Sunday, November 26, 2017

Book Report: "Butterflies on a Sea Wind" by Anne Rudloe

I just finished reading "Butterflies on a Sea Wind" by Anne Rudloe, who with her husband, Jack, ran the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, Florida (she died in 2012). What I did not know is that Anne was also a dharma master, Ji Do Poep Sa Nim, in the Kwan Um School of Zen!...and Abbot of the Cypress Tree Zen Center in Tallahassee.

"Butterflies" carries a "Beginning Zen" banner on the cover, which--along with the fact that I recognized her name--caused me to pick up the book at Book Gallery West in Gainesville. Anne Rudloe also has another book, "Zen in a Wild Country," that I will now search out. I don't know why it surprised me to find a Florida woman environmentalist with a Zen background, but it did.

I was particularly struck by this passage from "Butterflies," in which Rudloe is describing her experiences at a Zen retreat:

"Then a mental image arose of an underwater sand fountain in a spring back in Florida. The water jetting out of a crack in the limestone kept the sand above it in a constant cascade. Endlessly cycling in its silvery plumes, the sand fountain had no beginning, no end, no going anywhere. There was just a perpetual moving round and round in a balanced, harmonious, and beautiful way. It was a model of the universe, and it was also a model of human existence. Each journey of a grain of sand up and down equaled a lifetime. Each grain's trajectory was determined by all the forces that were, or had been, or would be, present and acting on it. My life was one cycle of one of those sand grains....There is only what is happening at any given point in time. We continue the process of being aware of the cycling and remain in harmony with it day by day and moment by moment. When I first saw it, I had known immediately that the sand fountain in the spring was sacred, and now I understood why." (pp. 163-164)

Rudloe also includes this wonderful quote from Zen Master Dogen:

"From ancient times wise people and sages have often lived near water. When they live near water they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the Way. For long these have been genuine activities in water. Furthermore there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way."

I thought that the last chapters of Rudloe's book, in particular, did a great job of revealing the whole "point" of Zen and Buddhism, which as I understand it is to let go of the fixation on a permanent "self" as something that is separate from reality as we usually perceive it.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Still Life With Water, Part Two: Adulthood

Fate—or is it karma?—sends me from high school to university in an area of Florida that is home to the largest concentration of freshwater springs on the planet. The first spring that I visit is Poe Spring on the Santa Fe River where a thick, knotted rope hangs from a tree that stands sentinel on the bank. I grab the cable, pull it a few steps backward, then run forward to swing out over the spring, let go and hang suspended for a split-second before plunging into the cool water. This, I think, must be what it’s like to fall into love.

My creative writing teacher and I have a conversation about my experience at Poe Spring. She tells me about a larger spring, Ginnie, off the same road in the northwestern part of the county. I write down her directions:  Pass a set of large power transmission lines and then a smaller set of lines. Turn right onto a dirt road that’s bounded by a line of trees along the west side of a pasture. Follow the dirt road as it rounds downhill through the woods toward the river. There I find the most beautiful spring I’ve ever seen, a pool of translucent water edged with a lush growth of underwater plants. The water shimmers as it deepens from pale aquamarine over a limestone shelf to deep turquoise blue over the spring vent. And there is a rope swing here, too!

Ginnie Spring becomes my happy place. Before I leave work at 4:30 p.m., I change into my bathing suit and drive out to the spring on long summer afternoons that seem to last forever. I drop into the spring from the rope swing and swim laps around the perimeter, then take breaks and rest by floating above the vent, aware of the afternoon sunlight as it dapples through the trees surrounding the spring onto my closed eyelids. On many afternoons, I am the only person there. This, I think, must be Paradise.

Ginnie Spring, Gilchrist County, Florida

One afternoon, someone brings his Irish setter to the water. I watch as the dog does interminable laps around the spring. Finally, the owner goes into the spring and fishes his tired dog out.

On another afternoon, my friend brings her Afghan hound. Eager to teach the dog to swim, she supports the Afghan with her arms under its chest as they wade into the water. When they reach deeper water, she lets go and the Afghan sinks to the bottom! My friend dives underwater and quickly retrieves her dog.

When I start seeing more and more SCUBA divers at Ginnie, I learn that there is an underwater cavern and cave beneath the spring vent. One day, I’m happily floating on my back above the vent when I’m tipped over by a hard bump. I roll around to see a SCUBA diver, who has just surfaced from the cave, shoot me a nasty look before he swims away. I start to notice that the two groups—swimmers and SCUBA divers—don’t interact much and tend to give each other a wide berth.

I fall into conversation with a woman who is sitting on the underwater log that crosses the spring run as it flows out toward the river. She tells me that she and her family have purchased the property and have plans to construct restrooms and other facilities. The restrooms, at least, are needed and will be welcome.

There are other springs on the property and I like to take my first dip of the day at Ginnie, then hike upriver past an old hollow cypress tree to Devil’s Ear and Devil’s Eye springs. I swim from there at an angle across the river to July Spring, then back across the river at another angle to Ginnie, then hike downriver to Dogwood Spring and Twin Spring. I marvel at this oasis of beauty and clarity.

Devil's Eye Spring, Gilchrist County, Florida

Dogwood Spring, Gilchrist County, Florida

A friend and I visit Ginnie Spring in the winter, when the 72-degree, constant-temperature water is warmer than the air. We decide it will be fun to tell people about skinny-dipping in the cold weather, so we strip off our clothes and jump in. We swim around until—much to our dismay!—two vanloads of SCUBA divers arrive out of nowhere. Embarrassed, we slither back into our clothes and escape as fast as we can.

My college geology class takes a field trip to Ginnie Spring. While other class members explore the area around us, I stand on the bank of the spring with my instructor, Jean Klein. We are silent, looking into the depths of the spring, when Jean says, “If these springs ever get polluted, it will take hundreds of years for Nature to clean them up.” This moment burns like a brand into the deepest cells of my memory.

Chad, one of my roommates who meets many people when he delivers pizza for a local shop, tells me he has learned about a spring I’ve never heard of—Ichetucknee. With our other roommate, Pam, we make a longer than usual drive northwest of town, then out a two-lane blacktop to a dirt road that leads back into the woods. It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon and the three of us are the only people at the spring. When we’ve been swimming for a while, Chad climbs up onto a rock, produces a bar of soap that he has hidden, and begins singing and lathering up in a mock soap commercial. After laughing so hard my sides hurt, I climb out of the spring and walk up a little hill where I can spread out my towel and lie in the late afternoon sunlight. All around me, trees are beginning to turn gold, russet and crimson. A gentle breeze stirs the leaves and I lie back, closing my eyes. I can hear Pam and Chad laughing from the spring. As I rest, the rustling leaves begin to sound like whispered voices. The murmuring gradually gets louder and louder until it resolves into words—but these are words in a language I’ve never heard. There must be other people in the woods, I think, foreigners of some sort. I rub my eyes, stand up, and slowly turn in a full circle, looking for the people I can now hear speaking clearly. But there is no one else there.

Ichetucknee Spring, Columbia County, Florida

Many years later, I visit Wakulla Springs for the first time with a friend who is working on a book. We are waiting to take the river tour and curious about why the glass-bottom boats aren’t running. A park ranger explains to us that the spring is too dark, too polluted, so the glass-bottom boat rides have been halted. We talk for a while about the pollution that plagues the springs. After a moment of silence the ranger says, “That’s all right. Mother Nature will eventually take care of it.” What rings like a clear bell in the silent air between us is the rest of his thought:  “But we won’t be here to see it.”

At Wakulla Springs

Algae at Wakulla Springs

Still Life With Water, Part One: Childhood

I am at a lake west of Orlando with my parents, aunt and uncle. An arc of small cabins hugs the sandy shore and the water sparkles under the afternoon sun. I am mesmerized and begin wading into deeper water toward the center of the lake. I’m startled when a pair of adult arms encircles me and pulls me back to land.

On Miami Beach, I am magnetized by little boats that I see to the east where the sky meets the sea. I stage a full-blown screaming fit when my parents refuse to let me swim out to the little boats. My father explains to me, very patiently, that the boats are not little; they are freighters in the Gulf Stream.

My parents take me to Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. The pool—the largest freshwater pool in the country—is built on the site of an old coral rock quarry. I am drawn to the area of the pool that is a like a grotto with caves. I don’t want to leave.

Venetian Pool, Coral Gables, Florida

Our house on Willow Lane in Decatur, Georgia, has a long back yard that drops away in terraces to a creek bordered by woods. I spend many happy hours alone in those woods, following the creek when I feel like moving and sitting by the water in the shade of the trees when I feel like resting. It is still decades before parents think that children must be constantly supervised, and I love the sound of flowing water, the dappled sunlight through the trees, the independence and solitude I find along that little creek in the woods.

We visit New Smyrna Beach and I play in the surf, relishing the sea air and the stinging scrape of saltwater on my skin. Again, I don’t want to leave. When I’m told we must go, I stage another screaming fit.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Silver Springs and Rainbow Springs are two of Florida’s biggest tourist attractions. We visit both of them, craning our necks to peer at fish and underwater caves through the glass-bottom boats at Silver Springs. At Rainbow Springs, we ride beneath the surface of the water and watch sunlight break through watery prisms into dazzling arrays of color. I ask my parents if this water is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I’m in elementary school and on a field trip to Rock Springs in Apopka, where the coolest and clearest water I’ve ever experienced flows between boulders of ancient limestone. This is water like no other, cleansing and rejuvenating and magical. I don’t want to leave but I’m too embarrassed to stage another screaming fit in front of my peers. For many years, I beg my parents to take me back to Rock Springs but they always refuse. I think they fear the screaming fits.

Rock Springs, Apopka, Florida

Our suburban neighborhood gets a community swimming pool! Almost every day during summer vacation, I hike to the pool with friends and neighbors. I spend hours in the water and experiment with going off the high dive and seeing how far I can swim underwater without surfacing for air. When my fingers are puckered, I crawl out of the pool and lie in the sun. When I get hot again, I repeat the cycle. Rock Springs fades from my memory and a chlorinated pool full of screaming children and young adults feels like the water of salvation.

(to be continued)