaning than a metaphor.

Small bream at the surface

Small bream at the surface

Art and poetry return human passion to the experience, reminding us of the universal bond of nature and the soul. Philosopher Joseph Campbell has told of exploring this bond, of forging a journey not just into an unknown landscape—but also into the collective unconscious where myths endure. This is the “Hero’s Journey”, made not just for the sake of chest-pounding, but for returning with a gift, a story, a shard of a myth—something to allow insight into that secret, difficult place. It is so much more than just marking coordinates.

This all fascinates me, and I figure just hanging out some should be a dandy reinforcement for my own senses. Stuck here in the world of words, I never learned to paint anything more than a barn door; but, being able to look at magic anew always stirs me. Beyond her impressionistic grasp of the ever-shifting dynamic of springs, Margaret has also discovered a wondrous being to help us take ordinary ideas underwater—and, by doing so, to make them extraordinary. That being is named “Sirena”—for the mythic sirens (and indirectly, for the family of manatees that bring us so much delight.)

margaretshooting Sirena exists underwater, with an umbrella, with a clock, with a tennis racquet. And today, with the accessories of….well…bowling. To this ends, Margaret bought some heavy wooden bowling pins from e-bay and wants to see if they will stay put on the bottom, along with the lawn bowling ball. (The ball does; the pins don’t.) And so, in her next adventure, Sirena will bowl.

I think of this some more, and then we walk about, looking for new containers of liquid light hidden away in the dark-green gloom of the subtropical forest. We see little bream, hanging in place like mobiles, over the transparency. See more sand boils, roiling, like the ones that Marjorie Kinnan Rawings once used at Silver Glen to spin the flutter wheel of little Jody Baxter.100_5025

We see mysticism come to life, and light refracted in ways only God could have ever imagined. We see Sirena and feel that special Florida mythology of ancient wonder, where a hidden energy bores its way out of the soft rock and sand below us and imbues the natural world with its touch, just for now. Margaret uses a word to describe springs, one that means “having all properties, at once”. They absorb, reflect, liquify, all the while seeming both real and not. To dive into a spring is also to dive into a cloud, a shaft of sunlight, a tree canopy.

And then we leave, returning home to our words and our brushes and our imaginations. And when we go, we take just a little bit of the magic with us, determined and certain, that one day, we will again pull it back out of where it lives in our hearts, and return it to the world. And, it will be made somehow different by its travels within.



  1. A good friend of mine, a science teacher, frequently directs me to your blog. These are very well-written essays and I’m amazed that you don’t get more comments!

    I’ll try to spread the word. I’ve never even been to Florida, but your writings resonate with my own experiences.

  2. Thanks much, Larry. Well, I have fun with both the experiences as well as the recording of them. Best of luck to you with your own experiences in nature.

  3. Just dropping by.Btw, you website have great content!

    Seized Cars From $100, Boats, Real Estate, Collectibles And Jewelry. Government And Police Auctions Online

  4. […] A spring in central Florida. (Credit to Florida Nature.) […]

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