Confronted with the wilderness of 16th-century Florida, it’s understandable why the early Spanish explorers were concerned with taming the land. That taming was necessary, they thought, so that civilization—businesses, governments, towns and cities, agriculture, trade routes and roads, reliable forms of communication—could be established. For civilization to thrive, wilderness—at least a certain amount of it—had to be destroyed.
So from that spring day in 1513 when Ponce first named it and claimed it, wild Florida has been swallowed, first by the Spaniards and then by the French, English, and Americans—up to and including Bathing Beauty and her friends who, because there were more of them, did greater environmental damage than Ponce and the early Spanish explorers could ever have dreamed of.
At DeLeon Springs State Park—where I first encountered Ponce and Bathing Beauty standing arm-in-arm on a large sign outside the park entrance—I came across an old newspaper article titled “Developer Burt Pushed DeLeon Springs Growth.” There’s one sentence in this article that provides the briefest Florida history lesson ever written: “Where Ponce de Leon saw a wilderness, Fred N. Burt saw a great opportunity.” This same history, of course, is also a history of the places we have lost.
So now, in the very early part of the 21st century, our wetlands have been drained, rivers straightened, canals cut. Golf courses, amusement parks, swimming pools, lawns, and utility companies are sucking up more and more water every day, while water-bottling companies seize opportunities to make a private profit from a public resource. Unregulated fertilizers and septic tanks are leaching nitrates that cause unbridled algae growth in our rivers and streams and, yes springs. Poor Florida has been cleared, dredged, mined, developed, fertilized, and irrigated nearly to death. Paradise has been paved over for parking lots and strip malls. This insanity continues unabated, in part because the State of Florida won’t lift a finger to help; instead, our government seems hell-bent on wrecking all that remains that is wild and beautiful.
And Florida’s world-famous fountains of youth—natural treasures worthy of being a National Park or a World Heritage Site—have begun to sicken and die.
White Springs on the Suwannee River in North Florida and Kissengen Springs in Central Florida were two of the first springs to go dry. Springs that used to be clear, sparkling gems have turned green and cloudy with algae that are choking off the eelgrass and other underwater plants. Swimmers have complained of allergic reactions, probably to toxins in the algae. Ichetucknee Springs has lost about 20 percent of its flow over the last 25 years.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that if we’re going to save our springs, we will have to do it ourselves. We’re going to have to end this bad romance of Ponce de Leon and Bathing Beauty.
I’d like to think that if she knew what was really going on—if she didn’t have eyes only for that darkly handsome Spaniard—Bathing Beauty would be shocked at what’s happened to Florida and how our springs have been hurt. I’d like to think she’d feel that shock in a visceral way, as a nauseated knot in her stomach, the same way I feel it. I’d like to think her shock would be enough for her to give up the idea that we can keep on doing what we’ve been doing for 500 years and not lose our fountains of youth forever.
And after she takes her first gasp at what’s happened, I want Bathing Beauty to drop Ponce’s arm. I want her to grab his hand instead, and lead him as fast as she can to the bank of that spring he’s got his eyes on. I want Ponce to take off his helmet and strip off his armor and his boots and his gloves and those silly striped things he’s wearing—yes, even his skivvies. I want Bathing Beauty to lose the bathing suit.
I want them to jump into the turquoise spring stark naked, to feel the cold water take their breath away, to open their eyes to the underwater world around them, to dive and dive again toward the cave where pure water gushes out from porous limestone, to marvel at whatever clarity still remains. I want them, then, to surface, to revel in the sunlight and the water on their skin, the breeze across their faces as they float, finally still, beneath the overhanging trees. And then I want them to swim, to dive, and swim and float again.
I want them to climb from the spring bone tired, but feeling like they’re teenagers who have just discovered this miraculous fountain for the very first time. I want them to make mad, passionate love on the bank of the spring and then go back into the water.
I want them to love the springs as I have loved them—madly, passionately, in the height of summer and the dead of winter and the seasons in between, in the morning and at noon, in the twilight and the darkness, under the sun and under the moon. I want them to feel how sometimes the shock of cold water is the only pure thing in the world. I want them to vow to do everything they possibly can, beginning right now, to make sure that our fountains of youth never fade.
I want them to know this love that never dies.