Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Springs and The People: A 21st-Century Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a place called Florida that had more freshwater springs, and more big freshwater springs, than anyplace else in the world.

Even before the land was called “Florida,” the springs were gathering places for the native people who visited them to fish, to gather water, and to tell stories as they sat and whittled their arrow points.

When the European explorers first came to the land they named Florida, they were enchanted by the springs. Some of them even thought the springs were fountains of youth, magical places where people could be cured of their ills and come away rejuvenated.

Later on, more explorers and naturalists were drawn to the springs. One of them, William Bartram, gave us some of our first written descriptions of these water wonders. And because people were learning how to communicate over great distances, Bartram’s writings—and Florida's springs—inspired poets and artists and curious people in faraway lands.

As time went on and word about these enchanted places spread, people came from all over the world to visit these water wonders.

People came to camp and canoe and hike the trails along the runs where the clear blue spring waters ran out to join the brown waters of the rivers that flowed long distances to the sea.

People came to dive hundreds of feet below the surface of the springs to explore the vast, mysterious network of underground caves where no one had ever gone before.

People came to swim in the bright sweet clear spring water as it gushed up between limestone rocks from deep inside the earth.

People were enchanted by the springs.

For many years, no one worried about the springs. Everyone assumed the springs would flow forever, crystal blue and shining with that sweet smell of really clear water, under the Florida sun.

But then, as always, things began to change.

People who lived near the springs and rivers began to fertilize their crops and their lawns, not realizing that fertilizer is something that hurts the springs.

People brought in many dairy cows, not realizing that the waste from cattle is something that hurts the springs.

More and more people began to water their lawns, not realizing that using so much water is something that hurts the springs.

Some people even realized that they could pipe free water out of the springs and sell it for profit, not realizing or not caring that pumping so much water is something that hurts the springs.

Eventually, some of the people who visited the springs started to notice changes.

Underwater plants that used to flourish in the clear spring runs began to disappear.

The water in the springs, usually a clear bright blue, slowly began to turn green. Something called algae began to show up where it had never been seen before.

Springs began to produce less water. Some springs even disappeared completely.

The people who were worried began to make little noises. The people in Florida who had the power to make laws to protect the springs mostly ignored these noises.

The worried people began to make louder noises. The Florida lawmakers turned their backs.

The worried people decided to take their case to court. They were willing to use every tool they had to save the springs. They went to court, and got a big federal agency to agree to enforce some laws that the worried people hoped would protect the springs.

But the lawmakers couldn’t be swayed. Protection costs too much, they said. We can’t afford it, they said.

So the lawmakers—who were supposed to represent all the people, but who really represented only a few people who had a lot of money—took actions of their own to make sure that the springs would never be protected.

Over time, swimmers began to get rashes from the water, and some of them even got sick.

Over time, the springs got cloudier and darker.

Over time, fish began to die.

Over time, the water got so murky that the cave divers stopped coming.

Over time, the swimmers and canoers and hikers and picknickers stopped coming to the springs.

Over time, the many people who ran businesses that catered to the springs visitors closed up shop. Little towns along the rivers began to look like ghost towns.

And on bright hot summer days at the springs—when once you would hear the laughter of families and friends as they splashed and swam and grilled and ate and were happy—all you could hear instead was a vast silence.

And when the springs died, a little bit of all of us—and a little bit of enchantment—died too.

Moral: Our springs need champions, but it doesn’t look like we are going to get any from the political arena. So it’s up to each and every one of us to do whatever we can to save the springs. What can YOU do?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Driving to the Writing Workshop

It's March 4, New Moon in Virgo—which happens to be my birth sign—and I'm driving from Florida to Reidsville, Georgia, for an environmental writing workshop with one my heroines, Janisse Ray.

I drove the Florida-Georgia route many times with my parents when I was small, but I don't ever remember driving this stretch from Lake City, Florida, to Homerville, Georgia. It's just about the longest stretch of nothin' I've ever seen—miles and miles with no houses, no settlements, no gas stations, nothing but planted pines and swampy areas along the edges of the road, punctuated by the occasional sight of a dead deer that was hit by a passing vehicle.

I am travelling the western edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, where the Suwannee River rises out of Georgia mud for its long, meandering flow west to the Gulf of Mexico.

I give a little prayer of thanks that I had enough foresight to fill the car's gas tank before I left Lake City. There's certainly no gasoline to be had on this stretch of road.

Actually, I enjoy this long stretch of nothin'. There are too many planted pines for me to say that I'm in a wilderness area, but there are practically no other cars or humans to be seen, and the solitude is welcome. Music even seems jarring, so I turn off the radio.

It's late winter here in the South, and most of the landscape—except for the ubiquitous planted pines—is still a dull grayish-brown, splashed here and there with the brilliant pink of a blooming redbud or the snowy white blooms of pear or wild plum—tree candy for the eyes, especially after our cold winter.

A grey fox lopes from west to east some distance in front of my car. I slow down.

Crossing into Georgia, I spot a spectacular two-story wooden building right on the banks of the Suwannee River. It turns out to be the Suwannee River Visitors Center, and the building is so impressive that I pull in to investigate.

I find a very welcoming volunteer staffer, some wonderful exhibits, a great selection of books about the area, an array of t-shirts in gorgeous soft autumn colors (my favorite!), and a bona fide composting toilet! Best of all, this is a "green" building—LEED certified—an example of what state agencies everywhere could be doing if only they had the funding.

Coming out of Homerville, the landscape becomes more civilized, though still mostly rural. I smile when I see the signs so common to rural areas everywhere: "brown eggs for sale," "chicks are in," and, amidst pecan groves, "Nut 'n' Honey." Lots of places are selling honey; hopefully this area has not been hard hit by bee colony collapse.

And churches. Everywhere, little country churches.

I can't ever drive for a long way without remembering all the road trips I took with my parents when I was a child. We moved a lot, and we took summer vacations every year, often driving from Georgia or Florida to Texas to visit my paternal grandparents and my father's sister.

I drive by a field and am suddenly haunted by these old memories of road trips with my folks, sparked by the sight of small round stubby bushes flecked with white. I know this crop; I used to see it on the way to Texas when I was little, but it's been so long since I've seen it that it takes me a few seconds to recognize it: cotton, emblematic cash crop of the South, source of "the fabric of our lives."

So much Southern history draped around cotton. So many memories of my parents and grandparents.

So many tears.

And yet, so much still to love.

The pear trees here in Georgia seem bigger and more showy than the pears in Florida. Big and spectacular, these Georgia trees boast oodles of snowy blossoms that toss and glow in the brisk wind. If you love trees, you have to love these pears.

Getting close to Reidsville, with the road winding through farm after farm and pecan grove after pecan grove, I spy a red brick country church bordered on one side by a long row of some of the tallest and most beautiful pear trees I've seen so far.

Like many country churches, this one has a sign out front. The country church, the gorgeous pears, and the sign combine to create a silent sermon in only three words.


And just for the briefest moment, my busy mind stops.

The photo shows the Suwannee River Visitors Center in Fargo, Georgia. Great place to visit! Click on the photo for a larger view.