Salt Springs is just around the bend from Drayton Island, its mouth marked by a cleft in the tree line on the western shore of the “Little Ocean” of Lake George. Deanne Clark guides us there in her own boat, skimming across the temperamental lake with the aplomb of a person who spends a lot of time in a place surrounded by water. Living on Drayton doesn’t guarantee boating skills, of course, but paying attention to detail surely does.
Up into the five-mile run of Salt we go, led by Deanne, followed by Leslie’s center console, and then the pontoon boat with most of the crew. On the run we’ve traded the blackwater of the lake for the aquarium-like clarity of the spring. Spadderdock lilies with tight yellow buds buffer the shore, and wading birds hunt among them–Tricolored herons and Little blues and Great egrets. Each is a study in precision, and in the full immersion of the now. The Ocala National Forest spreads out generously around us, looking not unlike it did when Marjorie stopped here to camp 75 years ago–probably not dissimilar to Bartram’s own vision when he slept under a large oak on a bed of Spanish moss on Drayton. The centuries are disparate, but the value of the senses remains forever true.
We are also making a film so we must be careful to communicate these moments to others beyond ourselves. And so, on Salt Springs Run, Bob calls on the radio to advise Tom Postel and I to duck so he can shoot Jen and Leslie traveling from the other boat. We go down flat on the deck, as we have done many times, so as to not clutter the image of Leslie’s boat with unexplained passengers. I lay flat, hands on the back of my head, and relax, looking up. I see a mackerel sky and the edges of a tree canopy and then, a wondrous pair of sandhill cranes soaring, distant clack-clacking from the heavens announcing their presence. Soon, the B shoot is over, and we are again upright, doing the things we do, looking forward to Salt.
Near the end of the five-mile run, the spring-driven creek dilates into a small lagoon before narrowing into a channel leading to the spring bowl itself. A buoyed rope keeps swimmers in and boats out. Around us is a speciated version of author John Barth’s “floating opera”–each craft a metaphoric parade float celebrating the wonderfully odd cultural peccadillo that is our state.
We are missing the flashy, necklace-wearing nickel rockets of Southeast Florida, but otherwise, we have the bases covered: Africian-American men stoically angling for catfish from motor boats; earnest eco-kayakers in expensive Columbia shirts that wick really well; bare-chested rednecks with cocked crossbows searching the clear water for gar while girlfriends in gravity-defying bikinis chain-smoke; a couple of families waist-deep in the water grilling red meat on their boat’s stern dive platform, the men swilling Bud and guffawing. And finally us with cameras and some vague yearning to recapture time and nature and place. All of it is backgrounded with classic Southern rock-and-roll blasting from a CD player of the barbecuers: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank, Jr. and everything Tom Petty ever made.
As a gestalt, it’s wildly discordant, but the glue of Florida somehow makes it work. My buddy, Judge Fred Hitt, once loaned me an Oxford American CD that had a cut on it of Jerry Lee Lewis singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I still listen to it and every time, I smile. It’s unbelievably weird on one level, but it’s also ineffably wonderful on another.
We are filming a movie, certainly, but it’s hard not to imagine we are also in one, the moment scored by the aesthetic of 30-year-old guitar riffs and transparent water and an endless blue sky. The sun feels good on my skin and the light scent of wildflowers and piney woods wafts over the water. “‘d love to have the soundtrack for this day,” says Leslie, and I think, no wonder Florida has been so mythological, for so many, for so long.
Earlier this morning on the long Jeter dock on Drayton, Jen did a walk and talk about Ana Majigeen Jai, the young Senegalese woman sold into slavery and promptly bought by Florida plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley. There is a cape on Drayton named for old Zeph, and we figured this was a good a time as any to consider Ana. In the grand theater of the St. Johns, Zeph got the spotlight, but Jen resurrected Ana from the wings–actually traveling to Senegal once to learn more about her. Much study and passion later and the stunning young Senegalese women was reborn in Jen’s musical drama (and CD) “Majigeen.” Zeph freed Ana and married her, and now 200 years later, Jennifer has freed her again.
The St. Johns is like that, one great flowing menage of drama and comedy, where strong women and men have mixed it up for centuries. I wonder if the current infuses them all with its strength, recaptured in each new rainfall and each new pulse of the season. Maybe–like the water emerging from the limestone eye of a spring–we are sometimes allowed a brief glimpse at what nature and its gods have been up to, down there deep in the bedrock of time.
Jen wants to snorkel Salt today, but has forgotten her bathing suit, so we all turn the other way while she takes off her clothes and gets into a dive skin. “You’re becoming a real river woman,” says Leslie, and Jen says, “yea, I think I always was.” As she readies her snorkel, fins and mask, an otter swims nearby and a kingfisher hovers overhead. Jen slips down off the bow, sets her mask on her face, and then without a word, slides into the water and moves away towards the headspring, fins sloshing, like a giant mechanical toy.
I got in the water to help Jen adjust her mask, and so I stay here, waist deep, and lean against the hull of Leslie’s boat. She and I chat for a while, hanging out, a rare lull for us both in a spat of intense production days on the river. Deanne, Heather and her husband do the same; and nearby on the pontoon boat, Mark Howerton, baseball cap bill backwards, fiddles with some gear, and then kicks back, too. Bob and Tom and Jen are working and there’s not too much else we can do.
“Free Bird” is playing now and somewhere from the spring, I hear the shouting of humans, joyful, exuberant, full of being alive. I remember Bartram again, and his own unabashed delight for all of this river and its springs. His wonder for the “enchanting and amazing crystal fountain” of Salt was infectious, not unlike the wonder I experienced as a small boy at Silver Springs, a series of powerful limestone vents spouting water not too far from here.
Bartram wrote with such awe of this spring that the Romantic poet Coleridge was inspired to lyrically invent a Kubla Khan–where “Alph the Sacred River Ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea…”
If we are submerged in Salt Springs, does the memory shard of Bartram still enliven us–or do we enliven it with our presence? Does it matter that the poetic sunless sea is the Floridan Aquifer, a source that still gives us water and life ?
Can we imbue geography with the energy of all we have experienced here? And if so–as poet Marge Piercy once wrote–is memory the simplest form of prayer? Tom Petty is riffing again, distant chords rising and then falling into the now, and that is more than enough.
– posted by Bill Belleville