Requiem for a River

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I went to the Kenwood boat ramp last week to see it for myself — how much had the Ocklawaha River risen since the end of the drawdown, and would I still be able to see the tree stumps that reveal the drowned forest below?  I paddled the river during the drawdown, when the Ocklawaha was briefly restored to its natural flow, revealing bubbling springs and sandy banks. Now I felt compelled to witness the reverse, to see how the rising waters covered the treasures below. I was surprised to see that the river level had not yet risen significantly, so I inflated my paddle board and began to paddle upstream. Dark, low clouds filled the sky—which seemed fitting, and I estimated I had about 1 1/2 hours to wind my way through this apocalyptic riverscape.

The Rodman Reservoir had been lowered for the past several months, and, like many others, I took the opportunity to see rarely uncovered springs like Cannon Springs and Tobacco Road. I joined the Florida Defenders of the Environment at Kenwood where Lars Anderson pointed out springs and historical features, and later Captain Karen Chadwick, North Star Charters, gave me a tour on her skiff. I paddled from Eureka West to the boat ramp across from near Payne’s Landing and saw fishers lining the newly uncovered banks.

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On this day, though, I came by myself, to  be in silence on the water. The overcast day was still, the quiet only broken by the occasional motorboat. The fishermen waved as they went by, and the silence was restored. Several friends told me that they did not want to see the rising water, that it would be too sad. I understood their feelings, especially those of friends who have loved the Ocklawaha for a long time. I am a relative newcomer to Florida and have become enchanted by its springs and rivers and Old Florida, but people who grew up on the Ocklawaha have entirely different stories to tell.

In “How do we Grieve the Death of a River’,  activist Winona LaDuke asks “How do you express condolences for a river, for a life, to a man to whom the river is the center of the life of his people? That is a question we must ask ourselves.” Mining tailings have destroyed the Waatuh River, or “Grandfather”, in southeast Brazil, a river central to the lives of  indigenous people .

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Ocklawaha at dusk
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Ocklawaha near Eureka West

Many years ago longtime residents grieved as they lost access to their land and homes when the Ocklawaha was first flooded, and they grieve again as the waters rise again, drowning the the sandy banks that provided sanctuary for alligators and birds. The “Restore the Ocklawaha River” Facebook page shows sadness—some  discovered the Ocklawaha’s springs for the first time this year and now mourn the loss. Others wonder why some voices count more than others—why do the voices of the bass fisherman count more than the poor fisherman who cannot afford a boat and have lost access to much of the river? But there is hope as well. The Save the St. Johns Tour brought scores of newcomers to the Ocklawaha River and made many of us realize that we can regain what was lost.

As I paddled among the stumps, I recalled the river bends upstream near Eureka West and the times I swam in Cannon springs. The sky was darkening, and the wind was becoming stronger, so I quickened my pace. I didn’t want to be on the water during a thunderstorm. I paddled through the dead trees — the water was slightly higher than when I paddled this area previously. I had to take care that hidden roots would not catch the fin on my board and pitch me forward. I wished I had seen the forests before 1968, when the Ocklawaha was first flooded.

I paddled hard against the wind and reached the boat ramp. As I deflated the board and packed up, I watched the fishermen pull up to the ramp, also trying to beat the storm. Just as I reached the main road, the storm broke, and lightning filled the sky. I was surprised that I had become so attached to the river in such a short time. I am sorry that the state of Florida insists on drowning the Ocklawaha River, but I am glad that I came to bear witness.

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On a 72′ Sailboat, Searching for Ocean Plastics

Here is my second blog about sailing, science, and research methods in the Caribbean with Exxpedition. Next week–back to Florida and the Okhlawaha River.

 

Last week I sailed from Trinidad to St. Lucia aboard the Seadragon, a 72′ steel-hulled boat designed for scientific research. I joined the all-women’s crew of Exxpedition to participate in research and dialogue about the growing problem of marine plastics, and fortunately, the boat had also been adapted for novice sailors. The scientists behind Exxpedition are investigating how disintegrating marine plastics affect human health, especially women’s health, because these plastics contain endocrine disruptors. The boat crews also foster dialogue and collaboration among those concerned about marine plastics, as I wrote in There is No Magical Place Called Away. I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet representatives from Caribbean universities and environmental groups and, also, to conduct research on a sailboat. This trip illustrated some realities of scientific data collection and helped me reflect on my own research methods, which have been primarily ethnographic.

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Jannica at the microscope in Seadragon saloon

By training, I am an historian of religion, and I study both texts and people. I have done ethnographic research, for example, interviews and participation-observation in different communities. To collect data for my projects, I have recorded songs in Hindu temples, helped plaster a straw bale house, and interviewed pundits at pilgrimage sites for the Hindu deity Balaram. Now, I am looking into people, place, and water, asking people about their connections to lakes, rivers, and the sea and how these places become home to them. How do local fishers think about the mounds of plastics that wash up in their fishing areas?

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Subsistence fishing near plastic strewn Trinidad beach

The scientists and crew of Exxpedition collected materials for three sets of scientists. Some materials would be sent to the University of Georgia, some to Sweden, and a third set would later be analyzed on board the Seadragon. The spacious starboard forward berth had been converted to a ‘science’ room and held a microscope, beakers, and sieves. I wondered how the microscope would fare with the boat aslant, heeled to catch the wind, and figured that I would soon find the answer.

We planned to collect samples, or ‘ do science’, upon reaching, first, Barbados waters, and then, several days later, St. Lucia. Our two scientists would perform the skilled scientific work, and the rest of us had supporting roles, ranging from dropping the large trawler into the water to documenting coordinates and times of the different samples. On Sunday morning, we left Trinidad for the two day sail to Barbados where we would do our first round of sampling.

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Swimming under a rainbow

Two days later, we arrived in Barbados, slightly green at the gills, but excited that we made the crossing. We delayed our first Barbados sampling because since a majority of the crew had gotten seasick. I’m no stranger to throwing up in the course of fieldwork, but I have never had to tether myself into a heeling boat to do so.  Once anchored, we sudsed up and threw ourselves into the water, laughing and diving like mermaids. With fresh clothes and a hearty breakfast of eggs, cheese, and vegetables, we all felt like new women, and it was time to begin trawling for plastics.

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Hauling in the manta trawler

Trawling required all hands on deck, a labor-intensive process that involved everyone. First, we extended a large pole, perpendicular to the boat, which would support the aptly named manta trawler, shaped somewhat like a ray. The manta trawler, about 4′ long, was designed to skim across the surface of the water, catching plastics and seaweed in the small net at its tail. Another team tossed the mantra trawler overboard, and it took several attempts to insure that the trawler’s tail lay flat upon the water. Unlike our first crossing, the Seadragon was in relatively calm waters, moving slowly at 1.5 knots, but even at the slow speeds, lowering the trawler and holding the lines was a challenge with the boat’s rocking motion.

Meanwhile, a second team filtered sea water samples through a series of sieves, then analyzed particles under the microscope below.

I watched Alice carefully pour water into beakers while the boat heeled, port side significantly higher than port. She poured a total of 80 samples, both control and variable samples, careful not to spill the data.  Soon, these materials will travel in labs in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, and teams of faculty, students, and lab assistants will analyze the samples on solid ground.

I wonder how many of these scientists realize what was involved in collecting these samples–the physical labor, the seasickness, and the laughter among our team. The results will be presented in a scientific and objective manner, perhaps in charts or figures, that obscure the people and emotion involved. Controls are necessary in scientific research, to have points of comparison. My work, however, focuses on people and communities, and my research has no controls. Instead, in my writing, some of my richest material comes from exploring  my interactions with others and how our worlds come together. In my work on intentional communities, Being the Change, for example, I recognize that my repeated visits have shaped some of the communities I lived in, and I know that I have become a better person for these interactions.

Emily and our Trinidad beach clean up crew. Trinidad environental activism
Trinidad beach clean up team

I wish we had more opportunities for scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars to work together and learn about each different research methods. We would all benefit from seeing our work through other eyes. After this trip, I will continue my ethnographic research, focusing on waters of the US southeast, but with a  new appreciation of scientific data collection and its translation into scientific evidence.