Posted by: floridanature | April 23, 2009

A Florida Spring: Both more & less than I’ll ever know

100_5149It is early and Sunday, and there’s a refreshing coolness in the air. We drive in to the nearby state forest, over 20,000 acres, a relic landscape that gently cascades down from scrub to flatwoods and then hardwood hammock and tea-colored southern river, surrounded by swamp. The terrain is ahaped by freefall motion and time, in a speed too slow to register in the human heart.

A few other visitors are here today, odd for this vast stretch of wilderness, but most are intent on fishing or launching kayaks near the old concrete bridge that crosses the Blackwater Creek. I drive past them, wave to one of the fisherman, and then enter another series of canopied roads, more like thick foliage tunnels, really. We crawl along atop old berms, sloughs to both sides from the excavated fill, and hydric hammock spreading out just beyond.

100_5146It’s my friend’s Yvette’s birthday, and I offered to take her to a place she’d never seen, somewhere deep in the subtropical forest where little springs still burst up from the ground. It’s been over two years since I’ve been to these particular springs, and I overshoot the trail, blissfully driving onward to where the dirt road splits three ways. We get out here and hike a bit atop another berm until finally I realize nothing looks familiar. We return to the jeep, backtrack, and then find the right trail, one bracketed by shiny wild blueberry bushes, little fruits ready to be edible soon, a bear’s dream come true. From there, we hike in, only a mile or so. Ahead, I see the thick green wall of hickory and sweetgum open up, and know the high bluff surrounding the springs is somewhere nearby. This hidden little system is named, oddly enough, Palm Springs.100_5169

The bluff falls away into a valley of willow and sabal palm and wild grape vines, and we skirt the edge of it, headed for where the foliage opens below, just enough to reveal a clear ribbon of spring water sneaking its way through the landscape. We stand at the top, marveling at the sharp drop in the terrain that leads to the tiny creek. The valley seems almost like a steephead, a rare formation created when water flows laterally underground, finally collapsing the surface and rock above by the force of its erosion. A three sided valley remains from the collapse, and the lateral flows continue. But this place is somehow different, since the vents are in the base of the valley and not seeping from its walls.

We carefully step our way to the bottom, headed for the little portal in the willows. The water is transparent here, but the sandy earth is reddish underneath, the sign of iron being exuded, perhaps from the soil, the water, or both. Bacteria, likely nurtured by the iron, grows in white clumps, edges splayed out in filigrees of organic tentacles. Fat little minnows converge here, all trying to point their snouts upstream, in the strong run. There are killifish and gambusia and sailfin mollies, some with the distinct melanistic blotches of black, miniature dalmations recreated as tiny fish. An ebony jewelwing, the damselfly with the opalescent body, an insect seldom found too far away from a spring, flits nearby, and a bird I can’t identify calls happily from the treetops somewhere.

100_5150These springs were once impounded when the land was privately owned, creating a large, deep sullen pool for god knows what. Now, with the impoundment breeched, the weight of the water that once reduced the magic upwelling to a trickle, has gone, and the earth is returning itself to life.

I figure it would be fun to try to find all the little vents, and so we move a ways back up the sides, just far enough to find a good approach to the fretwork of scrub and small trees clustered around the flowing headsprings. We push our way through the wild grape vines and brush, coming out on no less than six separate boils. New, bright green leaves of the leather fern cluster near some of them. Although most of the upwellings are hidden below the surface, at least two springs push the water up with such force it seems there’s a faucet underneath, creating distinct little fountains. Of course, I think of Bartram’s description of the Florida springs as “fountains of ether”; back then, even the large ones like Salt and Blue were powerful enough to rise up in flowing eruptions from the belly of each boil, no compromise of the recharging uplands to diminish the wonder.

We squat next to the upwellings, one at a time, take a few pictures, absorb the alchemy of water and sky seeming to converge near our feet as one. We do this for a long time.billhike

Back up the bluff, we pass a field of prickly pear cactus, many of them sporting wonderful sun-yellow blossoms, the great irony of softness and sharpness in the same plant, nature’s little zen joke. A few of the flat cactus pads have bites taken from them, and I notice that each is about the size of the horny mouth of a gopher tortoise. Without deciding what to do, we simply sit under a small magnolia tree, cool here in the shade; we break out some delicious nuts Yvette had sautéed in a pan, and some water. Soon, I lay back and put my hands behind my head, watching the great diorama of the sky move beyond the leaf canopy that, just for now, protects us, as if it is our home.

We talk some, relax, retune our senses to the rhythms around us, shed a few layers of “civilization.” Yvette is amazed that the absence of sound seems to produce a sound itself, except one that is calming. Finally, it seems as if we should try to make our way down the side of the bluff that slopes sharply towards the swamp, to the place where the spring run will converge with the Blackwater. And so, we do this for a bit, struggling through thicker vines, cat briar, thorny blackberry thickets. But when we finally reach the run, we are still a distance from the larger river.

100_5165Back up we go, more appreciative now of the dramatic rise and fall of the topography. I pause, just for a moment, and when I do, I focus. The aperture opens, just enough to allow the vision of a perfectly formed dusky pygmy rattler to settle in. It is full grown, maybe 18 inches, and it is spectacularly etched with a brilliant crosshatch, the same pattern the Timucua incised into their pottery and wood. The little snake neither moves nor acknowledges our presence. I clumsily fumble with my camera, and snap off a few shots before the rattler vanishes, dissolving back into nature, just as gators dissolve into the water at twilight, molecule by molecule.

100_5156Funny, but I’ve only seen snakes when my hiking companion is a woman; often, they see them before I do. All have been smart, striking—sometimes downright beautiful like Yvette—and it all leaves me wondering about the wakefulness of snakes, and why they only reveal themselves to me when a female is nearby. I figure it’s not mere surface beauty, but a deeper aesthetic of the soul, a sort of ecological unity of purpose, bound by poetry. Men, hunters all these many lifetimes, forged ahead with singleminded bloodlust; women, left to gather seeds and plants and to ponder the gods, stored their own wisdom, instead of letting it leak away in great primal surges.

And so now, we head back towards home on my friend’s day of birth, taking these moments with us, knowing only for sure that springs can still flow and valleys rise and fall, and tiny, exquisite vipers can appear, seemingly at will. Nature never fails to both awe and to humble me, reminding me that I only have the illusion of knowing. That, just in case I think I have it all figured out, I really ought to look more closely.

Nature, left to her mystic devices, did what was needed.

I was just along for the ride.




  1. My wife Tammy and I visited Seminole SF twice just last week. We’ve hiked there before but had never gotten the permit to drive in and therefore had never made it pass the flatwoods and scrub. A perfect place to spend one’s birthday, or any other day for that matter.

  2. Thanks for the comments on Maya and SSF, Joe. Both have that rare quality of “enchantment”–a forest with hidden springs, a bookstore with hidden secrets around every corner. Glad you, too, enjoy both.

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