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Biodiversity and Beauty along the Banks of the Santa Fe River

Mushrooms by the Santa Fe River

Mushrooms by the Santa Fe River

A couple of weeks ago I stayed at the Lazy Turtle Lodge in Fort White and brought my kayak to paddle along the banks of the Santa Fe River.  I was also able to hike through areas where the riparian landscape was quite wild.  This image was made in a place where the shoreline did not have grass or other man-made modifications and the owners' home was set back quite far, leaving the riverbank in its pristine state.  This allows natural drainage during floods and the many plants and trees are able to filter runoff.  It also allows the landscape to remain moist, so that mushrooms and other fungi proliferate.  In a subsequent post, I will show images and write about all the types of mushrooms we saw.  First I need a guidebook to identify them all.  This post focuses on the intersection of land and water.

Burnt Tree and Vegetation, Santa Fe River

Burnt Tree and Vegetation, Santa Fe River

What my recent visit to this wild section of the Santa Fe taught me is that dying trees and other decaying life forms that we might wish to eradicate quickly actually provide a whole life support system for other creatures.  This tree was burnt, likely struck by lightening, but fungi, plants and all kinds of organic matter were being sustained.  Out of death comes life. The cycle always continues when it is death by natural means and not poison or clear cutting.

Wild Banks of the Santa Fe

Wild Banks of the Santa Fe

Just imagine all the teeming life here.  Sometimes we encounter areas in nature which seem quite congested with life, say a jungle or a place like this.  Perhaps some ingrained instinct for order tells us this is unsightly or that there is so much we can easily come in and alter the balance.  Yet, when we do this, we do not fully understand the implications of our actions.  Nature has its own balance.  In places like this there is clearly a huge amount of biodiversity and often the proliferation of fungi, plants, and other life forms here and in tropical rainforests are in fact the cure to our ails.

Cypress Tree Brigade

Cypress Tree Brigade

Cypress trees are not just interesting to look at, they provide a whole host of benefits to the ecosystems in riparian landscapes. They provide wildlife habitat to many species, including rare and endangered animals. Their roots also remove many toxins.  Additionally, they are very important for flood control.  Florida is not only subject to sea level rise, in recent years it has experienced many more dramatic swings between droughts and floods. Floods are even more devastating when droughts interrupt them, because the ground is so parched it cannot absorb the excessive levels of water that sometimes result from the intense storms that seem to be more frequently occurring.  Cypress and mangroves will become increasingly critical for Florida's survival as the sea level continues to rise. 

Twisted Cypress Knees

Twisted Cypress Knees

When I encountered this section of the shoreline, it seemed completely alive and anthropomorphic.  I could almost see faces in the trunks of the cypress. Even more importantly, the roots were twisted in on themselves creating a natural barricade that seemed impenetrable.

Cypress on the Santa Fe by Turtle Heaven

Cypress on the Santa Fe by Turtle Heaven

The image above and the ones that follow show more cypress along the Santa Fe.  It was an overcast day, so I had much of the river to myself. These were actually perfect conditions to appreciate the reflections.

Cypress Roots and Vegetation

Cypress Roots and Vegetation

So many rivers in Florida have been unnaturally altered.  Their biodiversity is at great risk because of this.  For now, the Santa Fe is wild and home to many aquatic plants both natural and invasive. Balance still exists. Invasive plants  have not completely overtaken native species as in some places and turtles and birds still abound.

Giant Turtle Along the Santa Fe

Giant Turtle Along the Santa Fe

The turtle in the image above is one of the largest i have ever seen on any river in Florida.  For a turtle to become that big, it must have lived a very long time and that gave me pause. 

White Egret and Turtle on the Banks of the Santa Fe

White Egret and Turtle on the Banks of the Santa Fe

The peace and balance in this scene blew me away.  The beautiful egret perched in the tree, the turtles on the shoreline, the trees and the river, all creating one harmonious ecosystem.  Sadly, this incredible river is at great risk right now. It is heartbreaking to think what might happen to it.  11,000 acres of land on the New River adjacent to the Santa Fe River is being proposed as a phosphate mine site. Toxic wash could end up back in this beautiful river and in Florida's aquifer. Here's the link from Our Santa Fe River about these dangers: https://oursantaferiver.org/dangers-of-phosphate-mines/. The time to raise our voices to protect these waterways is now, or these incredible riparian landscapes will be forever lost. 

Cloud over a Bucolic Field at Sunset

Cloud Over a Bucolic Field at Sunset

Cloud Over a Bucolic Field at Sunset

On my way back to Micanopy from Rainbow Springs, I was stopped in my tracks by this scene. There was a small bridge with a short, narrow extra lane and I put my car in park and got out in the middle of the roadway.  I couldn't help myself.  The composition was stunning and it spoke deeply to my heart.  It was so metaphorical too.

As is becoming evident every day, agriculture is putting more and more of a strain on our water resources in Florida.  In fact, the Sustainable Technology Forum recently posted results of a comprehensive analysis by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, which indicated that farming tops the list for the thirstiest industry (http://sustainabletechnologyforum.com/in-top-10-list-of-thirstiest-industries-farming-rules_14127.html).  Cows contribute more greenhouse gasses than other livestock (beef 2.2% and dairy 1.37% versus .47% for chickens).  Cows also drink a lot more water, with a lactating cow consuming up to 170 pounds per day. (http://www.caes.ucdavis.edu/news/articles/2016/04/livestock-and-climate-change-facts-and-fiction/http://www.dairyherd.com/nutritionist-e-network/qa/q-how-much-water-would-dairy-cow-drink).

Water is being withdrawn from the springs in Florida at unsustainable levels and it is of grave concern to scientists monitoring flow. Nevertheless, it is probably unrealistic to expect everyone on the planet to give up all dairy. (I personally don't eat meat, but I do drink organic cream in my coffee. I could stop, but I haven't yet.) Given that people need to eat and crops need water, and people also need water to drink it is understandable that agriculture and water usage have and always will be inextricably linked.  Instead of villainizing all farmers, it would seem to be a better use of time and energy to encourage better farming practices, and to shift production or breeding to a mix of fewer water intensive species. The public also needs to be educated on where their food comes from and at what cost to the environment.  As a society, we have become too detached from the resources that support us, so we aren't fully aware of the detrimental impact of our choices.  

In past centuries, farming was not on such a mass scale.  When I stopped to photograph this scene, it made me feel very nostalgic for a time when our footprint was more natural we did not have to worry as much about the impact eating and drinking by humans and animals has on the planet.  Certainly smaller sized farms seem more harmonious with the landscape, but that is not the trend.

Rainbow Springs in the Late Afternoon, This Beautiful Spring as All Springs in Florida is at Great Risk

Dreamy Rainbow Springs

Dreamy Rainbow Springs

Rainbow Springs feeds the Rainbow River and is a beautiful waterway in Dunnellon, Florida.  I recently visited the spring after an afternoon on the river with friends.  When Takoda and I got there, the park was clearing out and soon we had it all to ourselves.  The vegetation on the banks is gorgeous and so is the water near the headspring, but flow is diminishing as it is in all Florida Springs.  Earlier I had witnessed the reduced clarity in the river and I was concerned when Takoda lapped at the water.  Each time he did, I told him to stop.  It dawned on me that all the fish we saw were imbibing whatever is in the water every minute and that it is unfortunate when we have to be concerned so concerned about the quality of spring-fed waterways.  Robert Knight told the Gainesville Sun the river's diminishing quanity and quality is apparent to anyone who wants to look.  I've been on testing trips with him, and science backs up any empirical observations.  He says the flow of the river declined by 20 percent, but that the water management district is using a model that is a mathematical lie.  Pumping for urban and agricultural growth are the culprits, not reductions in rainfall according to Knight.  (http://www.gainesville.com/news/20170328/lower-flow-for-rainbow).  Nevertheless, the Southwest Florida Water Management District unanimously voted to reduce flow levels by 5 percent back in March and claimed that it wouldn't affect the water body or ecosystems that depend on it.  Science once again was ignored.

Looking Down the Rainbow River from the Springs

Looking Down the Rainbow River from the Springs

How we can continue to allow are springs to be at such risk for agriculture, business, and development is beyond me.  The health of our rivers and springs directly affects the quality of water in our aquifer and that affects our health and all the ecosystems in the riparian landscape. When I looked down the river in the late afternoon light, I wondered what it would like like here the next time I visit and the time after that.  Soon will it be unsafe to bring Takoda on the river, like it is in so many waterways.  And if it is not safe for dogs, isn't that clearly an indicator that it isn't safe for humans too?  Continuing to keep our heads in the sand about this is only going to lead to serious trouble for all life in Florida, whether people visits the springs or not.

Looking through the Viness at Rainbow Springs

Looking through the Viness at Rainbow Springs

Below are some other photos of the spring, the beauty of which is so tenuous.  Peering through the vines, I felt I was witnessing some primeval beauty.  Archeologists believe this spring, the fourth largest in Florida, was in fact used by humans thousands of years before Christ.  The area was a prime area for Native American hunters, and Seminoles hunkered down at the Cove of the Withlacoochee, only three miles away, during the Second Seminole War.  Indigenous people understood then and understand now the importance of healthy waterways. (http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/rainbowsprings.html)

Rainbow River Framed by Trees

Rainbow River Framed by Trees

In the 1930's the park was a privately owned amusement park.  Now a state park, the area around the headspring has been returned to its natural state, but some vestiges of the amusement park remain such as the waterfalls.  I was more interested in documenting the native vegetation.  This view made me feel as if I was back in time.

Rainbow Springs, Watery Eden

Rainbow Springs, Watery Eden

To be able to witness such a beautiful, watery Eden is a gift I hope future generations will be able to enjoy.  When you can stand in front of such a scene, the web of life becomes palpable and our place in it evident.  Nature has more value than being a mere tool, and it deserves respect for its own sake. Yet, somehow that philosophy is understood less and less these days.  The fact of the matter is that our cities are at risk too, if we don't have this anymore.  Natural vegetation helps filter toxins and runoff.  When development destroys natural riparian landscapes, springs aren't protected and rivers run too quickly.  Pollution increases and without enough clean, drinkable water, people will not be able to live here.

Rainbow River Rorschach

Rainbow River Rorschach

This park and river are too significant to the past and present of Florida and all Floridians not to protect.  The big natural vistas are becoming increasingly rare in this state, subject to constant development despite encroaching ocean waters.

Rainbow River Grasses, Clouds, and Fish

Rainbow River Grasses, Clouds, and Fish

There are still native grasses that provide structure for fish and other creatures, though the water has become cloudier.  It is not too late if we change our approach to managing our waterways. 

Takoda on the Dock

Takoda loved his time on the river.  He and other creatures need to escape the heat too and deserve to be able to enjoy our waterways as much as we do.  I am sure if Takoda could speak English, he'd ask you to help save this waterway.

Sam Knob and Flat Laurel Creek on the Edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness Area

Giant Clouds Over the Mountains, the Edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness Area

Giant Clouds Over the Mountains, the Edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness Area

A couple of days ago, I took a hike at the edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness Area with two of my grown children.  We went on the Sam Knob Hill Trail to the summit and then went on to the Flat Laurel Creek Trail.  This photograph was actually taken on the trail from the creek back to the parking lot, looking out over where we had been.

Meadow with Wildflowers, Sam Knob Trail

Meadow with Wildflowers, Sam Knob Trail

First we had to walk through a beautiful, wide open meadow with lots of wildflowers.  Some of the meadow is mowed, to keep trees from growing.  Other areas like this one are more natural. Human intervention here made the expansive vistas possible.  

Rocky Outcropping, Sam Knob Trail

Rocky Outcropping, Sam Knob Trail

Though the trail is mostly through low trees, there are a couple of granite monoliths along the way that are quite impressive.  

Carolyn and Thomas at the Summit of Sam Knob Trail

Carolyn and Thomas at the Summit of Sam Knob Trail

The summit afforded excellent views in almost 360 degrees.  To be in a place of such wilderness and to see nothing but mountains, trees and clouds for as far as we could see was both awe inspiring and peaceful. It was easy to meditate here upon my place in the universe as just one small being in an interconnected web.

Clouds and Shadows Seen from the Sam Knob Summit

Clouds and Shadows Seen from the Sam Knob Summit

While we sat and took in the views, more and more clouds seemed to form and the shadows they cast on the tree-covered hills were constantly changing, creating new compositions every minute.

One of the Vistas from Sam Knob Hill

One of the Vistas from Sam Knob Hill

On the way back, we decided to go to Flat Laurel Creek.  Before we got to the main creek, we passed a small stream.  I looked down and saw this accidental still life of Mountain Laurel flowers in the water.  Though the flowers were no longer connected to the plants they grew from, they looked lovely floating together.  I was struck by how the evoked the temporality of beauty during the cycle of life.  Because they appeared in such an arrangement by chance, made me appreciate the miracle of their transitory existence even more and how synchronicity had led us all to this spot.

Flat Laurel Creek

Flat Laurel Creek

When I got to the main part of the creek, I was blown away by its beauty–the patterns of the water as it eddied around the rocks, the heavily treed riparian landscape, the blue sky and clouds. It was such a surprise to see this hidden within the wilderness.  I just moved here and am about to begin another study of water in Western North Carolina and around the state.  I've already worked with some Waterkeepers and know of the issues in the eastern part of the state.  The western waters I've heard have there issues too and I want to know whether streams like this are completely safe or not.  It would seem to be clean, unlike rivers like the French Broad and others, being in this remote area with no agriculture near by, or any coal-fired power plants, but I know now never to be deceived by appearances.  

Water Strider Casting Shadows

Water Strider Casting Shadows

For a long while I watched the patterns in the water created by surface tension and water striders like this one.  It was mesmerizing.

Turk's Cap Lilies

Turk's Cap Lilies

On the way back to the car, I passed some lovely wildflowers and blooming shrubs.  These two Turk's Cap lilies were lit up by the sunlight and seemed almost on fire.  

Mountain Laurel, Flat Laurel Creek

Mountain Laurel, Flat Laurel Creek

This clump of flowers seemed so tender, especially with the perfectly intact pink buds on the verge of opening.  

St. Johns Wort, Flat Laurel Creek Trail

St. Johns Wort, Flat Laurel Creek Trail

The St. Johns wort stamen fascinated me as they vibrated in the breeze, and the lichen covered trees in other areas made me feel I was in a magical place where secrets could be uncovered in any direction.  Having just moved here, a lot of nature is still quite mysterious to me.  I plan to become involved with the water community here and take course at the Arboretum and work towards earning a Blue Ridge Naturalist Certification.  I am no longer content skimming the surface of nature.  I want to learn all I can about the flora and fauna we share this planet with, so I can be a better citizen of the earth.

Trees with Green Lichen, Flat Laurel Creek Trail

Spirit Painting the Sky and Lighting up the Water

Brilliant Clouds in the Blue Ether

Brilliant Clouds in the Blue Ether

A few days ago, the sky was so unusual as the sun was setting.  Looking south I saw the image above.  There was a shock of blue sky with magenta and mauves and golds painted in.  

Spirit Painting the Sky

Spirit Painting the Sky

Right by where the sun was setting, the sky was mostly gold and yellow with touches of red mixed in.  It was hard to believe this was the same sunset.  My mother and I were breathless watching this magical display a few days after my father's passing.

Colored Water, Sarasota Bay

Colored Water, Sarasota Bay

Even the bay reflected the diversity we saw in the sky.  The water to the left reflected celestial blues while the golds were on the right, united by a soft mauve.  I am not sure I have ever seen the colors in the water so clearly delineated.  

Heron in the Last Light

Heron in the Last Light

Before I walked inside, I saw a serene heron perched on a cluster of rocks  near the seawall.  What the bird's single point focus was on, I was not sure.  He didn't move the entire time I watched.  We merged into stillness and I felt at peace, forgetting about loss for a moment as I breathed to the rhythm of the soft waves, the heartbeat of spirit.

Santa Fe River Beauty and Perils

Santa Fe Cypress Knees, the Buttresses of My Cathedral

Santa Fe Cypress Knees, the Buttresses of My Cathedral

Kayaking down the Santa Fe River recently, I came across this section of cypress knees and immediately felt that I was looking at some kind of spiritual edifice.  Though these knees were supporting much taller trees, I was drawn to the root structures and their reflections and the way they united earth and water and spiritual and material dimensions.  To experience the sacred in nature is profoundly regenerating to me, because when duality disappears externally it disappears within me as well.

Algae, Vegetation, and Cypress Knees, Santa Fe River

Algae, Vegetation, and Cypress Knees, Santa Fe River

A short way passed Rum Island, I came to this section of river and my heart sank.  There was lots of long ropey lyngbya wollei underneath the surface of the water and green slime proliferated above.  Saxitoxins (or Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning toxins) are frequently found in lyngbya  wollei.  Green algae leads to oxygen depletion, the blocking of light, and other issues that upset riparian ecosystems and some fear this will become the norm in Florida's waterways.  Frequently it becomes toxic and authorities then urge people to stay out of the water.

Pair of Turtles, Santa Fe River

Pair of Turtles, Santa Fe River

Turtles, birds, fish and other creatures inhabit thee compromised waterways and their health is impacted.  Turtles shells are often coated in algae that is the result of inadequately treated sewage manure, and fertilizers .  Serious algae outbreaks can be fatal to turtles and cause serious public health outbreaks in humans.   

Wood Stork Among the Cypress Knees

Wood Stork Among the Cypress Knees

Wood storks have been moved from the endangered to threatened list in Florida, but there is some debate as to whether this reclassification was premature and the result of pressure by developers so fewer wetlands would have to be preserved.  According to Audubon Florida, the nature cycle of high and low water in Florida's wetlands has become so altered that wood storks often can't find enough food for their young, who starve (http://fl.audubon.org/birds/wood-stork).

Vulture in Repose, Santa Fe River

Vulture in Repose, Santa Fe River

Though we think of vultures as being able to eat anything, and in fact they perform a valuable service in feeding on carrion, vultures are in danger of becoming extinct through ingesting dietary toxins.  This problem is most acute in India and Southeast Asia, but it could happen in the US as well.  Insecticides, rodenticides, and lead from ammunition are the biggest culprits here (https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/wild-things/vultures-are-vulnerable-extinction).

Decomposing Trunk Providing Shelter for Other Life, Santa Fe River

Decomposing Trunk Providing Shelter for Other Life, Santa Fe River

Droughts and lower water levels from siphoning too much water from or rivers can lead to weakened root systems and even tree borers.  Thought it is somewhat alarming to see the base of a tree decompose so much, these holes and chambers provide shelter for other creatures.

Roots Near the Rock Spring, Santa Fe River

Roots Near the Rock Spring, Santa Fe River

A little beyond the place on the river with the green algae, I came to this area that was the intersection of the spring run with the river.  Visiting this spot helped me visualize the connection between earth and water.  There was some algae even this short distance from the spring head, but the water was still much clearer than the tannin filled water of the main artery of the Santa Fe.

Ghostly Ginnie Springs

Ghostly Ginnie Springs

After I finished kayaking the river, I went back to my campsite near the headspring of Ginnie Springs.  When I got there it was getting late and the light was such that I was able to see ghostlike reflections that spoke to the fragility of the springs and the delicate balance they need to survive unimpaired.

Water and Cottonwoods are the Source of Life in the Bosque

Riparian Landscape of the Bosque

Riparian Landscape of the Bosque

When I was in Albuquerque recently, I spent a day exploring the Bosque by bicycle.  I rode along the bike path and took several trails to the water's edge.  In many places, you could not see through to the Rio Grande because the banks were so wild and the vegetation was so thick.  That was good news for this section of the river, because much of the Rio Grande, as all rivers, has been channelized. Here I still saw sandbars, which are essential to the health of the river and the Bosque.  

Water is the Source of Life in the Bosque

Water is the Source of Life in the Bosque

Water is the source of life for the Bosque, with cottonwoods being the heart as they provide habitat for so many creatures.  Cottonwoods have deep roots that reach down to the water table, though they can only grow in areas with permanent water supplies.  Sadly these important trees are being threatened and many forests have been cleared for farming, development, and river projects.  Here is a link to some information about the Bosque and cottonwood trees: http://www.nmnaturalhistory.org/bosque-education-guide/chapter-2-bosque-background .  

Silvery Minnow Creek, the Bosque

Silvery Minnow Creek, the Bosque

New Mexico is a desert, so water is a scare resource.  To provide enough water to the Bosque and the creatures that live here requires healthy creeks and channels and periodic natural flood surges. These smaller bodies of water are necessary to the health of native ecosystems since the flow is slower, which is particularly critical during spawning season.  The restoration of the Silvery Minnow system was partially to help this endangered fish which once made 1900 miles of the Rio Grande its home but now only occupies about 200 miles along the river.

Along the Rio Grande, Bosque State Park

Along the Rio Grande, Bosque State Park

The image above is from the trial in the State Park at one end of the Paseo del Bosque Trail.  You can see through the vegetation to sand bars in the Rio Grande.

Blooming Cactus, the Bosque

Blooming Cactus, the Bosque

This stunning blooming cactus was near the Aldo Leopold Forest.  Maintaining areas like this with native species is critical to the survival of the Bosque.  The introduction of non-native species in other areas is threatening cottonwoods and other native plants and that often reduces biodiversity in a region.

Butterflies Pollinating along the Banks of the Rio Grande, the Bosque

Butterflies Pollinating along the Banks of the Rio Grande, the Bosque

The teeming life in the desert around waterways always astonishes me.  The Bosque is such a rich area and I know I only skimmed the surface of what it has to offer during my visit.  Hopefully, I can return soon and get to know this beautiful area even more intimately.

Ginnie Springs, A Magical Underwater World

Seeing Heaven from Ginnie Springs

Seeing Heaven from Ginnie Springs

A couple of days ago I got down to Ginnie Springs about an hour before sunset.  Miraculously, I had the springs to myself almost the entire time I was there.  Swimming about in the clear water, I looked up through the lens of the surface and saw the sun make a starburst from one of the trees. I felt I was in heaven.  Suddenly I forgot all the political problems our country is experiencing, and all the suffering I have been witnessing.  For a moment it was all washed clean and I had hope.

The Vibrant Colors of Ginnie Springs

The Vibrant Colors of Ginnie Springs

The rocks were green and red and the water a deep blue.  There were patterns below and patterns above. It was pure delight for my senses and so beautiful.

A Secret World, Ginnie Springs Vegetation

A Secret World, Ginnie Springs Vegetation

Over on one side there was a clump of vegetation.  It was vibrant green and very detailed against the impressionistic surface of the water.  I couldn't quite figure out why the underside of the water's surface was so blurred against the details of the plants, rocks, shells and twigs that were scattered across the sand.  Perhaps it was the way the light was hitting the water.  There was no real turbulence.  It was a mystery that called me in further.

Diagonal Reflections Mirror the Crevice in Ginnie Springs

Diagonal Reflections Mirror the Crevice in Ginnie Springs

As I swam along the crevice, I may have created my own turbulence by kicking.  I supposed that is what created the unusual diagonal reflections.   The surface tension of the water broke in places and hints of the blue sky and green trees broke through, reminding me of the world I usually inhabit.

The Craggy Bottom of Ginnie Springs

The Craggy Bottom of Ginnie Springs

The floor of these springs is so unusual with boulders and craggy rocks.  Shape, color, texture, all are present.  I couldn't believe my luck in getting to spend so much time down there alone.  Each photograph was like a painting. 

The Ominous Side of Ginnie Springs

The Ominous Side of Ginnie Springs

Around the edge of the pool, there were tree roots that seemed to attract algae and other growths.   There was also algae on the rocks near the headspring itself.  Mark Wray and his family have been working hard to protect these springs. Jacques Cousteau once said this water was the cleanest in the world.  It has not been easy to keep them this way and these images show they have not been entirely successful due to increases in nitrogen. This article from the Tampa Bay Times discusses Mark Wray's efforts and also how concerned he is about excess pumping, since that depletes the aquifer and the flow of the springs.  Compared to other springs I visited recently, I did feel the water was cleaner.  It must have been incredible before pollutants made there way here.   http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/ginnie-springs-owner-fights-off-threats/1262973

Ginnie Springs Headspring

Ginnie Springs Headspring

Fortunately the algae stayed mostly on the rocks and was not throughout the water column, as it was in some other springs I visited along the Santa Fe the next day.  It was magical exploring this underworld, which continually surprised me with new angles, colors, reflections, creatures, and light.  There is something about swimming in the springs that brings you back to life, especially in 90+ degree days in North Florida, where we don't have beaches or much of a breeze. Everyone I spoke with in the campground felt the same way.  If we allow these springs to me further harmed, we will be destroying a treasure and people from surrounding states and overseas will stop visiting.  The springs are invaluable on so many counts, not the least being that they are the source of our drinking water too.

Mysterious Underworld of Ginnie Springs

Mysterious Underworld of Ginnie Springs

Black and Whites from the Bosque in Albuquerque

Secret Places Along the Rio Grande in the Bosque

Secret Places Along the Rio Grande in the Bosque

Jodi Hedderig, manager of the Open Space Visitor Center, describes the area’s bosque as “a forest supported by a riparian environment — in the desert.” While I was in Albuquerque, I rented  bicycle and drove through the Bosque stopping wherever I could to see the river.  The riparian landscape was very wild here and there are actually few places where you can get an unobscured view of the Rio Grande.  Every now and again, I would find an area where you could pear through the trees and underbrush to catch a glimpse of the water beyond.  Not only do these wild banks provide habitat for the many creatures that live here, they are an oasis from the strong sunlight of the desert southwest.   I would come across a section like this and feel like I was in some secret little haven, as I watched the beams of light dance on the water.

Trees and Shadows, Alameda Open Space

Trees and Shadows, Alameda Open Space

At one terminus of the Paseo del Bosque bike trail was the Alameda Open Space.  I stopped my bicycle there and sat on a bench looking at the river and also the trees that provided welcome shade.  The pattern of light through the foliage and the way the shadows intersected on the forest floor were beautiful.  I met a young man who'd been bicycling the trail for the past six years and took photos here of the forest and river in every season.  To get to know a forest so intimately sounded very special.  

Old Cottonwood with Gnarled Bark, Rio Grande Nature Preserve

Old Cottonwood with Gnarled Bark, Rio Grande Nature Preserve

This tree was in the Rio Grande Nature Preserve.  Many in the forest have thinner trunks, but the old ones grow up to 90 feet in height with trunks that measure five feet across.  This tree is also known as the water tree, since it signals the presence of water.  The one in the image above was truly magnificent.  Sadly, these trees are under assault in the desert southwest.  According to an article my Jay Sharp in Desert USA, "Along rivers and streams throughout the Southwest, man has dammed, re-channeled and regulated stream flow, often holding back the spring floods which would otherwise disperse Rio Grande cottonwood seeds and water the river bottoms. He has drawn down water tables, putting them beyond the reach of Rio Grand cottonwood roots. He has cleared watersheds, allowed detrimental salt and mineral buildups, developed roads, opened mines, effected intense overgrazing, polluted the water, trampled and overrun new forest growth, introduced aggressive alien species, and eliminated or severely reduced beavers and other wildlife. The Southwest’s riparian forests are now among the most threatened woodlands of North America."  He regards this tree's disappearance as a metaphor for man's abuse of the desert. Fortunately, riparian wildness was still evident in this stretch of the Bosque in Albuquerque.  See these banks and some of the many creatures that exist here made me realize how important it is to preserve open spaces here and all across the country.

Roadrunner Camouflaging Itself in the Trees

Roadrunner Camouflaging Itself in the Trees

Trees provide habitat for the many creatures that live in the Bosque.  When I was in the Rio Grande Nature Preserve, I came across this roadrunner who kept me company for about twenty minutes.  He would venture out holding this lizard and then dart back to the roots of the tree to camouflage himself. 

In an article in American Forests magazine, the cottonwood was referred to as the heart of the Bosque.  "The cottonwood trees, with heart- or triangular-shaped leaves, are sometimes referred to as the heart of the bosque, as they provide critical habitat for many of the birds, mammals, insects, spiders and crustaceans of the riparian ecosystem. Resident birds of the bosque include Cooper’s hawk, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, roadrunner and a variety of hummingbirds, woodpeckers and owls. Porcupines rest high in the branches of cottonwood trees, and toads seek shelter in the leaf litter on the forest floor." (http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/beauty-of-the-bosque/)

Cottonwood Madonna, Virgin of the Tree, San Felipe de Neri Church

Cottonwood Madonna, Virgin of the Tree, San Felipe de Neri Church

In 1970, a parishioner carved this statue of the Virgin in a cottonwood tree, no doubt indicating the importance of this tree to the region.  It is on the grounds of the 300-year-old San Felipe de Neri Church in Old Town, the oldest church in Albuquerque.  

Salt Springs

Salt Springs Rocks in the Late Afternoon Light

Salt Springs Rocks in the Late Afternoon Light

Salt Springs is one of the four springs in the Ocala National Forest and flows into Lake George, part of the St. Johns river system.  I found it the most fascinating.  The water comes from deep fissures that are underwater windows into the earth.  The water also has magnesium, potassium, and sodium salts, which is how it got its name.  No one is certain of the source of these salty waters, but some believe it is sea water.  Archeologists believe tribes once inhabited this region 5,800 years ago, and it is still a popular campsite.

Fissures, Salt Springs

Fissures, Salt Springs

It was fascinating to swim along the fissures, and the colors of the chemicals in the water turned the rocks interesting colors.

Hydrilla, Salt Springs

Hydrilla, Salt Springs

Native grasses were not evident but invasive hydrilla was instead.  I was with springs artist Margaret Tolbert, who has been swimming in and inspired by springs for twenty years and she told me that she no longer objects to hydrilla as much as she used to since fish do feed on it and it provides some structure for sea life on the floor of the springs.

Salt Springs, Underwater Stepping Stones

Salt Springs, Underwater Stepping Stones

Viewed rom land, the rocks in the springs looked like stepping stones.  The water was clear blue and I could see one of the largest vents bubbling up.  It was so visually interesting.  Though the hyrdrilla was present, it was mostly on the rocks around the edge of the springs which are rimmed in concrete to make access easier for visitors.

The Many Layers of Salt Springs

The Many Layers of Salt Springs

From another vantage point and when the light changed and it became sunnier, the reflections from the trees and clouds added to the layered intrigue of this special spot.

Algae in Salt Springs

Algae in Salt Springs

The area where we had been swimming was filled with clear blue water, but when I looked across to the forested bank, away from where the volume of water was spewing forth, I noticed a lot of algae mats along the shoreline.  

Algae Close Up, Salt Springs

Algae Close Up, Salt Springs

I walked over to that side of the park and noticed there was in fact thick algae, as these images show.  I was glad I hadn't swum near there.  I wasn't sure of the level of toxicity, but I knew it was blocking the light below and probably making it difficult for any natural vegetation to grow.

Algae Carpet, Salt Springs

Algae Carpet, Salt Springs

There are no nitrates in the forest springs and dissolved oxygen is still present, but still we see this algae explosion (see the green slime section in: http://stateofwater.org/ecosystems/springs/).  On theory is that the algae crowds out native grasses and then multiplies itself.  As in any body of water I have visited, the algae is found where the water is most sandy.  It was interesting to see this much cyanobacteria in water with such high salinity levels and so curiosity led me to do some research.  I found that cyanobacteria is predicted to get a lot worse in coming years due to increased temperatures (which I already knew) and because certain strains of cyanobacteria which used to be killed off by salinity are becoming adaptive and are managing to still live and in fact thrive.  Here's the link to the scientific journal: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2386806/

Silver Glen Springs

Stripers Heading Towards the Headspring, Silver Glen Springs

Stripers Heading Towards the Headspring, Silver Glen Springs

Silver Glen Springs is a 1st magnitude spring with a large, semicircular pool that is approximately 200 x 175 feet. The bottom around the main vent is mostly sand covered now, with algae that is perplexing scientists.  This spring is also within the Ocala National Forest and discharges approximately 65 million gallons of fresh water per day.

Stripers Everywhere

Stripers Everywhere

The stripers and I were headed towards the vent at the same time from opposite directions.  Soon they were everywhere.  Silver Glen Springs is one of the most important and frequently used thermal refuges for striped bass in the St. Johns River system.  I have never seen so many in one place.  Though algae was primarily relegated to the sandy bottom, which was mostly devoid of natural grasses, there were also clumps of lyngbya wollei in the water column.  

Lyngbya is a genus of cyanobacteria that contains a toxin that proposes a health hazard to humans and other creatures that come in contact with it.  According to the British Columbia Ministry of the Environment, cyanophytes found in freshwater habitats experience cyanophyte blooms more than in any other habitat they are found. This report goes on to say the following about blooms:  

"Two genera of cyanophytes account for the vast majority of toxic blooms world-wide: Microcystis and AnabaenaAnabaena and Nodularia have been implicated in skin and eye irritations in man and dogs, while MicrocystisAnacystis and Lyngbya have been reported to cause hay fever symptoms, particularly as aerosols. It has been suggested that toxic products released from cyanophytes may be the cause of unexplained forms of human gastro-enteritis. Microcystis aeruginosaAnabaena circinalis and Nodularia spumigen blooms produce a characteristic pungent, musky or earthy smell. Fish deaths during cyanophyte blooms may be caused by the toxin in the cyanophyte, by the depletion of oxygen in the water, by the liberation of hydrogen sulphide and ammonia caused by cell decomposition or by clogging of the gills." (http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/reference/cyanophytes.html)   

Stripers Glen Springs

Stripers Glen Springs

It was disturbing to see huge chunks of filamentous algae on the surface of the water.  With much of the natural eelgrass beds destroyed, carp fish will sometime eat lyngbya wollei. The aforementioned report states  that "all warm-blooded animals are susceptible to cyanophyte toxins, including people, waterfowl, furbearers, game and non-game animals, livestock, poultry and household pets." Though why algae makes people sick is known scientists really can't understand why there is algae here, as the springs are at least 30 miles from any agricultural development.

Stripers

Stripers

One theory for how there is so much algae in a spring located in a forest with extremely low nitrogen levels is that the algae mats produce enough nitrogen to sustain themselves.  Another is that the increased salinity is favorable to their production.

Stripers Heading to the LIght

Stripers Heading to the LIght

It was magical swimming around with all these fish, watching them catch the light, and swim over the vent as the water poured out.  The water they were heading towards was clean and algae free, but to get there they had to traverse areas that were murky and unsafe.  This spring has also been designated as critical for manatee habitat, although I did not see any that day.  In fact, their use of this area has been limited since so many natural grasses have been damaged by algae and human use.  Many scientists recommend not swimming in areas where algae outbreaks have been reported. Sadly, in Florida that would not leave many springs left that are totally safe to swim in.  The most at risk are children and pets, since  they require less of the toxins to become ill.

 

Alexander Springs

Alexander Springs, Margaret Tolbert Heading for the Vent

Alexander Springs, Margaret Tolbert Heading for the Vent

Alexander Springs is another spring in the Ocala National Forest.  It is one of 27 first magnitude springs in the State of Florida and the only one in the forest.  The springs discharges into the Alexander Springs Creek and then travels 10 miles to the St. Johns river.  It must have been amazing before it became so compromised with algae.  Right at the main headspirings, there are sea grasses and white sand.  There are also deep cliffs and carved limestone boulders that extend to a depth of about 25 feet.  It is one of the most dramatic springs I have seen and swimming in it I felt small indeed.  

Floating, Alexander Springs

Floating, Alexander Springs

This spring really made me wish I was certified to dive, because I would have loved exploring all the edges of the cliffs and the caves below.   

Compromised Spring, Alexander Springs

Yet for all its natural beauty, bounded by hardwood and palm forests, pine wooded and hills and a sand beach, the water is filled with lots of algae.  Some is merely a thin coating on the sand and rocks below, which is a bit less alarming than encountering large clumps as I did.  

Floating in an Alien Algae-Ridden Waterscape

Floating in an Alien Algae-Ridden Waterscape

Algae clung to my camera housing and snorkel and I started to hyperventilate a bit as I noticed it permeate the entire water column the further away I got from the headspring.  It astounded me that so many people who were swimming there failed to notice the water quality issue.  My friend, the wonderful springs artist Margaret Tolbert and I discussed the concept of the "new normal".  For people who never saw the springs before they became impaired, it likely appears beautiful to them.  There are still contrasts between light and dark, the sunlight still creates patterns in the sand, there are sea grasses and vents and caves.  The volume of water coming out of the springs is still quite impressive.  Above the surface of the water, you can see how expansive the springs are and much of the riparian landscape is natural instead of bounded by concrete or manmade beaches.  Still, seeing all the algae made me very concerned for the ongoing health of the springs.

Alexander Springs, an Underwater World Where Algae Thrive

Alexander Springs, an Underwater World Where Algae Thrive

Why there is so much algae is the million dollar question.  Swimming away from the vent, I went closer to the shore on the far side and looked down upon the scene above.  The wide angle lens made the ground below appear spherical, like a planet in despair.  There were no visible sea grasses left here, as algae encroached upon the sand floor.  Other areas appeared almost black. 

Cliffs and Crevice Alexander Springs

Cliffs and Crevice Alexander Springs

I turned back and headed for the headsprings one last time to find some positive memory to take with me, so I could remember what I am working so hard to preserve.  What an impressive sight Alexander Springs must once have been with blue water, fresh white sand, limestone cliffs and healthy native grasses waving from the force of water instead of being crushed or held stiffly in place by the weight of invasive algae that reduces sunlight and made the whole experience feel kind of dirty in a place that should be all about rebirth and washing things clean.

Juniper Springs and Fern Hammock

Turtle Doppleganger, Fern Hammock, Juniper Springs

Turtle Doppleganger, Fern Hammock, Juniper Springs

Located in Ocala National Forest, Juniper Springs, built by the Army Conservation Corps in 1932 is one of the oldest in the State of Florida.  Near the main spring is Fern Hammock Springs, a pristine natural area situated in a subtropical forest.  My friend, springs painter Margaret Tolbert, and I hiked over to this area and marveled at the turtles, small springs, and bubbling mud vents.  It is not possible to swim here, which may have been why we saw so much wildlife. The turtle above swam right near a small bridge we were standing on for awhile. Several more hopped on and off a log, while others seemed to enjoying swimming right over the small springs. I loved the interrelation between the turtle and its shadow.  Somehow it made me think of its ancient lineage and the long history of these springs providing water for creatures inhabiting the waterways within the forest.

Turtle over a Spring,  Fern Hammock

Turtle over a Spring,  Fern Hammock

The water here was dotted with leaves and other organic material, indicating a healthy biofilm.  Perhaps this was due to being located in a National Forest and the fact that people are not allowed to swim here. The lack of people in the water is probably why the wildlife was so unafraid.

Branch with a Bubbling Mud Vent, Fern Hammock

Branch with a Bubbling Mud Vent, Fern Hammock

To the right and alongside the bridge were bubbling mud vents.  This seething, roiling underwater-scape made me realize how much water animates the landscape.

Small Alligator, Juniper Springs

Small Alligator, Juniper Springs

There was also a small alligator in the water just beyond the bubbling sand.  I wasn't sure if it was young or stunted, I hoped the former.

Filamentous Algae Smothering Sea Grass in Juniper Spring

Filamentous Algae Smothering Sea Grass in Juniper Spring

In Juniper Springs proper, I was sad to see filamentous algae cloaking and in some places over taken the native sea grasses.  The algae was an electric green color that held visual interest and drew me near, but all the while I was swimming I wondered if it was going to impair my health to swim so close to it.  I am working on an algae project with a microbiologist and he has stopped having his scientists and volunteers go in the water to obtain samples when blooms are present.

Margaret Diving into the Vent, Juniper Springs

As we got closer to the headsprings, there seemed to be less algae and the areas of the bottom not covered in native grasses was white sand.  The image above shows Margaret diving down to the she source of the springs.  Though it was better here, I was still upset to see so much algae in a place with no development or agriculture in the immediate watershed.

Margaret Ross Tolbert's Intimate Relationship with the Springs

Margaret Tolbert Floating Above Eel Grass, Juniper Springs

Margaret Tolbert Floating Above Eel Grass, Juniper Springs

The best part of living in North Florida these past four years was meeting the incredible springs painter Margaret Ross Tolbert.  Margaret has been painting springs in Florida for over twenty years.  She also paints the springs in Turkey.  On her website it says, the North Florida Springs "paradisiacal presence provides a sense of ideal destination and the exotic in the here- and-now that counterpoints the sense of passage, time and journey implicit in the Door paintings."  When I saw Margaret suspended over the eel grass in Juniper Spring, I saw that for her time truly is suspended when she is beneath the surface.  It was amazing we made it through four springs that day, as we both tend to get lost.  Perhaps that is why we are such good friends. 

Yet though time stops when Margaret is in the water, time has not stopped since she was first inspired by the springs.  Sadly, springs in Florida have become increasingly polluted over the last twenty years.  Filamentous algae cloaked the eel grass at Juniper Springs, even though ti is located in the Ocala National Forest.  In Alexander Springs, there was algae everywhere, and we saw it in Silver Glen and Salt Springs too.  Why this is happening in the middle of a forest is a mystery that scientists have not yet been able to explain.  In springs located near agricultural operations the reason is obvious.  Perhaps in these forest springs it has something to do with the increasing saltiness of the springs (from salt water intrusion or the lower, saltier aquifer making its way into the fresh water aquifer closer to the surface), or maybe warmer temperatures, or perhaps runoff travels much further than would be expected.  Whatever the reason, even these springs are being lost. 

Margaret Swimming over Cracks in the earth

Margaret Swimming over Cracks in the earth

When I saw Margaret swimming over the underwater cliffs and cracks of Alexander Springs, which were cloaked with algae, I felt the ephemeral nature of the springs and a deep sense of loss. It seemed ghostlike down there and I couldn't bear to focus on what I was seeing. Alexander Springs is the only first magnitude spring within the forest and at one time it must have been incredibly beautiful  Margaret has not abandoned even the impaired springs.  I wanted to flee as quickly as possible, especially after clumps of algae got stuck in my hair and on my camera.  I saw her suddenly as an ancient water guardian. I felt ties to a vanishing past, the trace of which still exist in the present through these crumbling karst rocks.  Margaret is fascinated with ancient cultures and ethnic dances and traditions that have been passed through the ages. Knowing her is a lens to the present and also the history of the world and water. Spending time together always makes me look at things differently and appreciate indigenous ways from when we were more united with the forces of nature and our watery essence.  

Margaret Pushing Herself Down into the Cracks at Sa;t S[romg

Margaret Pushing Herself Down into the Cracks at Sa;t S[romg

Margaret is such a great artist because she always goes deeper, never satisfied with merely skimming the surface,. She has always been a serious athlete, even training with Olympians during her running days.  She posses the strength and courage to meet the world's challenges and look at them from another perspective.  

Margaret Looking Up in Wonder

Margaret Looking Up in Wonder

When I saw Margaret in this pose, looking up at the surface of the water in wonder, I understood how deeply the springs inspire her paintings,  When she dives and goes in crevices or explores vents and bubbles and then suddenly shifts her perspective by looking at the world above from this watery underworld she feels so at home in, her lens is blurred and bended and reflections become as real as solid rocks.   

Margaret at One with the Springs

Margaret at One with the Springs

Perhaps my favorite image of all that day was this one of Margaret totally cradled in the rocks and at one with the springs.  If we all felt this close to these precious waters that provide life, fluidity, transformation, and eternity in each moment, we would not allow as much harm to befall water as has happened in this state.  

To learn more about Margaret's work, visit her website at: http://www.margaretrosstolbert.com/ or http://www.aquiferious.com/.

Ichetucknee Head Springs and Blue Hole Spring

Crevice in the Itchetukcnee Head Springs

Crevice in the Itchetukcnee Head Springs

I finally broke down and got a housing for my camera, so I could take it underwater and experiment.  It was the perfect day to go, as it was 96 degrees and so dry I kept getting fire alerts every 20 minutes.  The springs were the perfect place to rejuvenate.  Though I spotted algae at the edges of the steps, when I swam out aways it was better.  There were still healthy grasses and colorful vegetation.  The reflections looking up were a myriad of colors.  

Unity of Above and Below, Itchetucknee Head Springs

Unity of Above and Below, Itchetucknee Head Springs

When I looked straight up and saw the blue sky and blazing sun I was hiding from down there, the lens I was using made me feel the world above and below were joined with no horizon line or demarcations separating these universes.  The colors in the water were earthen as well, while the sky was the blue I usually associate water with.

Itchetucknee Head Springs Underater Vegetation

Itchetucknee Head Springs Underater Vegetation

Near the head springs there is a log of underwater vegetation, some natural and some invasive. There was also a layer of algae underneath in some places.  

Fallen Tree with Algae  

Fallen Tree with Algae  

The fallen tree collected algae as well, likely because ti is stationary.  Every time I go back, the springs are a little less full of life, but there is a strange wonderland down there and these waters are the source of our lives.  We would do well to preserve them before more native grasses are lost and the water becomes too toxic to swim in and ultimately drink.  Florida just received the dubious distinction of having the second worst water in the country, beaten only by the State of Texas.

Caught in the Balance of Light and Dark

Caught in the Balance of Light and Dark

The big hole is the main vent and the force of the water pushes you back.  When I saw this woman floating at an angle, it was as if she was being pushed away and drawn towards the light at the same time.

Drawn to the Blue Water

Drawn to the Blue Water

Around every corner, I was drawn to the blue water beyond.  There were frequently shadowy figures at the edges of my frames.  I am not sure what the people of north Florida are going to do when its over 100 degrees on a regular basis and they can't swim to cool off.  

Underwater Mysteries

Underwater Mysteries

Every time I got near the big vent, I wonder what was beyond the edge and what the source of all this water looked like.  The thin yellow green line created by the reflection of the vegetation along the banks created the illusion of symmetry, but nothing matched exactly making it more intriguing to view.

Blue Hole Spring

Blue Hole Spring

Before I left the park, I hiked down to Blue Hole Spring.  It was too late in the day for the bright blue color to be visible, though the water was clearly that color.  The force seemed stronger here and I had difficulty swimming back to the dock with my camera in its housing from this direction.  I looked across the vent and saw two people swimming in opposite directionsNo one was directly over the Blue Hole.  

Tunnel of Light, Run to Blue Hole Spring

Tunnel of Light, Run to Blue Hole Spring

This was next to the dock to enter Blue Hole Spring.  There was a sign to this little run that said no wading to preserve clarity and off course someone jumped off the dock anyway.  I just floated a short way in because I was so drawn to the light.  The sun in the distance lit up the sandy bottom, making it feel like a tunnel in the midst of the dark bands created by the vegetation.  Sometimes it is rewarding to see the whole bottom lit up by the light, but the contrast between light and dark, and the shafts of light that penetrate to the bottom create drama in this fragile underworld.

Life's Desire to Perpetuate Itself Even in Hostile Conditions

Life's Desire

Life's Desire

This morning I decided to take my dog Takoda for a walk in Kanapaha Botanical Gardens.  I usually never go unless there are semi-overcast conditions because direct light on flowers washes them out or creates harsh shadows.  We have been under a fire alert every day.  Finally I decided that I wanted to go for a walk there anyway, since I will be moving soon, and these have always been my favorite botanical gardens in Florida.  I knew I would find at least a couple of flowers in the shade and would enjoy seeing if anything was alive in these conditions.  At least I knew the flowers were probably watered there.  I don't do that much at home, because I know the aquifer is being drained enough.  When I got back to the native garden, I came across this beautiful orange and red day lily. Many of the other flowers were wilted, but somehow this orange and red iris was still managing to hang on and thrive.

Prickly Heart, Agave in Bloom

Prickly Heart, Agave in Bloom

Then I came across this incredible agave cactus that was starting to bloom.  The magenta flowers were protected by these red saw tooth shoots that came off of glowing white stems.  It made me think of the layers of protection nature and human beings put in place to protect their flowering essence that gives and begets life.  I identified with this plant right away, was fascinated by it and wondering what lessons it had to teach me.  I am often very open and somewhat naive.  This plant did not fail to open its heart, but it made sure that it was surrounded by protection.

Bamboo Reflections

Bamboo Reflections

There were not many places to look for photographs with not a cloud in the sky, but then I looked down into the water, which served as its own filter and saw the reflection of dark bamboo leaves against the blue sky and greenery from the surrounding vegetation.  The plants were no doubt suffering from the hot sun, but in the water life was right again.  As always, I reflected on the necessity of water for keeping things alive.

Bamboo Dream

Bamboo Dream

A little further down along the edge of the pond, I came to an area with layers and layers of bamboo.  Periodically a fish umped and disturbed the water creating even more interesting patterns.  I loved the contrast between sharp stems and leaves against blurrier layers.  The richness of life was immediately apparent, especially when it is all united by water.

The Heart of Passion

The Heart of Passion

Most of the orange irises were along the water's edge in direct sun with burnt edges to their petals.  Then I spotted this perfectly formed one hiding beneath some other foliage.  Sometimes that is what we have to dot to keep blooming–especially in challenging times. 

Impressionistic Passion Flowers

Impressionistic Passion Flowers

The most incredible flowers I came across all day were these two passion flowers.  I watched them unfold for an hour with Takoda.  I couldn't believe he was so patient, or that I was for that matter.  The upper one was open when I got there and by the time I made this image its petals were open as wide as they could be.  The one in the lower quadrant had been curled in on itself but continued to open bit by bit while I watched it.  I realized that the slow deliberateness it went about opening was something worthy of study.  What I wondered, if conditions had been different, would this blossom have decided to do.  If there had been no shade or if it was hotter or even drier, though that was unimaginable.  Several bees and butterflies came to inspect it, but they landing only for a split second before moving along.  Why, I wondered, could they not see how special this blossom was.

Suwannanoa River, the Pisgah Forest, and Lake Powhattan, Wild Treasures

Rocky Banks of the Suwannanoa River

Rocky Banks of the Suwannanoa River

This section of the Suwannanoa River runs near Warren Wilson College and is on of the most popular recreation areas on this river that runs from Black Mountain to the French Broad River.  Though this section of the river remains very natural, with wild banks and rocks and ponds within its riparian landscape, the river has suffered from pollution from runoff from increased development in Western North Carolina.  It is constantly monitored from E coli, and in 2006 and in 2008, segments totally 14 miles wee placed on the list of impaired waterways. Urban best management practices subsequently lead to the removal of this waterway from this list.  (https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-10/documents/nc_swannanoa.pdf) The improvement of this waterway indicates the importance of the Clean Water Act to ensure that waterways are remediated when they fail to reach these standards in terms of turbidity and impaired biological diversity.  

Ponds by the Suwannanoa

Ponds by the Suwannanoa

Allowing ponds to remain on the banks of waterways is very important for biological diversity. They also are good for allowing toxins to be filtered, in addition for helping to contain floodwaters with the onset of more violent storms.

Butterflies Absorbing Nutrients from the Soil

Butterflies Absorbing Nutrients from the Soil

Though butterflies frequently absorb their nutrients from flowers and plants, sometimes they lie directly on the riverbanks and get their nutrients from the soil.  There were hundreds of butterflies doing this along this section of riverbank.

New and Mature Bamboo

New and Mature Bamboo

This small bamboo grove is on the grounds of Warren Wilson College along the banks of the river.  It is a gorgeous grove with rich golden yellows.  The leaves of this new growth contrasting with the thick stalks captivated my attention.

Jack and Takoda Enjoying a Stroll Through the Grove

Jack and Takoda Enjoying a Stroll Through the Grove

Lake Pohawtan is another lovely natural spot near Asheville where there are marshlands with lots of vegetation, geese and other wildlife.  

Lake Powhatan Marshland

Lake Powhatan Marshland

Marshlands function in much the same way as ponds and provide habitat for wildlife. 

Geese in the Lake Powhatan Marshaland

Geese in the Lake Powhatan Marshaland

Below is an image from the Pisgah National Forest.  We were walking along this trail and found a hollowed out log that wildflowers used as a natural planter.  it reminded me that fallen trees and decomposing logs often offer the perfect nutrients for new life.

Natural Still Life

Natural Still Life

Early Spring Sunset, Suwnnanoa Sunset

Early Spring Sunset, Suwnnanoa Sunset

The private campsite we stayed at in Suwnnanoa was on the top of a mountain.  A steep private dirt road led to the top and much of the landscape was left wild.d  Rocks with lichen, blooming trees, fallen twigs all made a harmonious but wild whole.  

Sunset Through the Trees Beginning to Wake for Spring

Sunset Through the Trees Beginning to Wake for Spring

The sunset through the barren trees that were just beginning to bud and wake for spring evoked a peaceful mood with space for possibilities.  It reminded me that the seasons are lessons that period of dormancy always transition into rebirth and growth as long as we allow nature to follow its own rhythms and maintain balance.

Endings and New Beginnings on the French Broad River

Sunset on the French Broad, Trees Bend Gently Over the Passing Water

Sunset on the French Broad, Trees Bend Gently Over the Passing Water

This period I am experiencing right now parallels that of the turbulence of the planet.  My marriage finally ended legally, my father is terminally ill, my house is ruined, our earth is on the verge of destruction, our rights are being stripped and freedom is a distant memory, and yet there are moments when it all smooths out.  The light is soft, judgment vanishes, and everything we see glows.  The worries of the times are put on hold as branches gently sway. and bend, not fighting what is  For a moment there is peace and grace.

Last Light French Broad River

Last Light French Broad River

As the last light glowed amid shadows, I felt the breath of spirit.  All that I love that is leaving this earth seemed suspended for a moment in an ethereal dream of wholeness.  The river a living proof that the beginning, middle and end of all that is never ceases to be present in some state. I watched and watched holding on to every last second of an eternity the image of which dissolved before my eyes.  I wished for this peace for my father and everyone and everything that is suffering on the planet right now, for myself for bearing witness.  I prayed that pain, like the small rocks in this river that caused temporary ripples, would be smoothed and softened by the power of love. My filter slowed the scene and I wished it could slow it even further, but at the same time I knew that sometimes pain is too intense and a time comes when letting go and being carried to another shore is the best course.  That time is not quite yet and so I hold the preciousness of life in my heart and shine all the half light I can muster now.

Teaching the Family to Swim in Turbulent Waters

Teaching the Family to Swim in Turbulent Waters

In the morning, I awoke to two geese teaching their goslings to swim in churning waters.  One parent would go in front and the other behind, to protect their young when they got caught up in currents that might take them in a direction where they might be harmed.  The downy goslings glowed in the morning light.  It was so touching to see the parents protect them so. 

There is Always One Youngster that Steps Out of Line

There is Always One Youngster that Steps Out of Line

While the parents were looking in different directions to see what danger might be lurking (and I was standing nearby quietly with my dog Takoda, who followed my example watching patiently without making a sound but was still likely a threat) one gosling seemed to stand up on its hind legs.  Was it trying to take off or just get a better look at what lies ahead.  How many times I must have failed to listen thinking I could figure out my own way.  Would this offspring I wondered come to a sad end, or did it possess courage enough to go on its own and survive if it became separated from its protectors.  

Mallard Couple out for a Morning Swim

Mallard Couple out for a Morning Swim

This mallard couple swam by next in perfect synchronicity.  Were they a pair that mated for life? What would happen when one approached the end faster and one swam no more?  I wanted to freeze this moment and protect them in a bubble, but they were soon down the river exploring new territories.

Heron Surveying the Scene

Heron Surveying the Scene

My gaze drifted along the rocks and I spotted this Great heron.  These birds always stand so still until they suddenly take flight and are gone.  Before they move on, they appear to be meditating, though perhaps they are just resting to garner enough strength to search for food and survive in waterways that are increasingly compromised.

Spending several days on the river listening to its sounds and feeling its rhythms has been medicine to my soul.  Listening to the rain has been cleansing too..  The impermanent life forms that I share its banks with seemed full of life, because they focused only on the present moment.  I hope to take these lessons to heart, so i will feel calmer and have more peace to share. There is no way to hang on to tree limbs or trunks at the edge of the water.  I and everything else will eventually be swept away.   

Buffalo with Brendan Bannon

Brendan Bannon in the Middle of Things

Brendan Bannon in the Middle of Things

I have long known how to get in the middle of a landscape and have no issues wading waste deep in a swamp, bushwhacking off a trail with my machete, or lying down over the edge of a cliff to get in the middle of things, but I am way more reticent when it comes to people.  I decided I wanted to learn how to do more justice to people in my photos and how to create more compelling stories, so I went to the best–Brendan Bannon.  We were going to photograph the Burmese fishing, but the weather was pretty chilly and we didn't find many fishermen at first.  We did find a group of guys playing volley ball though.  I wasn't really sure how photographing sports was going to do me any good, since my children are all grown and I am no longer photographing their sporting events.  I soon became aware that I was being given an invaluable lesson.  Brendan suddenly told me to go in and lie down on the field under the net.  I, of course, was chicken.  He asked permission and went and did it instead and the image above shows the reaction he got. The young men were a bit surprised at first and then continued on with their game.

Why I Love Brendan Bannon

Why I Love Brendan Bannon

The photograph above shows Brendan in the thick of things shooting blind, but anticipating every action nonetheless. He seemed to be having as much fun as the players.  He was also so aware of his own body in relation to the athletes that none of them seemed to fearful of his being in the middle of their playing field.  He later explained that photographing from inside the game instead of watching it from without and lying down and allowing himself to become vulnerable in relation to the people he was photographing would give his images a unique and immersive perspective.

Waiting for the Ball to Drop

Waiting for the Ball to Drop

Finally I got up my courage and went in under the net.  I was half up and half down and Brendan ever so kindly said either I had to trust them 100 percent and lie down, or I had to get up and leave the field.  The half in half out method was not going to work, just like it never does in life.  I made several images of people fighting over the ball at the net or leaping in the air to spike it, but the image that really expressed my feelings that day was this one.  I loved how every fiber of this young man's being is strained waiting for the ball to drop.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I was never 100% confident lying under the net.  This image was taken from my three quarters of the way down one quarter up position (the closest to the ground I managed to get) before he made contact with the ball and sent it on its way.  There is anticipation, a somewhat hesitant stance, but total engagement on the part of this athlete who was giving it his all but was not the super star with the red shoes, trendy haircut, jersey, and regulation sports pants that had first grabbed my attention.  This was a regular guy who was still in the game waiting to connect with a lofty ball and pass it along. I identified with this guy. Still, in the future I will work on getting 100 percent on the ground metaphorically speaking.

Immigrants Fishing and Photographing on the Niagraa River at the  a the Black Rock Canal Locks

Fishing and Photographing by the Confluence of the Niagara River and the Black Rock Canal

After the volley ball game, we did encounter some fishermen.  A boat that had just come through the locks and they'd seemed very impressed as it passed by.  This one young man continued photographing it until it was well in the distance. According to the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, over 80 species of fish have been recorded and it is still a popular fishing spot despite the impact of industry and development on water quality.  This has resulted in "chemical contamination from PCBs, mirex, chlordane, PAHs, dioxin, and pesticides."  The Niagara River has been listed as an Area of Concern by the International Joint Commission, a regulatory agency of U.S.-Canada shared waters. In addition there are frequent fish consumption advisories.  Yet immigrants and others economically disadvantaged people still fish in polluted areas. Sustenance living is an ongoing issue in this country and all people deserve access to fishable, drinkable water. In addition, as more contaminants enter our waterways, the entire food chain is becoming increasingly compromised.  This is an issue that affects all people.

Birds Flying Over a Cargo Ship, Niagara River

Birds Flying Over a Cargo Ship, Niagara River

The ship must have stirred up the fish that may have been lower down in the water column due to the cooler temperatures.  Before the ship went through, there had been no birds but suddenly, being opportunists, they filled the air and began diving for the surfacing fish.  I could see why this was a popular fishing spot.

Being Pushed Through the Black Rock Lock by a Tug

Being Pushed Through the Black Rock Lock by a Tug

This man had been on this vessel all winter and had loved it.  He said they had to take the canal, because the Niagara River was so shallow near here.  The lock was constructed between 1908-1913 by the Army Corps of Engineers.  The lock, the Black Rock Channel and the Erie Canal provide an inland water route between Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean.  Though it is an important shipping channel, locks and channels disturb the natural riparian banks.  The Black Rock Canal and Erie Basin continue to be impaired by PCB's and sewer overflows.

Tree Growing in Trapped Dirt Along a Pier, Niagara River

Tree Growing in Trapped Dirt Along a Pier, Niagara River

I was stunned to see this tree somehow growing along the pier.  Enough dirt must have gotten trapped along the rocks in much the same way trash had as well.   There were signs that it was going to begin leafing out soon.  It always amazes me to see the persistence of life in unlikely places. Development and industry along the river have altered habitat and water quality, as with most rivers in the United States.  According to the Riverkeeper, over "60% of the shoreline is lined with sheet metal or rock boulders that are difficult and dangerous to traverse for both people and animals."  (http://bnriverkeeper.org/places/niagara-river/

Cargo Ship and Tug Seen Through the Fence

Cargo Ship and Tug Seen Through the Fence

Everywhere I go, locks are protected by fences with barbed wire and guards–the larger the locks and dams the larger the security presence.  Yet the protection afforded nature is minimal by comparison.  

Boom by the Black Rock Canal

Boom by the Black Rock Canal

This boom was likely in place to prevent construction materials used in lock repairs from entering the river.  These are the devices typically used near construction projects on waterways as well as for oil and other chemical contamination spills. The problem is that they merely soak up and block surface water pollution. Most times I see evidence of oil sheen or contimination that has seeped through below.  Booms work best in calm water and are only 10 percent effective in open seas or turbid waters, and the Niagra River has turbidity issues due to large boats and weather conditions. Saturated booms cannot be reused either and their disposal is a big issue.  (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a15666/santa-barbara-oil-spill-skimmers-and-booms/).    

Wastewater Pipe and Coal and Oil Train, Niagara River

Wastewater Pipe and Coal and Oil Train, Niagara River

This section of the Niagara River is right in front of the Bird Island wastewater treatment plant, which began operating in 1938. In 2014, he Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper worked to push the EPA and Sewer Authority to prevent billions of gallons from raw sewage from flowing directly into the river. Buffalo and older cities across the county have combined sewer systems, which mix human waste and stormwater runoff together..  During heavy rain events, there is too much stormwater for the systems to process and it is dumped untreated into waterways. The agreement between the EPA and the Sewer Authority allocated $41 million in upgrades.  After seeing how old that plant is, I was relieved to learn the need for improvements had been recognized although reaching that goal was 20 years away from the time of the agreement, so bacterial pollution continues.  (http://buffalonews.com/2014/04/20/sewer-authoritys-long-overdue-plan-will-slash-pollution-of-the-niagara-river/).  

In the 2016 Riverwatch Report, the Buffalo Niagar Riverkeeper reported that though the Niagara River is "a source of drinking water for much of the region. The NYSDEC considers this use to be threatened by known contamination from toxic sediment and suspected contamination from combined sewer overflows and urban stormwater runoff." In addition, while I was surveying the impaired riparian banks, a train carrying bakken crude oil and other fossil fuels from Canada passed over the bridge into the United States. It is essential that we uphold the Clean Water Act and continue to raise awareness of water quality issues.  Water is a diminishing resource as it is, and we cannot allow more of our waterways to be impaired to the point that they are no longer viable as drinking water sources.

Walking the Moses Cone Park Carriage Trails in Boone, North Carolina

Trout Lake

Trout Lake

Trout Lake is one of two man-made lake in Moses Cone Memorial Park in Boone.  The other is Bass Lake and both have been stocked with these fish since they were first created.  Moses Cone was the Denim King, but he and his family were naturalists before that designation became popular.  The 3,516-acre park also includes Flat Top and Rich Mountain, 25 miles of carriage trails, 32,000 apple trees, as well as black, white and red oak, hickory, birch, and maple trees.  Rhododendron and mountain laurel are also planted along the trails.  Though it is a designed park, there is much natural beauty to admire and once planted much of the park was allowed to become wild.

Fallen Tree covered in Mushrooms

Fallen Tree covered in Mushrooms

The tree above had fallen in the woods and was allowed to lie there, becoming a host for many mushrooms.  I have never seen so many mushrooms on one tree before, covering almost every inch of the remaining trunk.

Mushrooms and Rhododendron

Mushrooms and Rhododendron

The density of the ecosystems supported by the fallen tree was remarkable.  There were mushrooms, lichen and moss, and the rhododendron leaves gently brushed the scene in harmony.

Fallen Tree in a Stream

Fallen Tree in a Stream

Others were left in streams causing the water to divert in different ways , as in the image above. Everywhere the banks were left wild, which is so important for ecosystems and water quality.

Natural Riparian Bank

Natural Riparian Bank

I used to want to clean nature up in my photographs, and sometimes I will still remove an errant twig from a flower blossom.  However, now I see that what is so healing about being in nature is that nature does not exclude any part of the life cycle.  Dying things help create place for new life to spring up and none of their nutrients or organic material is wasted.

Fallen Down Fence, Moses Cone Memorial Park

Fallen Down Fence, Moses Cone Memorial Park

Even old fences were allowed to fall down or remain teetering.  It somehow seemed poetic.  Man-made creations from wood left to the elements decomposed in the same way as trees that were blown over or died from natural causes.

Tree Resin Protecting a Broken Tree

Tree Resin Protecting a Broken Tree

As I was walking, I came upon this broken tree that was either cut down or snapped during a storm.  The cut was uneven, so it may have been the latter.  Resin is how trees way prevent fungal diseases and insects from invading. It also has antiseptic properties that can prevent decay and it can help seal the tree so not as much water is lost. ( https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-tree-resins-1343409).  I have often seen resin oozes out from scars, but never have I seen a stump covered so completely with it.  The image below shows the site of the break and the resin that has oozed over the edges.  

Trunk with Oozing Resin

Trunk with Oozing Resin

It was interesting to see all that was trapped inside it and how the tree still was trying to save itself even though it had lost all its branches and crown.

Layers of Trees 

Layers of Trees 

In the winter and spring, before the leaves come, the layers and layers of trees in the woods are evident.  Shadows also added to the density of the tapestry.  Yet somehow it did not feel overcrowded.  Perhaps it was the glimpse of the empty field beyond that created the sense of space.  As our planet becomes more and more overdeveloped and cramped, walking in wild spaces, even if they were originally planned and planted by man, will become increasingly necessary for human's to achieve balance.  In Japan they believe forest bathing, just being in the woods and doing nothing, is good for people's health and longevity. (https://qz.com/804022/health-benefits-japanese-forest-bathing/)

Field with Clouds, Moses Cone Memorial Park

Field with Clouds, Moses Cone Memorial Park

When I emerged from the woods onto this field, there were dramatic clouds brushing the hilltops. There was a stiff wind blowing, so stiff that I had to put my camera on top of the fencepost to get a focused image.  It reminded me that trees also provide shelter and protection.  Besides water, trees are essential to our survival and also in helping combat climate change by absorbing CO2 (https://www.arborday.org/trees/climatechange/treeshelp.cfm).  Planting trees at home, in communities in arboretums and in parks is more important than ever.