diving into the main spring
"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man:
Down to a sunless sea"
- Samuel Coleridge
When my grandmother was spring-hopping through North Florida in the 1950's when my parents were children, she discovered that these lines from the famed English poet almost certainly had their roots in the springs of North Florida.
One of the most vast subterranean systems in the world, the Florida aquifer provides countless opportunities for cool summer relief throughout unsung rural areas of the state. My family was lucky enough to gain access when I was a child to one of the most gorgeous pieces of private land in Florida, which contains a myriad of springs and a spring-fed river, and it has played a defining role in my life. Consisting originally of thousands of acres of wilderness - over time large tracts have been donated to the State of Florida - this place has been always difficult to describe to outsiders. Most people simply don't have the imagination to believe such a place exists. Coleridge did, apparently, but he had opium to help him out. My grandmother wrote this about his inspiration, having read John Livingston Lewes' analysis of Coleridge's work "The Road to Xanadu":
barred owl in the woods
"The mystery of how the springs get across the ocean into Coleridge’s dream has been unraveled by Lewes, in his acute study of how poetry is produced.
Coleridge stated the mystery when he published “Kubla Khan”.
some beefcake for the girls - friend of mine ziplining in the buff
"Coleridge took dope. He fell into an opium sleep of some three hours. When he awoke he had all composed in his mind a poem, a poem in which all the images rose up before him as things, accompanied by words describing these inner visions. All this, he said, was without any consciousness of effort on his part. On waking he had a distinct recollection of a whole poem, two or three hundred lines in length, and he instantly and eagerly began to write. When he had set down fifty-four lines he was “unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour.”
"The rest of the poem is all gone, to wherever it came from.
Since that day, word-lovers have consigned that person from Porlock to a special kind of hell for beauty-killers. For the words and the images of those fifty-four lines of “Kubla Khan” make the hair upon your spine lift. Coleridge only put them into print as a “psychological curiosity” and implied he thought little of their “supposed poetic merit." Lewes set himself to find where they came from. Where is this place?
butterfly at Blue Spring
“A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover"
"Where are the caverns measureless to man, where the forests as ancient as the hills, the mighty fountain with swift half-intermitted bursts? Lewes solved the problem by reading all Coleridge’s notebooks, which gave clues to the poet’s reading.
Then he read all the books Coleridge read in the period before “Kubla Khan” was born in his dream. Most of the words and the pictures in the poem came from the “Travels” of William Bartram, published in Philadelphia in 1791, he found. Coleridge read it in 1794.
underwater in the main spring
"Bartram traveled from the St. John’s River to the Suwannee River in 1773. In his happy journey through North Florida on a little Seminole horse he noted and wrote of incense bearing trees, enchanted spots, intermitting fountain, meandering rivers, vast undersea caverns and secret labyrinths. He told in loving detail of not one but a dozen of the crystalling Florida springs, in phrases lifted and embedded in “Kubla Khan.”
"The amalgam of words and images shaped by the dreaming poet was not all Bartram.
The road to Xanadu leads also by way of Lapland and the sources of the Nile. Sedentary Coleridge devoured travel tales. But Lewes found more Florida scenery than any other in the opium images. Xanadu’s fountain is more surely Bartram’s “admirable Manatee Spring” beside the Suwannee River than any other water under the sun.
friends canoeing the run
"Lewes’ scholarly study is a splendid effort to find the sources of the creative imagination, no snide piece of detection of plagiarism. The shaping force, you must conclude when all the evidence is in, came from the sleeping poet. Coleridge had become so truly an organism for producing poetry that he did it in his sleep."
Just getting to Seven Springs when I was a child was always an adventure in itself.
Once you left the highway, there was miles of driving on sandy roads through the woods where there was always a risk of getting high-centered in our overloaded, low-clearance family cars. Then there was the seemingly never-ending succession of gates through various pastures, with great stands of oak and cypress. Finally you drove up to the main house, a splendid example of old Florida living, and the true magnificence of the place revealed itself. In front of the house was the main spring, which was the source for the seven mile crystal clear creek that ran all the way to the Withlacoochee River.
especially steamy view of Blue Spring in winter, with my mother leading the way
To children of South Florida, the springs were icy cold, though I have come to realize over the years this is relative. In summer they seem to be cold springs, and in winter they seem to be hot springs. Their temperature remains a constant year round from 70-72 degrees.
But what a place for children to run wild! We paddled down the spring run to other springs, dropped watermelons in the spring to cool them, hiked the woods on great adventures, pulled ticks off of ourselves, rode horses to far-flung parts of the property, chased armadillos, and observed with embarrassment each night the adults get roaring drunk and sing songs like "The Wild Colonial Boy" at the top of their lungs out of key. In between they would recite long tracts of vivid poetry like Robert Service's "The Cremation of Sam McGee", which many of my relatives had memorized in its entirety.
flower in the woods
There always seemed to be some kind of danger lurking in the wilderness to keep things exciting, too. We were taught to live in terror of coming across a wild sow with her piglets in the open, because the savagery of wild pigs is legendary, especially that of a mother protecting her young.
Snakes were a part of life, from water moccasins to rattlesnakes, though in a lifetime of going there no one has been bitten. I recall paddling into Alligator Spring with a friend and pulling up to the bank under oak branches, and as he looked back at me when he got out of the front of the canoe, his face froze. "George," he said, "move very very slowly forward. There's a water moccasin three inches from your ear". Perhaps the greatest danger was riding the horses, though. They spent most of the year in the pasture, and while tamed, were not ridden on a regular enough basis to have predictable behavior. Each one of them was wildly individualistic.
gopher tortoise on the march
There were Character, Comanche, Shadow, and Molly. The latter was a huge mare who was exceedingly pleasant and everyone preferred. The rest, well, you saddled up and took your chances.
Shadow was the least desirable, a nervous black stallion who reared wildly at the sight of snakes and anything else in his path. Character was stubborn as a mule, and simply would not go anywhere most of the time. And Comanche loved nothing more than the "spontaneous gallop". You would be trotting through woods, pasture, anywhere, and Comanche would decide it was time to go go go. All you could do was hang on for dear life, because no amount of reining in made a difference in the least. Comanche wanted to shed you which he would try to do with overhanging oak limbs in the woods, or if in the pasture, would charge full tilt at a fence and then stop abruptly, trying to hurl you over his head into it.
Every once in awhile we would attempt to paddle down to the Withlacoochee, though the last few miles of the run split off into a maze of mostly dead end channels.
You would haul your canoe over countless logs only to find you were on the wrong channel. I remember sitting there as a youth as my father wandered off through the woods in search of another channel, wondering if he would ever come back. It's an easy wilderness to get hopelessly lost in. Spider webs are another fun thing that span narrow sections of the river, particularly early in the morning or if it hasn't been paddled in awhile. My brother and a friend paddled through some tree branches that cascaded thread-like banana spiders into the canoe, and ended up in a comical stalemate with the branches across the middle of the canoe between them. His friend up front was paddling furiously forward and my brother was furiously backpaddling, having no desire to go through the spider-laden branches himself.
paddling through the dawn steam during winter
A loooooong time passed between my last trip as a young teenager and my next one as an adult.
Because my immediate family did not have as close relations with the owners as other relatives of mine, and huge extended family trips had ceased, we didn't feel we had the rights to use the place anymore. In addition I was away at college, adventuring the world, living in California, and not around Florida much for a long time. We eventually discovered the welcome had always been there, but we had been in that transitional age between generations when the next one didn't have kids yet to share the wonders of the place with.
my mother, hiking in the woods
Since then I have been back there a number of times, and my awe never ceases. My uncle acted as a caretaker for the place in the 80's and in the last five years hand-built an elegant simple cabin for himself to retire to out in an oak stand in the pasture area. One of my New York friends who I took there for the first time eight years ago gushed to me beforehand about Elizabeth Gilbert's book "The Last American Man".
When I read it, I found it to be one of those books for citydwellers, romanticizing those lost skills of off-the-land survival so few people have anymore. (But then again, Elizabeth Gilbert has made her fortune romanticizing things for people who feel they are lacking.) Because my uncle had all those skills and much of my family does to some extent, and my uncle isn't an extreme misanthropic jackass like the protagonist, it had little meaning for me. When I introduced my friend to my uncle at the Springs, he was in awe and saw my point, declaring "he IS the last American man." My uncle has done little to dissuade this point of view as he ages, because even with Parkinson's he's still capable at the age of 66 of chasing an eight foot alligator across the pasture, lassoing it, wrestling it into submission, and taking it out to the main house to show off. (He wrestled alligators with the Seminole Indians when he was younger.) He is also blessed with the goofy sense of humor of a 12 year old, and will invite you behind his cabin to show you a rare red bat, which rather than a nocturnal creature with wings turns out to be an old red aluminum baseball bat hanging from a tree.
kids playing in the spring
great blue heron
These days the main house has been upgraded considerably from its original state, with a beautiful kitchen and a hot tub on the side of the house. There is no greater joy than on a cold winter night, jumping into the spring, back into the hot tub, into the spring, and back and forth. For years I've told friends about this magical place, but through lack of imagination or time on their part have succeeded in getting few of them there. The route in has changed somewhat, with the first few miles winding through a sparsely populated sprawling rural subdivision before you arrive at the first gates. In a way, the hint of civilization has made it creepier than before, because the roads seem to lead to the kind of distant dead ends where murderers dump bodies. It's always been interesting inviting friends there for the first time, particularly female ones.
A lot of trust is involved. One of them brightly observed after I spun the combination lock shut on the outer gate - "so I can't leave here til you let me?" I gave her my best Jeffrey Dahmer smile and said "Nope!"
an 1800's era grave of a seven year old at an old turpentine camp in the pine woods
The property and adjacent state land is so vast that there are always new nooks and crannies to explore even after all these years. One trip we came across the cemetery around an old turpentine camp from the late 1800's. In those days one of the most miserable jobs the poor could take on in Florida was living in the pine woods, tapping the pine trees for turpentine, which was used as a solvent for paints. Constant exposure to it was damaging, and many people died awful deaths in the camps.
After decades, the zipline on the river attached to a cabin of one of the neighboring ranches is still there, and with my less self-conscious friends we still have a blast shedding clothes and going for naked thrill rides into the river.
The flora and fauna is still as astounding as ever along the river, and I've found it's one of the only places in the world where I don't mind not having company. I can paddle alone through the tranquility again and again without missing company at all. One of the most beautiful experiences of recent years was on New Year's Eve, when I joined the family of the owner's niece down at the spring before midnight. (She has a neighboring house on the main spring, built in the intervening years. My generation of family, lacking the requisite alcoholic gene, has proved to be a huge failure at carrying on the drunken whooping and hollering of our predecessors and were all asleep.) Her family had lit candles and floated them out on lily pads across the spring, creating a magical effect. At the midnight countdown, I jumped in with a few of the others to celebrate the New Year.
a fearless (and immodest) girl
While this blog doesn't open up any new vistas of travel to anyone who isn't a friend of mine, due to the restricted access, I thought I should share one of the treasures of my world in the event any of my new - and future - TB friends would like to come join me sometime.
cardinal lobelia flowers at Blue Spring