Springs eternal?

For this photographer, years capturing the beauty of Florida’s “bowls of liquid light” revealed a hard truth: Our wondrous springs are in deadly peril


Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 4:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 4:01 p.m.

I often wonder what Florida must have looked like to Juan Ponce de León and those other early European explorers, pushing forth into the interior of the peninsula in what surely was a remarkable odyssey of discovery.

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Look Into the Eye, Silver Glen Springs, 2012 photo by John Moran/JohnMoranPhoto.com

We know now that Ponce wasn’t really searching for a Fountain of Youth, but as a child growing up in Florida, that myth took hold of me and never really let go. Like many of you, I’ve been on a quest of my own, seeking out these pools of stunning blue wonder that are the springs of Florida.

When I moved from South Florida to attend the University of Florida in 1973, I knew what a freshwater spring looked like. I’d never been to a spring before, but every schoolchild in Florida grows up seeing pictures of the glass-bottom boat rides at Silver Springs, or the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee.

Soon I was venturing out from Gainesville to see for myself, and I found my way to Ginnie and Poe and Blue Springs. I went spring-hopping on the Suwannee and then on to the big springs of the Ocala National Forest.

Nothing had prepared me for the experience of standing there in real time, beholding these incredible gems of the Florida landscape. And so began my personal odyssey of discovery.

Florida is home to the largest and most impressive array of freshwater springs in the world. These “bowls of liquid light,” in the words of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, have lured explorers and artists and tourists and investors since the time of the Timucua.

And yet, 500 years after the arrival of Ponce de Leon on his mythical search, our real magic fountains are imperiled by pollution, neglect and the groundwater demands of a thirsty state.

Some have stopped flowing and many are choked with algae, their blue waters turning murky and green. Once a source of awe, our springs are now a source of deep concern, their future unclear.

As the Everglades are to South Florida, our unique and irreplaceable springs define the health and identity of our region and state. They are our blue-water calling card to the nation and the world.

Our springs are world-class treasures. They deserve world-class protection.

As civilized people, we need to develop ways to grow our food and dispose of our waste without depleting and defiling the source of our water. For the measure of a civilization is not merely what it creates, but what it refuses to destroy.

The vast Floridan Aquifer, the source of our drinking water and our springs, is neither invulnerable to pollution nor is it infinite. Withdrawals are exceeding deposits in our bank of liquid assets, and saltwater intrusion is rising.

The average Floridian uses a wasteful 134 gallons of fresh water every day. Our population is expected to double in the next half century, and the old ways of using water simply are not sustainable.

Water is what sustains us, connects us, defines us. Water is the lifeblood of Florida.

Go to a spring today. Dive in! In your body and in your heart, feel what a gift beyond measure it is to call this place home.

About the exhibit

For the past 30 years, photographer John Moran has chronicled the beauty of Florida’s springs. “Springs Eternal: Florida’s Fragile Fountains of Youth” debuted as a picture exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History on March 23, where it will run through December before moving on to other venues statewide.

Moran’s story here is excerpted from the text accompanying the exhibit. To learn more and see a photo preview, go to JohnMoranPhoto.com.

The exhibit is part of the larger Springs Eternal Project, which also will feature Lesley Gamble’s Urban Aquifer, a fleet of Regional Transit System buses wrapped in full-scale images of the springs taken by artists including Moran, Margaret Tolbert, Tom Morris, Jill Heinerth, David Moynahan and Mark Long. QR matrix barcodes on the buses link viewers to a Springs Eternal Project website, offering information about featured springs, including news, history, local stories, science and relevant public policy.

Running concurrently with “Springs Eternal” at the museum is “Finding the Fountain of Youth: Exploring the Myth of Florida’s Magical Waters,” based on an upcoming book by Rick Kilby. It examines how the legend of Ponce de Leon’s quest for restorative waters shaped the Sunshine State’s image as a land of fantasy, rejuvenation, and magical spring-fed waters. Rich in images, this exhibition shows how the myths surrounding the discovery of “La Florida” influenced perceptions of the state that still echo today.

As part of the Florida Museum of Natural History Earth Day observance on Saturday, April 20, John Moran, Lesley Gamble and Rick Kilby will participate in a panel discussion to be moderated by journalist and author Cynthia Barnett. There is no charge to attend the event and the exhibits are open to the public. The panel discussion begins at 11 a.m. Barnett is the author of “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis,” which was named one of the top 10 science books of 2011 by The Boston Globe.

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