Dispatches from the Cypress Cities
Since the pandemic began, I’ve been looking for a canoe. The internet is a swamp of backorders, thousands of us waitlisted, pining for bikes and boats. Everyone says get a kayak if you want to go out alone, but those are sold out too, and besides: I want a canoe. I covet a thirteen-footer, something I can slide onto my truck by myself, tip over my head and carry like a mollusk, or set on wheels and roll down the launch. You can lay down in a canoe, turn it over for shelter, pack a sleeping bag and tent and victuals and a pillow. You can knock wild rice into the belly, cut tresses of seaweed and fling them in, bend a branch of elder and harvest panicles of purple blackberries over the baskets balanced between your knees.
So I call up Kaleb.
Why canoe alone, he says, that’s not the point.
It’s winter, I say, let’s go to Florida.
I’ll convince Havely, he says, it won’t take much.
For three nights we sleep along the western boundary of the Ocala National Forest, formed by the dark waters of the Ocklawaha, a Creek word meaning muddy, and then four nights more along the Withlacoochee, whose name refers to its great fluctuations, little big water. I dream opaque, troubling storylines that wake me before dawn, sticky. By headlamp, I extract a tick from my nipple and lay in my sleeping bag, pressing echinacea-soaked gauze to the bite. When I hear Havely rustling, I recruit her to the field with me, where we lunge and squat and throw jumping jacks. The morning light catches webs, tiny hammocks in the short grass sagging with the weight of dew. At camp, Kaleb is frying bacon. His truck is the kitchen table, the party zone, tricked-out with platform bed, shelving, bug netting, sky light. He has an old fruit box filled with bottled condiments and labeled spice jars, Japanese cooking knives, cast iron pan, wooden spoons, spatula, can opener, grater, wine cork. Over the little stove he set up on the tailgate, he cracks three eggs and asks if we heard the helicopters going all night, the beams of light passing over. People like to hide in the swamps, he says.
Smelling fatty meat, a dog rockets into camp like a bowling ball. Pitbull in the face, she stands eighteen inches tall and weighs at least forty pounds, dense like a pig wrapped in pearl gray velvet, white-splashed feet. She grins and wags her whole body with forceful glee, nearly decking me. She has escaped the next site over, where a family is crammed in along the river, a little boy, two teenagers, two parents, a grandma with long blonde hair. The boy comes over hollering with a lisp, Sorry! and Bad dog! and Xena you get here. He tries to catch the small tank running circles around us. The teen girl arrives, sullen, saying, She never behaves, and then the father, a Viking with legs like small trees, smiling down from the hood of his sweatshirt.
I tell them we don’t mind Xena and the dad says, Well I guess she can visit so long as she behaves, which, truthfully, Xena seems to understand. The little boy tells me that her ears used to stand straight up, that she had hematomas and that’s why they’re hardened into wrinkles like dried mushrooms. Viking dad says they are Floridians, on the road full-time now, camping on public and conservation lands, indefinitely. I imagine how ecstatic I would be to spend my school days like these kids, how fragile the arrangement might feel to their parents. I wonder how far $1,200 emergency assistance can stretch, if the pandemic swallowed their jobs, if the landlord evicted them. The mother arrives wearing the flowered skirt I’ve seen her in every day, long braid tossed over one shoulder. She looks like the planks and ribbing of her are cracked, splices dried out. She shakes her head at the dog and hands me a tiny cactus in a plastic pot. It was an impulse buy, she says, my husband says we can’t fit one more thing in this life.
Our first paddling day is on the Silver River. Mid-morning, Kaleb pulls the truck up along the old steamboat landing that serves as a launch. Kids swarm, mostly masked, while parents hold life jackets and half-attempt to corral their offspring. Havely brings the wheels and chair from the truck bed to Kaleb in the driver’s seat while I climb on top and release the ratchet straps holding the boat. Kaleb wheels his chair away from the truck and sights the truck roof while Havely and I take the bow in our hands. Arms stretched overhead, we tip and slide according to Kaleb’s feedback as to how close we come to smashing the roof window, like three people trying to parallel park. We’ve gotten it most of the way down, when suddenly I can’t reach anymore. The canoe floats out of my hands; I fall over a rock, trying to keep my hands on the gunnels. I wheel to encounter three unmasked, middle-aged white men. Without a word they have taken the canoe from us, setting it wrong side down in the grass.
Later, on the water, Havely and I fume. I ask Kaleb, Does this happen to you?
All the time, he says. It’s not helpful if it’s not consensual.
Like a great number of humans throughout history, the main way Kaleb navigates the backcountry is by canoe, since he broke several thoracic vertebrae more than a decade ago. We met in our mid-twenties, and from the get-go we sparred over notions about which we each felt moral certitude. I figured he was just like everyone I was related to, family. He had a repertoire of gross teenage jokes, thought capitalism was a scam, knew how to skin a bear, was fluent in the night sky. In a canoe, it’s always easier to have at least two people, no matter your capacities. In a canoe, your legs aren’t the most important thing. You don’t have to stand or walk, particularly if you have companions who can help get the boat in and out of the water, or else one might devise clever methods with wheels or ropes or sleds.
Where the launch meets the water, Havely disappears into the pines for a costume change. I push the boat three-quarters into clear water, straddle the stern, and press my feet into the sandy bank on either side to stabilize. Kaleb grabs the gunnels, lifts himself from chair to steering, wiggling his rear at me in the moment of suspension. I snort, grab the cushion from the chair, slide it over the canoe seat before he settles in. With both hands I heft the chair and pass it to Kaleb, who sets the chair in the boat before him, folding the seat down and hooking it in with a carabiner. Then he takes the paddle he made out of white ash—same as a baseball bat— and turns the boat around, bow to the shore.
Havely and I load in camera, water jugs, notebook, carrots and apples and sardines and chocolate, button-down dress shirt for sunshade. I take first shift in the bow while Havely settles on a pile of life jackets in the belly. This nearly twenty-foot, wide-belly canoe is an ideal situation for the three of us. We are human “crustaceans with our rib-and-planking exoskeletons,” as John McPhee wrote of soft bodies in a canoe. Restless and athletic though the three of us are, collectively we are piles of soft bones, twisting vertebrae, spinal discs gnawed by autoimmunity. I’m aware of this always, in a car or holding a cast-iron pan, how fragile we are in these meat suits. Water is a kinder way to carry a campsite, and on this cushion of river, fingers curled around the T of the paddle, my body reverberates with diluvian knowledge, water hugging bones. “To this day,” McPhee confessed, “I do not feel complete or safe unless I am surrounded by the protective shape of a canoe.”
I grew up in an abundance of river drainages along the Carolina coast, but never have I seen such a river. Just east of Ocala in Marion County, north central Florida, more than five hundred million gallons of artesian water bubble daily from fissures in vast limestone aquifers—six basins with thirty springs within a mile span—to feed the Silver River. For 150 years tourists have been coming to the Silver Springs, the oldest commercial attraction in Florida, home of the first glass-bottom boats and the pine-board forts for the Tarzan films of the 1930s. Because of the long-standing human presence here, the wildlife is not shy, turtles and alligators and waterfowl perched and tucked and sunning on branches and surfaces, glinting like a thick crust of gemstone. I am struck all over again by the bizarre wonderland of Florida, the vibe of Wild West meets plastic trinkets meets white nationalism meets Seminole territory, the metropolis at its tip a doorway to and from Latin America. On this spit of a state, the long north-south axis offers ecosystems as diverse as the far-longer California, thick with orchids and bromeliads, bison and wild horses, all arising and converging in watersheds sliding inexorably into the Gulf and tropical seas.
We push off amidst throngs of double kayaks and transparent fiberglass duckies, through which paddlers can behold cormorants diving and yellow-striped cooters breast-stroking. There is little call for power paddling just yet, dumbstruck as we are at the light reflecting through the aquamarine spring-fed river. Kaleb is a consummate and unceremonious guide. Like a pied-billed grebe, he has dipped south for the past eleven winters to Florida stomping grounds, equipped with two sets of binoculars through which to identify waterfowl and giant lizards. He tells outrageous stories that make the rectangular glasses slide down his nose, and he likes to eye his listeners over the rim during gruesome detail. His hair is dirty blonde, short on the sides with a meringue peak on top and a wisp of mullet at the back, a few minimalist lines inked on the rim of an ear. His wheelchair is all-black, made for sports and off-roading. It’s gone with him hunting nutria in the Carolina piedmont, and once he lost most of a chair in the Chilkat River of southeast Alaska. He can turn out a banquet over a fire, pitch tarps, sharpen blades, carve spoons, and, most beloved to me, identify an astonishing variety of living things.
Kaleb points out creatures and we say the names back to him, quizzing ourselves when a familiar form emerges. All around us, it seems word has got out that it’s light-collecting time. Black cormorants hang their wings out to dry like sun-tolerant vampires, and we learn to differentiate them from the anhingas here in their northernmost reach, whose dorsal feathers are streaked with white. The anhingas hold creepily still in the sun, surrealist film stars accustomed to limelight. Unlike other diving waterfowl, these two species dive so deep that they can’t be bothered by the feather oils that ducks and geese depend upon for warmth and shedding water. Along trees fallen half in the water, ten or more yellow-eared sliders pile in the sun, dark, sleek shells squished alongside one another. Kaleb calls them the original solar panels for the way they rest on their bellies, necks extended long, reaching skyward with arms and legs, webbed feet spread wide, catching as much of the winter rays as they can. It’s unbearably adorable.
Do you see it? Kaleb asks as we paddle over another deep rift in the limestone. Shadowy and half disappeared into the muck is an old dugout canoe, motionless at least thirty feet below us. Here’s what you do when you find a sunken canoe: nothing. The State of Florida Division of Historical Resources is very specific about some things. Don’t Introduce Any Non-Native Species Unless They are Fathead Minnow, Variable Platy, Coturnix Quail, or Ring-necked Pheasant. Don’t Feed the Monkeys Bread, Peanuts, or Anything Else. And Don’t Think About Touching Fragile Prehistoric Dugout Canoes. Over 200 sites in Florida have recorded more than 400 dugout canoe artifacts. Although anaerobic muck has preserved such relics for the past 7,000-10,000 years across the globe, pre-colonial canoes are fragile in the extreme, and conservation processes for those that are removed from their anaerobic locations take years to stabilize the wood for preservation. Once the ancient remains are exposed to light and air, microbes and fungi decompose the waterlogged wood as if under time-lapse photography.
These days we paddle aluminum, Royalex, Kevlar, or fibers infused at high temperature with epoxy resin. While the primary craft in the Northeastern and upper Midwest waterways was the birch bark canoe—birch peel stretched over light ribbing, lashed with roots, sealed with pitch—here in the sub-tropics, the dugout canoe was the design of choice, crafted by fire, shell, stone, and bone. In warm, humid climates like the Gulf coast, dugout design is long-bodied, hewn from cypress or yellow pine whose heartwood grew off-center, closer to one side of the trunk than center. The tree trunk is hewn into rough shape with points at either end, bow upturned for better passage through sawgrass, before being buried in mud for up to two years, when the half-carved vessel is disentombed, wiped clean, and left to slow-dry for half a moon cycle. Then the boatwright tends fires in the bowl of the canoe, scraping away coal and ash to carve the belly. The high temperatures of the continuous fire causes sap to turn to resin, water-proofing the vessel and deterring insects. As the canoe maker carves and scrapes, a kid stands by with a sturdy stick, hitting the sides of the canoe at intervals while the builder listens for the vibrations. The vessel has reached the correct thickness when the vibrations ring a certain pitch.
Today one-fifth of the Florida geography is covered by water, but during warmer epochs, the Florida peninsula was an even narrower spit of land than what the highways stick to now. Into the early 20th century, the Florida Seminole could fit a family, their camp, and trade wares into a canoe as they moved seasonally among hammocks of land, sometimes with two dugouts lashed together. More than a few archaeologists have suggested that humans moved out of Africa by navigating the Pacific in hand-hewn dugouts, and that the first people of the Americas came in canoes and kayaks across the Bering strait and down the length of the Pacific coast of the Americas, pulling themselves across giant kelp forests.
On the quiet water, Havely and I trade places in the boat. We got into a lot of trouble once, she and I. That’s when the cracks in the world became crazed and clear to me, ten years ago. Sometimes I am stunned that we made it to our third decade. Here we are, salting hard-boiled eggs as the sun shatters the water along the cypress. Havely loves tragic novels and incongruent textures and tiny plants. She is leggy and fair and casually chic like a model for Scandinavian sweaters, always wearing rich tones, gold and bile and coral. She’s a never-boring combination of cautious, truthsome, rapt, and reckless.
The likenesses between the bowl of the human pelvis and the dish of a canoe are endlessly amusing to me, and I pester Havely for her expertise as a pelvic-floor physical therapist. Whereas I am wont to think of the human pelvis as a cauldron or a ten-way traffic jam, Havely spins poetics and cliffhangers out of sacra and obturators and iliopubic eminence. Shapely similarities notwithstanding, both vessels are sturdy, tested designs whose resilience depends somewhat on the attention of their pilots. Both ferry passengers over partially charted waters, insofar as any map allows. With the basic geometry of an orchid, the canoe is simple as a cradle, a water-hammock that rocks sleepers and carries paddlers over frothy rapids and white-capped ocean, an open-face torpedo. Each day in a boat is a fresh unknown.
There we are, squinting and ogling the murky dugout, when a young manatee appears along the dark vent, not ten feet below the boat. In a tactical hurry, Kaleb angles the boat so the glare on the water doesn’t blind us. Three feet below floats a gray-hided angel, laced in water-refracted sun, utterly still, a dear sea cow. There is nothing bulbous or preposterous or cartoonish about it. I am filled with love for the broad round tail and the whiskery cleft snout, the sheer aesthetic choice of winter habitat, the unhurried nature. Foraging vegetation in saltwater shallows and intercoastal waterways, manatees seek warmer rivers in winter, including waters warmed by power plants. To sleep they drift on the bottom with fins crossed over their hearts, coming up for air every twenty minutes. To make babies, they attend underwater orgies called mating herds, after which the female sometimes temporarily beaches herself to get away from the frenzy. As for us, an hour later rounding a bend toward what sounds like a nightclub, we come upon two jet skiers blasting Michael Jackson over the roar of their motors. They point at the middle of the river ahead of us. Three manatees surface and disappear, leaving giant, widening circles on the surface as their tails beat slow, powerful propulsions. In less than a minute, one resurfaces, a sweater of yellow-green algae along its spine. Havely reaches out and trails her fingers along its back toward gnarled propeller scars, at least a foot long, above the tail. Manatees are slow, easy prey, quickly overtaken by motorized vessels. We continue downriver, quiet.
Every morning I wake up, I feel the hourglass flipped anew. For my whole life, I have left for the woods or field or shore for refuge, a pivot toward other realities. At some point in the history of letters, to admire the rush of green in an April meadow or a creek tumbling through birch woods was a pure pursuit, a flood of oxytocin in the arms of our origins. For many who grew up watching Captain Planet and breakfasting on Pop-Tarts—that is, people my age and younger—the experience of being “in nature” still sometimes produces in us poetic odes to volatile gods, catalogues of high wilderness romance, nostalgia for the pre-industrial pastoral of these things, smashed together. But what looms largest is the dying, the end of things, the friable tissues of resilient systems trampled and extracted at rates too high for any living thing to accommodate. A basic understanding of death is not what guilds and guts every biophilic moment for me. Even without oil refineries and pharmaceuticals flushed down toilets, the planet and its shale and lizards and maples would be cracking, rotting, aging, weathering to sand and drifting out to sea, hitching to the star of a new mutation, adapting or not. Fragility is built in, disintegration the end-goal. The diaphanous quality of a life cycle is excruciatingly lovely at the speed of decay and regeneration, mutual ecologies where a frailty in one place is shored up by sturdiness in another. Everything dies, but it is the rate of death at which my hairs stand on end, the velocity of ruination, warp speed extermination, expedited dissolution. In an ableist worldview, we demand that the earth keep up. But vigor isn’t an individual aptitude; it is the assembled contributions of a million fragile participants.
My eyes ache from fear of blinking throughout the seven miles looping past century-old Tarzan sets along the Silver River. I am desperate to gain pattern recognition, to track alligator eyes breaking the surface, scout iridescent green heron in the cypress, catch jumping mullet arcing over the surface. Flocks of white ibis with long, goofy orange bills preen and keep watch in trees, hardly ever alone. At intervals we are caught by waterfalls of them, hundreds spilling out of the canopy of maple and cypress, pouring over the open river and into the arms of another neighborhood of branches, some settling to feed in the swamp below. They squawk and snort like pigs and use their bills like sewing machines, stabbing rapidly into the water and muck, searching out small fish, snails, and crawdads. Nearly always one or ten great egrets, taller and girthy, stouter of bill, stand in the snowy ibis’ midst, jockeying over the heads of their smaller camouflage, necks stretched out from the iconic S-shape elegance, harsh calls thrown back and forth through the cypress knees and trunks.
We are not far from the take-out when we see the macaques. Tucked down in the grasses below thick-trunked maple and hickory or squatting in the tree crotches, they bear a raw-pink mask from eyes to mouth, cream-colored chest fur, rusty bronze crowns and capes, and, on some of the females, a bright red rump. We’ve been instructed by abundant signage to not feed the monkeys, neither bread crusts nor peanuts nor sardines, since the simians carry hepatitis B virus, which could be transmitted to, say, a seven-year-old human, by a bite to an arm holding out the crust of a peanut butter sandwich. A large macaque extends its head to watch our canoe, and from the boat, lingering in the slow current, I am struck by the memory of my brother’s large-lobed flappers at age two. Havely and I take turns standing up with the extra binoculars, an acrobatic endeavor that requires a wide stance on the bottom of the boat while attempting to locate mercurial creatures through the swimming circles of the lenses. Kaleb had told us not to get our hopes up for monkey sightings, as many of the troops had been culled in the last twenty years, sent to corporate research labs, zoos, and unknown destinations. The lemurs, gibbons, and spider monkeys that once roamed the area are no longer, but these small rhesus macaque troops persist, feeding on fruit, bird eggs, insects, seeds, and roots, up to thirty-five years of age in the wild. In a flurry of motion, we witness an adult knuckle the head of a very small monkey, who scurries into the arms of one we guess is the mother. The baby wraps arms and legs around the parent’s torso, and they set off into the trees away from the river.
I wait with the boat at the take-out, while Kaleb and Havely shuttle the cars. The sky is a periwinkle light, the treetops thick with dragonflies and a few bats who take mosquitos out of the sky audibly. I shiver in my damp clothes while housing rice crackers, sardines, a bag of snap peas, squares of bitter chocolate. When I notice the great blue heron, at least three feet tall, making a slow, circuitous route toward me, I decide to take the empty fish can down to the river to rinse. When I return to the picnic table, the heron hasn’t lost his laser focus, circling me with slow, stilted steps, like a long-shanked pre-teen lurking uncertainly at the edge of the gymnasium, summoning the gumption to ask for a dance. I realize I haven’t seen these royal birds out of the water, on dry land. I am unnerved by his singular focus. I put my head down to scribble in my journal. When I look up, his brilliant eyes are feet away.
And then, of course, comes the man, short and wide in jeans and a leather jacket. He has been standing near the launch with no apparent task, and I can feel the moment he decides to walk my way. The heron turns toward him, nonplussed by the intruder in his hunting territory. The top three buttons of the man’s shirt are undone, the triangle of hair nesting two gold chains, and his tanned face is deeply creased. He asks me if I’m alone, if I went out on the river, whether I saw the otters, all the while chain-smoking clove cigarettes pinched in a short, brown holder. I feel the emptiness of the parking lot. He doesn’t stop talking, not even to listen to the answers I supply to his questions, which include saying that my friends are coming back soon, which he doesn’t seem to hear. Maybe he can’t; maybe he’s lonely and harmless. The heron paces around us.
The man’s name is Ray, he lives eight minutes up the highway, and he comes here every afternoon to watch the people ineptly maneuver their trailers and boats, unload kayaks and struggle out of life jackets. I wonder if he is retired or has lost his job in the pandemic. I ask him about the heron and he says, Oh yeah, we’re pals, this guy is always here, scrounging, it’s a good life. I think about all the herons I’ve seen today, pearly gray plumage and lack of fluster, the soaring ceilings of maple and hickory on which they perch and the clear feeding grounds among the cypress knees.
All year we have been in quarantine. I am familiar with aloneness, the frailty of a human without a pack, what men might do in dark, empty parking lots. He is a grainy form in the dying light, still talking, when headlights and the sturdy silhouette of Kaleb’s truck turn into the lot. I am not one anymore; now I am three, a flock. Havely and I load the boat onto the truck while Ray comments. I allow myself a breath of his loneliness, the spider filament he cast toward me. The thread grows tense as we drive away, until it snaps at fifty miles per hour on the highway, slack and spooled out along the asphalt.
At our camp by the murmuring Withlacoochee, we scrounge firewood while Kaleb seasons venison steaks to go with a carrot-apple slaw and wild rice. The site next door is lit up, two jeeps, bicycles with headlight, a pop-up camper, two tents, R&B and pop country blasting from a small generator. Xena guards the perimeter. Some carry the boat and some steer. Joints and bones, boats and buildings shudder and crumble, and we stay afloat by hand and paw, mutual grooming, filling in each other’s gaps. I think of the gas station graffiti in Gainesville, where I had sat on a toilet reading Gloria Anzaldua paraphrased in permanent marker on the green tile wall: “Piss off with stardom, let’s be a constellation.” In the cypress woods where the sun just set, barred owls call back at different registers, trailing throaty gurgles, like my parents when I call home, shouting across the house to pick up the phone, shushing and interrupting through the wires. Across the gloaming on the river, hundreds of ibis fuss and settle into cypress sleeping quarters, secure in their numbers.
NAOMI ULLIAN performs with the acrobatic theater company Big Teeth and holds an MA in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives along the West River in Windham County, Vermont, in the company of feuding barred owls and a carousing black bear. www.naomiullian.com.