Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Scents of Place

Ocklawaha River. December 10, 2009

It is a cold morning, even for December. I'm standing on the bank of Ocklawaha River listening to the waking reveille dominated by the piercing chips of a cardinal hidden in a nearby wax myrtle thicket. High overhead, a gang of honking crows works the rafters of the forest cathedral.

"a veil of misty drifts off the water...."
I kneel to dip up a handful of water and a veil of mist drifts off the water and curls around my ankles. Slowly and with unintended reverence, I lift my cupped hand to my nose and take a deep whiff. For just an instant, I am transported back to a night thirty years earlier, when I crossed Santa Fe River on the I-75 Bridge in the bed of an old pickup truck. It was my last ride of a three year hitchhiking odyssey, a quest of sorts, on which I had hoped to find my place in the world. In that moment, thanks to a breath of musty river air, I knew that place had been here all along. 

Some rituals are born of superstition. Others are meant to appease some god or another. My habit of beginning some tour-days with a quiet moment at the water’s edge and connecting with the river is nothing so grand. It’s a simple ritual that evolved many years ago from my habit of going to the riverbank after unloading the boats and splashing water in my face. When time allows, I sit in the grass and close my eyes. It allows me to cool down, but more, it helps quiet the racket in my mind—the counting of boats and gear, checking the roster, planning the route, recalling what things I want to say and when, checking my first-aid kit. I turn it all off and feel the cool water running off my face and down my neck.

As I kneel by the river this morning, I am engulfed by the river's scent. It's not bad or good—just a faint essence of the river; familiar and comforting, like a grandmother’s attic. But, rather than scents of dusty photo albums, overstuffed chairs, doilies from a long-ago wedding and boxes of crisp letters written between young lovers now grown old, the images conjured by the river’s scent speaks of the present. It is flowers, leaves and mud, birds and snakes and every living thing I know to be living in that river’s forest and in its water. I cannot isolate any single fragrance and pin it to an exact source, but I recognize the blend.

Every river has its own scent. I don’t know this from any studies and I certainly don’t know it from personal experience; I can no more identify a river by its scent than I can sniff a Chardonnay and tell where the grapes were grown. I know rivers have their own scents because it can be no other way. Every river weaves through a unique blend of habitats, soils, minerals, plants and animals; each of them in unique proportions. Mostly I know it from riding in my truck with my basset hound, Gus. With his head out the window, his nose high and his floppy lips and ears slapping his head, he would erupt in an apoplectic mass of slobber and fur when we got about a mile from Ichetucknee River—his home turf.

Bears are even better. When I hang a bag of food from an oak limb near my campsite, every bear within a mile downwind will hoist its muzzle. An experienced old bruin will know he’s about to enjoy a snack of nuts, dried fruit and the sight of an annoying human scrambling into the underbrush.

The bear knows every stream in its range by its constellation of fragrances; the aromatic sum of its countless parts. It recognizes the blend of everything along its banks and in its water, from the butterweeds blooming below the rocky bluff and the sickening-sweet chitins of scarab beetles, to the musty fur of the river otters; it probably knows which otter. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, it knows what’s blooming in the high scrub or if a gator has stirred the muck of a spring freshet. For bears in the Ocklawaha forest, the air is a wild bouquet with strong elements of cypress pollen, 7000 year-old marl, squirrel turds and reptile musk. Waccasassa is a complex mix of buckeye blooms, rank golden club leaves, crimson, lipstick-scented groundnut flowers, fiddler crab froth and the putrid black muck exposed by low tides. 

But no mammal, regardless of brain, brawn or snout size, can match insects for scent detection. When a group of entomologists released sex pheromones of a female luna moth into the air, they found that males six miles downwind could detect them. Turns out the moth’s large, feathery antennae are not decorative but highly adapted scent detectors that make my own detector—my nose—look like a vestigial appendage relegated to holding up sunglasses. The lunas charms are wholly lost on me. 

I find it less intriguing than disappointing to know I am awash in a riot of scents that allows the bear to distinguish this river from all others. The bears nose twitches, the moth races past with a certainty of purpose, while I stand, deaf, dumb, blind and whatever smell-less is called. I want to know when to cheer on the luna. I want to smell the bear’s river.

I’d like to think there are people with trained “noses” who can recognize the complex tones of wild, “free-range” water. I would envy them but I would also be concerned. Any doe-eyed river-rat who found himself with such a gift would be invaluable to the world’s power brokers in these opening days of the Water Wars. 

I picture our hero as the uncomfortable guest at a black-tie “water tasting” event at the local Millionaires Club. Floating the room, he overhears connoisseurs discussing the finer points of river scents. Near the fireplace, a portly gent with a handlebar mustache and top hat (yes, I still get my rich-people clich├ęs from the Monopoly game) explains to an ambitious young upstart that rivers of the Suwannee basin westward carry subtle hues of beaver musk while those in the beaver-free streams of the Peninsula do not. Across the room, a bottled-water tycoon leans against a Martini bar and explains to a Saudi prince that blackwater is to spring water, what a wine cooler is to Champagne. A smarmy, toothy grin spreads across his flushed face when the maitre d’ sidles up carrying two crystal goblets and an elegant bottle of Ichetucknee.

Of course, any river-rat with such intimate knowledge of nature would likely be more comfortable in the “earthier” setting of a State Fair. As the scene opens, we find our hero sitting on a panel of river connoisseurs (though the Fair officials felt more comfortable billing them as “river sniffers”), in a converted “Scouts of the Wild West” shooting gallery, nestled between the Tilt-a-Whirl and a cotton candy stand. As the audience of a dozen or so mildly interested passers-by (including those in line for cotton-candy) watch, the judges pass a snifter of river water down the line. Each reverently lifts the vessel to his nose, closes his eyes and utters as many eloquent, quiche-and-Chablis descriptions and florid words as he can muster. 

Finally the flask comes to the champ. The audience falls silent as they watch him work his magic. He closes his eyes as he solemnly lifts the flask to his celebrated nose and inhales deeply. A faint smile of recognition spreads across his face. But he’s just warming up. As he leans forward, he pinches his eyes tight and focuses on the olfactory signals rushing his brain. “I’m detecting the subtle undertones of brine and rotten fish. This water is from of a coastal river.” An excited murmur breezes through the crowd. “I smell arrow-wood, red-buckeye, golden club, corkwood, ancient bald-cypress and garfish spawn. But there is no sign of mangrove detritus or spores of giant leather fern. This water comes from Waccasassa River…” a premature rustle of applause is cut short as he continues, “….the middle section.” The audience breaks into wild cheers. Even a few bleary-eyed, slightly-nauseous people staggering off the Tilt-a-Whirl applaud limply. The judges flutter around the champ like warblers in wax-myrtles. But the champ is oblivious, his attentions fully on the light breeze that has wafted though the stands. He tips back his head, closes his eyes and breathes it in.

The clock ticks. I splash another handful of Ocklawaha on my face. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I believe, the way people always like to believe such things, that I can smell a thousand-year-old cypress... and just a hint of bear.

Chaz - Feb 19 2018 (7).JPG
An otter sniffs the air

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Opera Singer

In the early 1990’s, a large live oak fell into Santa Fe River about a mile below the Rise. Its massive trunk and tangle of branches spanned the channel. The only way past was through a ten-foot gap along the south bank. It was just wide enough to make the tree more of a “feature” than an obstacle.

Years passed and the tree decayed. Small branches broke away and the sharp edges were worn smooth by decay and flowing water. Eventually, all that remained were the trunk and a couple of dozen thick, curving limbs. What had begun as a chaotic tangle of twigs and branches had been crafted by the flow of time and water into a beautiful natural sculpture.

Viewed from downstream, the snag was unremarkable—attractive in the way of driftwood, but not unlike the dozens of other snags on the river. As you got closer, however, the angles shifted and all those random features—the twisted limbs, the knots, the cracks and highlighted grains and stains—fell into perfect alignment to create the image of a singing lady; not a prim choir-girl with good posture, but an impassioned singer with a towering beehive hairdo that would have made the Bride of Frankenstein envious. Her head, tipped back dramatically and her long, slender arms, held high in front of her as though reaching for the heavens, she was rapture incarnate.

We called her the Opera Singer; a name made more fitting by the fact that she made music. As the river water swirled around her thigh (or waist, when water was higher), it gurgled and bubbled in a way that created a lively percussion melody. With time, I came to appreciate her music as much as the singer.  I often caught myself listening for it long before I could reasonably expect to hear it. 

The Opera Singer became well-known to the local paddling community. Nobody made a big deal about her. She was a just beloved landmark that added color to paddler’s conversations. What could make an otter sighting more interesting than to say it was “a hundred yards upstream from the Opera Singer?”

Features like the Opera Singer remind me to listen to water. Snags, sweeps, boulders, shoals and the countless other objects that adorn all streams are often more than just visual features, they are musical interludes. Sometimes I schedule paddle trips on the middle Suwannee when I know the river will be singing.

Unlike most Florida rivers, the middle Suwannee is lined by massive limestone walls that extend below the water line. Over millennia, the flowing water eroded the rock at the water line. The resulting cavities range from small pockets to cave openings. Some are grottos lined with their own collections of smaller pockets at the waterline within their dark recesses, which adds a beautiful echoic quality. These features pop and sing and play delicate percussion when the wavelets generated by passing boats, splashing animals or even a stiff breeze enter and plop against their inner walls. Each pocket has a different note and volume, depending on its size and depth. The size and force of the wave also makes a difference.   

Floods filled the Santa Fe Valley in 2001. When the water receded the Opera Singer was gone—mostly. Her arms and her dramatic hair had been swept away, leaving only her torso and a disfigured head. The snag was, once again, just a snag. 

Word spread through the paddling community. People shook their heads and shrugged but before long she was all but forgotten. River people understand that the river is eternal, a liquid thread that binds everyone--past, present and future--who has ever known it, but that individual plants and people (and the occasional Opera Singer) come and go like the seasons.

A few weeks after the flood, I paddled up to the Rise. I had heard the Singer was gone, so I wasn’t surprised when I rounded the bend and saw her broken, twisted form in the distance. What did surprise me, however, was to hear her “voice.” She was still singing. While little remained of her graceful form--gone were the bouffant hairdo and the graceful arms that once reached for the heavens--her waist was still intact at the water line and the water passing around it was still gurgling, still singing her song. The singer had changed, but not the song.
I’ve never been to an opera, but I'm familiar with the basic format; large-lunged people sing songs in a language nobody understands about gooshy things like love and windmills. 

Rivers are like operas. The heart of both things is a story—actually, a collection of  stories that are woven together to make one big story. If I've learned anything in my years of studying and watching nature, it’s that every river is an anthology of stories. Every feature—every boulder, shoal, tree, shrub, meadow and every single thing along its banks—has its own story that is also an integral part of the bigger, overarching story of the river. 

Ask an entomologist, and he’ll point to a rotting log or a tussock of floating vegetation and he’ll tell you dramatic tales of courtship, mating, defending territories, finding food and the countless life-and-death struggles that are constantly at play. Ask a geologist and he’ll point to that bolder in mid-channel and recount rising and falling seas and will describe amazing creatures, marine and terrestrial, that have occupied this spot over the past millions of years. The cave diver will tell you about the aquifer and cave systems surging through the earth beneath you. She will show you that the land has a pulse.

Now step back from these features and listen to the music accompanying them. Just listen. Allow yourself to enjoy the percussion of wind and water. You don’t have to know the language. Just listen and the music will tell you things no word can touch. Every feature plays the water like a percussion instrument and each is different. Fast flowing rivers sing dramatic and frenzied songs of steep slopes and jagged drops. Slower rivers whisper about easy terrain.  Large boulders grumble ancient tales that have echoed down the gorge since the water began while the willow strainers sizzle and pop with a restlessness that reflects the sandy, unstable ground these trees prefer.

These days, I notice the musical notes of water playing against stones and obstructions in ways I never did before. When a river song grabs my attention, I listen more closely and with more appreciation than I used to. I still know only a fraction of the language, but I enjoy the song just the same.