A river is more than a single channel of water flowing from a beginning to an end. It is all those places that touch the river–everything upstream and uphill from it.
These parts make up the basin or watershed or valley. Or so I am told.
It is into this valley we go on a warm Saturday afternoon, sky overhead as blue as a robin’s egg, fat white clouds gently pushing and pulling their way through it. We are here today looking for the art of the details, the little pieces that bind the larger ecological system together. Bob Giguere and I begin our trek at the edge of bustling SR 46 where amped-up motorists try to outdo each other to see how fast and aggressively they can drive on this once-quiet country road.
The aim to today is to walk through the Lower Wekiva River State Preserve to hunt for these details, to find new ways to see the St. Johns River system. Bob and I load ourselves with a HDV camera and filters, a carbon-fiber tripod, a digital camera, and lots of water. We walk past the trailhead kiosk for a short longleaf pine loop, and veer off for a firebreak road that will lead us as far as we want to go on this 20,000 acres of wild land. Soon, the nervousness of the road fades.
We are here to capture images on video, a portion of our “B-roll” of footage that–we hope–will help us tell a larger story of nature, people, art and place. Bob suggests we hike in first, and then, as the sun lowers in the Florida sky, take the shots on the way back out. That sounds reasonable, and so in we go, beyond the long leafs, past gopher tortoise burrows, down a canopied corridor that takes us finally over a gentle slope and out onto the open flatwoods.
Pine, mostly slash now, and gullberry and saw palmetto spread out before us, an endless sea on a land so flat no ball would ever roll up or down it. Bob always looks more official than me, upright and mindful, trogging onward, wearing his black Equinox Film Crew t-shirt and Equinox hat. I am in old hiking shorts with a bleached-stained t-shirt my son-in-law gave me once and my dog has chewed on since.
We duck back into a thick hammock of oaks and follow a rain-carved ditch to a duckweed-covered slough of the Wekiva River. Snail shells left from Native American campers stud the sandy earth. We make our way down the banks of the slough to a small sandbar. I stop, look around. We haven’t talked much coming in about anything but technology because that is the subject Bob is explaining. He has explained in detail the advantages and comparative uses of our new video gear. And then he has done it again, in a different way.
But, the simple act of stopping and looking quietly on this spit of sand works miracles for us both. As Emerson has written: “Nature and books belong to those who can see.” A sabal palm frond with a shaft of sunlight behind it becomes a work of art, perfect lines radiating out from a center as it is a painting of a sunrise. Taller and older palms frame the blue sky, capturing a white cloud as it floats across. Calmer now and in place, Bob points his camera at a muscadine grape vine, and I ask him to capture the moving shadow of it in the floating green duckweed below.
He does and then, after a while, something pops the water from under the carpet of duckweed. We watch, listen. Green eyes of a frog appear, and then another. They watch us, carefully, like a gator might if he is trying to observe and to hide at the same time. Bob nails the frog eyes with his HDV. We pack up, remount the banks, and cross over another sandbar to a bluff that hides the Wekiva, jumping now over the last three feet of slough. I think of me using the word “nail” as a verb–another human conceit.
The bluff gives us perspective, showing the Wekiva below. Usually clear from springs, the recent rains have now tinted it into a diluted tea.
We go to its edge, set up the tripod, nail more footage of moss and river. A motor boat with an archer standing in its bow hunting for large gar putters by. Later, three more boats and a lone kayaker pass. Of all the river traffic, it is only the kayaker who sees us. The rest are too intent on eyeballing the channel, senses focused on the path ahead. The kayaker, more time to reflect, thinks peripherally. All that he passes is his domain because he fully sees it. The rest are chattering or silent. He is singing.
We pack up and haul back out, retracing our path through the flatwoods, crossing snow white sugar sand. Redneck Rivera, I say, in reference to the white sand of the Panhandle resort towns. Paw prints are scattered on the sand, deer and then several from small black bears. A hole likely dug by a raccoon shows the leather-like skin shards of turtle eggs. The hole is fresh but the skins old and I am hoping they hatched before they were eaten.
Wildflowers are full around us, and we stop to nail them, too. Then the ephemeral pond reveals itself behind the palmettos. We go to it, hike across it. It is as dry as the swamp has been, and its grasses are knee high. Summer should have made it into a pond again, but our drought has left it bereft of water.
A pair of sandhill cranes I usually see here are nowhere to be found. A small stand of giant grasses anchor the middle and we walk to them. The plumes are massive, thick with new seeds, as grandiose as the adornments on the helmets of Roman soldiers.
Bob crouches with camera, and I wander the perimeter, see where animals have pushed the grasses down with their own movement. I look back, see Bob’s white Equinox hat in the middle of the field of grasses. I tell Bob later that if we were smart, we would come here with a pair of camp chairs and sit until sundown, when the mammals and birds arrive.
We are saved by the river system, by its watershed. We return with great images of butterflies and palmetto fronds, fence lizards and the tiny green bodied insect that sucks the nectar of the purple Blazing Star. We are saved not because we are right. But because the world around us is rich, layered with plants, animals, with great open spaces and tightly woven hammocks and a river that flows deeply enough to touch the soul.
We are saved because of what it is.
It is only coincidental that this wild nature happens to be what we want. It has become so only because we have slowed to its pace.
- posted by Bill Belleville