Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Vital Signs

Some days the beauty of a gently flowing spring is enough. Some days I need more. I sit on the rock ledge overhanging the pool's edge and set my gaze into the water, looking for that place far below the surface, where cobalt-blue fades to black. I watch for some hint of the life-force I know must be there; that same indefinable spark of vitality that sparkles in a person’s eyes. We cannot describe it and yet we know the instant it is gone. The Calusa believed a person’s soul resides in the pupil of their eye. We say, "eyes are windows to the soul."

Some days I slip below the water’s surface and glide through the flowing ether, past schools of bream and darting needlefish and weave through billowing pastures of eel grass and bitter cress, over the intricately sculpted limestone rim of the vent and then down into the lightless chasm. I’m in utter darkness. Everything I see and feel—the water’s coolness, the power of its flow, the pressing silence—is the pure essence of the earth. Its temperature becomes my own. I am buffeted by Florida’s pulse; awash in her "vital signs."

I wonder how these vital signs compare to ten years ago; a hundred years ago. How strong was Florida’s pulse the day de Leon landed? Did it skip a beat?

Back on the spring bank, back in the world of air and light, I watch as a bluegill pops a midge on the water surface. Small ripples radiate away and are quickly smoothed-over by the ouflow of the spring’s boil. I am awed by the thought that this vent has surged without interruption for thousands of years. It makes me aware of my own unlikely heartbeat. My body rocks lightly with my pulse. I know the strength of my pulse relies largely on my own behavior. But there is more. Regardless of how well I eat and how healthy my lifestyle, my heartbeat has an expiration date. It is here that the metaphor falls apart. The pulse of water surging through the rocks below me could continue indefinitely.

Powered only by rainfall, Florida’s springs will continue to flow as long as the aquifer system is kept healthy. In its natural state, the only outlets for water flowing through the aquifer were spring vents. But then thirsty humans arrived. Those without easy access to a clean water source tapped the aquifer with wells. In a general sense, water wells are artificial spring vents. With the flick of the wrist we can turn our faux spring from a slow-flowing "seep" to a first magnitude gusher of "tap" water that has been diverted from some spring. With a population near 20 million and unchecked permitting, the volume of water being bled away before it gets to the springs is staggering. Every spring for which people have kept records has gotten weaker. Some have stopped altogether. Florida’s springs are dying before our eyes.


My mind drifts again to another day at another spring--a cobalt- blue pool deep in the Chassahowitzka Swamp--where I recall my friend Stacy Matrazzo and I hanging our feet in the water and talked about Aldo Leopold. Stacy was writing her Master’s thesis about the renowned conservationist and had been spending time in his home turf in Wisconsin. She explained that Leopold’s conservation ethic did not happen all at once. It had grown steadily throughout his early life. But there were some pivotal moments. In his story, "Thinking Like a Mountain," Leopold described a life-changing moment in which he watched the "fierce green fire" leave the eyes of a dying wolf he had shot. "I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain."

That is the spark I watch for in Florida's cool blue eyes. I want to see, if only for a life-affirming instant, that which is known only to the land and to the spring. I want to believe that, if conditions were just so, I could look deep into the unblinking, cobalt stare and glimpse Florida’s fierce blue fire. Maybe if I looked from a certain angle, at just the right instant, when the sun was at the perfect height and the light was just so, the life-force of the spring would appear to me, like the legendary "green flash" of sunset.

According to the remarkable number of sages who’ve proffered their wisdom on this matter ("remarkable" because none I’ve talked to have actually seen it), if one watches the thin line of the horizon at sunset, when conditions are just right, one can see a burst of green light the instant the sun disappears.

I’ve watched for the green flash several times, but only as a whim when I was already at the beach. I’ve never seen it, but I felt I got close one day as my brother Henrik and I sat on the warm sand of a California beach, basking in the evengloam and watching the sun set. Henrik had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer so I had flown to San Diego to spend time with him. We talked about many things; everything, but that thing. He told me I should lead tours in California in addition to those I was already leading in Florida. "You can be bi-coastal!" he had beamed. We avoided discussions that made any reference to the future, but with every beer, it became increasingly obvious that one of two things was going to happen; we would either "go there" in our conversation and initiate a tear-flow that might never stop, or we would embark on one of those monumentally mindless endeavors that are the hallmark of great friends with a great buzz. So, we slid off our barstools and strolled onto the beach; in search of the fabled "green flash."

As we sat on the sand swilling beer, we discussed everything we knew or had heard about the green flash. It wasn’t much. We sat and we talked and we watched the pastel sky soften and when the time came, we glared at the sun as it slipped over the edge. It was a wonderful moment, not because of the green flash—no, we did not see that—but because it allowed us to enjoy that most-special of all nature’s gifts, a moment of hope.

Henrik died within the year. These days, when I go to the beach, I try to stay until sunset so I can watch for the green flash. Like looking into the spring, I realize I will probably never see that special thing. If I ever do, I will know it wasn’t the angle of the sun or special atmospheric conditions that made it happen.