Posted by: floridanature | May 18, 2009

Lake Woodruff: On Being Absorbed by a Stained Glass Window

palmetto in bloom

palmetto in bloom

I’m searching for symmetry today, as I so often do when allowed to roam about freely in nature. Symmetry isn’t the half-mad early Saturday morning drivers on Interstate Four exhaling road rage in repayment for leading obsessively structured lives. Nor is the perfect geometry of human-built environments. For me, it’s the splendid visual link between what others once saw in natural systems in Florida, and what exists now.BestGBHMarsh

My old spiritual bud, the naturalist Billy Bartram, found both adventure and discovery here, almost 250 years ago when venturing up the St. Johns in his little sailing “bark”, sketching plants and animals, sleeping on fine “mattresses” of Spanish moss, and becoming one with this wonderfully wild and strange new place.

I cherish Bartram’s approach—not just because he traveled all by himself on his second trip up this Florida river. But because he was guileless, forging ahead not for glory or gold, like the conquistadors before him (or the greedy manipulators of land and people who came after), but for the sublime unity of purpose, revealed in nature and place. Spirituality was woven through it all, not excised to a contained moment for one hour, just on Sunday.

 duckpotatoOur plan today is to enter the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge from somewhere near Spring Garden Lake, a place Audubon once drifted through on his own Florida excursion, a bit after Bartram. The lake narrows into a large creek, winds around high stands of pine flatwoods and some hammocks, empties in the enormous Lake Woodruff. Finally, it sieves about some more land—including Tick island where I had been by boat a few weeks ago—and finally joins  with Lake Dexter, which flows north within the complex St. Johns system. The names here have changed: Bartram’s “East Lake” is Woodruff; Audubon’s “Spring Garden Spring” is now Ponce DeLeon Spring. But so much else remains. After all, as Billy once noted: “This world, as a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator…is inexpressibly beautiful and equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all of his creatures.” Birds, plants, animals, man. No single one is greater than the other in this grand equation. 

marshgrassSteve is my companion today, and as always, he is intrepid. We park near a trail head, and picking one of several high and dry pathways atop berms between impoundments, head out into the wide generous landscape of wetlands under an expansive blue sky decorated with shifting banks of cumulus. It might rain today, it might not. For now, it is sunny, and by 9 am, pleasant with a nice breeze wafting across the marvelously flat Florida terrain, this mosaic of sabal palms and bulrush, sawgrass in an early and unexpected bloom, fields of pickerel weed bursting with purple rods, clutches of flags like the duck potato, little orchids in miniature at the end of stalks inside fat green spatulate leaves.

skyflowerThe water in the canals is low, far more so than it should be for early summer, and the wading birds are having a field day on the tiny fish concentrated in the ever-drying sloughs. Large dragonflies, organic little choppers that  consume enormous quantities of mosquitoes when hungry, are everywhere.  I notice a small dead tree, an artistic sort of snag, really, and at the tip of each leafless branch, there is a perched dragonfly, as if they have budded here, just like a new sprout. Dragonfly tree, I say out loud, and Steve smiles.

We follow a topo map in and across a “Jones Island”, likely named for an early settler who once homesteaded here. Like the nearby Tick Island, its relief is mostly from the accruing of shells, bone and sand over the centuries, a reminder of the presence of the “earth people” who once lived here. At first the landscape on both sides is open, stretching to distant sabal palm hammocks in the distant.  At the edge of a berm, Steve faces the broad wet prairie, grasses and sedges and rushes, all raging with the chlorophyll of late spring. Like so much here in this warm and wet peninsula, the revitalized green seems off the color spectrum, as if a magic surrealist had made up another color, just to emphasize the other-worldly quality of this place. The expansiveness of it all is affecting, allowing the soul the tender freedom to roam. Steve once studied in the seminary, and as well as anyone I have ever met, fully understands how natural places inform the heart. A marsh like this makes the spirit sing, says Steve, and I think, yep, it sure does.

 The morning breeze is light, perfect for a trek without shade. I begin to notice wildflowers, sometimes seven or eight species in just a few yards at the edges of the berms.  There is the star rush, a grass-like sedge that looks as if someone has dipped the leaf tips into white paint. There are fields of the yellow daisy-like flowers called tickseed, the fat puffy blossoms of the bachelor’s buttons, and a tiny forest of the pipeworts, little white puffs on the end of a tiny, straight stalks.  There are vines of white morning glories, a glorious five-petaled blossom I take to be a sky flower. There are even white blossoms on the saw palmettos. And when the land rises just a bit towards the pine flatwoods, I notice the tight little fruits on the wild blueberry are now ripe. GBHhead

We walk some more, enter a spacious canopy atop firebreak roads, the swamps dry on each side from the extended drought, recent water marks on some cypress trunks revealing a sheet flow of water that was once up to  our waists. Finally, we dead-end into Spring Garden Creek, sit atop some piles of shells the Timucua left behind, and like the natives had done here for 6,000 years, we drink and we eat, and allow the solitude of mystery and water and place to settle in. Funny, I seem to feel it all the way down to the very core of myself, feel a kinship with the deep-hearted affection, love and fear and awe, that others here had felt before me.

We hike back out, through the canopied trail, back into the open marsh, much warmer now with the late Florida afternoon. Four sandhill cranes are in a mud slough below the berm, two adults foraging for worms and such, two giant chicks standing there to learn, the soft spiky down of new feathers giving them a slightly bewildered look. Another mile and we see great colonies of snowy and great white egrets, and nearby, a flock of black-headed vultures

with a lone roseate spoonbill, a bird so Sensitive Briar  rare here it’s not even on the bird check-list   for the refuge.  The roseate is young, almost all white, not having eaten enough of the carotene-enriched crustaceans to yet turn it pink. Oddly, all of the vultures seem to be eyeing the white roseate, and Steve suggests it may be injured, that the carrion-eaters are waiting for it to die.

roseaVultresThis distresses me, as I want to believe it’s just resting. I figure the vultures are simply waiting for everything to die, just a matter of time before the nearby peninsula cooters kick off, a gator goes belly up, a stray ornithologist bites the dust—It’s simply in their nature. And soon, I am rewarded with this when the young roseate takes to the air, joining a few of his buds atop a bare patch of peat and marl.

watermarkOut we go over the long, narrow berms, sweating now from the sun, but exhaling in all that is good about the world around us, refreshed not just in the solace of the twelve mile walk, but in the symmetry of all I have seen. Bartram’s sovereign Creator smiled on us today, and I give thanks in my heart, embedding this day in that sweet memory place I once knew as a little boy, sitting in a pew with my family in church. The stained glass windows seemed as if they glowed then with a sort of luminosity. And here, now, on this Florida marsh, the water and land and endless sky does likewise, another mystic bridge of symmetry quietly weaving its way through time.

All that’s needed is a Bach prelude, and if I listen closely enough, I think I can hear the faintest strains of one, rising from the soft murmur of the marsh.


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