The water is always 72 degrees. We arrive in our bathing suits, ready to cleanse the sweat and dirt off our bodies. The only way to handle the cold shock is to take a flying leap from the edge and hope that the unavoidable gasp of surprise doesn’t flood our noses and throats with water.
I jump – and feel the sting of freezing needles over every inch of skin. My eyes are wide and I’m panting from it, wading frantically. The sun is bright and I squint against the reflections off the water. Goosebumps cascade over my arms and legs. First my feet adjust, then my hands, my arms, until finally my entire body goes coldblooded. I duck under to smooth my hair. Then putting on my goggles I dive down headfirst. I come up for air and scramble under the water again with all four limbs, stunned at what I see. All I want in this moment are gills and fins. I want to be able to go.
Space and dimension are brand new. Up, down, left, and right all become confused because the water is so clear. Gravity lifts its heavy hand; my long hair floats around my face in slow waves. I can see in all directions but I can’t walk or run. I can’t pull, push, or jump. I am an infant in these old pools of the Earth. My only aid is a pair of slimied goggles, rubbed down with my own saliva to prevent fogging, and the snorkel siphoning air into my lungs. I part the water with my hands, agile and smooth.
The water is so clear I wonder if I have ever really seen anything. The colors play with each other, flirting and flickering and dancing in rhythm. Blues and greens in every hue, touches of gold, purple shadows and silver flashes. They reach an expansive distance; I can see the entire spring through this crystal water. No waves, no sound, no wind, no surf, no obstruction to the melody before my eyes. Only wonder.
I spit in my goggles again, kicking to stay above long enough to get them fitted just right and then let myself fall under the surface. I relax my muscles and float face down. I am giddy, gazing into the depths of the spring. Caverns dwell below, where divers in wet suits attached to metal tanks of oxygen talk in a silent language about crevasses and folds of rock and limestone. I watch them while I bob overhead. They point and nod and touch the sides of the cavern with their bare, white hands. My ears break the water’s surface occasionally and I hear squeals and splashing.
The 200-acre camp is nestled in northern Florida, deep in the backwoods far from any coastal salt water. The northern border of the camp is a river, fed by seven natural springs that lie along its bank from east to west. The springs are tranquil, shallow blue pools with white sand bottoms. Tree roots clasp the banks and small plants and grasses grow along the margins. Underwater you see more: the white floor gives way to vast dark openings in the center of the springs, descending into the earth. Flurries of air bubbles rise from below. Each day, millions of gallons of clean water flow from the Florida Aquifer, gushing from the bottom of the caverns, swirling and filling the springs and running out into the river. The springs are continually renewed. The area is a freshwater haven, home to turtles and schools of bluegills and dragonflies basking in the sunlight. Cypress trees stand guard around the waters’ edges. Scrubby wild flowers litter the land and hard oaks tower like long arcs over the camp. The air is dry and the nights are cool.
Tents sprawl out in any available clearing among the trees. The best spots are along the river, or on a peninsula of land between a spring and the river if you’re lucky enough to nab one. There are no designated campsites here, only favorite areas worn down over time. You can stake your flag and claim your own primitive colony for a weekend. My friends and I go once a year as a tribute to the rudiments of life, or just to save our sanity. We hoot and holler through the trees, eat with our hands, build enormous fires, live in our swimsuits, sing and dance like savages, drink whiskey at midday, wake with the dawn, sleep with the owls. Water, fire, food.
Dirt pathways weave throughout the land like tiny veins, leading barefoot swimmers and campers to and from their errands. Some carry inner tubes to the lodge to pump them full with air; some run sopping wet from the water to their tents, chilled and glad for a sun-warmed towel; some hike; some rummage through the trees with axes looking for dead branches to burn for the chilly evening; some sunbathe after a swim, flat on the ground on bright towels; some play sand volleyball in bathing suits in a courtyard near the lodge; some gather around picnic tables with tangles of scuba gear and flippers getting ready for their next dive. The camp is filled with people all visiting for the same reason: the water.
Little fish swim together in twos and threes around the perimeter of the spring, keeping land to one side and the gaping cave to the other. That seems safe. I swim after the fish and let my eyes drink in the dazzle of sunlight playing on the long grasses and algae. Bluegills zip around one another and watch me, suspicious of my presence. I follow them along the ridge, imitating them. They swoop and dash so quickly. I make a mistake and set my feet down on the floor. Instantly a cloud of sand and dirt and mire erupt like a slow motion atomic bomb from the soft floor. I can’t see through. I swim away from the sand cloud. Once at a distance I look back at it: a blotch, a blemish, a tornado of beige confusion and uncertainty. Even the fish have disbanded from it.
I head for the center of the watery ballroom where the gaping cavern opens. Hanging above the chasm looking down, I am suspended by buoyancy. The mouth of this cave feels as immense as a round amphitheater. Glittering rock and limestone cover the walls and the space narrows as it deepens. No one else is swimming here besides the real divers 30 feet below. I kick my way down headfirst until I hit my limit. Looking back to the top, the surface of the water looks placid and more wet than I feel while submersed in it. I see hot pink inner tubes with little kid butts in them and white legs bent like frogs scattered across the spring. Bubbles come up next to me from the aquifer, traveling hundreds of feet only to pop and disappear into the atmosphere. I float up with them and break the surface.
My friend Penny and I join up on the banks of the water. I’d crawled out on the south side of the spring, where an old set of stairs helps swimmers to get in and out, and walked to an open area beside the spring. It is a broad clearing with sandy soil and grass, open-faced to the sun. “Hey,” I say to her and fling my towel out on the ground. It’s the third day of our trip, the last day, and we leisurely lie on the grass watching and listening to the buzzing activity of the camp. “Where are the guys?” she asks.
“I think Mike is down closer to the river,” I point casually with my thumb. “And Mitch and David walked up to Devil’s Eye awhile ago. They said they wanted one last good dive there.” She nods and pulls her sunglasses down over her eyes. Her legs are out straight in front of her and she’s leaning back on her palms. My bones and skin are cold, but the yellow sun begins to dissolve into my cells, warming my blood. I haven’t showered in three days, and I don’t feel like I need a shower now. Clean is what I feel, like I have been washed and hung to dry on a clothesline – not by soap and city water and fragrances – but by wind and light.
I close my eyes. Distant voices are bright and laughing, echoing through the trees and reverberating off the water. I hear a woodpecker knocking tediously on some thick oak or pine, and other birds flit and chirp through branches. Swoosh – a bold soul jumps into the chilly blue pool. Shrieks and splashing follow.
At home, Penny and I are chatterboxes. We talk about coffee, our bosses, Harry Potter, my cat, that new taco restaurant down the road, the virtues of peanut butter, a new book, that thing we saw on Facebook. But now – there is nothing to say. We have shed all the talk like dead skin and left it behind to flow out into the river. It will flow, and fall, and become silt at the bottom.
I stand up and realize I need to take some photos before we leave. I know I will regret it if I don’t, so I walk in the direction of my tent to get the camera. When I return Penny is sitting cross-legged with a pile of white clover and weeds next to her, weaving a crown. I wander to the water’s edge and start focusing the lens on a group of Cypress roots. I take a few shots and turn to see Penny wearing her crown, delicately wound around her head. “Queen of the springs. Perfect,” I say, and shoot that photo, too.
She stands and comes to the rim with me. We walk as far to our right as we can, towards the river, before the underbrush gets thick and difficult to pass. I take more pictures and look for Mike in the water with no luck. Penny waves her hand through some long grass and pulls out a feather, “Oh, look.” Between her thumb and two fingers she spins it. “Is it a hawk’s?”
“It looks like it;” I walk closer to inspect. “It’s long – really long.” The feather is clean and perfect, no broken barbs or marred edges. An ideal feather. The tip where it came loose from the bird is thick and white and rigid. I photograph it with the blue water as a background: a macro shot. Penny slips the feather into the back of her hair and it stands at least ten inches above the top of her head. “Don’t let it fall out, I want to keep it,” I say. She nods. Combined with her green crown, she looks like a kid playing an Indian; I snap her again.
Sauntering back from where we came, we see that our companions have found us. A pile of things has accumulated on the ground in the midst of our towels: two wet suits, a few snorkels, a pair of flip flops, four diving masks, a granola bar, and a t-shirt. David and Mitch sprawl basking in the sun, tired from diving. Mike stands dripping, looking around with one hand on his hip and a towel hanging around his neck; he must have just walked up, too. He tosses his goggles on the pile. “Hey,” he says with a pant. We all exchange brief greetings and get the sense that no one is ready to move. Penny and I sit back on our towels and Mike stretches out on his side, his head propped up by one hand. Mitch is on his back with an arm draped over his eyes. The five of us lie still and drift between sleep and a balmy consciousness. Our silence is the substance of our attachment to the place, to each other, to the cleanliness we all feel. Five minutes or an hour may pass, we can’t tell.
And it doesn’t matter.