Robert Walker “Fountain of Youth”

“….  they named it La Florida, because it had a very pretty view of many and cool woodlands…”


Upon my unanticipated return to Florida six months ago, I hurried to Silver Springs where I’d spent many a summer day as a child.  To escape the heat of the Tampa Bay area, my parents would load my kid brother and me into a Chevy station wagon and head north.  After a couple of hours, we’d pull into Ocala and make the short jog to the spring, with its necklace of amusement parks, and clean, cool waters.  My brother and I would jump from the car and run-off, too excited to wait for mom and dad.  I remember the water slides and spools of cotton candy that cost a dime.  I remember the shiny boots of the snake man and the nonchalance with which he’d squeeze venom from a six foot rattler.  I remember the whoops of the Seminoles attacking soldiers behind the palisades of a movie-set Fort King.  I remember the petting zoo with the deer and giraffes, the alligators in the sunken cages, sluggish beneath the sun.

Although my brother and I played to our hearts’ content, by day’s end we invariably found ourselves on the promenade past the glass bottom boats, staring into the blue grotto, the spring’s cavernous vent visible through water as clear as air.  There, we’d watch the play of light on lunar sands, and eelgrass waving in the limpid stream.  We’d watch the ballet of fish in the bubbling of the current, and the occasional turtle floating to the surface.  There, in the shady ambience of the cypress trees and the perfume of rhizomes fingering the muddy shore, I imagined a sacred river with caves of ice, connecting to the sea through a limestone Xanadu.  I imagined that if I jumped in and swam deep enough, I’d be able to see it, and in doing so my life would change miraculously.  My return trip to Silver Springs with family in tow (wife Cynthia, daughter Johanna aged 14, son Nathanael aged 8) goes like this:

We leave Gainesville at noon and head south on a warm winter’s day, taking the east exit off I-75 an hour later.  After passing the Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Ocala, we turn into the entrance across from a mobile home park, Campers Garden, passing the decommissioned water slide behind a rusty chain-link fence.  We stop at the casket-sized welcome booth, where a middle-aged woman in shorts and safari hat takes our cash.  We pull into a nearly empty lot and park beside cars with mileage on them and plates from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and a few from Florida.  We head for a ride on the glass bottom boats.  I’m excited, as the time has come to show my children a natural marvel, to share a place of great personal meaning.  I count back to my last visit, ticking off forty years.  Forty, I say to myself, as we reach the boat dock at the springhead and join the waiting queue.  It comes as an afterthought then hits like a revelation, the water’s dark!  True, it’s as translucent as I remember, clear enough to see the mats of algae below, covering the sandy basin with nocturnal slime.  The man selling tickets tells us only one boat is operating, so it will be a while, which irritates the kids who have little patience for self-entertainment.  A sibling quarrel erupts, adding appreciably to my own dismay.  This is not the Silver Springs of my childhood Xanadu.

silver springs

Water Clear as Air
Silver Springs in the 1950s


Bending the World to Memory?       

Since returning to Florida six months ago, I’ve visited many of my old haunts, finding almost all of them, not just Silver Springs, diminished by the lapse of time.  I’ve walked the coastal islands to find my recollections of brilliant sand now stained by offshore sediments dredged up to nourish the beaches confronting sea level rise and the sinking of prime real estate beneath the waves.  Driving highways north and south, I’ve seen thickets of hardwood drowning out the pine savannas and the cypress trees that once formed feathery domes beneath a sharp blue sky.  The bays and estuaries are gutted, their mangrove isles stripped bare beneath replicating homes, yards, and swimming pools huddled behind protective concrete bulwarks.  To the south, residential development squeezes the edges of the Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp from both coasts.  What I see is not what I remember, and in every case the difference shows loss on the ledger.

Despite this assessment, I do not intend to write with moral condemnation, or sound dirges for a lost tropical Eden that existed well into the 20th century.  Nor will I play the optimist, extolling the intrepid hiker who ventures into wilderness, with congratulations to the State Park System for having protected what little remains, given hostile politicians and a public that finds nature tedious, if not downright irritating for the bugs and heat.   There are many ways to write about Florida’s environment, many postures to erect or knock down, as the case may be.  Many wonderful books have been published on the topic, some of them telling the whole story from front to back.  My interest here, however, is rather limited, and involves a personal meditation on the veracity of childhood memory, which in my case involves Florida.

I come back home tracking a career path that returns me to my origin.   By virtue of my exile, the State’s environmental changes cannot be hidden by the slow accumulation of incremental losses, as would be the case had I never left.  It is also true that my impressions of contemporary Florida are intensified by contrast with my early memories of sailing the coasts, diving the reefs, and paddling the mangroves and rivers.  How can I be certain that my happy recollection isn’t just nostalgia, a longing for a time that never was, and therefore an unfair condemnation of the way it is today?  Am I reinventing a place and a past, just as age cries out, hoping  to steal back what time has taken, in which case my disaffection with Florida in the “here and now” is only the lament of the generation about to pass, that you should have seen it yesterday?


The Degradation of Florida’s Springs

Evidently, I must search between two possibilities to discover what has happened in the interval between my departure and return, a space of decades.  The first is that Florida is disappearing as an ecological entity, if it hasn’t already.  The second is that all is basically fine, that I’ve managed to confuse wistful memory for something that never was.  Does Florida stand degraded by fact, or by fantasy in the mind of the grim beholder, namely me?  One way to ferret out the truth of the matter is to consult the science, but before I do so I wish to consider my biological complicity in the issue, which we all share.  Specifically, we all possess a species being connecting us to the natural order, a taskmaster with its harsh rules like the second law of thermodynamics, and survival of the fittest.  But we also possess human being, most notably in the form of cognitive power.  Many argue that this enables us to circumvent the natural order, or at least to fix it if we’ve done damage.  Thus, if Florida is disappearing as an ecological entity, we’ll surely be able to put things right again, to find a new elixir with another lease on life.  That’s the hope, anyway, not much different than the one that sent Ponce de Leon to the mysterious shores of Florida in the first place.

Tradition has it that Ponce de Leon sought a fountain of youth, a spring with miraculous power that would liberate him from the biological realities of aging.  Since he mistakenly took the Caribbean for the Indian Ocean, the spring he had in mind probably derived from Asian legends based on the “Letters of Prester John.”   Although Ponce de Leon was profoundly lost as he crossed the Gulf Stream and neared the coast of Florida, he could not have picked a better place to find a spring.  This is because Florida possesses a preponderance of them.  Hydrologists measure spring size by volume of vented water, with large ones referred to as “first magnitude”.  Florida boasts 33 such springs, more than any other state or nation.  These prolific natural fountains are also amazingly clear due to incomparable water quality.  The Florida spring system interconnects through a porous geological structure known as the Floridan Aquifer, a gigantic slab of limestone that underlies much of the State and parts of Georgia.  This aquifer has long provided the northern half of Florida with its drinking and irrigation water.

About twenty years ago, Floridians began noticing changes in their springs, none of them good.  Mats of algae crept across the sandy basins, and thickened the eelgrass with blobs of biomass. Water grew murky, and key aquatic species went into decline, such as the giant catfish that once frequented Silver Springs.   These dramatic ecosystem shifts, which occurred practically overnight, brought to public attention the precarious state of what was once regarded as an eternal treasure.  Scientific investigations showed that a variety of human activities were destroying what was once regarded as an incorruptible source of pleasure and ecological beneficence.  Fertilizer use, water pumpage, and waste disposal had all visited impacts on the Floridan aquifer, the springs it gives rise to, and the lovely streams that flow from the springheads.  High concentrations of nitrates were noted, as were low levels of dissolved oxygen, vital to healthy aquatic habitats.  Reduced flow volume was perhaps the most worrisome change. By 2010, the water yield of Silver Springs had dropped from 800 to 500 cubic feet per second since the 1960s, almost forty percent.  A basic truism began to haunt those concerned about Florida’s environment, which is that without water you have no spring.

Algal Mats on the Basin Floor
Contemporary Silver Springs


“The Happiest Place on Earth”

Although the exact mechanism responsible for Florida’s ongoing process of spring degradation remains open to debate, the decline cannot be attributed to ignorance of their virtues.  Native Americans established settlements beside their salubrious waters, and a tourist industry quickly exploited their aesthetic qualities, especially at Silver Springs, which emerged shortly after statehood as Florida’s premier attraction.  In the 1880s, a paddle boat left Jacksonville to ascend the St. Johns, the Ocklawaha, and at last the Silver River, reaching the spring system with its crystalline waters boiling from a large vent (12 x 65 ft.) to form a turquoise pool ringed by gigantic cypress trees.  As the film industry evolved through the early part of the 20th century, the setting provided backdrops for Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, and Lloyd Bridges in any number of heroic undersea adventures.  By 1960, Silver Springs and surrounding attractions – Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute, Six Gun Territory, Carriage Cavalcade, Paradise Park, etc. – brought a million people a year to central Florida.

But in the late 1960s, a tectonic shift reconfigured Florida’s touristic draw from the real world, with its natural amenities, to fantasy recreations of that same world.  By a remarkable alignment of the stars, the US Army Corps of Engineers transformed the Kissimmee River into a drainage ditch, perfectly timed to enable a massive, clandestine land purchase in its headwaters, now flood-proof and ready for concrete.  This provided the real estate for Disney World, and what would become a constellation of theme parks attracting 40 million visitors annually to the environs of Orlando, once a sleepy town of orange groves and now a bursting metropolis, with as much construction going on as in Singapore.  In the words of Walt Disney himself, what he created on the ruined wetlands of central Florida is nothing less than “The Happiest Place on Earth,” although some might beg to differ, particularly in places like Ocala, devastated when Silver Springs collapsed as a business venture, unable to compete with the giant attraction but sixty miles away.  This wondrous place of my childhood memories limped along in bankruptcy until its public acquisition in 2013, with incorporation into the State Park System as a key component of what’s touted as The Real Florida, namely a piece of real estate with some remnant of its original ecology.  Although the State Park System is perennially underfunded, The Real Florida is accessible with good cell service and vending machines.

But my children are not enthralled by The Real Florida as we wait for the glass bottom boat, operated under concession by the State at this most recent of its acquisitions.  Cynthia tries an ice cream ploy and goes off with Johanna to buy cones.  This works fine until the ice cream has been devoured.  As our irritability resumes, I begin to wonder about the wisdom of having returned to Silver Springs.  I begin to feel a traitorous species consciousness telling me we should have made our own lemming trek to Disney World.  I fiddle with my camera, thinking bad thoughts about the people standing in line; they look like this is all they can afford, even with senior discounts from the mobile home park across the street.  But a few minute later when the boat rounds a bend and sets course for the dock, it’s all excitement again!  With perfect timing, Nathanael announces he has to go to the bathroom.  OK, I say, but hurry!  Nathanael hasn’t returned when we begin boarding, so I run to the restroom to fetch him.  He isn’t there.  I check, double check, triple check.  He isn’t there.  I hurry back to Cynthia and Johanna, and the warm winter sun turns cold.


The Happiest Place on Earth


 Easy to Imagine

Europeans visited Florida shortly after the first voyage of Columbus, in sufficient numbers that a Portuguese navigator sketched a map in 1511 showing Hispaniola, Cuba, Yucatan, the Bahama Islands, and a coastline to the northwest that would come to be known as Florida.   Although trade with Native Americans took place for years along the “undiscovered” coasts of the “New World,” it was Ponce de Leon who sailed from Puerto Rico on March 3, 1513, with a patent from the Spanish Crown that granted him the authority to claim land.  Given the cultural information available at the time, it’s easy to imagine that Ponce de Leon sought his fountain, in part, because of credible rumors that Caribbean Amerindians threw gold into pools of crystalline water as offerings to their gods.  It’s easy to imagine that Ponce de Leon made landfall suspecting his fountain of youth was a Florida Spring, quite possibly Silver Springs, significant to the Timucua Indians and their “Kingdom of the Sun.” The coastal traders would have known about Silver Springs, then called “Sua-ille-aha,” given their engagement with the Amerindians.

It’s easy to imagine the day, April 2, 1513, that changed everything for Florida, for North America, the world.  In settled weather, Ponce de Leon orders his three ships anchored a stone’s throw from land, then boards a landing craft for a beach so bright it hurts his eyes.  Disembarking, he and his men slosh ashore, and climb a dome of sand festooned with morning glory.  Ponce de Leon looks north and south along sinuous rills, then down the dune declivity that swallows many incense-bearing trees with gardenias bigger than saucers.   To the west, across a channel lined by oysters, rises an ancient pine forest enfolding sunny spots of greenery.  As the maps foretold and the rumors assured, what he sought was close at hand, although the expedition would have to find another way inland.  Ponce de Leon claims all he lays his eyes on for the King and Queen of Spain, confident he’ll soon find safe harbor and the indigenous trails that will take him to gold, and immortality.

That he never found safe harbor here or anywhere else in Florida is noted in the historic record.  Ponce de Leon did not enjoy an enduring landfall because the Amerindians were less than welcoming to Europeans in armor, weapons in hand.  The Ais and the Timucua, the Tequesta and the Calusa, reacted as they felt they must, as the first of Florida’s defenders of the environment.  They’d heard the prophecies, that white men would come, a few at first and then a swarm, levelling the earth and gouging the rivers, smoking the sky with fire in every tree.  Small wonder the tribes resisted the transformation that lapped their shores, where Ponce de Leon had landed with his sword held high, and his men had followed, their pikes in hand.  From the sunken forest behind the dunes, the Amerindians attacked with a courage born of fear, pushing the invaders back at the tip of their spears, making it clear they leave or suffer mortal consequences.  That night the beaches lit up with bonfires to bid good riddance to the Europeans.


Phantom Landscapes

Although the Europeans soon returned and brought misery to the Amerindians, Florida’s environmental catastrophe does not begin unfolding until 1850, when the federal government granted the State, created in 1845, all of the submerged lands within its boundaries.  This covered a considerable expanse, perhaps 60 percent of Florida’s ultimate area, so it should come as no surprise that watery pathways connected practically every map point.   You could launch a canoe at Ft. Myers and paddle to Jacksonville, over 300 miles away, winding through Lake Okeechobee and the Kissimmee River to the marshy source of the St. John’s, with its outflow to the Atlantic at the destination.  Given a superabundance of water, the development of Florida required drainage, with the correlative destruction of marshes, swamps, and aquatic ecosystems.  Drainage in turn paved the way for phenomenal growth, with the State’s population now at 20 million, and nearly its entire landscape converted to some type of human use, and domination.

In the 1980s, the decade with the highest rates of deforestation worldwide, Florida hemorrhaged native wildlands to residential development and agriculture at rates 60 percent higher than the loss of the tropical forest.  This did not go unnoticed, and continuing problems with water quality, particularly in the southern part of the State, brought federal intervention to mitigate the environmental consequences of development.  Marjory Stoneman Douglas called early attention to these emergent issues in 1947 with her book, Everglades: River of Grass.  Ever since, many Floridians have voiced their support for efforts aimed at undoing the ecological damages we have wrought.  These include stopping the Florida Cross Barge canal, expanding Everglades National Park, and restoration of parts of the Kissimmee River Basin.  Although laudable, such initiatives are overwhelmed by the larger scheme of loss.  The evidence of the senses, together with what science has established, suggests that the environmental scales have tipped in the wrong direction for Florida.  As for Silver Springs, extrapolating the data from recent declines in flow indicate that this prodigy of nature could run dry by 2030.

Thus, Florida stands degraded by fact, not by contrast to a rose-colored past that I’ve created, in which case my personal disaffection with the State reflects a real difference between the “here-and-now” and my recollection.  And yet memory doesn’t just yield a useful measuring stick for marking off the passage of time, the degradation of place.  For me at least, it forms a waking dream, a ghost made visible, the phantom Florida landscape where subdivisions give way to marshes and streams run flawlessly to tidewater, where beaches edge on clear blue water and magnolias shade the dunes, where cypress grows shaggy beneath a steaming sun and pine trees rise over brocades of palmetto and flags of golden grass, where Silver Springs flows with subterranean force, transparent and eternal.  Could such a Florida be again?  Perhaps, but probably not, in which case I still need to manage my knowledge of personal loss in a way that doesn’t discourage my children from cherishing the natural world as I have.


A Diminished Thing

That Florida’s environment has changed since Ponce de Leon’s arrival is trivial to note.  Change adorns any long-run record of the earth’s surface, so I limit my attention to the time of my parents, my time, and the time of my children and possibly their children, too.  The Florida my parents gave me, my childhood Florida, is different from the one I leave behind.  And this state of nature that I decry will be the only one my children know, their inheritance a diminished thing.  But so it was for my parents, diminished, the Florida for which I long, and the baton grows rougher to the grip with each passing.  The Everglades loses half its extent in a generation, a loss unseen to those who come after.  The US Army Corp of Engineers channelizes the Kissimmee River in the blink of an eye, a loss unseen to those who come after.  The shimmering eelgrass of the springs is replaced by algae in twenty years, a loss unseen to those who come after.

This process of diminishment and its denouement lie hidden between generations, thereby producing an ineluctable fate.  We never see the catastrophe until it falls upon us, which is when we call our politicians, take that canoe trip, visit Silver Springs instead of Disney World, form political action groups.  The rub is this: as residential neighborhoods lap the shores of The Real Florida, fragmenting the State Park system into archipelagos of “nature” strewn across a sea of settled landscapes — and consigning to the status of an agricultural retention pond that unique subtropical wilderness known as the Everglades — our species being reaches a point of fatalistic acceptance, knowing that our human being has waited too long to act.  We’ve passed the tipping point, so why bother?  Better to eat, drink and be merry.  At the outset of my meditation, I considered the hope we place in our cognitive power, our human capability to escape the nightmares of our own making.  Now I let this hope come crashing down.  Although we fully see the disasters ahead, understand them perfectly, and know exactly what to do, we are ultimately no different than the ant.  So it is that the anthill climbs high as the sand blows off, and reckless abandon makes a party out of doom.  Oh Titanic, how sweet the music!

As for Florida, this Titanic of balmy skies, palm trees, and Alph, the sacred river, I find myself searching inwardly for the appropriate posture.  Should I let myself inhabit the delusion that the fragments of The Real Florida compose a vibrant whole, and that we can turn things around?  Or should I get on with it, admit the truth of the matter, our inability to set things right and recover the losses?  Maybe none of this matters anyway, since we’re all dead in the long-run, as Maynard Keynes so thoughtfully pointed out.  But I can’t let it go, because the phantom Florida landscape that could be again won’t let me.  And so I will resort to my own lament of the generation about to pass: Yes, you should have seen Florida yesterday.  But only if you regret what you’ve lost with the same fervor as you wish for good tomorrows.   The Sisyphean task of bearing witness with harsh complaint must someday bear us fruit.


The Fountain of Youth

My thoughts are far from Greek mythology and Sisyphus as I try to second guess Nathanael, wondering where he could have gone.  Cynthia squints as I approach the dock, empty handed.   He isn’t in there I say, then where she asks, at which I shake my head, scan the grounds, the faces, the low spaces of the milling crowd.  We need to look, I say.  Johanna weighs in, suddenly worried, he’s goneHe’s just a little lost, I say but my panic rises anyway.  We hustle off in different directions, for the ice-cream stand, the store selling shark teeth, the path to the parking lot.  A minute later we resolve to sound the alarm.  Cynthia keeps searching while I hurry for the park rangers at the ticket booth, scanning left, right, then off to the promenade that rings the springhead past the boat dock.  There, I see two small figures, girl and boy, the boy Nathanael’s size.  Johanna stands beside him, an arm around his shoulder.  Both hug the rail and are gazing into the spring, doing pretty much what I used to do with my kid brother so long ago.  Nathanael points down at something, and I’m certain that they’ve seen the caverns measureless to man, that now they share my longing for the sunless sea and its potential for transformative mystery.


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