Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Song for Cannon Spring

Rodman Reservoir drawn down (Lars)

There is nothing so dramatically empty as a newly filled reservoir. I never really knew that before this morning, when I stood on the shore of Rodman Reservoir and stared out across a glass-smooth sheet of water where, just a month ago, I paddled a relict segment of Florida’s oldest river and slogged a boneyard of ten-foot stumps—the stone-grey remains of a magnificent forest. It was a sobering moment. But it must have paled compared to the loss felt by local residents when this reservoir was first filled in 1969. For them, it wasn't memories of a few happy days paddling that were covered; it was a lifetime of memories. I imagine there are people living in the surrounding countryside who, every now and then, pull crusty photo albums from their shelves and flip through images of a forest and a river and some cool blue springs they knew like their own back yard. It was their back yard. They call children and grandchildren to their side and slowly, reverently, point to pictures. They tell stories. And, when they are done, they put the book back on the shelf and everyone goes back to what they were doing. From that day forward--or so this story goes in my mind--those children and grandchildren look out across a Rodman Reservoir that has somehow changed. It looks and feels somehow emptier than it ever did before.

New life emerges among ancient stumps  (Lars Andersen)
Memories are powerful things, but mainly to those recalling them. Its only when they are accompanied by photos and images and shared with lots of people that the power of those memories is carried forward. Thankfully, photos of Rodman Reservoir (drained and full), Cannon Spring and this lost section of Ocklawaha River are no longer the stuff of dusty photo albums. During the last couple of drawdowns, a growing number of artists, photographers and videographers, have captured images of this bit of Florida's lost natural heritage and have shared them widely. Facebook and other social media have become the bane of injustice everywhere. This last drawdown an amazing array of photographers and artists--people like Mark Long, Jenny Adler, Margaret Tolbert, John Moran, Leslie Gamble Joe Cruz and Matt Keene--explored the exposed valley and captured images of this lost part of wild Florida. Their work and their generous sharing of it are helping make a new generation of nature lovers aware that sixteen miles of the Ocklawaha River and a handful of springs were taken from the people of Florida in 1969 and are still being held. The challenge now is to maintain this momentum by keeping those images circulating and inspiring an outcry that will be heard in Tallahassee.


One day near the end of the drawdown, a small group of us river people shuffled onto Erika Ritter’s and Karen Chadwick’s pontoon boats at Kenwood and set off for a day on Rodman Reservoir. We were a diverse group — a scientist, historian, river advocate, museum director, artist, videographer and river guide (Bob Knight, Steve Noll, Lisa Rinaman, Peggy Macdonald Demosthenous, Margaret
Tolbert, Matt Keene and me, to be specific) — who had come to lend our voices to a documentary about the reservoir and all that was lost when it was filled in 1969. Inspired by the art of Margaret Tolbert, the film is being produced by Florida Defenders of the Environment. Our plan was to spend the first few hours exploring the relict river-channel and the field of ten-foot, stone-grey stumps—the graveyard of the once magnificent forest—before making our way upstream through the 16-mile reservoir to Cannon Spring near the upper end. Videographer, Matt Keene would film and interview as we went.

A couple of hours into the trip we took a break to gather our thoughts and enjoy the scenery. Matt moved to the front of our boat and turned his camera forward—time to let the reservoir speak for itself. Others took the opportunity to scope some birds that had taunted us during filming and caused some editable moments that went like, “then the Legislature voted against…wood storks!” or, “the fishing lobby has spent large sums to…bald eagle!”

Ghosts of a long ago forest (Lars Andersen)

For me, the break was a chance to let my imagination off the leash and contemplate the Timucua people who once lived in this valley. For thousands of years, they stalked deer, foraged edible and medicinal plants and, I assume, daydreamed about their lives and loved ones. I wondered if they ever gathered at these springs for religious ceremonies, maybe to worship them or the earth mother from which they sprang. I wondered how important this river was to them. Was it ever considered sacred?

These thoughts, set against the image of Matt standing on the bow with the tall stumps scrolling slowly behind him, reminded of a story I once read about a night in1897, in the coastal wilderness of southwest Florida, when archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing stood on the front of his small boat and sang to the night and to the Universe.

Southwest Florida was still wilderness when Frank Cushing arrived with a small crew of laborers to begin excavations in the site known today as Key Marco. Hot, bug-infested and packed into the putrid muck of a dense mangrove forest, Key Marco was archaeology at its worst. But, it proved worth the effort. In the end, the site would yield over 1,000 wooden artifacts—more than any in North America—including some of the most beautiful artworks ever produced by Florida natives. For Cushing, however, it wasn’t the artifacts that fired his imagination, it was the simple wooden posts scattered throughout the site. He realized these were actually pilings that held homes and other structures over the water. These people, more than any Floridians before or since, had an intimate connection to the water. They lived with it. Cushing called the site, the Court of the Pile Dwellers.

Word of the incredible site soon spread. Fearing looters, Cushing remained on the site for the duration of the project, digging by day and documenting artifacts by night. Hunkered under the glow of lanterns on the stern deck of his small boat, he carefully rinsed and wiped the mud from each object and then logged it into the book. With each passing week, as the trove of unique artifacts grew, Cushing became increasingly awed by the people he felt he was beginning to know. And so, one evening, exhausted from weeks of hard digging and inspired by the amazing water-loving people he was coming to know, Cushing climbed to the front of his small boat, threw back his head and sang. According to a companion, “we rowed far down the river to hear the voice of the echo…As we glided, almost noiselessly…Cushing stood in the bow of the boat and raised his voice in song to the mystic people…to those who furnish motives for poem, tale and song…He who was of the present stood on the bow and sang the songs of a people of the past, in a baritone voice strong, clear resonant, almost barbaric, that sent echoes vibrating over the waters. It was the touch of an artist and peopled for us the seas with the Pile-Dwellers of the coast...”

A pilgrim arrived (Lars Andersen)
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the Cannon Spring Run. Nobody spoke as our two-boat parade glided quietly up the arrow-straight run; a procession of worshipers moving up the aisle of a beautiful green cathedral. The vaulted ceiling of cypress and tupelo boughs high overhead swayed as a gentle reminder that a world swirled outside. But in this sanctuary, all was calm.

We arrived at the spring and stepped off the boats like pilgrims arrived. All of us, in our own ways, had come to “take the water.” We spread out around the basin; some perched on logs while others sat in quiet contemplation, marveling at the miraculous blue. We took pictures and, one by one, talked into Matt’s video camera to share more of our thoughts about the springs and the sad reality that they would soon be gone. Before we left, I filled a clear glass bottle with the cool water.

As our boat crept down the narrow run away from Cannon Spring, I studied the water in my bottle. It was perfectly clear and perfectly colorless.

Cannon Spring (Mark Long)
This bottle held one of the spring’s best-kept secrets--water is clear. Removed from it’s setting, this elixir that was so richly blue in its limestone basin, was as clear as the jar holding it. Unlike the cobalt strokes on Margaret’s canvas and the shimmering blues in all those photos, the springs are not true-blue at all. It is a hydromancer’s illusion, a trick of lighting. The spring’s iconic color exists only in the place of its creation. It cannot be bottled; cannot be carried away. In a few short weeks, that blue will fade and disappear. Frank Cushing would have found something sadly familiar in this story.

With each passing day and every new artifact cleaned and pondered, Cushing's understanding of the Pile Dwellers grew. These were no simple fishermen. They were a people as complex and diverse as any, whose artisans were as adept at crafting hunting implements like atlatls as brutal weapons of war like a sword edged with sharks teeth. They were also capable of breathtaking works of art. One of the finest discoveries in the site was an elegant wooden carving of a panther. Cushing recognized this figure to be a well-known entity in the natives system of beliefs—a water god. It’s hardly a surprise that a people whose lives were so intimately tied to water, worshiped it.

Many of the artifacts were painted. Carved wooden tablets, wooden masks and a deer head with articulating ears were all adorned with red, black, white and blue images. One wooden plaque had a painting of a beautifully stylized woodpecker. Round bubbles dripping from its mouth indicate it was speaking, hinting at animism and religious symbolism. The fact that the woodpecker was almost entirely blue hints at a connection to water. Was this another water god or totem akin to the water panther carving?

As Cushing washed away the mud from each artifact, an artist named Wells Sawyer painted detailed pictures of them. This would prove to be fortuitous. With the protective muck removed, the objects began drying. Some, including most of the wooden masks, deteriorated to soggy chips. Others remained intact, only to have the colors of the painted images fade. As a result, the only people who ever saw the woodpecker in all its blue glory were Cushing and his crew. Today, the wooden plaque with the faded black outlines of the woodpecker can be seen in the Florida Museum of Natural History. But the blue is gone. The rest of the world knows that beautiful blue woodpecker only from Wells’ painting.  

Split view of Canon Spring (Jenny Adler)

As our boats slipped away from Cannon Spring, I looked at the colorless water in my bottle. It occurred to me that the only blue that will ever leave this spring pool will be in the vibrant, cobalt strokes on Margaret's canvases and the images captured on all those river lovers' phones and cameras.

Today, sixteen-miles of the Ocklawaha have been flooded again and the newly-sprouted seedlings of red maples, tupelo, bald cypress, ash and other species ready to reforest this valley have been lost. Gone, too, are  Cannon Spring and the handful of other springs in this part of the valley. For the next few years, until water managers decide there's too much vegetation in the reservoir for motor boats, we'll have only photos and paintings to remind us of Florida's loss.

Like Wells Sawyer's paintings of Cushing’s woodpecker, the images produced during these periodic drawdowns will be invaluable to future Floridians. Our descendants will look at these paintings and photos the same way we look at Sawyer's paintings of the Pile Dwellers amazing artworks and wonder why such rare and precious beauty was handled so carelessly. They will ask what kind of fools were they who let such treasures be lost.