I’m not sure what I expected to see in the heron’s eye that day, maybe some sign of its soul. The Calusa said eyes are windows to the soul. If there was ever a moment this bird’s soul would be shining from its jet black “windows,” it was now, standing knee-deep in the float-glass waters of Newnans Lake, gazing, with the tranquility of a monk, toward a smoldering, burnt-orange sunset. I wanted to believe that shining black well held the knowledge of the Universe—the knowledge shamen and monks can only dream of—but all I could see was the shiny speck of the reflected sun.
In the hour that I watched, the bird barely moved a muscle. It just stood and contemplated the colorful western sky, oblivious to me and seemingly oblivious to the hundred other herons doing exactly same thing. They weren’t a flock. They were a hundred widely-spaced individuals—none closer than two hundred feet apart—and all seemingly moved by the same primordial instinct to come to the shallow north end of Newnans Lake and stare at the setting sun.
I may never know why the herons gathered at Newnans Lake that day. My romantic mind wants to believe I stumbled upon some previously unknown heron sun-worshiping ceremony—something akin to the fabled elephant’s graveyard. Whatever it was, I know it’s probably too simple or too complex for me to comprehend. But one thing is certain; water was a critical element. Too deep for land predators and too shallow for gators, this thin veneer of water was the ideal setting for these birds to indulge in their transcendent contemplation without the burden of fear. Like all species, herons know that life in Florida is a gift of water.
Floridians are becoming increasingly passionate about our water. With a flood of new information coming from an amazing community of researchers, cave divers, geologists and devoted people from a variety of backgrounds, our understanding of Florida’s life-giving water systems—the underground aquifers—is growing exponentially.
The love of Florida’s springs and aquifers goes far deeper than intellectual pursuit. It comes from that powerful, intangible place in all of us that’s too big to name. When pressed, we usually defer to catch-all words like, “spirituality.” While many people in our spring-loving community, (I call it the “Springs Republic”) shy away from discussions about the spiritual aspect of their passion for springs, none deny it.
Everyone comes to their love of springs from a different place. For some, it was born in the carefree days of youth, playing and seeking relief from summer’s heat in their cool waters. Others associate them with family baptisms or perhaps more personal spiritual quests. Some never saw it coming. They arrived at springs as objective strangers, perhaps for jobs or research or by pure luck of geography when they relocated to a home near a spring. But, like many before them, they inevitably fell under the water’s spell. To know springs is to love them.
There’s nothing new about the current up-welling of love for Florida’s springs. It just feels that way. When you think honestly about it, there’s no getting past the fact that we are all “new” Floridians. All of us are trying to re-learn and re-form the bond that the native people had. But it's not easy. We are relative strangers in a relatively unfamiliar land. While Europeans have been here for a respectable 500 years, it hardly matches the 15,000 year run of our predecessors. More importantly, our cultural and spiritual heritage has nothing to do with this land.
Unless you are Native American, your spiritual/religious heritage is rooted in land far from Florida. Our ancient tales and holy texts—the stories that tell us who we are and where we came from—are all inhabited by places and plants and animals and land features we know nothing about. Christian children learn the words frankincense and myrrh early, but wouldn’t recognize it if it was in their hand. How many times have you seen Mount Arrarat? Jerusalm? Mecca? Mt Fuji? When was the last time you dipped your toes in the Jordan, or did a cannonball into the Ganges or Eurphrates. There are "sacred springs" and “holy wells" throughout the Old World that would make Buddhist or Jewish or Christian Floridians weep if they ever sat at their banks, while their Florida “home” brims with over 1000 springs.
I wonder what acts of reverence the Timucuan performed when they gathered alongside Silver Spring; how did their songs sound when they danced on the banks of Ichetucknee? I wonder how many Timucuan eyes welled as they approached Ginnie Spring. I wonder how many would weep if they saw it today.