“Welaka” is both the name of the village upcoming, as well as the name Native Americans gave to this river. It was said to mean “River of Lakes,” and that accurately describes the stretch of the St. Johns we have been on over the last several days. Now, we are preparing to leave this mainstem for its largest tributary, the Ocklawaha.
Before we do, though, we have one very important thing to accomplish. We have to leave Dessie behind.
Dessie passed on nearly four years ago, and she was cremated. Today right as the sun sets below the thickly wooded Ocala National Forest to the west and right at the entrance where the Ocklawaha flows into the St. Johns, we will release a portion of the ashes that once were Dessie.
We reconnoiter on the slightly higher eastern shore. The west is protected by the national forest and conservation land of the regional water managers, But the east is now beginning to sprawl with human-built environments. An old fish camp with cabins where I stayed several years ago when paddling the Ocklawaha is being converted into a condo complex. The character of the river will change. Little Welaka, once celebrated for its thriving shad fishing industry a century ago, will become something else, although nobody is quiet sure what.
Candace Booth, caretaker for Dessie during the last years of her life, comes aboard, along with several others, including Dessie’s niece. They have Dessie with them, in a bag inside of a purse. We push off and putter out towards the mouth of the Ocklawaha.
The St. Johns is tidal this far south and marine animals move back and forth under us, the tannic water veiling their migration. For now, shrimp are running and men in small boats toss out cast nets to try to catch them. The nets each unfold in a blossom of thick monofilament. When the late day sun hits a net in flight, it glows like the web of a golden orb spider. When it lands on the water, tiny lead weights quickly sink the web, and then, below the surface, help close it back up again. Whatever is beneath the mono circle is entrapped when the net thrower pulls the contraption back in.
Dessie Smith was the real deal, a backcountry woman from the Scrub who knew how to take care of herself. She taught Rawlings to hunt and to fish. She was a great sport who loved to have fun. If she were alive, she’d be right here in the middle of it all, throwing a net with the best of them.
Rivers have defined Florida perhaps as much as any place on earth. They helped early inhabitants travel, gather food, nurture mythology. Cross Creek, where Rawlings once lived, is part of this aquatic system, a vein that links two lakes, allowing a crossing between them. Because Florida is flat, the gradients that make a river flow are slight, made so by the remnants of scarps and ocean bottom shoals and terraces. Rivers like this do not roar or surge, instead they simmer, like a pot of grits or a bucket of peanuts, boiling over slow heat for hours. They are inimitably Southern, and except where springs flow into them, they are black. Like the old South, they are good at hiding secrets, revealing them slowly, when the time is right.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote: “When a person is hard of hearing, shout.” She was talking about writing, of course, and what it takes to grab the attention of a reader who might not otherwise get the point. People have got the point of Florida rivers for a very long time now. But because they are subtle, slow-moving rivers like this are in jeopardy of being drowned out by the grandiosity of jet-skiing, rooster-tailing hype today. Advertisements promoting fancy waterfront developments shout. The river simply flows.
And that is what it is doing today, flowing so slowly we can barely feel it. Near the Ocklawaha, we anchor and make ready. The shrimpers are leaving but a boat of fishermen nearby are starting to work the spadderdocks–what the natives call “cow lilies.” From inside the Forest, a hawk cries. Fish jump, leaving large circles behind. I fear there are too many of us here to do Dessie right. There are almost ten of us, and the moment is in danger of being hijacked by pretense. I worry we seem like exactly what we are–a film crew staging an event, rather than organically allowing it to happen.
And then we quiet down. The purse Candace brought is open and Dessie enters the water, a crust of ashes and bright red hibiscus blossoms and rose petals floating on the blackwater. The current is stronger than it looks, strong as Dessie herself once was as a young woman, and it begins to take her away. The sun glows warm as it sets behind the cypress and from somewhere overhead a pair of sandhill cranes cry in that deep and haunting way that they do, the birds of heaven saying goodbye. Leslie speaks tenderly about Dessie being with us for most of the trip in spirit, and now we are leaving her behind. Jennifer sings “Amazing Grace” in a remarkably clear and resonate voice. Despite any pretense, the moment again becomes very real. Leslie wipes at her eyes, and I feel a lump in my throat. Some of Dessie sinks here and some floats on, ending up who knows where.
And I think that is the most any of us can hope for at the end, to be remembered on the water, at sunset, to the call of cranes so high above the clouds they cannot even be seen. To be sung to in a voice that sounds as if it is rising out of the soul itself.
And then I finally think: If Dessie were here, she would smile, and say, “hell, young’un, what are you doing standing around when the fish are just starting to bite?”
- posted by Bill Belleville