Monday, September 19, 2011

The Lightning Forest Chapter Thirteen: The Springs

      You cannot understand interior Florida without understanding the springs. Springs are our sacred mountains. Our burning bush. They loom over the consciousness of every artist, poet, writer, environmentalist, photographer, preacher, and politician. All must come to terms, find the words or the pigments or the peace of mind. Our wells dip their iron tongues there, our poisons seep, our history boils forth, and our future will be settled. Springs flow in our veins and clear our brains. They are easy to ponder and impossible to explain. Their language is religious and the vocabulary is elemental. Springs are all that is superlative in water, earth, and light.

Fern Hammock Springs


     Nowhere else on Earth has as many large, clear springs as Florida. They are clustered predominantly on the eastern Panhandle southward into the North-Central interior. There is a wide variety of spring types. Some are classically clear and fresh. Some smell like sulphur. Some are muddy. Salty oceanic water emerges in the middle of the state in one spring and perfectly clean fresh water rises up on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in another.  Some small secret springs bubble up in secluded forests, some springs explode onto the surface in the middle of tourist experiences that are generations old. Springs have been a central metaphor throughout all of human history and, no doubt, places of high remark for all of animal-kind for millions of years. In Florida, we are caught between the archetypal experience and the complications of modernity.  The list of useful perspectives on springs is long: geological, zoological, paleontological, botanical, hydrological, municipal, economical historical, cultural, political, religious, and aesthetic. Springs hold unique lessons in each one of these disciplines.

      The Creature from the Black Lagoon, filmed in a Florida spring, is the perfect cautionary metaphor for environmental redemption. In the movie, the Creature looked menacing but was actually curious and peaceful. He started as a symbol of nature’s potential. Only when one of the scientists shot him with a spear gun did the Creature turn on the human visitors with predictably deadly results.  He became a symbol of nature unleashed.

      In fact, the springs of Florida have long been known as sanctuaries of peace. William Bartram, in his romantic epic of Floridian discovery beheld “the watery nations…very nature seems absolutely changed, for here is neither desire to destroy or persecute, but all seems peace and friendship; do they agree on a truce, a suspension of hostilities? Or by some secret divine influence, is desire taken away? Or they are otherwise rendered incapable of pursuing each other to destruction?”  Florida’s eminent biologist Archie Carr took the term “jubilee” from an annual Daphne, Alabama seashore event and applied it to the springs. Jubilees are vast congregations of varied sea-life peacefully come together.

      There is no more fundamental spring experience then that of their visceral beauty. If you know nothing of the rare fish living there or their significance to the Timucuan, if you know nothing of hydrology or the impact of watershed run-off, you do know, in your heart, that you’ve never seen anything quite like a Florida spring shining in the morning light.

      The spectacular colors of springs are caused by several factors. Water has its own intrinsic color caused by hydrogen bonds vibrationally absorbing the red end of the spectrum. No other known substance in the universe achieves color this way. Pure water has a faint alluring blue, like a fine aquamarine beryl. The blue of clean glacial ice is caused by the same vibrational absorption. The deeper and more transparent the body of water is, the more noticeable the intrinsic color is. Depth and clarity are hallmarks of Florida springs. Suspended minerals, algae, and sediments impact the color by scattering light or absorbing other wavelengths.  Spring water typically has some dissolved calcium, salt, and magnesium carbonates that it picks up from the vast underground limestone caverns.

Three Sisters Spring



     The bottom of most springs is made of limestone and white sand. The white limestone and white sand reflect most of the sunlight that reaches it, deepening the natural color of clean fresh water. The result is comparable to having two light sources, two suns: one from the sky, one from the spring bottom. The light bouncing up from the bottom of the spring really generates dramatic effects. Light beams through, light beams back. The intrinsic blue is doubled.

            Some of the spring’s color is caused by the sky reflecting on the surface of the water. Some people erroneously believe that sky-reflection is the reason bodies of water are typically blue. It does contribute. Green eel grass waving beneath the surface and abundant vegetation on the shoreline add bright emerald to the palette.

      “Caustic network” is the technical name for the bright web-work of light that is most familiar on the bottom of swimming pools. It is caused by light lensing through ripples and waves on the surface. Caustic light is very common in clear springs. When viewing this web of light from an angle, or if the sun is beaming at an angle, the caustic network is filled with separated light. Rainbows ripple across the bottom surface along the lens lines. Bubbles rise in the water like translucent silver. In some springs, especially those close to oceanic waters, the resident fish are especially polished flickers of silver. 

      That is the official explanation of spring color.

      To actually understand the color of springs though, you must wake up with the sun. There are many good reasons for this. You might as well get to know the sun that will be with you all day. Pick a spring that is known for depth, clarity, and allows swimming. Blue, Rainbow, Alexander, Juniper, Ginnie, Rock, Peacock, and Three Sisters are all great swimming springs. You need to get to there at opening time. No excuses. Be first in line. Take a mask and snorkel. Walk straight for the springhead.

      Rounding the bend in the river, descending the bank, stepping up over the lip of the limestone saucer when there is no other human in sight and the morning sun slants a ray through the palms into the water, and the misting shadows, and the great white egret on the shore burns like a white flame, and there is no interruption… I tell you that you can hear the water rush up out of the subterranean caverns to meet the light.

      Spring water has a symbiotic relationship with sunlight.  They both arrive out of darkness, clear and volatile. Invisible. When mixed, the color explodes. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts.

Blue Springs run (Volusia Co.)

      Take a deep breath and slip quietly in. Do not complain or scream. Calmly tolerate the chill. Disturb as little as possible. You want the egret to accept you. Let the manatee consider you harmless. Look around. Overhead in the circle of sky, a swallow-tailed kite lilts and dips on the breeze. Rest your hand in the sway of eel grass. Everything around you takes on symbolic meaning. A butterfly glides overhead and it represents all of butterfly-dom. The manatee is The Manatee. Your lips turn blue. You are one of Bartram’s peaceful tribes swimming in Carr’s jubilee.

      Put on your mask and immerse. The sun crashes in around you.  Life!  The world opens up. The real world. The one that you never knew existed. The one that makes the world-above seem like a foggy, heavy memory.  Fish by the hundreds, large-eyed and curious, circle over the cavern. Everything you thought you understood about water is a lie. The colors live. You can’t define where one color ends and one begins or how they flare with energy. Beryl, turquoise, aquamarine, chrysocholla, indigo, sapphire, platinum. Every possibility of blue shot through with silver. Spectrums dance on the sand. The flickers of reds, violets, oranges, and yellows stand out in the blue universe. The color is palpable and if only your eyes weren’t so stubborn, you could see the solar photons zip past, touch each molecule, and glow. There is no water now, just this mixing of elements, this reaction of light that you are suspended in. The water in your body has met and melted with the spring, the boundary is erased. You are a concentration of salts and carbon and calcium. You are reduced, but you feel more complete then ever before.


Manatee in King's Spring, Crystal River


      Soon, divers arrive. They are here to go underground. Drawn to the cave mouth, they descend past the sunlit reaction into the colorless subterranean environment. The catacombs beneath Florida are strange, beautiful places. Divers have to endure extensive training and have a bit of a death wish to go down there. Their bubbles wiggle and seep up through the limestone deck, percolating from the seemingly solid rock. A reversed shower of silvery air rising up. The bubbles tickle as they roll along your skin, looking for a way out of the water.

      More swimmers arrive. The egret releases a squawk and labors up over the trees and out of sight. Inner-tubes, inflatables, and footballs float and jostle. Soon, the entire spring crowds with families and teens. The cool water is irresistible on hot summer days. Children yell, cry, and scream. An old Island man catches a harmless Florida water snake and bashes its head against the rock. The snake’s lower jaw hangs slack and bloody. The man holds it triumphantly for kids to examine and touch before throwing the trophy over his head into the woods. Blue crabs shift into their burrows, the endangered spotted gars move down into the darker recesses of the spring run, the silver fish panic, the madtoms and hogchokers shimmy under the sand. A boy pulls the round pink eggs of an apple snail off a reed sticking out of the water and flings them at his brother. The manatee has long since gone downriver. Algae and sediments are stirred up and the waterlight reaction that so enchants blots out. The water is still beautiful, but you have been touched by the pristine.  You have gone from a private epiphany to a chaotic public spectacle.

      Do not leave. This, too, is Florida. Although rough by comparison and intolerable to the senses, this is a ritual, a communal experience.  Children scream for the excitement, finding their identity in this place. Adults are smiling.  Their guard is down. Some part of them will want this to last forever.

      Not far away from where I live, up in the forest, Anne Marie Campbell of Tennessee was snorkeling in Sweetwater spring when she was taken by the head and shoulders by a 10 foot alligator. From that point of attack, there was no way Anne Marie could fight back. The gator simply had surprise and leverage, as death always does. She did not survive. My heart mourns for her, caught in an aqua-Eden and stolen by its most dominating deity. The newspaper headlines panicked across the country. Gators bite spring swimmers every few years. They are uncompromising and swift, but they are almost never deadly. Anne Marie suffered for being hypnotized and horizontal in the waterlight. She lived the way we should all live. Authorities never found the offending gator.

      For all the horror of the attack, it isn’t any more horrible then dying in a car wreck or a prolonged hospital bed. It doesn’t have any more personal significance. But springs impart metaphorical power onto the world around them. Remember the butterfly and manatee from your swim? Everything is magnified and archetypal. The two elemental substances of life, light and water, become pure there and reach their full potential. Anne Marie’s death resonates inside all of us, a reminder of the human condition. We mourn because the laws of nature are not suspended in springs as we thought, as we hoped they would be. The nations don’t really live peacefully in the pellucid waters. They are not really jubilees. Or at least, Man is permanently excluded from the crystalline peace. That realization and its consequences rush up through the cavernous soul like a spring itself. Our collective memory recalls the dynamiting, the concrete restrictions, the drilling, the spear fishing, the tying of ropes around manatees so someone can ride them, the hunting, the building of docks, and the bottling of waters. Even Carr, a man whom I have the utmost respect for, a better man than I will ever be, caught five sheephead from the jubilee at Homosassa. Just like the scientist in the Creature movie and the Islander with the water snake, Man chooses to break the peace. Man casts himself out. The cerulean ethers, the nympheum, the great flat-cut jewels are transcendentally beautiful reminders of our banishment. Each time you swim is a baptism. Springs are church, not heaven.




Please note that the poems and narratives on this site are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without the author's permission.


No comments:

Post a Comment