Chasing Memory in Florida’s Juniper Creek

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Griffin Torrey- one of the authors’ two roommates- hanging around over the clear waters of Juniper Creek

Drifting down the headwaters of Florida’s remote Juniper Creek, the lower blade of the paddle held abreast of the kayak draws a thin sucking wake along the surface of the water.

Not even a hundred yards yet from the creeks place of origin- a rocky, moss-laden, subterranean spring of the same name- the water flowing through here, deep in the pine scrub of the Ocala national forest, is unusually, astonishingly clear: the type of water that gives the impression of being suspended weightlessly in the air. Paddling slowly, soft prisms of sunlight dancing in the leafy, turquoise shallows beneath, we make tentative headway down this glassy forest river, which cuts like a silent corridor through a wilderness of pine. Over many moments this morning, we hold our dripping paddles alongside the boats as the current swings us downstream, relishing in what can only be described as fleeting moments of release: all is peaceful in these watery scrublands. All is quiet save the hush of the wind.

We rose early this morning, with the first misty hints of St. Augustine’s pale winter dawn, so we could drive two hours out into the forest to get here. It was a long drive. But for a place like this, it’s worth it.

Juniper Springs

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Regarded from Google Maps, Juniper Creek seems at first to hardly resemble a creek at all. Juniper’s water begins from the spring of its own namesake, flowing up out of the Earth with an undeviating consistency over several massive, moss-worn boulders, each one forested with thick patches of turtle grass. The glacially cold water then flows for several miles over the open subtropical savanna to the northeast, evolving from a clear stream snaking through a jungle of palmetto to a broader, sluggish, tannin-stained flow, replete with gators and floating islands of hyacinths. The waterway empties out finally into the open expanses of Lake George: a broad lake that forms one of many knots along the sluggish, northbound St. John’s River, a vast swampy watershed running for several hundred miles along the northeast coast of the state until emptying into the Atlantic at Jacksonville.

This is my fourth or fifth time I’ve paddled this remote little river. I’ve witnessed this place at periodic intervals stretched out over the past six years. But something else is evident, increasingly painful and unavoidable: the river itself is slowly dying.

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Exploring the palmetto thickets surrounding the headwaters of remote Juniper Creek

I once heard a wise man say that water is a reservoir of memory, and that within its sounds, if you listen closely, you can hear the voices of the past.

Perhaps it is memory we’ve come in search of this morning. On the surface, the point of us venturing out here was to have an adventure. But what lays unspoken between us is that we are also searching for something deeper. We are looking for the memory of a Florida we know is dying. The memory of a world we fear is disappearing.

Paddling down this river, we are searching for visions of the past.

I think about that this morning as we push our way down the creek. Pondering, listening to the forest’s heavy breathing as we paddle over serrated sandbars, the darkened oxbows, it’s almost as if I can physically see the memories- images before my eyes- each scene materializing along the creeks windblown banks like faint, grainy apparitions from the past.

Along the banks, I can envision Timucua Indians who once inhabited this place, paddling heavily against the current as they make their way upstream. I see the first Spaniards, scouting the inland territories of their newly beholden Empire, a conquistador garbed in kingly regalia sitting uneasily at the front of his canoe as his team pushes their boats upriver, vainly searching for the fountain of youth. I imagine, many years later now, the bands of hunted Seminole, crossing the river in their dozens as they make their flight to their refuge from the pursuing US military in the Everglades in the south. Then I can see the loggers, white men floating atop cypress trunks which they will pole down to the sawmill with to enrich themselves with their wooden payloads.

Water is indeed a reservoir of memory. And at Juniper Creek, the water- and all the memory carried with it- is, year by year, failing to emerge from the spring at the same healthy rates it should, the trickle of water slowly drying up as the aquifer beneath it is drained into extinction.

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Traversing the lower reaches of the swampy river, with roommates Jason and Griffin paddling ahead

Over the past several years, seemingly irrevocable drops in water levels have been witnessed here- as with virtually everywhere else in Florida- as a result of two of modernity’s deadly seductions:

One is cattle farming, which unbeknownst to many, is one of the driving industries in Florida’s rural areas, accounting for 2.1 billion dollars in state revenues in 2014. The massive amounts of meat that Americans consume on a daily basis is self-evident enough, and to raise the cattle required to keep up with this hefty market demand means withdrawing an even further multiplied quantity of water from the Earth beneath.

The other seduction is The Villages, a massive suburban development near Eustis, Florida- perhaps fifty miles to the southeast- that’s experienced astronomic, exponential growth over the past ten years. Like many other Florida communities, it is a “Paper Town”: of those meticulously designed suburban communities staked out by an investor in the middle of some forest that’s long since devolved into a sprawling abode, designed to evoke feelings of peaceful domesticity with its softly lit streets and eerily uniform, all-American architecture. But driving through the place, the true nature of this place is not hard to discern. It is fake. It feels stifling. Most alarmingly, all those beautifully manicured lawns will require copious amounts of water.

The immediate victim of these two trappings- the cattle farming and the suburban development- is the aquifer buried deep down in the limestone caverns of the Earth far beneath.

But there is a deeper, far more profound victim who will suffer greatly in the long-term as a result of the water disappearing in places like Juniper Creek

That victim is us.

As Florida is forced through the modernity’s harsh abattoir- hardly a week passes when there is not another highway, suburban development, agricultural project or chain of strip malls that is announced for construction- what I find is that, more than being outraged that their state is being defamed, that through this defamation their air and water are being poisoned, that the destruction of their state is but one puzzle piece of the larger destruction of the Earth by an increasingly market-crazed humanity, most Floridians couldn’t care less. They are complacent. They are unconcerned. The colossal ecological destruction consciously being meted down on their state is a topic they could hardly desire to waste any brain cells over.

Within this pointed indifference to the destruction of this state is a correlation to the disappearance of a memory: a disappearance not unlike the receding water levels in places such as Juniper Creek.

The American environmental philosopher Wendell Berry wrote in It All Turns on Affection that any hopes for salvaging the ecological health of the planet rest not on abstract notions of protecting our “little blue dot,” but on being connected to the land, on being intimately interconnected with its mysterious rhythms and workings. This way, we are always hyper-aware of the injustices waged against it and will thus vigilantly protect its ecological sanity against anything that conspires to destroy it.

In Florida, like the disappearance of the water in Juniper Creek, our collective memory recedes as the population is further removed from the nature that sustains it. People don’t take care of nature because they don’t remember how it was to be symbiotically interdependent upon it in the first place. Many people seem quite unaware that a rich ecology had defined Florida for the first several million years of its existence before modernity waged its scorched Earth campaign within the last two hundred, almost as if Florida was a recently created, ahistorical entity- a geographical island floating in the void- that never consisted of anything more than cheap neighborhoods, convenient strip malls, and a few interesting theme parks.

He who has no past has no future: so goes the Arab adage, which applies to our state- and our country, and the human species as a whole- as well as it does to individual person.

I see two things every I revisit this place and see that the waterline has retreated a few inches further down the mudbank. I see an aquifer that is dying to the point that beautiful redoubts of peace and wildness such as Juniper Creek will be forever sucked of their water: destroyed, erased ineluctably from their place on the map. And I see a people, stripped of their memory as they move further and further away from nature, who in their own blindness will inadvertently push themselves towards extinction.

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Wading through the lower stretches of Juniper Creek

Sometime in the midafternoon, near a broad fork toward the creeks lower stretches, we pull up along the shore for a few moments to eat, to rest, and to probe the surrounding sawgrass brush. Like a pair of dead fiberglass seals, we heave the unwieldy boats onto the thin finger of the peninsula, our feet sinking into the silty mudbank as we prod our way onto land.

The sun over the sawgrass slants down with a hard, coppery cant. In this failing midafternoon light, thin trails of clouds race in wispy white tendrils across the clean dome of the sky.

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Our feet in the mud, where there lay tracks of countless gators and deer

We spend almost half an hour lingering on this mud peninsula, marveling at the smooth sluices tracked by the gators where they had recently walked through here, counting the deer tracks in their endless circles, listening ponderously to the breeze blowing in the treetops. Despite the modernity slowly closing in all around them, one still gets the sense- however diluted- that if you venture deep enough into the recesses of wild places such as this, you can catch an ineffable whiff of the sublime.

In the clear glens deep within Juniper, the forest is and ever was wild— eternally lost in its primordial image.

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Further down the river, we see a sizable gator. Eight to nine feet long: sizable, though not massive. His silverine body laid up along the shoreline, the faint blue scales shining dully in the failing light, the old gator had a remarkably sagacious look to him, like some old reptilian wiseman watching the humans pass along.

It is said that gators can live up to fifty years, and judging by his size, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that this specimen is forty years old.

He has seen all that has happened here in Juniper, and if anyone is to see what will become of this place, it is animals like him.

What he will eventually witness, only time can tell.

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