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 fashion and river guiding have overlapped...barely. (and, no, this has nothing to do with my funky old hat, which remains the epitome of poor taste).

The news reached me this morning as I drove home from a tour on Santa Fe River and it was delivered by a silky-voiced NPR host through the crackling speakers under my truck’s dashboard. 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-food 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 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. Researchers attribute the sickly, yellow-green color of Poe Spring to the mixing of blue-hued spring water with brown river water. Regardless of it's cause, the odd color has one benefit--it sparks conversations about the plight of the springs. And every time, our discussion 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” ....until 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. Aside from a few common spices, the formula for Chartreuse has been a closely held secret from that day to this.

Being mortal humans, we're always eager to learn the recipe of a life-giving elixir. Being Floridian humans, a people well-versed in the quest for magic elixirs, we know most such concoctions are full of "secret" ingredients. Two of the most common "known" ingredients are alcohol and spring water. 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.”

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