Thursday, May 8, 2008

For the Love of a River

When Mrs. Muse, the kids and I moved to Mandarin on the Saint Johns twenty-some years ago, we came because of the rural flavor of the place -- 12 miles south of downtown Jacksonville. Our house was on a small residential street, off of a two lane road, off of another two lane road. We still live in that same house, on the same street -- which now connects to a 3-lane road, off of a 5 lane road off of the I-295 outer belt. Subdivisions filled with big homes on small lots have replaced the open fields that surrounded us. Those homes are now filled with nearly 100,000 new neighbors. Progress is an opinion. But through it all the St. Johns River has remained our constant companion. A reminder of simpler times, of the constancy of nature, of the flow of life that we try, but cannot ultimately control no matter how many of us come to her banks.

This first photo is among my favorite river images. This is the County Dock at the north east side of Mandarin Point, reaching into the River just a few hundred yards east of the spot where Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin) lived, a few hundred yards further east of the site of the sinking of the Union side-wheel steamer, Maple Leaf during the Civil War (around here known by natives as the War of Northern Aggression), and a few miles north of Beluthahatchee, the home of my friend Stetson Kennedy, author of the Klan Unmasked and many other books (Stetson called me one night several years ago insisting that I take the following day off work, bring Mrs. Muse, and come over to his house to meet the son of one of his old friends -- turns out the old friend was Woody Guthrie, and we spent that remarkable day with Arlo Guthrie and his family -- the subject for a future post).

This is the river at its pristine best. The river of Harriet Beecher Stowe and the steamships that brought passengers and supplies to her backyard. The river of Mandarin's undeveloped past. The artist's, photographer's, and songwriter's inspiration.

The River is also a reflection of the human activity along its banks and in the catchment area for miles on both sides from which ground water runoff flows into it both directly and through her tributary streams. The Saint Johns flows north for 310 miles from its source near Fellsmere Florida in Indian River County (the upper St. Johns) to its terminus near Mayport where she connects with the Atlantic Ocean (the lower St. Johns). Several million people live within 10 miles of the river on either side -- people who have arrived looking for the Florida lifestyle. The yard runoff from a few hundred-thousand homes, whose owners innocently pour nitrogen-based fertilizers into their St. Augustine grass lawns that ends up in the river. The nitrogen-rich effluent is taken up by algae that normally lives quietly and unobtrusively in the river. Fed by this chemical super-food, it grows and proliferates until it looks like this (photo taken last weekend while standing on the County Dock pictured above).

The "Green Monster" river slime sucks the oxygen out of the river and blocks the sunlight, stunting or stopping the growth of the normal riverine flora and fauna. This changes the river's micro-environment at its most fundamental level -- basically reducing or eliminating the bottom rung of the food-chain. The impact ultimately runs all the way to the top of that ladder and spreads out from the banks to the main channels. What we will eventually end up with is a dead, or certainly dying river. The Saint Johns is a living organism - a treasure - with a preventable terminal disease.

My river is honored to be among a handful of American National Heritage Rivers, so named four or five years ago. Last month the Saint Johns was also named number six among the nations most endangered rivers. You can help reverse the damage to this national treasure by contributing as I do, both time and resources to the St. Johns Riverkeeper. Some things are worth sacrificing for.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

So true! It's astounding just how much this area has changed in MY lifetime. My Great-grandpa had a fruit grove on the St Johns on Scott Mill. Now it's a subdivision. If he were here now, he would be so lost, in his own neighborhood.