There may be longer and deeper rivers in our country, but few have left such a lasting impression as the St. Johns on the consciousness of the writers and artists who experienced it.
Certainly, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings knew of its powerful natural magic. So did William Cullen Bryant, who called it "one of the noblest streams of the country." For composer Frederick Delius, it was the inspiration for his most important life's work, an orchestration called "Florida Suite." John James Audubon added important birds to his portfolio here, while Winslow Homer painted landscapes evocative of his favorite pastime -- fishing its waters. HarrietBeecher Stowe swooned over its moss-hung subtropical appeal, as did poet Sidney Lanier, who fell in love with the Ocklawaha, a tributary that he described as the "sweetest waterlane" in the world.
The river that inspired them is not easily described in conventional terms. It rises up from a shallow sawgrass headwaters near Lake Okeechobee and meets with the sea east of Jacksonville as a deep estuary, about 310 miles later. Along the way, it parallels the eastern coast of Florida, puddling up into a dozen shallow bottom lakes, all connected by a skinny, meandering channel. Depending on where you are along the river, it takes on different forms, all ripe for interpretation.
Ironically, the St. Johns of today hardly seems like the muse it has been to artistic-minded visitors over the last several centuries. In our modern, go-fast Florida world, the river shares little of the celebrity that has characterized the Everglades or the Suwannee. Nonetheless, the St. Johns has bitten off the largest chunk of literary and cultural history in Florida. And the good news is clues to its influence can still be found, if you know where to look, and how.
Or, as the authors of the wonderfully baroque The St. Johns: A Parade of Diversities observed in 1943: "Upon no other river in the U.S. have white men lived for so long a while, or so variously . . . this a pageant of strange persons passing, with Time as their drum major, beside its broad brown waters. . . . "
Much of the best early information about the river was provided by naturalist artist William Bartram. The Philadelphia Quaker explored the St. Johns twice, first with his father John in 1765 and later on his own in 1774. At once athletic and brave, artistic and gentle, Bartram more than any other helped introduce the enchantment of the St. Johns to the world in Travels, published in 1791. The great naturalist Archie Carr, writing in the mid-20th century, said that whenever he had a question about the environmental mysteries of Florida, he turned to Bartram. Billy Bartram not only discovered new species of snakes, frogs, lizards, fish and mammals, he found that birds he saw back North did not overwinter under frozen lakes or fly to the moon as commonly believed. As a nascent ecologist, he knew otherwise because he saw them migrating down the St. Johns.
Bartram was not only our first American naturalist; he was our first spiritual naturalist as well. His evocations of the St. Johns inspired the transcendentalists -- Emerson and Thoreau -- and in one instance, directly influenced the creation of a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In Kubla Khan, Coleridge took word descriptions right out of Bartram's observations of the springs feeding the river -- particularly Salt Springs in the Ocala Forest. The aquifer feeding the springs became "Alph the sacred river," and its caves morphed into "caverns measureless to man."
There are hundreds of springs feeding the St. Johns, but only a handful of giant springs, the likes of which Bartram witnessed at Blue Spring near present-day Orange City. Sitting on its banks, he described it as diaphanous, a magical place where "entire tribes" of fish can be clearly seen from the surface. "They appear as plain as though lying on a table before your eyes," he wrote.
Bartram's affection drew others here, including Stowe, wintering at Mandarin Point from 1868 to 1883. The author and abolitionist was as messianic about her love for the St. Johns as she was for equality of former slaves. In Palmetto Leaves, published in 1873, she raved about life on the wild, broad river where "our life is still and lonely . . . that even so small an event as our crossing the river for a visit is all absorbing."
Arriving at nearby Solano in 1884, a year after Stowe left, a 22-year-old composer by the name of Frederick Delius tried with little success to grow citrus for two years. Instead, the impressionable artist sat on the river banks under the moonlight and listened to the songs of his black grove workers, learning the distinctive rhythms, chants and melodies that would later find their way into his own classical compositions.
He later wrote: "In Florida, through sitting and gazing at nature, I gradually learnt the way in which I should eventually find myself."
John James Audubon, the temperamental bird painter, came here earlier, on the heels on Bartram in 1832. He seemed intent on disproving the earlier naturalist's romantic descriptions of the river. Despite the glossy ibis and great blue heron he shot and sketched, Audubon turned back at Lake George, deciding the river has a "tendency to depress the spirits. . . . I felt unquiet, too, in this singular scene, as if I were almost on the verge of creation, where realities were tapering into nothing." Carolina parakeets, ivory billed woodpeckers and passenger pigeons were still living in the thick woods around the river then, and panthers could be seen swimming across its water. But Audubon was in no mood to play second fiddle to another man's vision.
In Rawlings' words
By the time poet Sidney Lanier arrived in the early 1870s, steamboats routinely plied the river, and early tourists rode the boats down into the heart of Florida's wild interior as snowbirds today ride Interstate 4.
They stayed in opulent hotels in Green Cove Springs, Palatka and Enterprise. The weather, the river and its springs were thought to be "salubrious" -- capable of curing everything from TB to insomnia. Hired to write a guidebook for a steamboat company that sailed this "Nile of the Americas," Lanier became particularly fascinated with the spring-fed Ocklawaha tributary. "[It was] as if God had turned into water and trees the recollection of some meditative ramble through the lonely seclusions of his own soul," wrote Lanier.
In the early 20th century, novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings launched a two-woman excursion on the St. Johns, putting in east of Orlando near Puzzle Lake.
She and Dessie Prescott puttered downstream in a small motorboat to the OcklawahaRiver, camping along the way. At the mouth of the Ocklawaha, they turned west and went upstream until they reached Lake Lochloosa and Rawlings' little cracker farm. In a chapter of Cross Creek, Rawlings wrote of that experience: "If I could have, to hold forever, one brief place and time of beauty," she said, "I think I might choose the night on that high lonely bank above the St. Johns River."
Ironically, Rawlings' visit came at the end of the steamboat era, when the fancy winter hotels and resorts along the St. Johns were falling into disrepair. Many crop growers who had prospered in the rich muck of the river were moving South to escape the occasional killer freezers. At the same time, Flagler's railroads siphoned off tourist traffic to the coasts, and steamboat lines began to go bankrupt.
Paddlewheelers were left to simply sink in the mud. Smaller landings, such asSt. Francis, disappeared. As the authors of Parade of Diversities observed in 1943: "In time, it was only the exceptional tourist who returned to the well-nigh deserted St. Johns."
And so by the end of the 20th century, the "Nile of the Americas" had lost its luster, its artistic legacies unseen to all but an enterprising few willing to re-learn just how impressive -- and influential-- this Florida river had once been.
Today the St. Johns remains, flowing timeless and sure. And by more closely examining its waters, its woods and its ruins, we can kindle our own appreciation for its natural and cultural values. In our acts of obeisance, we pay homage to one of the most significant rivers in all of North America -- recapturing the sanctity it enjoyed, from the Timucua to Bartram to Rawlings.
Bill Belleville is the author of "River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River"; he also scripted and co-produced a film on the St. Johns, "In Search of Xanadu," which aired on PBS stations statewide.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun