Springs Series painting, by Margaret Tolbert
This morning I was driving down our mountain through a 45-degree misty rain when I heard a familiar name float from the radio — Ichetucknee Springs State Park. A story on NPR about alternate spring break destinations in Florida had somehow landed in the sun-dappled summer memories of my childhood. Instantly, I was transported from the cold spring mountain rain of Asheville, N.C. to a refreshing, sunny subtropical river of my youth. I grew up a little bit southeast of the Ichetucknee River in northcentral Florida. The park was always a favorite destination for tubing during the summer when I was in high school. My friends and I would take turns floating along with a snorkel and mask while gazing at the bottom in the 72-degree waters, then clambering into a tube to warm up and sunbathe like lizards before slipping beneath the water’s surface once more.
Later, when I was in college and began swimming laps to train for triathlons, friends invited me to swim the river. I thought they were nuts. The Ichetucknee is spring fed and is known for a swift, steady current which whisks tubers along at a fairly fast clip, faster than an average person strides. We would swim upriver, getting a good workout, going not only against the current but against a throng of tubers waving their beer cans at us in disbelief. I was more of a runner than a swimmer, and the only way I could keep up with them was to wear fins. After a mile or more we’d turn around and bolt back to the dock with the current amplifying the power of each stroke. I imagined that’s what swimming must feel like for Olympians.
The Ichetucknee River is so clear that a snorkeler can easily see the bottom five to ten feet below, though some sections are even shallower. It’s been almost seven years since I swam the river, but one memory that stands out from all others is the emerald green river grass undulating hypnotically in the strong current, conjuring fantasies of a mermaid’s algae-covered hair. Then I noticed a flash of orange and red. My mind spun in a state of cognitive dissonance until it slowly registered that a brightly colored crawfish was perched atop the flat-bladed grasses, its antennae waved in the current, and one claw was half-raised. It looked as if it were shaking its fist at us intruders. It was a reminder of the loveliness and fragility of the creatures that live in the Ichetucknee.
Florida artist Margaret Tolbert has painted Florida’s springs for many years. Her painter’s eye for color have documented changes to the quality of the water in springs across Florida over time. Almost exactly three years ago I wrote this article on a book she produced called Aquiferious. It’s a visual feast, filled with her paintings of springs, but also essays by conservationists, naturalists and scientists about what makes Florida’s springs so unique. I’m reposting the article today because of NPR’s story:
Florida springs painter finds conservation “inescapable”
Springs Series depicting bubbles, by Margaret Tolbert
experience of Florida’s springs changed dramatically the day she donned a mask and plunked her face below the water’s lens-like surface. She says she felt like Alice, crossing through the looking glass into an alter world, where nothing was as it seemed. Up until then, springs were something Tolbert was aware of — they were often in the background at family picnics when she was growing up — but she’d never experienced them.
That first swim birthed a creative channel in her that is still fueling her paintings of Florida’s springs nearly two and a half decades later. Today, she has an impressive art portfolio inspired by places that sometimes only local Floridians know intimately. Rainbow Springs, Peacock Springs, Fanning Springs, Gilchrist Blue, Manatee Springs, Juniper Springs, Wakulla Springs, Ichetucknee Springs, Fern Hammock, Telford Springs, Wekiva Springs, Volusia Blue Springs, Cyprus Springs and Rock Springs Run — to name just a few. With the colors and light of specific springs in mind, Tolbert’s swiped and twirled her brushes over an array of large and small canvasses that have found homes in private collections, art museums and institutions all over the world.
“I’m always attracted, as an artist, to weird visual experiences,” Tolbert says. At Gilchrist Blue, she is entranced by medallions of light floating in the water, and the way the surface bends light waves to make swimming bodies look like contorted pretzels. She loves slipping below the surface, which she calls a “lens,” and staring into the springs’ dramatic caverns. At Juniper Springs, it’s the sand boils that catch her eye. At Rainbow Springs, it’s the enormous discharge power that stimulates her senses. Continue reading