Posted by: floridanature | February 20, 2011

A Florida River at Night: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I drive down a dirt road atop a massive pre-Columbian Indian midden, bleached and knobby snail shells packed tightly just under the patina of grasses and fresh, white modern gravel. The river is flowing ever so gently just as it has for thousands of years, and the midden slopes down as if to greet it.

I park as close to the shore as I can, and undo the straps holding down my kayak on the car roof. The sun will disappear below the horizon in less than an hour—but it will hide behind the tree line of cypress and sweetgum and bay well before that. The residual light of day is a luxury now, and it allows me the clarity to get my small boat down and into the water without hesitation. When I return to this shore later in the night, it will take me three to four times as long to re-load in the dark.

"Sunset on the St. Johns River" by George Herbert McCord (1878) click to enlarge

We’re here for the rising of the full moon over this subtropical Florida river, an event that will take place in a few more hours. The sight of a full moon over water has always fascinated me, something in the way the pale light glows on the dark liquid that just makes it feel righteous. When I started paddling years ago, I realized I could go beyond the role of a mere spectator and actually become a participant in this aesthetic of nocturnal light, and so I do.

 

Certainly, it’s an aesthetic that goes far beyond the visual image— particularly one seen from a remote or safe distance. It’s a whole experience of the senses, one you can at once smell, feel, hear, taste, maybe even intuite on a more sublime level.

And you can also move atop the actual liquid itself, allowing the reflection of the pale light to close around you. Early lyricists—like the Chinese poet Lu Yu—were taken with this notion, even when it happened on land. To walk in the moonlight, the 12th century poet wrote,  is to “ride the moon.”

We push away from shore, my fellow paddler and I, catching the slightest flex of the current that pulls us downstream. Instead of staying in the main channel—which I seldom do, under any circumstances—I firmly plant my paddle to turn the kayak, and then head for an opening in the shoal of vegetation at mid-river. There’s enough room for us to make it through, although barely. As we go, large mullet spook in the shallow water around us, some of them creating loud sploshing sounds with silver bodies, fins, and tails.

The water plant known as pennywort is thick here and I notice the round heads of the plant are larger than usual, each the size of a small, green saucer. Although gentle, the current is ceaseless, and has neatly trimmed the edges of the fields of pennywort so rigorously it almost seems human-made.

”]The sun has fallen below the top of the tallest cypress now, and the refracted late day light is working its particular magic on the river world, tracing a delicate balance between fading sunlight and gathering dusk. Twilight does this most everywhere, of course. But it seems particularly pronounced here in Florida, where the ever-moist subtropical air imbues the sky and water with a thousand versions of crimson, saffron, ochre.

 

Just ahead atop a snag, a black-crowned night heron—a rare wading bird that hunts after dark—crouches, looking more like a skinny owl than a heron at all. Elsewhere, great clumps of dry vegetation seem poised like topiary, mimicking the mastodons that once hunted these same waters, an Ice Age or so ago.

It’s still February, but the bare trees are sprouting new green and the animals are beginning to wake from the mild dormancy of our Florida winter. The specks are bedding, and some of the birds beginning to nest. A flock of large red-breasted birds flitter in the tree tops, and I see it’s a band of robins headed north to announce the arrival of Spring. 

There’s something ineffably lovely about the light and the way it lays upon this place. It helps me understand better why the landscape painters from the northeast traveled here in droves by the 19th and early 20th century—Heade, Hunt, Herzog, McCord, Moran, and more. The images of water and light they captured spoke to an intimacy with a landscape—but, it also spoke to a precise art able to capture a fleeting moment in one special place on earth.

If twilight is ephemeral by its nature, it most certainly is here on this Florida canvas where one color morphs into another, before splitting again and then fading forever into night. Art historians describe the style of those early Florida landscape painters as “evanescent”— each precious and heartbreakingly lovely image they captured looked as if it were ready to dissolve into the ether. And, of course, that is exactly what that real life moment was also preparing to do.

All of life is that way, of course, far more fleeting than our ego-driven mammalian brains would ever allow us to admit. But here, on the cusp of light and darkness of a Florida river, it is not a matter of intellectually accepting or denying truth.  The half light of this river will quickly be gone; and like a stunningly brilliant and beautiful woman you once knew, the aesthetic of it will be made even more so by the knowledge of its transience. It is not a choice; it simply is.

A few yards away, a large gator—startled by my noises—nearly propels itself entirely out of the water, vertically. Its loud splash interrupts the silent grandeur of the moment. But, within seconds, all is calm again, as if the river has transported the memory of the experience downstream with its flow.

The full moon-rise lays ahead, and in time, will announce itself from inside another tree line, ascending into the eastern sky, nearby opposite from where the sun has now disappeared. Vines in the forest seem to become animated by the light, quivering in situ like large bodied snakes.  

If transience fuels this moment in nature, so too does the rich diversity of color and life—it is so much more than what a temperate landscape would support. I figure if the sheer lushness of this place wasn’t enough to overwhelm the senses of early visitors, artists, and writers, then the surreal opportunity of being attacked by giant lizards, cougars, and assorted vipers likely was. If La Florida wasn’t too pretty and too luxuriant and too ripe, then it was too dangerous.

We paddle nearly instinctively now, and I notice that the energy of the senses has created its own momentum, as sure as the V-line of a wake my hull leaves behind in the dark liquid. The particular scent of the water can be acknowledged; the fresh coolness of the air can be absorbed by the pores of the skin; the calls of the birds and the animals can be heard, somewhere beyond sound.

What emerges is a profoundness of being, one that trumps any intellectual pretense that may have tried to smuggle its way along. Despite all we have done to sweep it clean from the imagination, the true natural Florida remains, inextricable and sure, and I am thankful for the everlasting possibilities of its soul. More fish jump and splash, a gator groans, and a radiant, pale glow rises from behind a crown of cypress to the east. Paddle in hand, I push forward, riding the moon into the Florida river night.

.

Another ephemeral Florida image by George Herbert McCord from more than a century ago.
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Responses

  1. Gosh, bud, pretty cool trip. I’d be a little nervous about the gators I can’t see. I’ve seen some pretty big ones on the Econ.

  2. Bill, I was on the paddle with you, could smell the leafy tannins and night dews. Nicely written. Thanks for the journey.

  3. As a child I spent a lot of time on dark rivers and lakes in La Florida. This brings it back so nicely and makes me want to go again. Thanks.

  4. Thanks for very nice comments, guys.
    Am figuring if you can’t be out on a river, lagoon, or ocean, the next best thing is to remember the last time you were….

  5. Your beautiful words have inspired a painting. I have titled it “On the Cusp of Light and Darkness,” from your narrative. I would be happy to e mail the image to you.


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