Nature Writing

My Fear of Water, A Journey

UF graduate students Meghan Mangrum, left, and Hannah O. Brown paddle North Florida's Ichetucknee River on a field trip for Environmental Journalism class.

Photo by Jennifer Adler. UF graduate students Meghan Mangrum, left, and Hannah O. Brown paddle North Florida’s Ichetucknee River on a field trip for Environmental Journalism class.

By Meghan Mangrum

Water – it gives life and it takes it. Rushing rivers, riptides and hurricane rains seem like such a different beast than the 24 ounces of tap water in my blue Contigo water bottle. Despite a childhood in Central Florida, consisting of summers spent splashing in Grandma’s backyard pool, I have maintained a fear of water for most of my life.

“I should have taken a Xanax,” I joked, but not really, before we launched on our journey down the Ichetucknee River. A non-mandatory field trip for my Environmental Journalism class at the University of Florida, I decided this was just the way to tackle my fear. At least I trusted that our instructor did not want to make the news for a grad student drowning on a peaceful class outing.

Our guide (and the life vest that I zipped and buckled tightly around myself) helped quiet my fears enough to grab a paddle and prepare to climb into the tandem kayak I would share with a classmate. Yet, stepping into the kayak, inches above the dark water and drifting away from the dock, brought my anxiety levels as high as the cypress trees that reached above us.

My first mate, Hannah, had the perfect amount of patience and a calming voice that assured me I wouldn’t drown. We agreed early on that the goal was to stay out of the water (which we mostly did, except the few times I accidentally splashed myself and others nearby with my paddle).

Since it was late January, the river was mystical. The naked, barren trees reached toward a gray sky and looked almost bleak. Yet it was obvious that life shined here – not so much from our colorful boats as we flowed through the water – but in the gloriously green sea grass beneath our boats, and the grasses and plants that shone bright, juxtaposed against the gray along the shore.

In many spots, the river bottom was close – close enough to marvel at the different colors of the clear water and to softly brush the sea grass with your paddle. We spent much of the trip at the front of the pack, to prevent playing bumper boats with our classmates, but also to enjoy the river in silence. The splash of our paddles as we steered around branches and over fallen trees was like a lullaby.

I didn’t feel compelled to sing “Just Around the Riverbend,” but something magnetic encouraged me to continue propelling forward. Maybe it was the first manatee we encountered and the hope to see more, or the blue heron we watched dive close to the water’s surface. But I think it was my reverence of the river itself that allowed a lifetime of anxiety to ease, now replaced by awe.

What the first peoples who discovered the rivers and springs of Florida must have thought when they first caught sight of them – what a beautiful life-giving resource they had found, what a blessing.

Water has the power to tear down homes and carve its way through limestone and land, ever flowing. Yet, water is what gives us life – isn’t that why some indigenous people dance for rain or why the ancient Egyptians based their religion around the Nile’s floods?

I experienced something beautiful that day. I paddled the Ichetucknee with wonderful new friends and supporters by my side. For many of them, our short trip was one of dozens they have taken in their lives. But for me, the trip ended with a terrific sense of accomplishment and awe. I don’t know when I’ll kayak again, but I’m sure I will. For now, I am grateful for the experience — and for the river, for letting me be a part of it.

Into the Devil’s Sink

By Stephenie Livingston  

As the legend goes, the devil fell in love with a local Indian woman and opened up a hole in the earth to take her down with him to hell—giving birth to a sunken rain forest.

Called the Devil’s Millhopper for its shape, like that of a mill’s hopper, the sinkhole in northwest Gainesville has carved itself into the bowels of the Earth over the last 15,000 years. Once, millions of bones—fossils of early horses from younger layers of rock and sharks teeth from older layers when Florida was seafloor—covered the bottom of the ancient pit, before paleontologists and pilferers combed the area.

My descent down the 220 stairs into the devil’s bowels begins at noon. I pass a pignut hickory (Carya glabra), its bark marked by pronounced lines like engorged veins. I lift my sunglasses to get a closer look. The myth comes to my mind. People say they hear her screams at night. A shiver runs down my neck and I hear a possum move in the palmettos. The leaf of a bluff oak falls in my path. I pick it up. It crumbles in my hand.

Mosses and liverworts grow on the coquina rock that walls the cavity. Rain and spring waters, flowing along the limestone layers for millennia, have softened the rock wall. Stiff dogwood and red mulberry grow at precarious 45 degree angles around me. A force pulls the trees downward, testing their structural limits. Roots are exposed.

I climb lower. Oxygen-enriched blood feeds my overwhelmed senses.

Not so long ago, the forest around the millhopper burned naturally. Even now, charred trees—blackened and hollow—reveal past lighting strikes. But humans do not allow nature to run its course here anymore. Species suffocate beneath the overgrowth. Park rangers protect what’s left with signs that read, “Stay on the trail.” These remaining species have adapted, and many even flourish. Ferns grow here by the hundreds among the wet rocks and jungle-like flora. The same moisture that feeds the swamp bay and sea myrtle creates a dampness that sticks to my face. Recent rainfall carried by gravity forms dozens of small waterfalls along the slope. Like the spin of a potter’s wheel, their flow slowly shaped the sinkhole over millennia.

I stop to tie the shoelaces of my gray high-tops. The pressure treated board where I stand creaks. While human engineered, this staircase is no match for water, which eats away at the posts holding up the walkway, its tourists and its nature lovers, as it simultaneously cuts through rock and earth. Always digging deeper. Some of the boards feel like they might give way beneath me as I follow them down. New boards mark locations where white ash or live oak have tumbled, destroying chunks of the stairs. Is nature up to something sinister, I wonder. Does the millhopper yearn for its balanced origins?

I reach the bottom.

Inferior inscriptions meant to reflect the beauty and meaning of this place are scribbled in sharpie or carved into the wooden overlook. Someone writes, “Not all who wander are lost.” A family poses for a photo in front of a rusty blackhaw tree.

Water falls down the rocks, dynamic and clear; Mother Nature running a bath. It settles into the greenish blue center—a contrastingly stagnate pool glazed over like the eyes of the dead. At the edge tiny minnows by the hundreds gather, all sporadic, yet seemingly choreographed, and now darting off with a slight disturbance of the shallow, murky water. A dark shadow, they head straight for the blue-green eye, dancing against the current with their collective strength.