Monday, July 31, 2017

Return to the Primordial Beach



It’s been a fine wet summer and many of North Florida’s lowland rivers have spilled their banks. Sections of certain swamp-lined rivers—Prairie Creek, Withlacoochee and parts of Ocklawaha to name a few—are no longer defined by their banks, but broad sheets of water that simply disappear into the forests on either side.

For many paddlers, high water events stir something inside us that tells us to load our boat and get out there. When the paddling gets gnarly, the gnarly get paddling *.

Topping the list of opportunities brought by a flood is the chance to paddle through low river forests. In normal conditions, we descend the river like spectators who can only watch the forest scroll past. But when a river swells and jumps its bank, it allows us to paddle out into that forest wonderland where we are presented with yet another fine opportunity--seeing our fellow paddlers in a state of utter enchantment.

Next time you’re in a swamp, look around at your companions. There won’t be a day-dreamer in the bunch. Even the most seasoned outdoors-persons are on high alert in a swamp. They—we—move slowly and deliberately, scanning our surroundings with the excited curiosity of children. We are aware of every sound, every scent.

Even the youngest swamps feel timeless and primordial. But older swamps—those whose mature trees create a world of deep shade and warm, sultry air—are primordial to the point they evoke a sense of spirituality in us that often borders on mystical. We are awed by their grandeur. We gaze at the massive trunks of cypress, ash and tupelo rising from the water like the columns of a grand cathedral and our eyes are automatically drawn upward to vaulted ceilings of shimmering green foliage flecked with brilliant shards of light. Elsewhere in the spacious hall, the shrill calls of warblers, flycatchers and woodpeckers take on a penetrating, almost haunting quality as they echo from the high rafters and dark recesses. But, damp, earthy scents and an unbroken floor of tannin-stained water are ever-present reminders that this sanctuary is far older and far grander than anything man has ever erected.

It is this wonderful play of water and wildlife that brings me to the best of all the opportunities offered by a flood; the chance to glimpse the primordial origins of life out of the sea.

Once upon a time, the only living things on the planet lived in the sea. All the land above the sea was barren rock and sand—and void of life. Sometime around 400 – 450 million years ago, primitive marine plants like mosses and liverworts began colonizing that barren shore. With time—lots and lots of time—natural selection allowed some to evolve characteristics that allowed them to remain out of water and reproduce. With the groundwork laid, animals began sending their own pioneering species into the world of air and light. It was the animal kingdom’s first out-of-(water)body-experience.

Those first arrivals were small, segmented creatures that closely-resembled their present day descendants, millipedes and centipedes. For those pioneering species, survival hinged on one important thing—staying hydrated. It was a monumental challenge and one they never quite overcame. To this day, every critter on the planet—including the one that wears hydration packs and buys water for a dollar per pint—works hard to keep from drying out.

From a distance, that first primordial beach would have appeared barren. Only on close observation would you have found a thin, spongy carpet of simple plants, mosses and liverworts rimming the high tide zone. Poking into these mases with a stick (I’m not sure what kind of stick we’d find since there was no wood yet. Hmm!), you might have revealed some of those first air-breathing animals nosing about in its damp, shaded recesses.

Today, compliments of recent flooding, the primordial beach has been resurrected in some of the swamps of North Florida—sort of. Paddle slowly among the cypress, tupelo ash and other floodplain species, and look closely at the trunks, just above the water line. There, you'll find small patches of mosses and liverworts, wicking up moisture from the water below. Crowded onto these welcome sanctuaries of dampness you'll often see gatherings (quite dense in ideal locations) of small animals—mostly arthropods—that look strikingly similar to those that colonized the beach primeval.

With their regular home on the forest floor now under water, dense communities of millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs and rolly-pollies huddle near the water line on the exposed tree trunks and floating vegetation. But, these communities are not functioning in the usual manner. Centipedes and millipedes, creatures usually locked into a deadly predator-prey relationship, are now spooning. Rolly-pollies stand brazenly exposed to predators. And all are lethargic, having lapsed into an energy-conserving stupor as they wait out the flood. They are the displaced refugees waiting to return to their homeland.

Of course, not all of the forest creatures are as nostalgic as human paddlers. Pileated woodpeckers descend on these refugee camps like pirates, gorging on the assorted crawlies they find under dislodged chunks of bark. Other birds--chickadees, titmice, vireos, wrens and other gleaning birds—are joining the feast, wreaking their own brand of havoc. on the vulnerable refugees.

It’s an interesting time, but if you plan on coming out for a frolic on North Florida’s’s forest/beach primeval, I suggest you hurry. Water levels are dropping fast and the snack bar is running out of grub(s).





* As a sometimes-responsible river guide, I should clarify that the flood waters I'm talking about in this article are those found in quiet, flooded swamps, where the water moves slowly, if at all, in a sheet flow through the forests. Flooding in the main channel of a waterway is a different animal altogether. Those are very hazardous conditions, suitable only for expert paddlers. Most significantly, paddling on raging flood waters will not get you into any of the interesting things I’m describing here. You're warned. Now get out there!!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Spiderwort: Blue Tears



At days end, spiderwort bloom dissolves into a liquid blue pearl


When serious-minded naturalists hear comments like, “Hey look, those spiderworts are crying blue tears!” their Terramar® underpants (“for the discerning outdoorsman, with soft spun polyester that stretches with every move and wicks moisture like there’s no tomorrow”) immediately bunch. So, on a recent paddle trip on Steinhatchee River, when our dozen-boat fleet of kayaks drifted past a cluster of deep purple blooms, I considered my words carefully before responding to the young girl's comment.  

Anthropomorphizing—attributing human characteristics and emotions to plants, animals and other non-human things—is usually reserved for poets and the writers of children’s books. But, for nature guides whose job is to facilitate healthy relationships between people and nature, sprinkling a little anthropomorphism into discussions about wildlife can be useful. People like detecting a hint of humanity in the other species in their midst. It’s comforting, but more importantly, it makes those species more familiar and strengthens the sense of connectedness.

I was reminded of this on a recent hike at Cape Canaveral. Our group had just emerged from behind the dunes when we saw a leatherback sea turtle laying eggs in a sand pit. As we stood back watching this miracle, we talked about the challenges this species faces. A turtle expert in our group explained that this species is teetering on extinction, and that the current number of nesting females—estimated to be between 26,000 and 46,000—is about a third of the number in 1980.  But it wasn’t until we noticed a single tear, glistening in the moonlight as it rolled down the mother turtle’s cheek, that the group was visibly moved. In that instant they developed a heart-felt empathy for the mother turtle that dwarfed any emotions stirred by our talk of extinction. Even after the herpetologist explained that the tears were a natural bodily function, designed to wash sand from the turtles eyes in the same way our own eyes gush when sand gets in them, some of our crew couldn’t shake by the notion that the turtle mother was crying.

Another way to help people identify with plants and animals is to show how other cultures and even our own predecessors used them. Pause alongside a sand myrtle bush and start droning about the plant’s anatomy and you’ll soon be talking to yourself. But mention that early oil men believed groves of these bushes indicated large deposits of oil underground, and you’ll find your audience more receptive. Even though the oil "dowsers" have abandoned the use of sand myrtle in favor of more reliable sensing technologies of the nuclear age, for the purposes of nature interpretation, knowing this plant was once the famous “oil bush,” makes it still relevant.

Over the years of studying wild lore, I’ve come to realize that Florida’s wild places are pulsing with such stories. The river banks are lined with species that are currently being used in products with such varied uses as detecting lead and arsenic in the air, removing pollutants and metals from water, detecting landmines (in other countries) and improving windshields. Some are used for everyday products like clothing, shelters and hundreds of medicinal compounds, while others are used for more nefarious purposes like explosives and rifle sights. My challenge these days is resisting the temptation to rattle off the lore of every plant we pass. Instead, I try to direct my "interpreting"  towards only those people who look like they want to hear it. Of course, there are some stories everyone seems to appreciate.

 Back on the Steinhatchee River, I realize my crew is starting to drift away; better talk quickly.

“The “tears” we’re seeing are the remains of the spiderwort’s flower. When the bloom reaches the end of its half-day life span, enzymes begin dissolving it. By dusk, nothing remains but a gob of purple liquid. This was the inspiration for the plant’s nick-name, “widows tears.”

Stamen hairs of a spiderwort bloom tell a story
The group is continues to drift away. But, there’s one more thing I think they’d be interested in hearing.

“These days, spiderworts are sometimes planted near nuclear reactors because they can detect radiation.”

Heads turn and paddles stop moving. A few people start to lightly back-paddle toward the plant.

“In the 1970’s, Professor Sadeo Ichikawa at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, discovered that the blue stamen hairs in spiderwort flowers turned pink in the presence of radiation. Through his research, he refined his technique to the point that he can now detect the amount of radiation exposure like a biological Geiger counter.  By taking daily counts of the number of cells that have changed from blue to pink along the single-cell strands of the stamen hairs, researchers can monitor the levels and changes in radiation.”

A young girl pulls her kayak toward the plant and squints for a better view, “I wonder if it’s crying pink tears?”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Quiet Man



During World War II, my father was a member of the Danish resistance. He never spoke much about the experience; not even when I tried to delicately steer the conversation in that direction. He wouldn’t go there. Perhaps he couldn’t. Eventually I let it go, hoping some day he would overcome whatever fears or painful memories held him back, and tell me this story. That day never came.

In the 1980’s, as a project for a writing class, I wrote a story based on one of the few stories I knew of my father’s exploits. It told of a dark, misty night when he helped smuggle an old Jewish man and his granddaughter onto a small fishing boat on the northeast coast of Denmark and sent them across to safety in Sweden. He had never met the old man and his daughter before that evening, and throughout the story, says very little to them. When I submitted this story to my writing teacher for evaluation, he remarked sternly, "Why so quiet?" The words stung. Not so much because of the criticism, but because I didn't have an answer. Having my father’s character remain so quiet in the story wasn’t a conscious choice, and yet it seemed right. I didn’t change it.

Several years ago, I visited relatives in Denmark. My father had recently died, so I was eager to hear any stories my relatives could recall about his exploits. Without knowing it, I had stumbled into one of the most important endeavors of my life. Every conversation unveiled things I never knew about my father, and each shed more light on this previously unknown (to me) chapter in his life. I became increasingly aware that I had grown up in the presence of a true hero, a young man who (with his brothers) turned the family home into a secret "fortress" where guns were made and/or hidden for resistance fighters (when discovered, the house was blown up). He eventually led groups of escaping Jews to fishing boats which would then take them to Sweden and freedom. In one instance, he hid a group of escapees in a church attic as German soldiers searched the small coastal village for them. I learned on a later visit that that town now holds an annual commemoration of the event, to this day. In the end, he was caught and sent to prison camp.

My amazement grew, as did a sense of loss at learning there was so much about my father I didn't know when he was alive. So many questions I’d have liked to ask. So much pride I would have liked to express.

My visit was quickly transforming from a relaxing vacation to a personal quest—healthy, healing and somewhat exciting, but also very heavy. And, just as my heart started feeling like it could take no more, a cousin casually mentioned that the prison camp still existed as sort of a museum. I was speechless.

The next day I drove to the little village of Froslev. At mid-day, after a couple of hours searching the beautiful countryside near the German border, I found the camp. My heart was in my throat as I passed though the old, wooden gate and gazed out at scene that was strikingly familiar. I had seen it many times in old photos of Nazi prison camps--dozens of long low buildings, arranged in tidy rows oriented toward a central parade ground. Unlike the old photos, however, this scene wasn’t in black and white. The freshly painted burgundy buildings, with crisp white trim were set off by a neatly cropped lawn of a succulence and greenness that is only possible in cooler northern climates.

As I strolled through the complex, I found that two of the bunkers had been preserved just as they were during the war. They contained a full collection of photos and artifacts of the Froslev prison camp. The curator, a short, white-haired gentleman, whose ruddy complexion made me think he was probably a retired sailor, explained that they had records of some prisoners but, since hundreds of them had come through during the war, chances were slim that he’d find anything about my father. But he'd try.

Ten minutes later he returned, beaming with childlike amazement as he held out an old, tattered slip of paper. I glanced at the name and birth date and knew immediately I was holding my father's admission records into the prison. Speaking over the growing lump in my throat, I asked the curator if I could have a copy. He eagerly obliged.

For the next few hours, I explored the compound and imagined how it would have looked over six decades earlier. I walked along the barbed wire fence, strolled through the bunk houses and climbed the watchtowers; all still amazingly intact. I sat beside the fire pit outside my father's bunk house—saddened at the thought of the lonely moments he must have spent on this exact spot.

Walking quietly through the rooms of the museum, I read the information displays, imagining my father in every event described. Behind the glass display cases were dozens of items fashioned by the prisoners to make their life more tolerable. I was especially interested in the tiny little signatures that the prisoners wrote on any item that could be smuggled out of camp – tiny shreds of paper, cloth, cap linings. I laughed at myself for daring to foolishly hope to see my father's tiny signature on some item. As I made my way down the wall, nose close to the glass to see the tiny signatures and search for his face in the crowds of faces, I moved from one frame to the next when suddenly, l found myself face to face with a photo of my father.
There, in the same long wool coat and dark Fedora hat I had seen in other photos, was my father. He was standing in the barb-wired prison yard with an unknown man at his side. Behind them, the Danish flag flying on a makeshift mast left no doubt that this was the morning of liberation. He was a free man. Yet, he wasn't whooping and hollering like one might expect. His calm, gentle smile gave no clue to the suffering he had endured.

Staring in disbelief – as though looking at a ghost – I labored to breathe as I moved close to study the picture. Blinking rapidly to clear my blurry eyes, I studied the photo for any details that would shed some light about the camp; about the day the photo was taken; about the conditions in which he lived. But mostly, I looked at his face. I looked for clues – anything. And, the only words I could utter, as I stood staring into the kind, smiling face of the 21 year old boy who was my father, was "Why, dad? Why so quiet?"


Thorkild Andersen and unknown friend on day of liberation from Froslev Prison Camp 

















Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lore and Legends of Burnt Island






There’s no simple way to get to Burnt Island, the large, brooding landmass in the southeast corner of Lochloosa Lake. For Charlie, the legendary “Poet of Burnt Island” introduced to most of us by J.T. Glisson in his book, The Creek, it was a cypress rowboat. According to Glisson, it was a heavy boat, but it probably served Charlie well as he eked out a humble living fishing for brim and specks and running trotlines for catfish on Lochloosa Lake. The only time his sturdy craft served a more ambitious task was when it carried Charlie on his annual pilgrimage up the Creek and across Orange Lake to the town of Orange lake, where he bought four jugs of wine and a couple of gin. Thus supplied, he would then paddle out into the lake, tie the craft to a floating island and indulge in a glorious, multi-day drunk. (I recommend you read The Creek to enjoy the rest of this fun [though a bit tragic] story).






For Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, it was a horse, a sense of duty and a friend with a poor sense of direction that brought her to Burnt Island. Hoping to get better acquainted with the people of Cross creek, Rawlings accompanied her friend (at the time) Zelma Cason on a two day horseback ride through the countryside to take a census. On the second day, as they neared Burnt Island, Zelma described “fabulous tales” of the “grandfather of all rattlesnakes” and “savage, long-tusked and dangerous” wild boars that lived there. “The place was also a hide-out for criminals who preferred the great rattler and wild boars to the long arm of the law.” Dusk was fast approaching and Rawlings found little comfort in the stories. She was even less thrilled when Zelma confessed that she had missed a turn and they were now lost--on the fringes of Burnt Island! The two ladies survived the ordeal with the help of stout hearts and a full moon. Unfortunately their friendship did not fare as well. When Rawlings recounted the event in her book, Cross Creek, (in the chapter titled, “The Census”) her descriptions of Zelma were less than flattering and Zelma sued.

Today, the island is part of the 10,388 acre Lochloosa Wildlife Conservation Area that surrounds much of Lochloosa Lake. Land access to the island is little better than in Rawlings day. A simple LWCA sign alongside State Road 301, near Grove Park, calls attention to a small dirt road entering the forest. Here, I would advise all curious nature lovers to answer your primal attraction to such wild places and turn in. Following this rough dirt road, you’ll thread through pine plantations and mixed hardwoods before crossing a small dike—the umbilicus that connects the island to the mainland. Continuing on, you’ll soon come to a quiet, oak-shaded park and fishing pier. Beyond this little park, the road continues another quarter mile through the dense mixed hardwood hammock, becoming less drivable with every bend and finally surrendering to the forest where it morphs into a walking trail.




The best way to reach Burnt Island is by kayak or canoe, launching from the village of Cross Creek on the beautiful little stream for which it was named. Leaving the creek, the cypress forests end and marshes slowly give way to the vast open expanse of Lochloosa Lake. The brooding, deep-green tree line of Burnt Island looms in the distance. As you skim past floating meadows of spatter dock and cattails, water birds of all tribes move about. The island grows larger and the trees become better defined. Reaching the island, you find a huge cormorant roost, so popular that the trees are chalky white from years of discharge. You pass the site of old Charlie’s shack. You can almost picture the tin Prince Albert can he nailed to a cypress tree for people to pick up money and his notes requesting supplies. You see a movement in the forest shadows and could swear it was a wild boar. A breeze rustles the maidencane, or was it the sizzle of a distant rattler?

Gazing up into the tall pines, you are reminded that not all of Burnt Island’s wonders are of the past. A pair of bald eagle nests—both visible from a single vantage point—remind you that this is still a wildlife Mecca. The fuzzy little heads we see poking out of the nests in late winter remind us that some of the island’s greatest marvels are yet to come.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Lower Suwannee NWR: "Lost World of the Ivory Billed"


For paddlers with an explorer's heart (and a good map) the vast, 53,000 acre Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is nothing short of paradise. It has it all. It is remote, wild and only requires an average amount of skill to paddle (but  above-average amount of luck to navigate ;o). Best of all, this area is shrouded in misinformation. Given all this, it's no surprise that the backwaters of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is among my favorite places to paddle. It's also one of our most requested tours. I lead an average of one tour per month into this quiet realm.

My favorite route carries us along a network of beautiful back-creeks and side-channels of the lower Suwannee River. The entire trip is within the bounds of the refuge. These low, tidal creeks and the coastal swamps they thread through are home to a fantastic array of birds, reptiles, amphibians and insect species. While the main channel of the Suwannee is relatively wide here (averaging 600 - 800 feet across), the back channels we follow rarely span more than 100 feet. Most are partially shaded by overhanging bald cypress, water elm, tupelo, ash, maple and oaks. The shrub layer is dominated by swamp dogwoods, Walter viburnum, buttonbush and climbing asters.

Sometimes, I do this tour as part of our "Wild Florida Chronicles" series, in which we follow the routes of some famous explorations. This segment of the series highlights the Chapman/Brewster expedition of 1890. While this team of famous naturalists only spent a couple of weeks exploring these same back channels (and the main river), their combined knowledge, along with with detailed notes and journal entries, left us a great written "snap-shot" of life along the lower Suwannee in the late 19th century. Most of the species they described are still here, including great blue, tri-colored. little blue herons, great and snowy egrets, prothonotary and parula warblers, swallow-tailed kites (in the summer) osprey and many more. The ivory-billed woodpeckers and Bachman's warblers they saw (and shot!) are now extinct.


Wildlife

The lower Suwannee is a bird-rich environment, with waders, shore birds, raptors and many others being well-represented. Bald eagles and osprey are common. In the summer, watch for Atlantic sturgeon, a migratory fish species that can get up to 200 pounds. From April through November, these silvery giants are often seen (and more often heard) jumping high out of the water. Manatees are also a possibility, especially in summer, as are swallow-tailed kites. One of the more surprising species you'll encounter are bottle-nosed dolphins. They often hunt in these waters for both freshwater and brackish water species such as redfish, bass, bream, sea-trout, catfish and mullet.


History

The record of prehistoric human activity in the coastal lowlands near the mouth of Suwannee River is scant, compared to other parts of Florida. Numerous shell middens, located on barrier islands and on high ground along area waterways, stand as silent monuments to once-thriving communities that date back thousands of years to the Archaic period and continuing to up to the arrival of Europeans. However, during the first centuries of European exploration, conquest and settlement, this remote corner of the Gulf coast was largely bypassed.  

Euro-American attempts at settling this area have always been small scale - rarely more than the optimistic efforts of homesteaders wanting simply to fish, hunt and raise healthy families. Needless to say, there is little documentation of these rare and fleeting endeavors. Those few settlements that involved more than just one or two families are known mostly from secondary sources and vague references and were very short lived.
It was this remoteness and the unknown nature of this area that inspired three well-known naturalists, William Brewster, Dr. Charles Slover Allen and Frank M. Chapman,to embark on an exploration of discovery and nature study in 1890. In March of that year, the three men set off from New Branford, the town we know today simply as Branford) aboard a little "house scow" (a small houseboat) named the "Coota." For the next two weeks, they eased their way down the river, exploring side channels, taking notes and observing the wildlife. In keeping with the long-standing tradition of nature study, they shot as many animals as they could--great for detailed study of plumage and anatomy, not so great for species populations. Today's idea of nature conservation was still generations away.

Towards the end of their 70 mile journey, as they approached the Gulf, the explorer's spent increasing amounts of time stalking the back waters and tidal creeks. Here, among beautiful swamps of cypress, bay, tupelo and pumpkin ash, they were dazzled by a menagerie of bird species. Their final tally of 107 bird species, included some of the last ivory-billed woodpeckers recorded in Florida (one of which was shot). Also of interest were their sightings of Bachman's warblers. This species was named by John Audubon (though he never saw one alive) in honor of the birds discoverer, John Bachman. These birds, too, are probably extinct.

Today, the wild chorus of the Lower Suwannee swamps is a few singers short of what the Chapman and Brewster heard in the 1800's. But it's far from silent. Wildlife still abounds and ecosystems are still functioning. This is still a wild realm that I recommend to any paddler looking for raw nature. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Year for Chartreuse

 
It’s finally happened! High fashion has come to Santa Fe River! By some inexplicable quirk of nature, the worlds of high fashion and river guiding have actually overlapped...barely. And, no, this has nothing to do with my funky old hat, which remains the epitome of poor taste.

I heard the news while driving home from a recent Santa Fe River tour, delivered by a silky-voiced NPR host who announced, through the crackling speakers under my truck’s dashboard, that fashion leaders have determined that the color of the year for 2017 is chartreuse.”

At first, I didn’t recognize the story’s relevance to my life. It wasn't until the slow drive-through of a fast burger joint prompted me to Google “chartreuse” that I realized I had found the color—specifically, the name of the color—I had been seeking all day.
 
The events that led to this monumentally trivial revelation began an hour into this morning’s tour. Our small fleet of multi-colored kayaks had rafted loosely together as we drifted over the gentle up-welling of Poe Spring. We were discussing North Florida's karst terrain and I was fumbling through an explanation of how these free-flowing “artesian” springs work, when a soft-spoken college girl asked the question on everyone's mind, “Why is the water such an ugly, yellow-green color?”

She had seen enough healthy artesian springs to know they are usually clear as glass and colorless. In deeper areas, when underlain by white sand or limestone the water has a beautiful blue cast. The deeper the water, the darker the blue. But the water now gushing from the darkened vent below us was exactly as she said, yellow-green and ugly.

Twenty years ago, Poe Spring looked much healthier. While it wasn’t as blue as other, larger springs along the river (probably because the pool floor was covered with gently waving meadows of dark green tape grass (Valsneria), Sagittaria and other submerged plants typical of the rich springs ecosystem) it was crystal clear and full of life. Fish, crayfish, snails, eels and other creatures thrived. That all changed in 2000 – 2001, when a series of surging floods and deep droughts pummeled the river. When the water levels returned to normal, Poe and nearby Lily Springs were noticeably darker. The change was made even more dramatic after severe drought in 2012 caused Poe Spring to essentially stop flowing.

A tour group of UF students frolic on the chartreuse waters of Poe Spring



These days, the color of Poe Spring fluctuates between dark brown when high, to yellowish-green during drier spells. During those low periods, the water table drops enough to allow brown river water to seep into the top of the aquifer where it mixes with the clear ground water. I’m told the sickly, yellow-green color of Poe Spring is a result of the blue-hued spring water mixing with brown river water. Frankly, I’m not convinced that is the only cause, because this is an entirely different color from what we see in the normal interface where spring run flows into a tannic brown river. But it’s the only theory being proposed at this time. Regardless of it's cause, the odd color has one benefit--it sparks conversations about the plight of the springs. And every time, at our discussion temporarily stalls as we fumble to find suitable words to describe the water's color. Some people lean toward, “lime green.Others, “musk melon.” For me, no words have ever painted it quite so well as, “sickly, yellow-green.” That changed today.

From this day forward, thanks to the fashion industry and a smooth-talking radio host, I will be able to tell people, with minimal awkwardness and mumbling, that the water now flowing from Poe Spring is chartreuse. Well, maybe "sickly chartreuse."

With that issue resolved, I am left with just one nagging question…. The color of the year!? Really?!


I told you that story so I can tell you this one...

*

When John and William Bartram explored Florida in 1765, they would have been heart-sick to learn that 250 years later, some of the miraculous blue springs they saw would be gone and the rest would be dying a slow, off-colored death. Being master word-smiths, I wonder how they would have described our foolishness in allowing this to happen. I also wonder what words they would have used to describe the sickly color of the water now flowing from Poe Springs. One word they would not have used was chartreuse. That word, at least as the name of a color, did not yet exist in 1765. In fact, the events that would give rise to the color name were happening at the exact same time as the Bartrams were in Florida.

In 1764, monks in the Grande Chartreuse Monastery (named for the Chartreus Mountains in which it was located) in the Artois Province of France were busy brewing a special concoction. The recipe had been gifted to the monastery 150 years earlier by François Hannibal d'Estrées, marshal of artillery to French king Henry IV, who had obtained it in China as an "elixir of long life." But concocting the magic elixir was no easy task, mainly because it required 130 ingredient. It wasn’t until 1737 that one of the monks was able to obtain all the ingredients and twisted up a batch. They called the elixir,Charteuse,” after the monastery.

In 1764, the monks tweaked the recipe and added some new ingredients. This new, “improved” version had a greenish color, so they called it Green Chartreuse. Being both magical and tasty, the drink was a hit. By the following century, it was being enjoyed throughout Europe. The name Chartreuse came to denote not only the drink, but also its yellow green color. So it was, that an elixir of eternal life gave us a word that describes some of Florida's dying springs.

The end…..

Thanks for stopping by. Please tip your waitress. Drive safe and I look forward to seeing you anoth...…..Wait! (screeeech) Did somebody say “elixir of long life?!” If you think I’m going to let that little nugget slip past without a closer look, you don’t know me. Take your seats! We’re heading back to 1764, back to the Artois region of France and back into the candle-lit halls of the Grande Chartreuse Monastery. We’re in luck, the merry monks are still huddled over their mixing bowls.

Moving  in close, we peek over their shoulders. Maybe we can identify the 130 ingredients they are mixing into a bowl of water. But it’s no use. We can’t make out the special ingredients other than a few common spices. Even today, the formula for Chartreuse is a closely held secret. Being mere mortals, we wish we had the recipe for this life-giving elixir. Being Floridians, a people well-versed in man’s quest for magic elixirs, we know most such concoctions have two ingredients in common; alcohol and spring water. And, it turns out, the elixir of Chartreuse is no different. The alcohol we know about. But what about the water? It seems they didn’t use rain or stream water like most people of the time, they had a well. And it wasn’t an ordinary well. This one flowed from deep in the earth…under its own power!

When the monastery of Chartreuse was first established in 1126, the monks drilled deep into the ground and hit water that was confined and pressurized under a confining layer of rock. The pressure was such that it pushed the water to the surface without any assistance; no pumping or well-bucket required. With time, more of these naturally free-flowing wells were dug, not only in the Artois Province but in other parts of the world, where similar geologic conditions had formed underground aquifers of pressurized water.

Today, these kinds of free-flowing wells are called by a name derived from "Artois," the region where they were discovered by the Chartreuse Monks. Regardless of whether it flows from natural chasms or from a dug well; if they it's cobalt blue, sulfur yellow or chartreuse green, any spring that flows freely from the ground under its own pressure is called “artesian.”