by Patricia Vigderman

By late January the manatees have swum up the St. John’s River to a warm spring in central Florida. A ring of such springs comes up from the vast Florida aquifer, rising at the edges of an uneven circle around the limestone under the land between Daytona and Gainesville. The place where the water comes up is called “the boil,” as if the heat and rumble of the earth’s core had forced it up against gravity. In fact, it’s a very gentle motion, a quiet flowing movement, transparent water spreading out into a strong current, so clear that the algae living beneath it turn the whole stream a brilliant, glowing green, and the submerged manatees become great quiet green blimps until they rise slowly to the surface. Then their gray, leathery skins make apparent the patterning of sunlight on the water’s surface, a wide net constantly in motion. The unruffled beast ruffles the surface briefly with its rudimentary snout, breathing and then sinking down into green again.

The manatees bear on their backs white scars from being hit by boat propellers, but at Blue Spring they are safe, lolling at leisure in the winter months, in pairs or groups or alone, sometimes making their lazy way up to the boil. They lie in groups near the long-nosed alligator gar, the tiny minnows, the larger fish that glide or leap, briefly disturbing the surface with the flip of a triangular tail.

The park service warns visitors that there are swimming hazards here. These could be alligators, but mostly they seem to be dead tree limbs. The ends of these poke up here and there and are used by sunning turtles, or by an anhinga drying its tremendous black wings after a dive. They call the anhinga “water turkeys” because of their long necks and fan tails, or “piano birds” because of the way their spread wings open into an ebony keyboard, the sunlight playing over the oily feathers and the bird grooming the keys with its long yellow beak. These sights seem remarkable in the greenish glow of the flowing water, under the live oaks, hung with Spanish moss, curtains of wildly successful epiphytes.

Surely such a stage set for paradise was what the first American naturalist William Bartram saw when he explored Florida in 1765; in his Travels (1791) he described what is now Salt Spring as a sort of peaceable kingdom, the water and its animals moving joyfully together. “All peaceable and in what variety of gay colours and forms,” he wrote of the fish, “continually ascending and descending, roving and figuring amongst one another, yet every tribe associating separately …” In his description the boil at Salt Spring—the ebullition, he called it—is spectacular, even violent: “perpendicular upwards, from a vast ragged orifice,” he says, a grand fountain, “astonishing and continual.” In 1816 Samuel Taylor Coleridge transformed Bartram’s verbal excitement into the domain of Kubla Khan, the unblemished water of central Florida becoming Alph the sacred river.

As it happens, the river does indeed flow through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea, although man in scuba gear is not slow to rise to the measuring challenge. Current wisdom says the channel at Blue Spring goes 120 feet down. A diagram posted at the end of the boardwalk, just above the boil, shows the long chute beneath the surface and the bulging underwater cave part-way down. Divers who’ve been in the cave report that in fact it’s full of measurable material, tree limbs, and railroad spikes. First-timers and old-timers stand watching the boil; some of the old-timers remember playing freely in this place before the park service noticed there was something here that needed protection.

“You can go down there,” one of them said, “and swim for miles through the underground passages. My son is a diver,” he added. Briefly we imagine the sunless sea, the water without oxygen, inner space. We stand in the sunlight contemplating bravery in the dark, the urge to enter and explore the chambers of the sacred river, to bring back its secrets of darkness and debris.

Schoolchildren with their names printed on big tags stuck to their chests rush and push and stare down at the boil. A group of Japanese tourists speak at length to each other, pointing at the diagram. Their language is as mysterious to me as the manatees, as the Spanish moss. Back on the boardwalk a woman in a small motorized vehicle is trying to make a turn in the narrow space. If you love me don’t touch me, warn the signs that show an apparently smiling manatee, slightly comical in a way the manatees are not in fact. Other signs urge us to look at the whole environment—the sabal palm, the wax myrtle, the fragile soil around the boil—and to care for it, in spite of our impulses to investigate and penetrate, to insert ourselves into unknowable nature.

We, too, are part of this world, and sitting on the dock staring down at a motionless manatee, my painted toes just under the crystal surface, I am aware of my fellow fauna roving and figuring amongst one another: a mother explaining to a nonverbal infant the miracle of the manatee, two old men vying to identify the fish, a small child crying angrily. An old lady says to the meditating manatee, “Go get some friends so we can see more of you.”

Across the water a woman in a silver canoe marked “Manatee Research” floats under the trees, taking notes in a log, occasionally talking quietly into a small tape recorder. She has been there for hours, paddling in this placid world, keeper of the records. Many of the manatees are known personally by the park service, identified by the scars from the propeller wounds and given names. They are called Brutis, Lucille, Flash, No Tail, or Paddy Doyle. They are not interchangeable presences in the water, but as particular as little Mackenzie and Kamali, Chelsea and Reid, Tyler and Mercedes, who have been brought here on a bus to see them, to learn about nature even as they are part of it.

This is not the world Bartram saw, not the world of the Timucua Indians who once lived and fished here, whose relationship to the natural world in fact included eating manatees. The swamps of central Florida today run into slimy ditches beside roadways supporting little houses and small mortgage companies and short-order restaurants. Now this beautiful spring is a refuge for us as well, not only because it looks like Eden, but because even though so often we cannot restrain ourselves from making a noisy mess, here we are relieved of our solitary stupidity. We’re all here for the same reason, and when we are looking at the boil or the slow animals, the light in the trees, the water birds and moving fish, we are drawn together, sharing the surprises of the earth, everybody equal.

We think that we prefer to be in Xanadu alone—and there are certainly springs where that is possible, springs where there are no manatees to lure a crowd. At Salt Spring today the water is just as warm, egrets pace the shore, fish leap. Bartram’s ebullition is now a gently spreading pool, but still astonishing and continual as it surges to become a wide stream reflecting open sky, changing color as the sun lowers and lights the clouds. To be alone with the little blue heron and the trio of hawks making their way into the distance is one way to understand peace and the present moment. At Blue Spring, though, in the company of fellow nature-seekers and holiday-makers, we are also touching what is elemental in our lives. The anonymous throngs to whom the protective signage is directed are not extraneous to these beautiful places; they are part of the story of being here. They may seem to be what we would cut out in order to extract the sweetest parts of the experience, but truly in their details they are like the lively fish around the manatees, things we don’t expect: the happy swimmer in a purple bathing suit ascending and descending in the current or the lady who said disapprovingly, you wouldn’t get her in that water: “’Gators,” she snorted. And when we just stand together looking at the vaguely moving creatures, we’re here with a common purpose, as vague as they are, and as strangely present.

Indeed, we are stranger than they are, curious and wild in the way we run through the abundance of Florida, of our planet, giving the things around us names: manatee, sabal, boil, mortgage broker. We turn our encounters with what is not us into narrative. We are explainers, storytellers. We want excitement, causality, denouement. More. We are hoping, in fact, to see a ’gator in ferocious action. We want nature to come to the point, as we think we do ourselves.

The beasts themselves we have called Sirenia, an actual mammalian order that includes the portly dugong and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow. The family name is a joke we owe to Columbus, whose ship’s log for January 9, 1493, noted, “On the previous day when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro he saw three mermaids which rose well out of the sea.” In keeping with the fact-finding nature of the expedition, the note adds, “they were not as beautiful as they are painted though they have something of a human face.” Today you can see a mermaid show at Florida’s Weeki Watchee Springs, specially trained young women with pretty human faces wearing tight zippered tails, but they are always upstaged whenever a fat, whiskered manatee happens to swim into the viewing area with them.

Like the Timucua of central Florida, the Maya in Guatemala hunted and ate manatees, believing their meat increased a man’s virility, and that the ear bone worn on a neck cord protected him from evil. These days, the story is about protecting the animal: without even leaving home you can adopt a living manatee, receiving for your financial contribution a certificate, a photo, and a biography of Elsie or Snooty or Dan.

The slow manatees, then, have drawn us into their story, and here at Blue Spring they show us ourselves in the speedboats that mark them: Brutis, No Tail, Lenny, Deep Dent. We maim them and we name them. Still, they come to us, swimming up the river with their young. They come as if this were indeed a peaceable kingdom, and we only another species, sharing the warm winter harbor. They lie low down in the water, they come up for air. They have little hand-like fins on the fronts of their bodies. Sometimes they roll over. Watching them the mind digresses, slows, takes in the trees, the bright air, the minnows, the wrinkled necks of the old, the chirping of the young, the drifting canoe. In the company of noisy strangers, our diffuse tales about these creatures make bright patterns on the surface of the earth, then disappear as the green-tinted water pushes away from the boil: a liquid paradise we can almost join.

Published on September 30, 2016

Originally published in Harvard Review 26.