art, literature, film and culture
I think future historians will tell Florida’s story in terms of springs. From the beginning, springs played a critical role in the progress of civilization and the settlement of this land. Without the springs and the aquifers, Florida would be a much drier land than we know today and it would have just a fraction of the current population. It would actually look more like the land that the first Paleo-Indians found when they arrived here nearly 14,000 years ago.
When those first people arrived, Florida’s climate was much cooler and drier than now. Water was scarce, making springs precious oases of clean water. As the climate shifted toward the warmer, wetter conditions we enjoy today, life for Floridians changed with it. But through it all, the importance of springs never diminished. With time they became sacred.
Florida’s native people long considered springs to have medicinal and even magical qualities. Even before they officially “discovered” Florida, Spanish explorers heard stories from the natives of Puerto Rico of a legendary spring on an island to the north that reputedly restored health and youth. Ponce de Leon probably heard the story, but contrary to older Florida lore, it’s unlikely his voyage of discovery was motivated by it. Three centuries later, natives of the Suwannee Valley told white settlers that White Sulphur Spring (the mineral-laden spring we know today as White Springs) was a sacred place. Hostilities were forbidden near such springs. They were neutral territory where even enemies could come and share the life-giving waters.
Many early settlers took the Indians beliefs to heart. They too, considered the springs to have healing properties. Unlike the Indians, however, these new Floridians sought to profit from the water. Spas were built for invalids and tourists who came from across the country to bathe in the healing water. If they couldn’t get to the water, the water was sent to them. A century before Coca Cola and Nestle began shipping out Florida water by the truckload, shoppers in New York City could find bottles of Suwannee Springs water on local store shelves; but not grocery store shelves, shelves of pharmacies. There, they sat shoulder-to-shoulder with bottles of snake oil and other remedies.
Interest in Florida’s springs waned in the twentieth century. Except for a few springs-based tourist attractions (Florida’s original theme parks) Florida’s springs were seen as little more than popular swimming holes. Only in the last few decades has a re-born bottled water industry brought the outside world to Florida’s springs again. But, the renewed interest was a double-edged sword. The commercial “harvest” of spring water has caused people to re-think the notion that springs are perpetual fountains, immune to the pressures of civilization. Researchers and cave divers have focused their expertise on gathering data and furthering our understanding of these systems. Their efforts have confirmed the vital importance of springs and aquifers to Florida’s overall ecosystem. More importantly, they have shown with horrifying certainty that the springs systems are in grave danger. Florida’s springs have become the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, showing us what’s happening unseen in the dark chasms of the aquifer.
Today, concern for the health of Florida’s springs is moving toward the forefront. Until now, springs protection has been the cause célèbre of a small subculture of nature lovers who have been staying abreast of the new information and working hard to broadcast that information to the general public. World-class cave divers like Wes Skiles, Todd Kincaid and Jill Heinerth have joined forces with cutting-edge researchers like Dr. Howard Odum, Dr. Bob Knight and others to provide the hard science of how these systems work. They have amassed indisputable evidence that our aquifer and springs are in desperate straits. Local educators and activists and nature guides have heard the message and are helping spread the alarm. Exhibits and displays like the recent Blue Path exhibit at the FMNH and this current “Springs Eternal” project play a key role. Each of these is the epicenter of an outward spreading ripple that needs every concerned voice to help it to continue its outward spread. This is an issue that affects all Floridians, so all need to know.
We already know the role springs played in Florida’s story up to this point. But how this story will go from here is up to us. Today’s Floridians are writing the chapter that will determine where the story goes from here. The actions we take to protect the springs and the threats we ignore will not only influence the story future historians will tell about Florida, but how that story ends—and when.