A Magical Tour
By Virginia Seacrist
November 18, 2007
As the days grow shorter nearing the winter solstice, what sunlight we have intensifies. I’ve heard that the light intensifies because Florida is surrounded by oceans which mirror the light, and everywhere the Earth’s dust particles gather at the horizon, reflecting vivid reds and oranges at sunset.
Predictably just before Thanksgiving, the Santa Fe River area experiences its first hard freeze. Overnight autumn appears, mirrored in the black water, doubling a fleeting beauty of subtle ochres, rusts, and burnt oranges.
Finishing the business of showing guests into our yurt/treehouse built on the edge of our quarry, I stop mid sentence: “Oh my God. It’s so beautiful.” We stand at the edge of the black ribbon of water rippling gently against the limerock shore. Sometime in October, just as the last torrential rains stop pouring into the transparent olivine liquid, through which we can see manatees making love and nursing calves, our river turns opaque black: the better to mirror autumn colors, S/He must be saying.
As we turn away from the reflecting river, I say, “Oh the mist flowers didn’t get zapped.” The 40 something St. Pete visitors, who say, “I live in the city but don’t like it,” smile, mystified at my cooing over a garden of starlike lavender wildflowers which spring up without my doing a thing.
In front of our very eyes, almost, green cypress needles tinge their lacy edges with bronze, then with the freeze, overnight: rust. The maples who can stand their feet wet by the shore do their best job to impress, changing their green dress to a print one of mostly ochre, leaving a few summer green leaves, and adding trim of no less than red. I used to send my Virginia Mother a leave each autumn, when she would brag that her state changed seasons every four months. We have autumn too, my colored leaf would announce.
We tourists from the land of buildings and cars ogle the colorful trees standing beside the shore, then doubled in the river, which seems to be holding still for us to lock the image on our own silver gut, as Annie Dillard says. The swift current carries the river onward to the Suwannee, then to the Gulf, but the surface becomes a mirror.
After the first freeze, when you look up to find the Sandhill Cranes you hear cooing their way from Minnesota to Florida, you see their V way, way up there, higher than you’d think a bird can fly…fly and talk, they do. That’s how you know they’ve arrived in Florida. But the sky, after the first really cold night is almost too blue...and cloudless.
That’s the way it is today.
I drive on out our dirt lane onto the two car rutted dirt road, then onto the wide limerock road where so much dust is dancing, stirred by the car, that when the car stops at the paved road, I think the car’s on fire…no rain for a month will do that.
I cross the 47 bridge and slow enough to see those black waters swirling under the concrete pilings where country boys still defy law and sense by jumping from the railing while their beer-chugging buddies cheer from 15 feet below.
Instead of going into our one-traffic-light town, I take the back road, dismayed to see that another stand of pines and oaks has been cleared, leveled…for what? I wonder. A field, I hope, but maybe more trailers or houses. It’s coming here too, to North Florida, that locomotive driven development we can’t stop, although everyone who comes here comes because they can’t stand development. They bring it with them, the rural landowners here hungry for money, selling the only thing of value they have, to be lost forever: rural life.
I pass Wilson Springs, that development where World War II Veterans could lease land for until 1998 for $1/year, even build a house on land they didn’t own. Wilson honored his son killed in that war that way for 50 years. The community is heavily settled, houses close together, many of them shacks until 1998, when they had to buy the land at market prices. Good for them, it was before the real estate boom, when many of the old vets could still afford them.
The septic tank man who came to clear the roots from my underground tank in the flood plain, grandfathered in, told me he found leaking barrels used for septic, or just drain fields under the toilets there in Wilson Springs. “Tried to make them clean it up,” he said, “but they didn’t have nothin’, so what can you do?” You see, we’re part of the problem, and a good reason for the mounting pollution in the Santa Fe River,
I pass Pope’s store, the only one out here in the wilderness, where you can pick up beer…don’t look for wine…and other necessities still 15 miles from town.
I like it that way…far from a store.
I wind on around the dirt road along the Santa Fe River, past Doctor’s Row, where they houses are two and three story cedar and cypress enclaves, professionally landscaped with ferns and leaving the trees all the way to the river, but next door is one do it yourselfer who works on his place on the weekends, never finishes, with building debris scattered in the yard. We have one trailer left on the river side, up on stilts out of the floods. That’s what you get when people can build their own houses…lots of variety and no particular codes.
I like it that way. I often say we’d have a lot less trouble and people would be happier if they had to build their own houses like we do here on the river.
I’m feeling a bit of anxiety because the sun is setting so quickly these days, and I want to spend at least 30 minutes basking in its warmth before the onslaught of dark and a possible cold night alone in the riverhouse.
Something’s different today…the light…or is it the colors…or my mood? But, I grab the point and shoot digital camera to record whatever that difference is. Could be I do this every year, like my dad shooting his tulips, dogwood, and azaleas in our Virginia garden every year. How can I preserve this beauty, this fleeting moment, this joy to be alive.
Before the big freeze, we watched whirling winds. The acorns were popping like bullets on the metal roof of the screened porch where Prana and I sat, he smoking one cigarette after another, drinking his second, then third beer before we spread the ashes of his father, watching them blow in the whirling wind. I couldn’t help exclaiming “Dust to dust,” seeing the gray ashes swirl in a mini cyclone. That was the second time I’d spread ashes, but before, I didn’t fling them into the river or into the wind. I felt the sympathy of the wind’s turbulence.
We could feel the infusion of coolness which would become the freeze that night, streams of coolness mixed with the warm currents of summer. You run into warm currents that mix with the cooler ones in the river sometimes, but always at the confluence when the cooler Ichetucknee waters meet the warmer Santa Fe River.
I felt Frank there, his spirit restless as the winds. We saw his once strong, tan, muscular body, now gray dust and little chunks of white bone. Some sank into the Ichetucknee’s silver waters, some whirled, just like the mist in the morning, following the currents of air, twirling up before dissipating. Yes, his ashes form something like his ghost.
That’s all we are…in the end: dust in the wind. One way or the other…we become dust, only a dreamlike memory of those who still live, who knew us once.
Armed with my little mini elf and my memory, I drift around my river property snapping photos of the rooms and mist flowers left unharmed after the freeze, and the assembly of aluminum boats, kayak, hydrobikes on the natural rock bank. I even snap the neighbors sitting on their lanai listening to the football game as Jane calls from her upstairs porch, “Let the dog out.”
“I’m listening to the game,” Bill replies, but does it, and the black and tan collie, who is shaved like a poodle, is surprisingly let out of the house to run with Jim’s little Corgi, Karl, and old Lab, Willie, lumbering behind with my dog. The dogs play, but the neighbors don’t talk.
My Girl is for the river, a swimmer who can swim the two miles between our properties upsteam, and then she can swim back. And she is a fisher dog. The dogs love to find a stick and covet it, growling, tugging, and enjoying each other running free in this leash-law defiant culture we have here at the river. My dog’s the one who tips the trash cans, and I have to clean up the messes, and Jim’s is the one who will tear you screen door to get inside for a pet.
I like it that way, dogs running loose here at the river.
They don’t talk to me, though. I’ve tried to pinpoint the time it started, and I can, but really, I do hear those words Bill said once as the real reason: “Don’t take it personal. We’d be the same to whoever it was.” Course, I did take it personal, but suddenly now, it doesn’t matter any more that they ignore me.
Maybe I like it that way too.
It’s property lines, I guess. Same reason as real wars. Bill and Jane are weekenders, like all but Frank was, Jim and me are, here in the flood plain. Frank’s gone now, my only ally, and Jim’s building something on the Ichetucknee, so no one talks to me. That’s what can happen when a property sits vacant for years, then someone buys it and moves in, close, too close, she being a single Buddhist woman at that, one who doesn’t mow her lawn, because she wants the wildflowers to grow for the butterflies.
I heard Wally’s younger boys call me “the butterfly lady” once. Wally’s on the other side, works for the Sheriff’s department and fishes. Cut down all the cypress trees and hauled sand in for a beach along the river. Funny, I thought, ‘cause it washed away in our gully washers in August…thought he’d know better, born and bred a couple generations in Florida.
Didn’t know they called me “Butterfly Lady” until I heard it one dark night from their boys. I was sitting on the piece of dock which floated downriver in a flood and I captured it, anchored it to the old metal posts that once were a dock when the McKellers build my cabin back in the 1960s. I like to sit out there in the dark of the moon, only starlight pricking the blackness, reflected in the water like salt sprinkled on black bean soup. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but the boys fishing on their property didn’t see me. “She said I could fish on her property,” one boy chuckled as if the witch had decided not to put the children in the over after all. “The butterfly lady,” said the other, laughing. “I guess she ain’t that bad,” said the first.
I felt hurt, because they don’t talk to me but give me a name. Now I like it, being called the butterfly lady. I do have lots of butterflies on my wildflowers, and I like that for sure.
Anyway, I snap photos of every angle I could get of the rapidly turning from golden to silver sunlight on the old house and the boats and the mist flowers and the dog, and even of my neighbors. Autumn light sure is lovely.
You get used to things the way they are and just learn to like it that way.
I walk up into the house to look down at the wildflowers and the river from the balcony, when it happens. I am actually looking at myself in the mirrors I have set up to disguise the water heater, but which reflect the sunset and the trees and river if you’re looking the other way. There I was looking at the mirror, at my new gray hair do in the reflection on the sunlight when one of the many pairs of cardinals, two, not one, but two red birds, fly into the mirror. “So now, you’ve done it,” I say to myself, “with your mirrors outside.”
Here he lies in all his red splendor, but the more subtle, browner she, in a frenzy somehow is hurled by the impact under the screen door; she flails around in a circle before she falls to the floor. I stand stunned at the drama before my eyes, staring at the two cardinals lying at my feet. I now can see wildness up close, but I have before, and that’s why two owls and a cardinal are in my freezer. Once an Ibis sat in my tree long enough for me to walk up to touch him before he keeled over, dead, right before my eyes.
Not these two, yet, though, not dead. Within minutes, the bright red male opens his eyes, sees me or seems to see me, and hops to his feet. I move slightly, only three feet from him anyway, and he quickly takes wing and flies away. He doesn’t look back for his mate, not even a backward glance at that lady who had been flying in the same zone with him, obviously, or they wouldn’t have hit the mirror together; they nested together, I’m sure of that.
About this time, she wakes up, sits up, but her claws are curled, like she is palsied and crippled. I do see some liquid on the floor in front of the mirror and wondered if this is bird blood, red cardinal blood. Her beak is open like a dog’s when it pants, and she is panting. I freeze, and she freezes. She blinks her tiny black dot eyes. When I step one step closer, she sinks to the floor. “Ok, ok; I see you’re terrified of me,” I lament. “OK, little lady. I’ll leave you alone then, but fly away.”
About this time I saw the male in the trees outside of the porch, where his lady flies back and forth, back and forth, trying to get out to him, but continuing to hit the screens on either rend of the porch. It isn’t until the next morning that I decide to trap her. She lies crouching in the corner of the screen, making herself as small as possible, when I put my hand around her tiny feminine body and hold her, just for a minute. Her carrot beak opens, she panting in fright; I gently look over her soft rusty body with redder wings just for a moment before placing her outside on the balcony railing. She lies there still for a moment, until I step closer. They she flies, and I close the screen door.
These are the dramas I like; I don’t want to hear President Bush threaten Iran Hillary justify her vote to invade Iraq, not here at the river. Just these little animal dramas are what I like. Sometimes we too have murder.
My Girl has left the other dogs at Bill’s and is wallowing in the dust, rolling over in it to cover her black fur in a gray powder which would eventually end up on Frank’s rug back in town, where she sleeps at night. “Let’s go to the river, I entreat,” and she pulls her 90 pound body up, jumping back on her hind legs, hopping like a kangaroo in the excitement of a walk with me. She can take a walk anywhere alone, but let me invite her to lead or tag behind me, and she’s ecstatic. Some creatures just love company and to be led.
This is the way it is here at the end of the road beside where the two rivers meet. Pretty funky, but I like it. I love dirt roads and opera: that’s how I met Frank. An ad in the Gainesville Sun announcing what I love: opera and dirt roads. He didn’t know that the only instrument I ever played was the tonette in 4th grade, beside the record player, but the dirt roads got us together. Twelve years ago we bought separate properties on this dead ended dirt road.
I decide to photograph even the bad parts, because I want people coming here to know what it’s really like. I want old ladies with gray hair to come here and love it just like I do, and to be happy with it like I am, and not to mind the roaches and cobwebs, but to love them too, just like I do. I actually find interesting things in cobwebs, to say nothing of the beautiful Golden Orb spiders who make these three dimensional bedrooms and kitchens, spanning from beam to beam. Wasps, bees, flies, love bugs, soft bodied roaches, a kingdom of insects can be found in cobwebs which form in hours even if I did clean more often. A spider can spin a web around your car door handle in the time you’re visiting me. I don’t need any complainers who want a motel or a fancy breakfast, no, just the simple life, living close to the natural world, living almost like an animal…well…almost isn’t even close.
What I really mean by living like an animal adjusting to ambient air no matter the season, but mostly, living from whim to whim: no plans or schedules. Does a hawk stress about what’s happening next, or about what happened yesterday? I wonder as I wander.
We amble on down the dirt road as I snap photos of the funky houses built before regulations against it in the flood plain, but within the last 30 years. We’re still living in pioneer Florida. Frank’s house was the most substantial, a duplex with a block bottom and wood siding on the top floor, the most substantial, that is, until Jim Johnson, the realtor built, his mega mansion in two stages, doubling it with a third floor and closing in the porches. A cartoonist married to a Gospel singer comes sometimes to the house next to Frank’s…it’ll always be Frank’s house to me, even though the Sheriff bought it only two days after Frank did what he did to himself.
The gates, and these last three houses have gates, are rusty from the flood waters of ’98 and 2004. Frank started the fences only a decade ago…wanted to keep people off his shoreline. We used to walk up and down the shore like people do on the beach, but when he put up his fence, his neighbor did too, then Wally. It’s a shame, if you ask me.
Everyone evacuates during floods and lets insurance pay for damages, except moi, who have no insurance and love to be here during the floods. We boat in from as much as a mile away, under the power lines and amid the tree limbs, mid canopy, peddling the hydrobikes through the woods, passing the beavers on doorsteps, they too looking for dry space. It’s the ants and snakes who appear in unexpected places, like the mailboxes or above the lentils of doorways, or in the attic. During floods, all creatures seek high ground.
I pass the crudely printed list of “no” sign telling our park visitors all the things they cannot do. No one would dare enforce these rules. Last summer the trash can was brimming over with beer cans when I brought another trash can in, then all the neighbors brought others, until we have six trash cans full of empty beer cans under the sign “no drinking.” My Girl, Karl, and I walk past the “no dogs” sign, past the uprooted huge Water Oaks lying prone for two years now. Nine months of flooding here loosened tree roots until many of them gave up their grip and just fell flat down, taking everything in its path with it. The park looks like a battlefield with dead carcasses lying prone in chaotic poses, so many Oaks lost their lives. Someone has sawed up a few of the smaller oak limbs, which I intend to gather soon, before others do for permitted campfires down here. Because we have clean air, we can still have open fires.
I sure like campfires, so I like it that way.
No matter how many times you see it, inevitably you gasp in awe at the Ichetucknee River flowing by. At the first sight from the path, it’s a clear blue patch, running shallow and swift towards the confluence with the Santa Fe River; that’s why it’s called Point Park. Someone named the area Three Rivers Estates, a dead giveaway for a trailer park, but why “three” rivers, when it’s only the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee here? On down the Santa Fe about 10 miles the rivers join the Suwannee, but not in this land mass. The “estates” are gradually being replaced by real estates bringing almost a million dollars when they sell, but they don’t sell for those prices…yet.
Not only is the water clear and reflecting the blue sky, but it’s swift and tumbling over the shoals preventing boats from entering during low water. During high water jet skis and motor boats of all sizes parade up one side and down the other, creating fumes so foul that no one can swim or breathe the air.
Someone has to stop motor boats from using these clear blue rivers, Florida’s greatest treasure. Bottling water must be prohibited, because, as their slogan says, “If you love the springs, stop drinking them.”
But, I’m out of the protest mode and into simple pleasure, using blinders to keep my sanity during this Bush era when nothing in America is safe except the war machine and big business. I just keep saying my dad’s old saying that “the earth will survive,” and hope that it will without my help. “Only the good shall last,” as Sarte says, and we hope we know what “good” is.
As I approach the river at on a mid November day, past the last cypress tree, the silver river acts as a giant mirror, reflecting the silver sun. You are blinded by the light, can’t see anything but the stunning silver light, closing your pupils to protect the eyes. You can’t see across the river or anything coming up the river; you see nothing but light.
This enlightenment comes only in Autumn.
Turn your head upstream to capture the essence of the Ichetucknee, the American Indian name meaning Pond of the Beaver. We’re at the last bend here at the confluence. The river flows straight here for about four football fields, surrounded by forests of cypress and oak trees on both sides. It gurgles and rushes now, during low times, and swirls menacingly around fallen logs. When you’re snorkeling or canoeing downriver, you have to watch out for those logs, because the current will pull you right into them and can hurt you or your boat.
I dip my hand into the water and deny myself the pleasure of a swim today, as it’s a bit late and the sun is cool silver, not warm gold. Soon night will descend and cold will envelop me, I not having grown my winter coat like the beaver and the dog. Too evolved, I am not able to live like an animal. Maybe part bear, My Girl wades into the river, just beyond her paws, searching those keen eyes for fish: she’s a fisher dog and never gives up trying to catch one with her teeth. I am looking downstream into silver light: My Girl is bathed in silver, a phosphorescent glow outlining her black body. She moves to another of her fishing spots, upstream, and turning my head, she is now coated with gold.
It’s like that when I watch the sunset, turning West to see the reds and purples of the golden orb dipping below the horizon, and turning East to see the last golden rays fall on the land. Which way should I look, like at a tennis match, bouncing from one side to the other?
I try to capture the tall grasses in seed, there between the lumbering cypress trees…and oh, across the river…see the Great White Heron? I’m frantic to capture the scene, to preserve it forever, so that’s when the camera reports with a closed lens, “change the batteries.”
I need more energy; I’m frantic to do it all these last years of my life, before I too am dust, do it, and in peace.
I drop my camera from my eye and breathe it in. Just be still and watch. Absorb it. It’s a feeling you get when you’re over 65 and you hear a prediction about 25 years from now. You don’t think about it much before, because your life is endless; you will live forever. But, now it’s important to take your time, to watch each sunset, to notice the autumn light. Especially now, after spreading the ashes of a friend, who is dust now. He is careening forever on this very river where we held hands snorkeling down only a few years ago, in love and lust, and all of those good things of life. Now life has its limits. In 25 years…. Forever is for the river and the sky and the cypress trees, and for autumn light, but not for us.
And, this…the Ichetucknee experience…is one part you love and must savor by being present in it…now. So, I stop and let the waning golden rays flash on my face and the silver light of the river reflect that other light too. Silver and gold at the confluence of two rivers in Florida this November: that’s all there is right now.
Lavender starlike mist flowers abound on this point of land between the rivers; they sprout, left by the constant ebb and flow of flood waters, glorious now in the aftermath a year hence of a year’s flood. I stumble over the cypress knees…watch out for them; you can fall and hurt yourself.
We view the coffee waters separated from the blue ones, knowing from snorkeling there that the big fish hide just inside the dark waters. Fisherpeople in their boats ask me, with their lines in the water, as I swim beside them, “Do you see any fish?” “What fish?” I always joke back. I’m not telling that a bass as long as my forearm and as wide as my thigh lurks just beneath their boat, or that the pike is there, or the sturgeon, and we all see the silver mullet jumping.
On up the bank we stroll, capturing just one last golden view of the sun landing on Bill’s land, and on my balcony, where the shore juts out and catches those last rays. I quicken my pace as the dog lingers to sniff a hole the size of a football where some animal has its den in the limerock. I walk faster through the now gray cypress woods, past the tower that marks the flood heights, three quarters the height of the tallest trees, because I want to bask on my own little slice of paradise in those exact last rays which are hitting my property.
I sit it the lotus position, near as my old body can make it, with my palms up, as if to catch that light and hold it until tomorrow at dawn. It’s blinding here too, right on the line between Bill and me, just beside the biggest natural garden of mist flowers. Bees have stopped droning and butterflies are folding their wings for the night, as the sun sets on another day at the river.
The joy is not over though, when the sun sets this November day, because “It’s Saturday night…the band is playing. Honey, who could ask for more?” It’s my Saturday night date, I waiting for love again, to come sometime in the future, when my disappointment isn’t so great and we can listen to Garrison Keeler together while we cook dinner.
My apprehension is always that I’ll be cold when the sun sets, but not yet. I pour my glass of Merlot into one of the crystal glasses and snuggle into the soft pink chair. I’ve closed the shutters to other rooms and leave the electric light off watching the pink skies turn to silver in the room where French doors lead to the balcony overlooking the river. Each wall is open to the sky, mid tree canopy, with old wooden wrinkled glass windows. I hesitate to light the fire I’ve set in the Franklin stove when I see white light coming from a newish moon flooding into the room. In endure the dropping temperature, knowing that as soon as I strike the match, silver light will disappear into the golden glow of firelight.
It’s not that cold, but to preserve my body heat, I layer my body from neoprene long underwear to sweat suit. You see, I’m not really living like an animal in this house that has no conditioned air; animals can’t build fires and don’t even like to come around them.
Garrison moves through his show from slamming the Bush administration in the opening political sketch to the Powdermilk Biscuit song to the Lives of the Cowboys as the sliver of moon moves from one window to make silhouettes of Oak bows and lacy leaves crossing the South window. By intermission time, I give in and strike the match to change the light and slip down to pillows in front of the fire, which rages and crackles at first.
Before “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone” I slip into the kitchen to open that box of slimy oysters and get the seafood sauce. Not an aphrodisiac, these oysters slip down not easily, I thinking as I bite one that it’s raw and I’m eating it whole, like a wild animal would eat anything alive.
When the Soul Circuit comes on, I lie back in front of the fire and just listen to that enticing young female voice spending the evening spinning my tunes from the ’50s, old tunes, familiar tunes to me, and I am content.
I keep thinking I’ll get up and do something, but I linger…and linger, loving the luxury of leisure. Finally I set the radio for “Sleep…60” and give up for this Saturday at the river.
I’ve had a day in the alone in autumn light, and I guess I like it that way.