The Karst Bridge: Darkness and Light in Florida Spring Country

I owe my love of springs to living in rural Florida. My family and I lived in Lake County, FL for years, and it was generally a happy time. Lots of hikes in the Ocala Forest, lots of visits to local springs such as Alexander, Juniper and Silver Glenn.

I didn’t worry much about politics back then. So what if I lived in a more conservative Florida county? No biggie. In local elections, I often voted for incumbents who’d reportedly (according to the local press, anyway) been doing a good job. These tended to be Republicans. Fine.

My Gulag

Times have changed. Today, partisanship has reached extraordinarily toxic levels, with some Americans espousing violence as a way to settle political differences. This is a kind of mass madness. When I expressed concern about what was happening on Jan. 6th, an old schoolmate of mine, now an avid Trump supporter,  wouldn’t condemn the violence. Instead, he told me he refused to be imprisoned in “my gulag.”

My gulag? I assured him I have no gulag on my modest estate. What would I do with one? I have a hard enough time tending to our unruly little stand of bamboo trees.

Gulag? Such a strange word, a Soviet word that I assume had been ringing in the tirades of certain social media posters or cable news personalities. A word that shapes and warps the realities of the people hearing and using the term.

Black Flags in a Green Country

I was reminded of this weird exchange when we were driving the country roads of the Big Bend region of Florida. It was not a surprise to see Trump flags and political posters dotting the country landscape. People do not give up their political allegiances very easily these days. Trump, enmeshed in many scandals that would have sunk earlier politicians, has proven this beyond any doubt.

What was less expected was the number of black American flags. Sometimes they’d fly on people’s front porches, or we’d see them lined up at the end of long rural driveways, or even waving in the backs of pickup trucks roaring by. I had never heard of, much less seen, these flags before. My first impression was of something ominous and surreal, something intentionally harkening back to the black shirts of Mussolini’s Italy.

Later on, I googled it to see what those flags portend. I saw some left-leaning media interpreting these flags in very grim ways. For example, on Salon I found the following explanation:

In one troubling new development, Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, “socialist liberals,” Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be “enemies” of “real America.” As media critic Eric Boehlert recently noted, the liberal opinion site Living Blue in Texas is sounding the alarm about the specific meaning of the black flag and the Republican-fascists support for terrorism and other political violence.

If I had been able to ask the drivers of these black-flag-sporting trucks what it meant to them, would they say something similar? Or, would they talk about standing up for their freedoms in a land ruled by “socialists” who wanted to put them in “gulags”? (Just by the way, we now have a total of just four democratic socialists among the 435 congresspeople in the U.S. House of Representatives, not exactly a tsunami of any type of socialism.)

As far as I can tell, black flags harken back to pirate flags. Black flags were flown to show that the pirates would provide no quarter to those on the ships they attacked. This means that they would fight to the death and take no prisoners, killing everyone in their path.

Some say that black flags (though probably not black American flags) were sometimes flown by the Confederacy. The Sun reports, “Confederate army soldiers flew the black flag to symbolize the opposite of the white flag of surrender. The black flag meant that the unit would not give in nor surrender and that enemy combatants would be killed.”

So, who are the perceived “enemy combatants” of today’s black flag wavers? I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, those enemies are largely imaginary caricatures of other Americans, which makes the sight of such flags especially troubling.

My guess is that American black flags probably mean different things to different people but generally symbolize a willingness to violently resist or attack whatever forces are viewed as aligned against them.

Spurious Divisions

The vast majority of Americans generally want the same things. That is, we want to live in a safe and secure environment. We want an economy in which we can find work. We want to feed our families, afford decent shelter, and enjoy some of goods things in life.

We want individual liberty balanced by enough collectivism to ensure things like good roads and bridges, a reasonably strong military, and enough social systems to help people who have fallen on hard times (as when they get sick or lose their jobs). In short, we still want–as Jefferson first put it–life, liberty and ability to pursue our own forms of happiness.

If we agree on all this, why is there so much outrage, animosity and division in our country today? Why do some people feel the need to fly black flags amid beautiful countryside?

Much of it boils down to leaders and media personalities intent on gaining power, influence and money by making Americans believe we are far more divided than we truly are. After all, demonization works. It works to keep to the powerful emotions of fear and loathing engaged, emotions that override our reason. 

Suddenly, we see threats everywhere. People who cross the border because they are desperate for work and a better life are viewed as dangerous “invaders.” The anxious parents of kids confused about their sexual identity are demonized as “groomers.” And people who simply disagree on political issues from tax burdens to energy policy are viewed as “enemies” rather than fellow Americans.

These grotesque exaggerations are used to keep our emotions charged so that cable channels can sell more advertisements and politicians can convince us that they are “fighting for us” rather than just cynically appealing to our darker selves so they can gain ever greater power.

Gorgeous Light

In many respects, the Florida Big Bend area is an Arcadia. The people (at least the ones we met) are friendly and good natured. The countryside is expansive fields–some farmland combined with lots pastures populated by horses, cows, goats and chickens.

But we were specifically there for the freshwater springs, which are often fantastic places of cool, crystalline waters set like jewels in the primeval greenery of old Florida cypress and oaks, maples, sweet gum and honey locusts.

Peacock Spring, by Cynthia Vickers

Springs are places of light. In the largest springs, there is a boil of water that can be seen from the surface, a boil that makes the light shimmer all around. Because the water is typically crystal clear, the light doesn’t just reflect off the surface, however, but fills the entire spring down to the very bottom. The best springs are living windows into sacred worlds from which flow, in tremendous volumes, that water so essential to our lives.

Glades of Shadow

But springs are also places of shadow and power. For every first magnitude spring, there are powerful pulses of water surging upwards from limestone caves. That’s why you will sometimes see intrepid cave diver types at the springs and sinks of Florida. They are, essentially, underwater spelunkers, a dazzling but dangerous hobby that has too often resulted in tragedy.

And then there are the spring denizens, not least of which are snakes and gators. Indeed, the caretakers of today’s Florida springs are not shy about informing visitors about the potential dangers via their signage.

So, it’s little wonder we were a tad nervous when we arrived at our first spring of the trip: Lafayette Blue. It was a weekday and, despite the fine weather, we had the entire spring to ourselves. That made the scene spookier than it would otherwise have been.

Lafayette Blue is unique in that the two parts of the spring are divided by a natural bridge made up of karst. It’s a remarkable sight. On the day we were there, the lighter part of the spring flowed out into the Suwanee River, frequented by schools of mullet and some larger fish that I took for bass. There were also smaller specimen such as sunfish and chubb. On the surface were thousands of waterbugs, moving dimples of light

On the other side of karst bridge is the deeper, darker part of the spring where I snorkled with less confidence, intimidated by shadows and rocky ledges. Even the two large turtles over whom I swam looked wary, unaccustomed to visitors in their dimly lit lair.

America Undivided

As we drove miles through rural Florida on our way to various springs, I thought about the ways in which Lafayette Blue reflects America itself: a mix of dark and light, a clearly divided yet ultimately connected and singular entity, an inspiring, beautiful yet intimidating and sometimes dangerous place.

I know it’s a strange and somewhat strained metaphor, but like the karst bridge over Lafayette Blue, the divisions between red and blue America appear rock hard. And, in fact, these perceived divisions could lead to the end of democracy itself in the U.S. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion. Lafayette is a single spring just as we are a single state in a still-united nation, no matter how much certain “leaders” want to turn us against one another.

The green and rural parts of Florida will always feel like home to me. Despite our rural/urban divides, all Floridians reside in the same fantastical, surreal landscape: a rainforest growing atop porous limestone through which flows cold, clear waters that burst and bubble up from these incredible, life-giving springs. Our divisions are mostly illusory, manufactured by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. The sooner we realize this, the better we’ll be able to savor the light and dark gifts of this preposterously beautiful state.

Walking Through the Pandemic

One in a series of posts on my struggles with maintaining a healthier weight, starting in early 2019 and working into the present day

#WEIGHT 217 lbs on November 16, 2020

After changing my eating life in September 2019, I’d lost around 30 pounds by November of the following year. There were ups and downs during that time, and there continue to be today, but I was feeling better about my eating habits.

By November of 2020, of course, we were well into the Covid-19 pandemic and I couldn’t go the gym any longer. So, I took up walking in a major way. Here’s what I wrote in my journal at the time:

A few weeks ago I downloaded a few of the many pedometer apps off Google Play. They all seem to do about the same thing: track how far you walk or run in a given length of time, but I did find out the hard way that some are more accurate than others.

Anyway, my process is to download a number of my favorite podcasts onto my phone, turn on the pedometer app, and walk around the neighborhood for a few miles. It’s usually not less than two and often more like three or four.

I live in Florida, so I’m definitely not getting much (or, by the standards of most hikers, any) altitude on my walks. But there are a lot of lakes (some more like retention ponds) in my neighborhood, so I’ve developed a series of walks that take me past several different bodies of water on any given day or night.

One of the virtues of an app is that it tracks my progress for me, digitally celebrating as I rack up the miles and even allows me to share my progress with friends if I want (which I don’t). In short, there is a minor positive feedback loop via the app and a more significant positive loop via the well-being of body and mind. For example, I tend to sleep much better when I go on leisurely, long walks in the evening (though, oddly, the opposite tends to be true if I go jogging or power walking, the stuff that really amps the body up).

It’s not that I was in terrible shape before, but getting exercise, especially of the aerobic type, was not something I especially looked forward to. I’ve found the walks, however, tend to be fun in a low-key way.

As I’ve taken up walking, I’ve been listening to podcasts about the 2020 election and the subsequent political and cultural fallout. The walking, I found, seems to balance out all the disturbing news, allowing me to take that news in without freaking out as much as I otherwise would. 

When the political podcasts shake my once-deep faith in U.S. democracy and the wisdom of our US population, I listen to something else. Sometimes it’s silly stuff such as Fake Doctors, Real Friends, a rewatch show for the old television series Scrubs. Sometimes it’s more highbrow entertainment, such as The New Yorker Fiction podcast. Other times I’m looking for middle-brow stories, for which I turn to science-fiction story podcasts (e.g., Lightspeed and Clarkeworld) or one called Myths and Legends, which includes humorous retellings stories from folklore and mythology.

Sometimes I don’t listen to anything, just take in the world or try to solve some writing or work-related problem. Sometimes I walk to prepare for some speaker event (I do a lot of webcasts these days). 

The trick, if it’s a trick at at all, is to just enjoy myself. It’s much easier to exercise if I derive some actual enjoyment out of it, just like it’s a lot easier to stick to a food plan that includes foods I love, as opposed to foods that trigger me to want to eat more. 

So much of trying to get lose weight comes down to enjoying the process, even if I’m not able to eat a pint (or a quart) of ice cream in a single sitting. 

They say “virtue is its own reward.” Well, it can be, as long as you enjoy those virtues at some level. Taking a self-punishing approach doesn’t work, at least not for me. The point is to train myself, and the Dogman lurking within, with positive reinforcement.

Featured image: Walking man in Munich-Schwabing, by Jonathan Borofsky. Photo by  Berreu