We are underway not long after dawn, waving goodbye to Fred and Linda Hitt at their dock. The totem Linda once had carved for Fred remains inside, crack down its center, ancient magic splintered just for now. Fred named it “Marehootie.” Later, we will pass the full sized replica of the same owl icon at Hontoon Island, intimation of native spirituality left to silently watch over its river.
It is humid, morning sky saturated with vapor. River traffic is light and we make it easily downstream, Leslie maneuvering her boat with practiced skill. The hardwood swamp narrows around us, and we zoom beyond it, headed for Blue Spring where we will meet Jim Draper, an artist from Jacksonville who cares deeply for nature.
Old logging canals cut ragged slits into the forest to the west, linking the mainstem up to the Hontoon Dead River, which parallels it. Finally, Blue Spring State Park appears just ahead off the starboard and we beach the boat on a little spit of sand, letting Capt. Mike go ahead towards Holly Bluff Marina with the houseboat. Naturalist and artist Bartram sat on the banks of this spring almost 250 years ago, writing of the diaphanous magic of the ether-clear water.
I climb off the boat, look for Draper. He’s a big guy, looks more like an old college football player than an artist, but that’s what he is, an excellent painter of nature and place. We find him and head to an observation deck where we can chat. The deck juts out over the spring run, and when the manatees migrate in during the colder winter months it’s is crowded with tourists anxious to see these unlikely beasts, parts seemingly grafted together from four or five different animals.
We mike Jen and Jim and they walk some, and then lean against the wooden railing and talk, spring flowing behind them. I want to know more about how nature shapes art, and the two elaborate on that dynamic, Jen as a musician and Jim as an artist. Draper tells of a painting he did with a rooster at the Cross Creek home of Rawlings. The rooster “leads you down the path… inviting you to go on an adventure.”
Jen suddely spots a six foot gator behind them in the spring run. “You conjured him up with that story,” she says, only half joking. “He wants to be in a painting, too.” “Well,” says Jim, “as artists we always take what we can get.”
The spring flows, nearly 100 million gallons a day, but green now from all the nutrients that have seeped into the rock holding the aquifer. While still powerful, it is far less than when Bartram first saw it, a testament to how Florida’s nature is more finite than ever imagined. I wonder outloud about nature inspiring art–and wonder what happens when we then have the capacity ourselves to shape nature? As gods go, we’re flimsy and unfledged, prehensile tales of mythology still tucked inside, trying to learn a few tricks so we don’t wreck the playing field for good.
A photographer from the Orlando Sentinel snaps some photos for a story about our film. We wrap up the interview and head back onto the water. Jim rides with us, beyond Hontoon Island to Holly Bluff Marina, just around the bend from Lake Beresford, the St. Johns nicking off an edge of the broad, shallow lake. At the marina, we fuel up and chat with the folks there. Jim leaves, headed by road back to Jacksonville and we return to our own aquatic highway, running fast now to make it to Astor before dark.
We do a pass-by or two but mostly we are determined to make some time. We slow for manatee zones through the 50,000 acre Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, a place still so wild that a family in a small boat got lost for three days here not long ago. Migratory birds overwinter or fly through, ranging from Lake Dexter easterly to Woodruff and then Spring Garden Lake where the vent now renamed as “Ponce DeLeon Spring” still flows. When bird painter John James Audubon was here, it was “Spring Garden Spring”. But the over-reaching of modern Florida promotion later interceded and the illusion of celebrity prevailed. Nonetheless, the green herons and warblers and robins still come to feast on the great bounty of the river.
The wooded swamp shore is now replaced by clearings, some occupied by trailers and little marinas and boat ramps. This is Astor, which seems mostly dedicated to the fine art of casual sport angling. It is hot now, almost dead calm and the sun is high in the sky. Two eagles circle above, chirping to each other in their special eagle language. On shore, a guy with an massive white beard sits on a folding chair, not moving, looking for all the world like one of the original ZZ Tops. “She’s got legs, knows how to use them,” I say, in remembrance of one of their cuts. Leslie smiles: “Is that what happens to old rock and roll singers? They end up on a folding chair at the edge of the water in Astor?”
Blair’s Jungle Den emerges ahead on the right, and we pull next to the nearly-deserted dock. We have booked a few rooms here for the night, an act that allows us free dockage. For a ramshackle, laid-back fish camp-marina-motel, Blair’s has an extraordinary amount of rules. We had actually rushed here to make it by 4 pm, because the office shuts exactly at that time. A sign reads: No Bait in Rental Units; Violation will result in eviction.
There are concrete vats of minnows and of crickets, both with screens over the tops to dissuade the wading birds from a free lunch. Inside, the little crickets are happily chirping away without a clue as to what tomorrow will bring, more insect camraderie or the sucking gulp of a largemouth bass. I fiddle with a coin-operated metal basket called the Super Scaler, wishing I had a fish to put in so I could watch it spin around and spit out scales like so much silver confetti. A white great egret stalks the edge of a nearby boat slip on long black legs, attenuated to my every move. I imagine other humans tossing her live bait, generating a little excitement during an otherwise slow evening here at the Den.
The sun sits low atop the cypress nearby. Unlike the original Rawlings team during their 1933 river run, we don’t have to rely on what we shoot or catch to eat. Jennifer moves into action on the houseboat stove, cooking “Yassa Poule,” a Senegalese dish having to do with onions and spices and chicken. Soon the entire houseboat cabin is full of the succulent scent of the dish, and we sit around a large table near the stern to enjoy the feast. Jennifer says something in French about the recipe and we nod, not having a clue, as happy as chirping crickets in a large concrete vat.
The moon rises higher in the night, and much later, the stars turn on until all of the sky is lit like a magician’s parade. And the river flows, north to Lake George and Drayton Island, guiding the way with its gentle dark current, brimming with promises.
- posted by Bill Belleville