Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the only way you could find a spring near Gainesville was to be taken or told how to get there by someone who knew. There were few highway signs, no readily available springs maps, no Internet with new springs discussion groups welling up every day. The way to the springs passed directly from someone’s mouth to your ears. The springs were self-secret—like the Vajrayana.
I can’t remember which friend took me to Poe Springs, where a rope swing hung from an ancient oak on the bank above the greenish water.
My creative writing teacher, Carolyn (Cissy) Arena Wood, told me how to get to Ginnie Springs: Take County Road 340 west out of High Springs past the chicken farm, past Poe and then Blue Springs (the only spring that had a sign), go under one set of large power lines and a second set of smaller lines, turn right onto a dirt road that ran along a shaded fence line and then took a sharp curve to the right before finally curving left down into the woods, where you could smell the spring before you saw it.
“Come on girls, I found a new spring, let’s go.” Chad, my pizza-delivery-guy roommate from Fort Lauderdale who had a Plymouth Barracuda that we called the Blue Fish, took our other roommate Pam and me to Ichetucknee Springs for the first time. We were the only people there on a fall afternoon in the year before the State of Florida bought the property to turn it into a state park.
The springs grabbed me and held on; I was enraptured.
Today, over 45 years later, the memories of my spring-hopping days come back to me in snippets, like scenes from a movie.
At Poe and at Ginnie Springs, I swing out over the boil and let go, fall suspended in a bardo between earth and sky, then plunge into 72-degree water and come up gasping for air.
Late on weekday afternoons, I am the only person at Ginnie Springs where I do laps around the vent in water so crystalline that it reflects the sky’s blue. When I get tired, I float on my back while sunlight falls in slanting shafts through the surrounding trees and dapples my eyelids.
Or I visit Ginnie on a weekend when there’s a crowd. I spend some time in the main spring and keep a keen eye out for snakes as I hike past an old hollow cypress tree up to Devil’s Eye and Devil’s Ear. Again I enter the water, swim across the river to July Springs, then back across to Ginnie. I trek down to Dogwood and Twin Springs, just big enough to dip into, and return to the main spring for one last lap before heading home.
Or I camp at Ginnie one cold winter night with friends from my college’s zookeeper training program. My black 1968 VW Beetle sinks in muck near Devil’s Eye on the way to the campsite, but several strong young male classmates simply pick it up and lift it to safety.
Driving out Ginnie one afternoon after a frog-strangler rainstorm, I notice that the dirt road along the fence line has transformed into a long puddle with quite a few cars parked at the other end. People have gotten out of their cars and are standing around talking to each other. I am about halfway through the puddle when I realize that my VW bug is floating! I exit the puddle and chug along toward the springs, but as I pass the stranded drivers I notice that they are all staring at my car with their mouths hanging open.
Ginnie is a magnet for SCUBA divers and relations between divers and swimmers are not always the most cordial. I float on my back one afternoon when I feel a hard bump from underneath. I roll over and come eye-to-eye with a diver who has just emerged from the cave and hit me with his air tank. We glare at each other and he swims away.
My friend Kathi and I are the only people at Ginnie and we decide it would be a good idea go skinny-dipping. We are happily paddling around in the spring when we look up to see a van full of divers arriving on the bank! As quickly as we can, we scurry onto the bank and into our clothes.
That autumn afternoon in 1969 with just the three of us at Ichetucknee is magical. Sunlight is afire on saffron and crimson leaves; the aquamarine water is cold and bracing. We splash into the headspring and Chad climbs up onto one of the big limestone rocks, produces a bar of soap he had hidden in a pocket of his swim trunks, and lathers up while singing a bath soap jingle. We dissolve into laughter.
Later, I climb the little hill above the spring and away from my friends and hear, dimly at first and then more and more clearly, a murmur of voices in a language I have never heard and do not understand. Convinced there must be someone else in the woods, I stand up and turn in a complete circle, searching between the trees for signs of human life. There is no one else there.
The springs of my youth were joyous places marked by beauty, sanctity, and a palpable magic. Out of all of my memories, though, there is one that stands out more vividly than all the others. One that disturbs my sleep.
I am on a geology field trip to Ginnie Springs with my college classmates and our instructor, Jean Klein. The other students are milling around while Jean and I stand next to each other on the bank of the spring, both of us quiet, both of us gazing into the water.
“You know,” Jean finally says to me, “if these springs ever get polluted, it will take thousands of years for Nature to clean them up.”
Back then, the thought that Florida’s springs could be polluted was like one of those old B-grade horror movies—spooky in an amusing but ridiculous way. The scenario that Jean described seemed about as likely as the Gill Man’s emergence from the cave at Ginnie Springs to chase the closest nubile female.
In 2015, though, we are living that horror movie. Polluted springs, a falling water table, and scary algae blooms are Florida’s chilling new reality. In thrall to agriculture, economic special interests, and a carpetbagger governor who doesn’t understand that the diseases of our springs reflect the condition of our drinking water, our shortsighted state agencies refuse to enforce the laws that could reverse the damage that’s been done to our springs. (And despite Big Ag’s repeated claims to the contrary, agriculture represents less than 2 percent of Florida’s economy.)
Florida is not just open for business; it and its freshwater springs are for sale to the highest bidders.
And yet, what I’ve learned from my Buddhist teachers is that everything changes. I am reminded of another memory, a conversation I had a couple of years ago with a park ranger at Wakulla Springs.
We are standing next to the boat dock talking about the murky condition of the springs and why the glass-bottom boats aren’t running that day, talking about how the City of Tallahassee’s water treatment spray field lies within Wakulla’s springshed. That spray field sends pollution directly into the aquifer that feeds the spring. That pollution, in turn, feeds the algae that cause the murky water.
“That’s okay,” the ranger says, looking out over the spring at the end of our talk. “Mother Nature will eventually fix this.”
And then I hear the rest of that sentence—unspoken but loud and ringing like a bell in the silence between us, transmitted directly from the ranger’s thoughts to mine—“But we won’t be here to see it.”
There is an idea in Vajrayana Buddhism that the tantric teachings are self-secret, meaning that people can hear them but will never truly understand them until they are ready—until their obscurations have been somewhat cleared and until they meet a teacher who can give them the mouth-to-ear instructions about what those teachings really mean.
The springs, too, have a self-secret aspect. Those of us who saw the springs in their relatively pure state—back in the middle of the 20th century or earlier—know what the springs were like then and what they could be again, given the political will. We have a singular responsibility to try to convey to young folks, and to people who are seeing the springs for the first time, what healthy springs are like and what we must do to restore our springs to health. To reach that goal, we have to muster enough citizens who care. We have to build a groundswell of people who will vote wisely and demand changes in the ways we are using our water.
So listen—from my mouth to your ear—this is how it was.
Diving into a spring was a baptism, a rebirth into a world of boundless purity, a transfiguration from solid earth-bound creature to fluid water nymph. Clear as air, the water sparkled and shone with a thousand rainbow lights. The flows coming out of the spring vents were so strong they could push you backwards when you swam against them. Lush, green plants bent and swirled in the currents like bright dancers on an underwater stage. To immerse in a spring was to taste paradise. You knew, instinctually and immediately, that these springs are sacred, like other waters throughout the world whose people have known them to be sacred for thousands of years.
But Florida’s freshwater springs are different—they are the greatest concentration of such springs in the world. Our springs heartland isn’t just ours; it’s the springs heartland of the whole planet. Florida’s springs are the world’s to love, but they are ours to care for—and we must do that.
People throughout Florida are, thankfully, becoming more aware of the conditions of our springs and are beginning to speak out. Will we be in time? Will we be enough? History will judge. Just remember that when the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Will you lead?