Posted by: floridanature | November 23, 2009

On Discovering New Springs: The Comfort of Relic Lyrics

The long black strip known as SR 46 is an asphalt blur as it rolls across two northeast Florida counties, only dipping conspicuously when it approaches the river valley. I have entertained myself by reading bumper stickers on the vehicles that appear and disappear in front of me. From a battered pick-up: “Barrel Racer, Cowboy Chaser”. And from a large American sedan: “Beer: Helping White Men Dance Since 1942”.

I thankfully exit the volley of traffic at the entrance to the Seminole State Forest, driving in past the self-pay kiosk and pick up Steve, who is ready to unlock the combo on the cattle gate across the dirt road, as soon as I give him the number. I have most recently finished writing a new book, and Steve has finished teaching a grad course on Bartram. It has been months since we have hiked together, and when Steve walks to the lock, he claps his hands, as if in gracious applause of an impending performance.

Trail through the Scrub

We drive in beyond the open gate, no hunting season for a couple weeks, but some trees still hung with the bright plastic flagging near-sighted hunters use to find their way in and out of the thick subtropical forest. The road takes us through the uplands—dry scrub and even sandhills, a stunted forest of saw palmetto and myrtle and oak, just tall enough so the rare scrub jays can flit low, calling to each other in their ancient songs.

The terrain drops gradually near the Blackwater, taller oak and even cypress back along the shore, and then up again to the valley slope on the other side of the creek. We park near Shark’s Tooth Spring, and shouldering our packs, walk a narrow trail up into the sandy scrub. The slope rises dramatically, and muscles on the back of my calves I hardly ever use on the Florida flatlands begin to come awake.

Ahead, we see a pair of scrub jays, the blue on their backs far more vivid than other jays, not unlike the color of deeper springs I have seen before. A third joins them, and instead of fleeing, they prance about in the low trees, spooking a few other birds, including a yellow-bellied thrasher and a catbird. They always seem gregarious and friendly, but I realize that’s my own human-mammal precept. The low altitude of the stunted forest here keeps them from flying to higher branches—but, more to the point, they evolved without the sort of predators that might make them want to.

The dry scrub, sand as white and fine as that of a Gulf beach, projects a very unique look, not unlike a rolling desert with a patina of green. The diversity of plants and animals is far less than in the swamp down at the base of the slope. But what’s here is special, sometimes even endemic, like the jays.

"Rock Cub" Spring

The northern edge of the Lake Wales Ridge trails through this forest, allowing us a look at one of the most endangered natural systems in our country. Author John McPhee, who has taught me so much about the joys of detailed observation, was one of the first non-Floridians to celebrate the values of the scrub in his book “Oranges”. Thirty and forty years earlier, author M. K. Rawlings described the feeling of this scrub in several novels. (In her incarnation, it was harsh and unforgiving to settlers who homesteaded it, more a man-against-uncaring-force-of-nature reality than an ecological lesson.)

We are walking across what is mapped as “Sulphur Island”, an ancient shoal from a distant prehistoric sea, a relic of a couple of square miles that first pushed up from the blue and then, with other islands, coalesced into The Ridge. A study once characterized Sulphur Island as “sandhill karst” hiding the uplifted limestone of the Floridan Aquifer below.

Our upward jaunt is just a warm-up, a prelude to our plans to follow the sloping terrain downward, all the way to the bottom of the hardwood swamp below. There, with the wetlands nearly dry from drought, we hope to trace the more defined creeks, maybe find some new springs that otherwise would be drowned by the swamp. It is the “sandhill karst” that makes this so: While some water seeping out of the springs has been in the limestone for decades—longer, even—the porous scrubland is excellent recharge that allows new rains to quickly revitalize the springs of the swamp.

A couple more miles takes Steve and I across the last of the white sand, and down a steep slope to the edge of the soggy landscape. There is a spring here we have visited for several years, one not on a trail, but which can be found by carefully watching the landmarks—all of which change over time:  A tall gray snag; a berm of white sand; a blue blaze on a pine raked by the strong claw of a black bear until it bleeds golden sap. Isobars, the lines on the topo map that marks the rise and fall in the land, squeeze up tightly here. Which means the next 30-40 feet are at an angle remarkable for this part of Florida—an angle steep enough to send you in a good foot-first tumble if you try to rush it, as I once did.

Berry-rich Bear scat

The perspective from the top is always one I cherish, though: Standing right at the edge of the steep drop, I look out across the flat swamp below, watch as the shafts of sunlight dance on the fine silica in the run of the spring, prisms of silver and white inside the wondrous jungle of green—geology as alive as the organic walls that surround it.

At the bottom, we circle the large natural limestone boulder that—to me—has always looked like a small bear dipping his head to drink of the clear water that swirls around his paws. In honor of this, we call it variously “Stone Cub” or “Rock Cub” spring. The state of Florida, which only recently charted this spring, reached deep into its prosaic imagination, and named it “Boulder”.

From Rock Cub, we move through the swamp bottom, scrambling up to an old trail that’s tiered mid-slope to give us an easier go. We joke, as usual, about Steve’s reliance on maps and gadgetry, and my paleolithic insistence on paying attention to the way the landscape unfolds around us for clues. Either way, we’ve really only have been lost a couple of times really good, and never for more than a few hours.

We talk about what we see and have seen, the scrub jays, the flow of the little spring, the new pile of bluish nuts that is fresh bear scat, the way we are so fortunate to have such a place like this, ever so close to bumper-to-bumper traffic and deadening sprawl. We speak of naturalist Bartram, as we usually do, and wonder—as one of Steve’s students recently asked—why he never mentions the very-prevalent sweet gum tree, and only once lists it in an inventory of plants.

Steve’s new grad course is “The Song of Creation from Walt Whitman to Ernesto Cardenal”, and will rely on the energy of Whitman’s own keystone epic to help explain how others have woven their own stories into a mystic celebration of self, of nature, of transcendence of geography and time.  I have only started reading Cardenal, a Nicaraguan priest who once studied under Thomas Merton—an activist not content to simply write lyrics when his own country was being trundled by powerful bullies. Whitman, the true democratic poet of nature and spirit,  once wrote: “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable”.  A century later, Cardenal and others said the same, men and women with enough true courage to jostle the stasis of  their time. And, what is the point of deep feeling if you can’t take it beyond the elitism of poetry, music, art ?

Walt Whitman, 1854

All this resonates so deeply with me, especially now that we’re inside a prehistoric terrain, a moist bottomland that—having resisted burns—reasserts itself to us, to anyone who cares to fully absorb it. Steve, not content to rely on his academic credentials or his classroom “performances”, knows the value of “feeling” the wildness of a place, and is not afraid to express it.

I sympathize with it all because I too am not a bit tamed— nor always translatable. And I take great joy in that because the landscape now surrounding me is likewise situated: To fully know the worth of the complex scrub, the karst, the swamp is to appreciate what can not always be translated—but which certainly can be deeply felt. It is the senses that do that.

And onward we go, next locating another spring, one marked by the upland plateau of an open field rimmed by piney woods. This one is not on a trail, either. It is one that—because of the elegant sweetgum trunk that arches out from one edge—we once named “Sweetgum.” (The state, as rich in imagination as a shelf of auto parts at Wal-Mart, then charted it as “Mud.”)

"Sweetgum Spring"

From Sweetgum, we move carefully along the northern shore, stepping on fallen branches and stumps to keep from sinking into the green and soggy morass that was, until just recently, covered with water. I’m heartened to see so many of the rare Needle Palms growing in great clutches, to see the many ways mosses and lichens colonize the snags and the trunks.

There is a creek running through here that transports the outflows from several small springs, and it is called Sulphur Run. (In turn, it confluxes with the Blackwater, and then later the Wekiva and the St. Johns.) Reports have hinted that Sulphur Run—which can, during high water, be formidable—simply flows out of a swamp. Given the karst limestone that holds sway over this landscape, though, I have always believed it arose from a spring, or series of springs.

Needle Palm

And so, we stumble along in this mostly dark swamp, down here for almost three hours now. When light does penetrate, it filters through the canopy,  flashing on the quartz and fossil shards in the spring runs. If the upland scrub—bright and airy—is a natural atrium, then this is the monastery, cool and sacred, cypress knees a choir that seems ready to burst into a Gregorian chant at any moment.

Suddenly, the creek we follow unexpectedly changes course and flows upstream instead of down! Somehow, a branch has sluiced away, and that means the two-pronged juncture of its leaving  may lead to a new spring.

We agree to split up and each follow one of the prongs of the run, and to meet back here in five minutes. And off we go, the soft organic animal that is the swamp swallowing up any sound of movement before we are barely  a hundred feet apart.

Sabal Palm Trunk Springs

And then finally, when I am back in so far that I have lost track of which direction will lead me home with any certainty, I see it. It is small but deep, and water is magically rising up to it, surging from under a toppled sabal palm trunk. It is a spring, one not yet mapped. I shout out to Steve with excitment, but am not sure if he hears me or not.  There is yet another flowing rill nearby, and I’m compelled to follow it. I do, and within minutes, I find a second new spring—this one rising up from a dark hole in the floor of the swamp, augmented with a nearby seep flavored with the pungent scent of white, sulfur-rendering bacteria.

Steve and I soon regroup, and we more closely examine the new “vents”. Steve takes a GPS reading, and we then name each: “Sabal Trunk Spring”, and —for the very last upstream spring with the sulfur smell—“Sulphur Run Head Spring.”  They are modest vats of transparent water upwelling from the rock and humus, creating runs alive with gambusia and killifish, flowing ever onward, towards an eventual rendezvous with the sea itself. It is the same sea that once accrued the limestone, porous rock that enfolds the hydrology piping each cryptic vein of water to the surface, guiding it from the darkness to the light.


It is understandable that others have figured the swamp itself was the headwaters of this run. Its inundation—except for just now—has hidden its secrets very well, indeed.

And I smile broadly at the primeval greenscape of vines and palms and ferns around me, smile in great appreciation and Thanksgiving— for the companionship of a true friend, for the tacit desire to go beyond the safe and ordinary, for the gift of never having sought comfort in being tamed or translatable, simply because we are told to be so.

And finally, I wish a silent but ineffably earnest Thanksgiving for all—especially those deep hearted souls who are always out there, seeking the next clear spring hidden away in the emotional landscape of myth— never worrying how well the search translates, just sure that in some way, it always will.



  1. Billy: Really great writing and a wonderful hike. Best, Terry

  2. Here’s to the joys of long ties to the wild places in our own backyards and our spirits, and to those friends who tromp out with us to find these treasures.
    And, to those who write about them with such unhurried, keen observations.
    As a resident much farther north, I was also surprised to learn of needle palms in Lake Wales Ridge.
    Thanks for a lovely piece of writing.

  3. Thanks much, Kathy, for the kind words. As you well know, it helps to have a natural place like this one to help launch the words and thoughts and feelings. It’s as if we are doing our best to fit semantics to the real magic of the place itself. To do any less would seem terribly unfair.

    (As for the Needle Palms: They don’t grow up on the relic shard of The Ridge, but down in the adjacent swamp where they seem to thrive.)

  4. I would love to have a book of your adventures near Saint Augustine and the Ocala National Forest. Do you have such?
    Thanks, Janice

  5. Hi Janice-
    Thanks for asking. I have a new book that’s a collection of these sorts of essays from throughout Florida. It’s entitled “Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost & Found in the State of Dreams”. UPF is publishing it, but it won’t be “launched” until later in 2010 or very early in 2011.

    (Usually try to post updates of events and books on my Authors Guild site: – bb

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