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Tanasee Creek and Dill Falls in the Nantahala National Forest

Tanasee Creek Flowing Fast

Tanasee Creek Flowing Fast

Last week, I hiked 1.5 miles along a primitive trail with a fellow hiker who was kind enough to show me the way to this secret spot.  He had hiked this trail a couple of times but not since the recent hurricanes.  Many trees were down along the way and the creek was flowing very fast.  To get to Dill Falls, in the Nantahala Forest, you have to make three stream crossings, but I had lots of camera gear and my guide was not confident that we could make it across all three crossings without getting quite wet and possibly slipping.  After we enjoyed this spot for awhile, we ended up backtracking and driving to the falls.

Tanasee Creek, Secret Vista

Tanasee Creek, Secret Vista

Here is another image from just below where we decided to go around.  It was such a wild and natural creek back there and flowing fast enough that the water was likely clean. I still get nervous whenever my dog drinks out of a stream, after living in Florida and him almost dying from toxic water.

 

Tanasee Creek's Wild Banks

Tanasee Creek's Wild Banks

You can see from the image above how many trees fell during the hurricane, many crossing the entire width of the creek.  Needless to say, the trail was blocked in many places and we got a workout jumping over or crawling under limbs and clearing dead trees.  On the other hand, we didn't see a single soul and the forest looked very healthy if in disarray.

Tanasee Creek, Secret Riffle

Tanasee Creek, Secret Riffle

I so enjoyed being in this pristine wilderness and wondered how the ecosystems were thriving and producing nutrients in this totally unspoiled riffles.  

Tanasee Creek Fall Color

Tanasee Creek Fall Color

Back by the small, unmarked parking area I ventured over to the creek one last time and was met by this beautiful and inviting view.  The rocks in the Blue Ridge are between 600 million and 1.2 billion years old.  This ecosystem has been thriving for a long time and standing here made me feel part of our planet's historical evolution, which is becoming increasingly threatend in most places.  Here, though the impacts of acid rain are felt in the higher elevations of the mountains, there is still so much biodiversity.  To me, it is an example of what we should hope to maintain on this earth to support all the creatures we share the planet with as well as our health and the viability of our species.

Dill Falls

Dill Falls

Dill Falls was magnificent.  My guide said he had never seen it with so much water.  There were many fallen trees, some old and some new.  When trees fall in the woods, especially in moist areas, they provide structure for many ecosystems to flourish.

Blue Ridge in the Fall Fog

Blue Ridge in the Fall Fog

On my drive out for the hike, I passed many views in the fog.  I loved the mystery of this one, with the asters and small patches of sunlight on the fall foliage beneath the rolling fog.  As usual, I was struck by the incredible diversity of life forms and vegetation.

Shope Creek, Pisgah Forest

Shope Creek, Pisgah Forest

Shope Creek, Pisgah Forest

The other day Takoda and I hiked in the Pisgah Forest by Shope Creek.  We were hoping to find Painted Suillus mushrooms for ecology class.  Though we didn't exactly discover those, we learned many valuable ecology lessons and the creek was beautiful.

Fungi Architecture, Pisgah Forest

Fungi Architecture, Pisgah Forest

There is so much biodiversity here and so many types of fungi. I will do my best to learn them all, as this area is so fascinating and may possibly contain important information as to how we can save our planet from destruction.  However, it is incredibly hard to figure out which type of fungi you are looking at sometimes.  I am just fascinated crawling around on the ground discovering what there is to see.  Each step we take potentially destroys these ecosystems.  More and more I feel the call to tread lightly.

Shope Creek Pisgah Forest Trail in Autumn

Shope Creek Pisgah Forest Trail in Autumn

Takoda and I ventured along this trail the day after hurricane Nate visited the mountains.  Fortunately, the winds were not quite as high as expected and it moved quickly, the end result being dashes of color began to emerge.  Such subtle beauty along the trail was food for my soul.

Red Canopy

Red Canopy

Sometimes looking through the leaves is the best medicine.  It has been so long since I have been able to enjoy the changing seasons in essentially my backyard. And purple asters have become new friends. 

Purple Asters

Purple Asters

But the real gems of the day were fungi in symbiotic relationships with the trees. Takoda and I were on a hunt for the Painted Suillus, but I don't think that is what we found despite finding a fungi at the base of a white pine.  Nevertheless, when Takoda sniffed out these mushrooms and led me to them, I felt the interdependence of plant and micorrhizae was instantly apparent.  Many have argued that plants would not exact on this earth if the mycorrhizae were not here around 450 million years ago. 

Fungi at the Base of a White Pine

Fungi at the Base of a White Pine

Pisgah Forest Symbionts

Pisgah Forest Symbionts

It has been argued that the mycorrhizal symbiotic relationship with their host plants is the most significant mycorrhizal relationship on earth.  The symbiosis improves the health of the host plant, decreases irrigation and fertilization requirements, decreases carbon, mitigates climate change, increases pathogen resistance, and likely is the key to saving planet earth if our home can be save.

Cupcake-shaped Fungi, Pisgah Forest

Cupcake-shaped Fungi, Pisgah Forest

On the way out of the forest, we came across two interesting fungi. this was the first.  It was so huge that it looked like a cupcake.  I tapped the top gently with a stick, and multitudes of spores were released into the air.

Pisgah Forest Slime Mold

Pisgah Forest Slime Mold

This area I have chosen to move to has perhaps the greatest biodiversity on earth.  According to my ecology professor, there might be one place in China that is comparable.  I have to wonder if this diversity is related to the proliferation of fungi in the area.  Mushrooms and fungi, especially those with symbiotic relationships with host plants, have hyphae that branch and extend outwards in many directions absorbing nutrients and taking in carbon. They improve the health of plants while benefiting soil structure and aiding in combatting climate change.  While I was researching mycorrhizae, I came across this slogan from a German company: "Mycorrhiza For All: An Underground Revolution."  Step lightly, the mycorrhizae could be saving the earth for you and your offspring.

 

 

The French Broad River

French Broad River at Ledges Park

French Broad River at Ledges Park

I am so thrilled to be living close to such a beautiful river in my new home in Asheville.  Ledges Park is north of the city and in an area where there are 1.2 billion year old rocks.  This section of the river features white water rafting and also appeals to fisherman.  To enhance my appreciation and knowledge of my surroundings, I have enrolled in the Blue Ridge Naturalist Certificate program through the North Carolina Arboretum.  Geology and ecology were the first courses I signed up for.  A subsequent post will have close-up photos of some of the rocks in the ridges near here.  Though I am sure this river has its fair share of troubles, and I hope to connect with the local Waterkeeper soon, for now I appreciated its majesty and stood in awe of its ability to have created the Asheville and Hendersonville Basins as its wove back and forth, creating and widening a floodplain that produces some of the most fertile cropland in the country.

The French Broad at Bent Creek

The French Broad at Bent Creek

The River is wide at Bent Creek park and the banks are not as steep and rocky.  It is a very popular area to kayak and you can put in here to paddle through Biltmore Park. The mist was rising offering a magical invitation to this stretch of river.  You can also see evidence of how the river undercuts the banks, causing trees to tumble into the river. 

Tree Arching over the French Broad

Tree Arching over the French Broad

When I saw the yellow leaves arcing towards the mist, the full crown of this magnificent tree obscuring all else from view, I felt a private and intimate moment of connection with this river, a force of nature responsible for all the geological features present in this area.  The undercutting of the bank has been so extreme that the tree is growing horizontally out over the river before it rises to the light.  I wonder how much longer it will survive growing this way, and when it will become another casualty like the other trunks and branches deposited along the riverbanks.  Yet, it was indeed glorious at this moment.  So much like life.  We never know what will happen next to sabotage our security, but we can choose fear or we can choose to live full on and celebrate every last moment.

The Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest

The Davidson River in the Pisgah National Forest

The Davidson River feeds into the French Broad River.  Its waters are so clear because its source is in pristine wilderness.  Unlike the French Broad, its banks are not wide but steep and narrow.  It carves down through the rocks, undercutting a bank on one side and depositing rocks at the next bend, alternating like this through much of its course.  You can see riffles on one side and pebbles on the other, and fallen trees.  I used to prefer natural scenes devoid of dead trees and broken limbs, but I have come to realize that is unnatural.  Death is never as final or as devoid of life as it seems.  Fallen trees become inoculation logs for mushrooms and other fungi that grow and connect living things beneath the surface of the earth.  They can add beauty and depth to a composition as well, their bare branches creating leading lines and otherwise punctuating a static scene to create tension and drama.  So often we are programed to see in certain ways, but if we open our eyes to what is we can be taught to see differently.

The Davidson River with the Beginnings of Fall Color

The Davidson River with the Beginnings of Fall Color

At the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education there is a short trail leading to the Davidson River.  Some of the trees were beginning to turn.  The pristine waters of this river attract fly fishermen around the country.  The PIsgah Center for Wildlife Education offers free introductory fly fishing courses.  Perhaps I will have to take this up next spring.  The people I see fly fishing always look so at peace with their surroundings.  It teaches patience I suppose, and the good spots are always in the most unspoiled areas.

Fly Fishing on the Davidson River

Fly Fishing on the Davidson River

Holmes Educational State Forest

Mushroom Wreath, Holmes State Educational Forest

Mushroom Wreath, Holmes State Educational Forest

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a wonderful walk through the Holmes State Educational Forst with my friends Pat and Tony.  Is not often that I find people whom I can walk with in such compatibility, who enjoy seeing nature and taking in all the small miracles.  It was an added bonus that they were extra patient when i started crawling around on the ground.  Lately, I have been studying what is under my feet, the lifeforms I might accidentally step on which also sustain life on this planet. One of the first mushrooms we came across was this one.  Perhaps it is a Hen of the Woods, but I am not entirely sure.  Though I have the book Mushrooms Demystified, they are all still pretty mysterious to me.  This is going to take a lot of studying.  In the meantime, I can appreciate the mushrooms for their beautiful forms, their colors, and their idiosyncratic manifestations.  I have come to realize that sometimes it is difficult to recognize that two specimens are the same species.  All mushrooms do not look alike when you study them closely, just as people are all individuals.

Mushrooms Nestled Together

Mushrooms Nestled Together

I think these are Russula mushrooms, but again don't hold me to any strict identification and corrections are always welcomed. What I really loved about these mushrooms was finding them nestled together so protectively, at least that is the way it felt looking at them.

Hemlock Roots

Hemlock Roots

Besides the mushrooms, the roots of the trees, like this Hemlock, were interesting to examine.  Everywhere life as teeming, each nook and cranny providing another space for some ecosystem to take hold.

Conjoined Mushrooms

Conjoined Mushrooms

These were conjoined together in a way that reminded me of butterfly wings.  

Holmes Forest, Biodiversity on a Tree Stump

Holmes Forest, Biodiversity on a Tree Stump

When I saw this decomposing tree stump, it stopped me in my tracks. There was so much life everywhere and the whole gestalt was like an alien landscape.  In fact in times where there were more virgin forests, this sort of scene was likely way more prevalent but nowadays you have to go far from people or in protected old growth areas to see something like this.

Northern Maidenhair Ferns

Northern Maidenhair Ferns

Tony told me these Maidenhair Ferns were very rare when we spotted them.  I loved how they grew out radially and made a beautiful pattern that seemed to contain so much energy.  

Forest Still Life on a Log

Forest Still Life on a Log

How this still life came to be, I don't know.  Whether the wind blew the leaves, and a human placed the mushroom or an animal left it there I didn't know.  It seemed so random and organized at the same time. Everywhere I looked on the ground there were sign of life and decay, and I knew that anything that was decomposing was also fodder for more life.  There was an unbroken cycle and all was included.  It was all energy and matter.  The educational forest had plaques identifying trees with audio recordings you could press, but the education went far beyond classification.  Walking in the woods changes you by osmosis.

Mushroom in Cypress Ferns

Mushroom in Cypress Ferns

Everywhere there were novel textures and species, something new to discover on the ground. Lately that is where my gaze his been a lot, reminding myself how rich the surface of this planet is and how much life it sustains.  During the two and a half hours we spent walking here, we only saw one other person and two dogs.  Many were out hiking on grander trails with views of the mountains and such, leaving this area with such rich ecosystems for us to discover and take in undisturbed, much as the forest floor was that day.

Asters

Asters

There were beautiful asters growing amid the ferns as well and several plants I have never seen before shown below. 

Berries

Berries

Pink Buds

Pink Buds

Lobelia

Lobelia

When we walked out of the forest across a meadow we came to a patch of jewelweed and then some beautiful grasses that sparkled as the light hit them against the trees.

Field of Jewelweed

Field of Jewelweed

Grasses Illuminated Adjacent to the Forest

Grasses Illuminated Adjacent to the Forest

I took several more images of fungi and flowers, but this post would be too long if I included all of them.  This just serves to give a sampling of the incredible diversity that exists in these very special woods.  After spending the afternoon here, I felt so much more alive.

Suwannanoa River Hike

Green Cornflowers by the Banks of the Suwannanoa River

Green Cornflowers by the Banks of the Suwannanoa River

Last week, I went on a hike on the trails near Warren Wilson College that run by the banks of the Suwannanoa River.  The hike was organized by the Sierra Club and we were very lucky to have retired biology professor along with us, so I was introduced to many new species and learned a lot.  The  flowers above are green cornflowers and they are quite common in the mountains here.

 

Wild Banks of the Suwannanoa

Wild Banks of the Suwannanoa

We had lunch by the banks of the Suwannanoa River here. I was impressed by the wildness, with fallen trees and branches left to decompose organically, thereby supporting biodiversity and many ecosystems.  To me, the way nature's systems function when we don't interfere is indeed beautiful, even though to some it might look chaotic and like things need straightening up.

The Intersection of the Riparian Landscape and Surrounding Fields, Suwanannoa River

The Intersection of the Riparian Landscape and Surrounding Fields, Suwanannoa River

Its not just the wildness of the banks that is important though, it is how the riparian landscape intersects with surrounding fields or homes.  When the fields are left to grow more naturally, instead of being farmed with lots of nitrogens and phosphorous, rivers tend to be healthier.  If the intersection is with homes and lawns, the same issues exist with fertilizers and also invasive plants.  The biologist told me that about 80 percent of the banks of the Suwannanoa has native plants, while the other 20% is occupied by invasive species.  That was an overall estimate.  It some places invasive species clump together in a higher percentage.  I asked if it was possible to go anywhere in the mountains where there are all native plants and he said yes, if I went about 10 miles past any development or house.  Invasive plants seeds are carried by birds, animals, and the wind, so you have to go a long way before you reach an area that is free of them. Below are some of the native species I saw on my walk.

Ornamental Jewelweed

Ornamental Jewelweed

The seed pods of the Jewelweed pop if you touch them, and they instantly break apart.  The flowers are very delicate and beautiful. There were many plants along the hike and I saw fields of them the next day on a hike in the Holmes Educational State Forest.

Joe Pye Weed Along the Banks of the Suwannanoa

Joe Pye Weed Along the Banks of the Suwannanoa

Starflower

Starflower

Starflowers

Starflowers

White Native Plant

White Native Plant

From looking in my field guide, I think that this might be Native Indian Hemp. The biologist definitely said it was a native species.  What was so interesting about this plant was that the two leaves had fused together.

Muscle Tree with Lichen and Algae

Muscle Tree with Lichen and Algae

We often think of dead trees that are being decomposed by mushrooms and other fungi as being hosts for ecosystems, but in fact living trees can function this way as well–especially when they are growing in moist areas.  The bark of this muscle tree and others was so interesting the way it was adorned by lichen and algae.

I am so thrilled to have moved to this area and to be able to study all the interdependent ecosystems and diversity here.  The way things grow in harmony in wild riparian landscapes is so inspirational and I know there are many lessons to be gleaned.  

Mushrooms, Fungi and Slime Mold Along the Banks of the Santa Fe

Ganoderma Lucidium (Reishi Mushrooms)

Ganoderma Lucidium (Reishi Mushrooms)

Recently I went on a hike with my friend Merrillee Malwitz Jipson along a wild section of the Santa Fe River.  The riparian banks had not been altered by the hand of man and the river overflowed its banks during heavy rains creating a moist environment ideal for the proliferation of mushrooms, fungi, slime molds, etc.  We talked about the importance of mushrooms and their ability to cure many illnesses.  When my mother had cancer, she took turkey tail mushrooms to aid with the effects of radiation, and studies also show they help combat cancer itself.  Reishi mushrooms were known as the mushrooms of immortality by the ancients for their ability to boost the immune system and promote longevity. www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2013/2/how-reishi-combats-aging/page-01

False Turkey Tail Mushrooms Fanning out on a Fallen Tree

False Turkey Tail Mushrooms Fanning out on a Fallen Tree

Though false turkey tail mushrooms are too thin and tough to be edible, they do look beautiful.

False Turkey Tail Explosion

False Turkey Tail Explosion

False turkey tails parasitize some trees, yet they also play an important function in decomposing fallen trees and breaking them down into organic matter to support other creatures and ecosystems.  There is so much to learn about mushrooms and their potential role in improving our health and the health of the environment.

Coral Fungi Decomposing a Fallen Tree

Coral Fungi Decomposing a Fallen Tree

When I saw the complexity of this ecosystem created by the coral fungi decomposing a fallen tree, I was mesmerized.  Here was a dead tree with so much going on.  New greenery was sprouting, mushrooms proliferated, and I knew it was home to all kinds of insects and minuscule creatures, as well as food for larger animals that might come here to forage.  The virtue of leaving trees to fall and complete their full life cycle until they are returned to the earth was clearly apparent.

Fallen Tree Decomposing

Fallen Tree Decomposing

Here's another example of a fallen tree decomposing with the help of mushrooms.  According to the National Forest service, "The decomposing wood of a fallen tree serves as a savings account of nutrients and organic material in the forest soil."  A majority of the observable mushrooms are fruiting, but there are many more that are not visible to the naked eye. This fascinating paper goes on to say: "The continuum of a fallen tree is composed of, and driven by, an increasingly complex network of simultaneously developing minisystems-all interdependent. These minisystems are: (1) animal-plant-nutrient, (2) plant-nutrient, (3) plant-plant, (4) animal-plant, (5) animal-animal, and (6) nutrient-plant-animal-nutrient. The cumulative effect of these systems is far greater than the sum of their parts."  The biggest takeaway, however, is that "wood decomposition represents a long-term stabilizing force within the forest ecosystem."  https://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/publications/pnw_gtr164/pnw_gtr164b.pdf

Watch Out–The Fallen are Living

Watch Out–The Fallen are Living

Though many might wish to clean up their properties when trees fall, leaving them to go through their natural life cycles is far more beneficial to the land.  They are eerily beautiful as well.

A Web of Life Along the Santa Fe

A Web of Life Along the Santa Fe

Sometimes floods erode the banks and trees fall into the river as well, providing habitat for turtles and homes for air plants. Everywhere life finds someplace to hang on and regenerate, when we leave nature alone.  Mushrooms were also growing right up to the edge of the river bank here. If this property had been clearcut and replaced with grass, biodiversity would have been greatly reduced, and it goes without saying that fertilizers are detrimental to our waterways.  Perhaps with awareness our eyes will be retrained to see beauty in gnarly, twisted, tangled vegetation that may appear chaotic on the surface, but has a whole unseen order operating that supports life and naturally eradicates what is no longer healthy helping it to contribute to a new life cycle.

Chanterelle

Chanterelle

Indeed some mushrooms are beautiful and sought after for both their appearance as well as their taste and/or benefits. Chanterelles are gorgeous yellow-gold mushrooms that are beloved by mushroom hunters due to their excellent flavor.  In my house in Micanopy, I frequently found Chanterelles pop up near the base of my live oak trees during the rainy season.

Damsel Fly on a Turkey Tail

Damsel Fly on a Turkey Tail

I am actually not entirely sure if this was a false turkey tail or a turkey tail mushroom.  I would need to go back and examine the underside to see if there were pores or not, as well as whether it was fuzzy, thin and flexible, etc.  The damsel fly that alit shows these mushrooms support the lives of insects.

White Mushrooms and Leaves

White Mushrooms and Leaves

These mushrooms were so beautiful against the dead leaves, their delicate whiteness with tiny bubbles of water bespoke life in the midst of death in a very poetic way.  I just purchased the book "Mushrooms Demystified" by expert David Arora, but it is going to take me a long while to begin to identify all the species that are out there.  When it comes to mushrooms, you can still come across ones that have never been seen before too.  It is such a fascinating field and it gives me hope for our planet that they are still proliferating.

Tremellales

Tremellales

Tremellales are jelly fungi with beautiful translucency that reminded me of little glass sculptures.  Each mushrooom, fungi or slime mold I found had its own unique shape.  These fungi thrive on wet wood and like the resurrection ferns that adorned by live oak trees, shrivel up when it is dry only to plump back up when they receive sufficient moisture. Nature teaches us resiliency and adaptability.  

Tiny Pale Blue Mushroom 

Tiny Pale Blue Mushroom 

When Merrillee and I spotted this mushroom, we were drawn to it instantly.  It was so fragile on a tiny whisper of a stem and yet in its sheltered little spot amid fallen branches and leaves, it seemed safe and protected, a little jewel that we would have hated to have trampled on if we had not been treading lightly.

Slime Mold

Slime Mold

In addition to the mushrooms and fungi, there were interesting slime molds on the ground and on trees.  Slime molds are not plants or animals, but single-celled amoeba that are often soil dwelling.  They can unite to become more complex reproductive structures and though they have no brains, that can anticipate change, remember, and make decisions.  So before you step on a slime mold, remember they too are sentient and can navigate mazes. Biologists classify them as protists, which is a category they throw everything into that we don't understand.  Nature is mysterious and often operates by complex mechanisms that we do not comprehend right away.  We do better to learn from nature before blindly stepping in to alter our environments. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/brainless-slime-molds/

Tiny White Mushroom Droplets Decorating a Tree

Tiny White Mushroom Droplets Decorating a Tree

These tiny white droplets with wispy tails ornamenting a tree covered with lichen.  They were so beautiful and delicate. There are mushrooms and fungi classified as puffballs and they are essentially spore cases, which is what these appeared to be.  However, I am no expert. This mushroom walk showed me just how much biodiversity I am unaware of and it will likely take years to learn.  It was fascinating to crawl around on the ground or look in all the nooks and crannies of trees.  So many little miracles everywhere waiting to be discovered if you look closely enough.

White Puffball Colony

White Puffball Colony

Speaking of looking, these were very strange looking, like an alien colony of eyeballs congregating.  

Coral Fungi with Branched Fruiting Body

Coral Fungi with Branched Fruiting Body

And when you find fungi and mushrooms, it is so interesting to get down at eye level and see how these organisms grow.  Their tiny branches forming clusters like a miniature forest.  As below so above, as they help support the entire ecosystem.

Russula

Russula

The rich red Russula that so many animals like to eat is always eye catching to humans as well.  It reminded me of mushrooms in fairy tales.  Though there was only an insect on its stem, I could imagine wood nymphs making there home underneath it. 

Pleurotus Ostreatus (Tree Oysters)

Pleurotus Ostreatus (Tree Oysters)

If you take a log with oyster mushrooms on it home and keep it moist, according to oyster expert David Arora, it will likely produce crops regularly and they are edible and delicious.  The way these seemed to grow around the tree in a band made me think of a cuff bracelet.  They are quite elegant in their scalloped edges.

Pale Yellow Mushroom Veiled by the Grass

Pale Yellow Mushroom Veiled by the Grass

I don't know what this type of mushroom is but it was very delicate and beautiful.  Partially translucent with many radiating ridges, it reminded me of a Chihuly glass sculpture.  It was lovely to find it woven into its habitat.

White Shelf Mushrooms 

White Shelf Mushrooms 

These white shelf mushrooms found a wide enough crevice in the tree bark to take hold.  Almost anything in nature can provide a home for something else whether it is alive or dead.  Next to the mushrooms is an interesting orange spore.  This walk in the woods showed me that you can look at any small area of a thriving ecosystem and stare for hours, seeing more and more things the closer you look.  And then to think there are all the levels are eyes can't even see.  

Biodiversity and Beauty in Blue and Naked Springs

Naked Springs Vegetation

Naked Springs Vegetation

Blue and Naked Springs are two of the healthiest springs.  Whenever I go there, I am happy to see so much diverse vegetation.  The grasses aren't cloaked in algae and there is plenty of habitat for birds, turtles, and fish.

Blue Springs Grasses

Blue Springs Grasses

When I was snorkeling in the springs a couple of weeks ago, the water was moving quite fast. June and July were the rainiest months on record in the area around Gainesville and these rains must have done a lot to replenish the aquifer and spring after the recent drought.  As I was snorkeling along the run, the grasses were being pushed by the water and beams of light illuminated them.  They were so green and healthy looking, which made me feel better after having seen so much algae in other springs.

Blue Springs, Swimming into the Mystery

Blue Springs, Swimming into the Mystery

I followed the fish and turtles and made an image with a slower shutter speed to evoke the sense of motion I was experiencing being led deeper into the mystery of this underwater world.

Blue Springs, Turtle Emerging from the Vegetation

Blue Springs, Turtle Emerging from the Vegetation

It is so important for turtles and fish to have places to hide and find food.  Healthy vegetation is critical in the headsprings and runs.  Yet, in so many places thick unsightly algae hovers on the surface and clings to the grasses.  This algae ends up blocking out the light and destroying native plants.  In Blue Springs and Naked Springs, the water is still relatively clear and a lot of biodiversity remains.

Blue Springs-Fish Swimming Amid the Grasses and Reflections

Blue Springs-Fish Swimming Amid the Grasses and Reflections

The green in the images is all from grasses at the edge of the springs.  The water is a brilliant blue, and any cloudiness is more from people swimming and kicking up the sand than anything else.  In the heat of a Florida summer, there is nothing better than a dive in a constant 72 degree spring.

Blue Springs Run

Blue Springs Run

There are fallen trees, white sand, grasses, and interesting colors all along the run.  The narrow corridor leading to an electric blue at the end kept calling me onward.  To swim and dive here is always to discover something new.  It was especially interesting how the water bent reflections, turning the tree into a hook with an arrow on the end.  Reality is never as solid as we think. Underwater, shapeshifting is the norm.

Blue Springs Latticework Shadows Along the Run

Blue Springs Latticework Shadows Along the Run

The hand of man is evident here, but only from above.  There is a walkway over the springs from the park to the Santa Fe River, so people who don't want to snorkel the run can still appreciate its beauty.  The walkway cast interesting shadows in the sunlight.  When the traces we leave are shadows instead of pollution or scars from drilling, our impact can be absorbed and the springs can still sustain us.  This owners of this park have done their best to protect this Florida jewel that has recently been purchased by the State of Florida.  Hopefully, the park system will continue to champion its preservation.

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.