Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bad Romance: Ponce de Leon, Bathing Beauty, and Florida’s Fountains of Youth (Part 1)

They’re an unlikely couple—a hero of the Old World walking arm-in-arm with a maiden of the New—and in their bad romance we can read a story about the waters of La Florida, land of flowers, our beautiful sunshine state.

That’s Ponce de Leon stepping forward out of the 1500s—1513, to be exact—with the pursed-lipped, rigid determination worthy of a manly explorer who is eager to claim new territories for Spain. He is almost totally shielded from the elements: long sleeves and pants to ward off mosquitoes and all manner of biting and stinging insects; boots to protect him from palmettos, ants, sandspurs, and snake bites; armor to deflect native arrows; and gloves to help him hold on to tree limbs as he makes his way downslope through the thick, prickly underbrush that lines our rivers and encircles our springs—those cool turquoise fountains that sparkle like hundreds of diamonds in the sun.

Ponce is on a forward track because he is searching for a singular spring—the fountain of youth—the legendary waters of which, the natives say, revitalize the mind and body and slay the passage of time. He is so focused on his quest that he seems to be ignoring Bathing Beauty.

Clothed in her own skin and the color of the springs themselves, Bathing Beauty in her one-piece suit is a 1940s youthful foil to Ponce’s elder figure. With free-flowing hair and bare arms, legs, and feet, she has consciously surrendered to the elements and to whatever biting, stinging, prickling thing might come her way. She is exposed and vulnerable, but she is not at all worried. She has eyes only for Ponce, her protector, and her small smile hints at her deep regard and affection for him.

Ponce, the darkly handsome Spanish conqueror, could easily be the villain in this story. Certainly he represents the oppression and decimation of the native population as well as the environment. He is alienated by his attitude and attire from the surrounding elements. Perhaps he’s even a cold-hearted lout whose lust for discovery and fame means more to him than the love of this good woman.

And Bathing Beauty—young, beautiful, blonde—could easily be our heroine. She stands united with the elements, her feet firmly planted on the earth, her skin exposed to sunlight and breezes, her bathing suit proof that she will soon immerse herself in water. Her expression radiates a benevolence that makes it doubtful whether she’s ever decimated or oppressed anyone in her short life.

But Ponce and Bathing Beauty have more in common than you might think. He has, after all, given her his arm, and she has taken it. The bad romance has begun.


If you had told me when I was growing up in Orlando in the late 1950s and early 1960s that Florida would ever have water problems, I would have laughed at you. But when Bathing Beauty took Ponce de Leon’s arm, she also took on that Old World mindset that the New World and Nature were ripe for vanquishing—a mindset that has continued throughout the five centuries since Ponce first set boot on Florida sand, with heartbreaking consequences for Florida’s springs.

I know about the springs because I’ve grown up with them since I was in the fifth grade, when my family settled in Orlando. It was after that, on a school trip to a park near Apopka—a place called Rock Springs—that I had my first immersion experience. I was entranced by the transparency of this aquamarine world where fish, eelgrass, even sand and limestone at the bottom of the spring were indelibly clear. I was transported to a transparent world unlike anything I had ever seen before.

Even more enchanting, though, was the feel of this water—cool, clear, pure, clean—as it washed over my scalp, my face, my whole body. This was water like no other, water that could refresh not only the body but also the mind and the senses—surely the holy grail of water experiences. It was easy for me, on that day and on many days since, to imagine why people would think that a spring like this one might be the fountain of youth.

That day, I began my own romance with Florida’s springs—a good romance that continued through my high school and college years and even when I moved, for a while, across the country.

I can still name the springs where I was swimming as I marked the different milestones in my life. Sanlando Springs and Wekiva Springs were junior high and high school celebrations. Poe and Ginnie, where I swam in my early 20s, were where I fell completely in love with the springs, doing laps on languid late afternoons with the sun slanting down in gentle beams through the trees, my soul in welcome retreat from the pressures of college and my first real job.

The little hill above Ichetucknee Springs was where a veil once lifted for me, ever so slightly—where I heard the whispers of an ancient, forgotten language carried on the breeze one autumn afternoon, as the shafting sun lit vivid red and gold leaves all around me. Were these the whispers of the Timucuans who would have come here before the arrival of Ponce and his countrymen? I still don’t know.

Even when I lived 2700 miles away, I’d dream about the springs. In my dreams, I’d be swimming like a fish, able to breathe underwater, with clear views of the water around me, the sky above, the eelgrass and limestone below. And I’d wake from those dreams with tears in my eyes.


The legend that Ponce de Leon discovered Florida while searching for the fountain of youth has been around for so long that we accept it as true, even though it’s a myth. But myths—especially founding myths that relate to the origins of peoples, cultures, and nations—have a way of seeping into the collective consciousness and pooling there until eventually they begin to flow, unquestioned, into the storylines of history and out of the collective imagination of our artists, writers, and musicians. And the fact that Florida has the largest number of freshwater springs in the world, as well as the largest number of first-magnitude springs, has reinforced the fountain of youth myth for the last 500 years.

For close to 450 of those years, our springs remained primordial, pristine, and pure; they were some of Florida’s first tourist attractions. And if our springs aren’t literal fountains of youth, they are metaphorical ones; the depth and clarity of their cool waters are wellsprings for creativity and for the renewal of body, mind, and spirit.

People still describe their experiences in the springs as “rejuvenating,” “invigorating,” “refreshing,” “fun”—all connotations of youthful vibrancy. But the springs now are not the springs I first encountered some 50 years ago, and the people who are taking their first plunges into springs today do not even know what we have lost.

(to be continued)

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