All posts by Rob

About Rob

Rob Diaz de Villegas is a senior producer and editor for WFSU-TV. Rob covers ecology, managing the National Science Foundation funded In the Grass, On the Reef project. Previously, Rob produced and directed WFSU’s music program, outloud. He has also produced a number of ecology and music related documentaries and was selected the PBS Producers Workshop, a program that grooms up-and-coming producers to create programs for national broadcast.

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Bird Watching & Nature Writing: Susan Cerulean at Bald Point

Video: bird watching, nature writing, and possibly the best sunrise spot on the Forgotten Coast. Author Susan Cerulean joins us at Bald Point State Park.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Susan Cerulean and I are watching a bufflehead duck dive for food by an oyster reef.  We’re at Bald Point State Park, and Susan is putting me in tune with nature’s cycles.  “You can’t know when that last one’s left,” she says of the duck, which should soon be departing for the north.  This is the seasonal cycle, warming and cooling that spurs many of the birds we’re seeing to start continental and intercontinental flights.

We’re here to see as many shorebirds as possible, so we arrive at low tide.  Today, that happens to coincide with sunrise.  Lunar and solar cycles.  In fact, the full moon has exposed quite the sand flat, an epic low tide that we enjoy throughout the morning, as do foraging dunlin and ruddy turnstones.  Further off, pelicans and least terns sit at the water’s edge.  Through the simple act of scheduling our shoot when we did, I’ve already gotten quite a lesson in the cycles of the natural world.

sunriseBald Point provides a sunrise vista that’s uncommon on our Forgotten Coast.  Here, the coast faces straight east into Apalachee Bay, meaning you get to see the sun rise out of the water.  While the park doesn’t open until 8 am, there is sunrise beach access along Bald Point Road (Consult this brochure for a map).  It’s an hour away from Tallahassee, but I need to come out and start my day here more often.

Once you do get past that gate, you can walk on the beach or up onto observation platforms at the mouth of the Ochlockonee River.  Today, the extra-low tide exposes something of an oyster reef maze.  I should have guessed from where I was going that there would be reefs; instead I’m kicking myself for not bringing my “oyster shoes.”  That’s my nickname for the old shoes I would save from the trash for my shoots with David Kimbro and Randall Hughes.  Many of those took place on the other side of this park in the oyster reefs of Alligator Harbor, where I started following their research for the In the Grass, On the Reef project.  Oysters are sharp and are unkind to feet and footwear; it’s best not to bring your favorite pair of shoes.  Oyster reefs are a great place to see birds, as they shelter so many invertebrates.  Walking on a reef, if you really look, you’ll see stone crabs, mud crabs, and various predatory snails.  Birds love to eat these and the many small fish and shrimp that hide in the crags of submerged oyster clumps.  It was no surprise to see, as you may have noted in the video above, fishermen and shrimp boats reaping the bounty of the estuary systems at the mouth of the river.

Oyster reefs also line the edges of Chaires Creek, a couple of miles of winding marshy stream leading to Lake Tucker.  I’ve not paddled it, but I have accompanied fishermen retrieving traps full of blue crabs here.  There is a boat launch at Lake Tucker, so you can put in kayaks or a boat and maybe go after some of the big fish that forage in intertidal systems.

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Oyster reefs will cut up your shoes. They can have a strong smell. And the mud around them can be treacherous. I will always love walking on and around them.

Coming To Pass

Susan Cerulean's newest book, Coming to Pass.  Cover art by David Moynahan.

Susan Cerulean’s newest book, Coming to Pass. Cover art by David Moynahan.

Bald Point nicely encapsulates much of what we love about the Forgotten Coast.  Susan has spent the last eight years writing a book that captures the very heart of this region; appreciating what we have while we still have it.  “Like those buffleheads- you can’t know when the last one’s left,” She says.  “And that’s sort of how I feel about our coast.”

Specifically, she’s writing about the barrier islands of the Forgotten Coast: Dog Island, St. George Island, and St. Vincent Island.  These islands were created by sediments carried from the Appalachian Mountains via the Apalachicola River.  They physically contain the river’s fresh water, creating what had been, until a couple of years ago, one of the nation’s most productive estuaries.  We often think of the peril faced by that estuary as it struggles to receive freshwater in the quantity and with the consistency that it needs.  However, the islands themselves are in trouble, being slowly swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico.

Coming to Pass is the result of a journey that started with Susan interviewing her husband, FSU oceanographer Dr. Jeff Chanton.  Over eight years, she researched, she visited the people who live and make their living from the coast, she walked from one end of St. Vincent Island to the other.  The book is about more than sea level rise.  But that is the focus.

In the linked pdf produced by Gulf of Mexico Coastal Training, you can see that it projects to be a slow process.  In the 2100 map, St. George looks to lose a little bit of coastline but St. Vincent looks like it’s falling apart.  Aside from helping to create the estuary, the islands are a key stop for already diminishing flocks of migratory birds.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Susan Cerulean at Bald Point State Park.

Over decades of shorebird counts, Susan has seen big declines in the abundances of each species.  “We’re not really set up to see these changes with eyes and senses so much.”  She still sees all of the types of birds, but the quantities of each have been shrinking.  During those decades, more and more coastline has been developed and habitat lost.  Sea level rise threatens to claim more of that habitat.

Luckily, that process is slow.  For Susan, it means that we can still do something about it.  “I’m grounded in knowing what’s at stake and what’s been lost” Susan says. “But I feel if you only go that far, it’s a dead end.  ‘Well, okay then, let’s just have a party.’  But where does that leave the children?”  Judging by the passages she read in the video (and the one we didn’t use), this is not a depressing book about our destruction of the planet.  It’s as much about the islands themselves, and the bay, and all those things we love.  In a way, it feels like a wake up call.  Here’s the thing we love; now please don’t let it go away.

Word of South

Susan’s friend, Velma Frye, provided us with two tracks to use in the video.  The two of them will be collaborating for a performance piece in the upcoming Word of South Festival that’s hitting Tallahassee’s Cascades Park on April 11 and 12 (it says rain or shine, which is brave for a location that’s designed to flood).  They’re still working on the specifics of combining Susan’s words with Velma’s music, but Velma described it to me like this: “I’ll begin an instrumental introduction to deepen the response as Sue is still reading and later she will resume reading after I have finished singing the song and am playing a long coda, like wind and water interacting.”

Two of Word of South’s organizers, Mark Mustian and Mandy Stringer, joined Julz Graham on Dimensions this week.  Watch the interview to learn more about the festival.

There are Other Nature Blogs on the Internet

Yes, it’s true, this isn’t the only one.  I normally try to shelter readers from this fact, but I would like to mention that Susan Cerulean has a blog that she started after completing Coming to Pass.  I had been reading it, and throughly enjoying it, when one day I thought to myself “I bet a day with Susan on the coast would make a good video.” I’ll leave that for you to decide; regardless, I enjoyed the process.

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Volunteers’ Labor of Love: The Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve

Video: The dimpled trout lily isn’t a rare plant, but it is rare to see them as far south as Grady, County Georgia. There, volunteers from the Magnolia chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society set up a preserve for an unusually large concentration of the bright yellow winter flower. We visit the preserve and talk to members of the Magnolia chapter about the plants in our biodiverse region.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Tiny little flowers; big vistas seen from an airplane.  You’re not going to see our forests’  unique flowers from a plane or in a satellite image, not without serious advances in telescopy that would include the ability to see through tree cover.  But there is a lot to be learned about what makes these flowers thrive by taking a look at a larger picture.  In the video above, Wilson Baker presents a theory that attributes a concentration of dimpled trout lilies to the geology of the Red Hills region.  In the interview that followed that segment in tonight’s Dimensions broadcast, Amy Jenkins explains how she uses aerial photographs to better understand fire dependent habitats in the Apalachicola National Forest.  That includes flowers like the highly endangered Harper’s beauty and the diversity of carnivorous plants that call the forest home.

The Dimpled Trout Lily

Wilson Baker is considered one of our area's foremost naturalists.  Formerly a biologist with Tall Timbers Research Station, Wilson's curiosity led him into the woods around Wolf Creek.  There, he found acres of trout lily in a bright yellow carpet.

Wilson Baker is considered one of our area’s foremost naturalists. Formerly a biologist with Tall Timbers Research Station, Wilson’s curiosity led him into the woods around Wolf Creek. There, he found acres of trout lilies in a bright yellow carpet.

Ten years ago, Wilson went exploring what was then a private timber operation in Grady County, Georgia when he came upon a vast yellow carpet of dimpled trout lilies.  The flowers are common in the Appalachian Mountains, but not in the large concentrations he was seeing here at the extreme southern edge of their range.  This out of place “floral display,” as Wilson calls it, inspired the Magnolia Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society and the Georgia Botanical Society to raise money to buy the land for Grady County.  Since Grady County didn’t have funds to staff it, volunteers maintain the Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve and lead tours during peak flower seasons.

Wilson wondered why this spot was blessed with such an unusual biological gift.  The theory he offers in the video is that the red clay under the flowers keeps the ground moister than another kind of soil might.  That heaviness of the clay gives the Red Hills region a special relationship with water.  As we outlined in our recent EcoShakespeare post on Wakulla Springs, that part of Georgia is the streams region of the Wakulla Springshed.  The clay is so thick that most rain rolls off of it and into streams such as the eponymous Wolf Creek (which itself feeds the Ochlockonee River).  Only one inch of rain per year fills the Floridan Aquifer in this region, but that water is slowly filtered by clay and is considered exceptionally clean.  I hadn’t given much thought to what water was doing to the surface above the clay.  The trout lilies on the preserve lie on a long slope down to the creek, facing the east.  It might just be a rare combination of a specific exposure to sun and a certain amount of wetness has given us, for just a few short weeks every year, a splash of color in an otherwise grayish winter.

Rare Plants of the Apalachicola National Forest

Harperocallis flava, also known as Harper's beauty.  Like many of the most striking flowers in the Apalachicola National Forest, this endangered plant is dependent on fire.

Harperocallis flava, also known as Harper’s beauty. Like many of the most striking flowers in the Apalachicola National Forest, this endangered plant is dependent on fire.  Photo by Amy Miller Jenkins.

Like the trout lily, many of the unique flowers in the Apalachicola National Forest prefer moist areas, but with a twist.  Where trout lilies are located in hardwood forests where the ground is relatively wet, flowers such as Harper’s beauty live between wetter hardwood and dryer pine flat wood habitats.  That means Harperocallis and its carnivorous plant neighbors are on moist ground, but are also exposed to fire.  Evidence of fire- or lack thereof- is what Florida Natural Areas Inventory‘s Amy Jenkins is looking for in historic aerial photographs.

If you watched our SciGirls EcoAdventure at Tall Timbers last summer, you might be able to figure out what Amy is looking for when she compares historical and current aerial photos.  In that video, we made a triple split screen showing plots of land burned at one, two, and three year intervals.  Fire kills hardwoods and shrubs, so more frequently burned land (like the one-year plot) has more open space between fire resistant longleaf pine trees than infrequently burned land (like the three year burn plot).  When Amy compares the two sets of photos, she’s looking for shrubs.  If a modern pic has shrubs where they hadn’t been before, it may be that fire is being excluded where it shouldn’t.  With this knowledge, the US Forest Service can resume burning those locations and possibly create more habitat for endangered flowers like Harper’s beauty.

Look at the open areas within the yellow circled area...

Look at the open areas within the yellow circled area…

... Decades later, they are filled with woody shrubs.  This may be evidence that where fire once eliminated hardwoods, it has more recently been excluded.

… Decades later, they are filled with woody shrubs. This may be evidence that where fire once eliminated hardwoods, it has more recently been excluded.  Aerial photos provided by Amy Miller Jenkins.

It’s heartening to meet people who are passionate about preserving rare and unique ecosystems.  It’s hard to place a value on keeping these habitats intact – or as close to it as we can achieve.  Nature lovers will of course travel to see a plant that’s endemic within a limited area, and there’s economic value to that.  But we can value things for more than just their ability to fill wallets, and it’s comforting to know that people can work to keep from losing even just a small flower here or a hillside full of them there.

  • In setting up the studio interview, I’m learning now for the first time about the Florida Natural Areas Inventory.  They’re a nonprofit administered by Florida State University that inventories and monitors rare species, studies historic natural communities, and offers conservation planning assistance.  Their web site has some interesting tools, like an interactive map of conservation lands and an extensive list (with downloadable pdfs) of invasive species found in Florida.
  • In case you read this but didn’t watch the video, Amy will be speaking to the Magnolia Chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society Thursday, March 5 at 7 pm in room 1024 of the King Building on FSU’s campus.  This is a free event.  For a list of all Florida Native Plant Society events, click here.
In a couple of weeks, we go from Wolf Creek, a Georgia tributary of the Ochlockonee River, to Bald Point State Park at the mouth of the river on the Florida Gulf coast (yes, I have fun following how water moves).  We meet up with author Susan Cerulean to talk about her blog and her upcoming book, "Coming to Pass."

In a couple of weeks, we go from Wolf Creek, a Georgia tributary of the Ochlockonee River, to Bald Point State Park at the mouth of the river on the Florida Gulf coast (yes, I have fun following how water moves). We meet up with author Susan Cerulean to talk about her blog and upcoming book, “Coming to Pass.”

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Raising a Kid with Nature Takes Creativity, Persistence

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

This past Saturday, my son Max and I returned to Owl Creek to join a few dozen paddlers for a special event.  The Apalachicola Riverkeeper welcomed the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition as they continue to make their way from the headwaters of the Everglades to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola.  While on the water, I could see that people liked the image of a father and son in a kayak.  Other paddlers would occasionally say things like “That’s the right way to raise a kid.”   Max and I made a little game of picking up trash along the creek, which garnered more positive comments.  It feels nice to hear those things because, honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m just making things up as I go with this kid and his outdoor experiences.

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Max uses a duck whistle (every kid in the duck calling contest got to keep theirs) to call an Operation Migration member in a whooping crane feeding suit during the 2015 WHO Festival.

At times, raising your kid to have nature in their lives can be more “rewarding” than “fun.” On other occasions, you battle lack of interest at best, total three-to-four-year-old meltdown at worst.  He has never, for instance, shared my love of exploring the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  What kid wouldn’t love to strike out and see a bunch of wildlife?  Instead, a couple of hundred yards around Headquarters Pond, I hear “I’m tired Daddy, pick me up.”  I thought he’d like to see fiddler crabs in the beach and marsh behind the lighthouse.  Instead, I can’t pull him away from the map kiosk (he does love the big maps).  He did like the excellent children’s activities at the Wildlife and Heritage Outdoor Festival, however.  And he loves petting the stuffed otter at the visitor center.

I’m always trying to find that sweet spot between kid friendly activity and the kind of excursion that I would enjoy regardless of whether the family was along.  Luckily, we share two favorite outdoor activities: camping and paddling.  I could probably go up to Max at any point on any day and say “Drop what you’re doing, we’re going camping,” and have his absolute attention.  Even so, it can take a bit of doggedness and creativity to make these adventures work.  Saturday was no different.

Managing Expectations

Originally, we were going to camp at one of Owl Creek’s Hickory Landing sites the night before the paddle.  Then, the forecast went from a low in the upper 40s to a low of 35.  Max was recovering from something heavy earlier in the week; he was still coughing a bit by Friday even if he had regained his characteristic young energy.  Still, I hesitated canceling that part of the fun.  Why not expose him to some slightly rough conditions and do some character building?  Another parent might have chosen to tough it out, but it didn’t feel right to me.

Indoor campfire.

Indoor campfire.

The problem was that I had already brought up that possibility to him.  There are no maybes to a four year old.  So I decided to camp out right in his room.  My wife, Amy, made an indoor “campfire” utilizing a flashlight in a jar surrounded by red and yellow gift bag tissue.  When I got home from work, Max was scribbling brown marker on spent paper towel rolls to make logs.  We ate hot dogs and s’mores baked right in our oven and slept on the floor in our sleeping bags.  We left the lights off and used headlamps and “campfire” for illumination.  Max had received some glow-in-the-dark stars for Christmas; I affixed them to his ceiling and we slept under a fluorescent green starscape.

Was it a lot of effort just to keep from disappointing a child?  Well, Daddy wanted to go camping, too.  And now, Mommy and little brother Xavi got to sit around the campfire as well (Xavi will go camping for the first time in the next few months).  Sometimes, we do these things for ourselves as much as for them.

Containing Excitement

The problem with not camping at Hickory Landing, right where the kayaks were launching, is that we had to wake up in Tallahassee, get ourselves ready, and drive for an hour-and-a-half into the Apalachicola National Forest, where Owl Creek runs.  And be there by 9 am.  We woke up just after 6 am and Max got up out of his sleeping bag a little faster than he normally does when he wakes up for school.  But only a little.

“Max, if you don’t get up we’ll be late for kayaking!”

As we drove down State Road 65, flocks of robins and other colorful birds would fly across the interruption in pine flatwood habitat where we drove.  In a couple of months, the disturbed, artificially created fringe habitat on the shoulder of this road will burst with a greater diversity of carnivorous plants than you’ll find almost anywhere else.

We pulled into Hickory Landing with a few minutes to spare.  Some of my fellow Rivertrekkers were on safety duty for the paddle, and Max and I made our way around saying “Hi,” or in his case “Ooh- ah ah.”

The day's paddlers gather to listen to the Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditioners.

The day’s paddlers gather to listen to the Florida Wildlife Corridor expeditioners.

“On Georgia’s packing list, it actually said ‘bring monkey’s paddle,'” said Rick Zelznak.  I paddled the river with Rick in 2012.  He and his wife, Georgia Ackerman, brought several kayaks and kayaking gear for the day’s trip.  Georgia coordinates the Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s RiverTrek fundraiser, a five day paddle trip down the entirety of the Apalachicola.  She coordinated today’s affair as well.  The monkey paddle to which Rick referred is a child’s paddle Max has borrowed on his other kayaking trips, with smiley faces to let little ones know if they’re holding it right side-up.

We saw other ‘trekkers Max has paddled with recently, such as Doug Alderson and Katie McCormick, who we joined here on Owl Creek for a sliver of the 2014 ‘trek.  Others, like Micheal Taber, hadn’t seen Max since that day he toddled down onto the floating dock in Apalachicola to watch us complete RiverTrek 2012.  Jill Lingard, with whom I paddled in 2013, had followed his adventures on the blog, but met him for the first time on Saturday (while on the water, no less).

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition’s Mallory Dimmitt addressed the group.  Max was bouncing a little, and I worried that at any moment I’d have to put my hand over his mouth and carry him away.  But he managed to stay mostly quiet during her address and that of Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire.  Dan pointed out the gnarly, leafless trees around the creek.  Right around the time that those carnivorous plants along 65 bloom, so too will the ogeechee tupelo.  This region is a mecca for tupelo honey, which relies on the waters of the Apalach and it creeks, sloughs, and swamps.  Max may be too young to appreciate the biologically special nature of where we are, but he likes tupelo honey.

And he likes kayaking.  Whereas in October we paddled out to where the creek meets the Apalachicola River, this time we paddled up the creek for a longer trip.  He’d never seen so many people in the water at once; it was exciting, overstimulating.  He grabbed his paddle from behind him and hacked at the water for a few seconds, then gave it back to me.  “I’m hungry.”  His snacks for the trip were a banana and a granola bar.  After eating the granola bar, I carefully received the wrapper from him, nervous that we’d pollute the creek in our first ten minutes on the water.  He then grabbed his orange dip net, dragging it on the surface of the water.  He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

Occupying Busy Hands

And then, floating there in the water was a vintage Pepsi bottle.

“Max, get your net ready.  There’s garbage ahead.”

P1080190-smallOnce the bottle was aboard, I heard someone say “Did they just pick up trash?”  People were smiling at us.  I was on the lookout now, scanning the banks for bottles that washed up into the cypress and tupelo.  Soon, we also had a couple of plastic bottles, a rusty can, and a Clorox spray bottle.

Picking up garbage gave us a little bit of a mission, a focus to occupy my child’s energy.  When we went too long without seeing any, he’d start playing with the trash, dipping it back in the water as we propelled forward.  To avoid having his boredom inadvertently return the trash to the creek, I’d look for more.  Owl Creek is a pretty clean creek, overall.  Eventually we ran out of visible garbage.

The garbage in his cockpit served another purpose.  With a lot of strangers talking to him, he’d get shy and respond with nothing more than an impish grin.  When I’d see him getting shy, I’d say “Show them what you’ve caught.”  And he’d pick up every piece of garbage, one by one.  A plus is that people would compliment him for picking up trash, which reinforces that behavior.

Building Skill

At 10:45, Doug Alderson in the lead kayak turned around, and we headed back down the creek.

Having run out of trash to pick up, Max got restless again.  He’d pick up his paddle and rest it across the cockpit, hands free.  “Max!  Don’t let the paddle fall in the water!”  Another time, he had the paddle out and the net resting on it, hands free.  My instinctual reaction was a panicked plea to just get his hands on something and keep it from falling in the water.  I became self conscious of how I sounded to surrounding paddlers.

I also became exasperated when he played with his paddle.  He’d drag it behind him, in the area where my paddle had to go to move the kayak forward.  He’d carelessly twist it in the water.  It was annoying sometimes.

"Their faces are happiest when they're wet."

“The smiley faces are happiest when they’re wet.”

But it’s understandable.  The trip lasted almost three hours.  An adult can enjoy natural splendor and conversation for three hours without much else.  For many of us, this is an escape from the noise of our daily worlds.  Kids, however, crave more stimulation.  On long drives and flights, we have a bag full of books and toys.  That day on Owl Creek, I had a paddle, a net, and some garbage for him to play with.

So I worked on developing his paddle skills.

At first, I relied heavily on repeatedly telling him that he had to see the smiley faces.  And to move his arms to the middle of the paddle.  Sometimes he listened.  Sometimes he laughed and twisted the paddle in the water some more.

Passing paddlers were a help.  Sometimes kids just respond to advice from adults other than their parents.  Mike in the blue kayak, whose last name I didn’t catch, showed him how to hold the paddle.  Rick came by and showed him how to scoop the water with his paddle.  He was receptive.

But, in the end, what worked best was silly voices and turning the smiley faces into characters.

“Use my face to push the water!” I’d say in a high pitched voice.  Then I’d tap the other side of his paddle with mine and say “Now use my face to push the water!”  And so on and so forth.  Soon, he was able to do this a couple of times:

Once on land again, his little legs were finally unleashed and he was zipping about.  As we took a RiverTrek reunion photo, Max was a blur in front of us until Georgia scooped him up.  We ate lunch, got in the car, and he was asleep before we were off the forest roads.

As I took the scenic coastal route home, I reflected on the trip.  He can be exhausting, this kid.  Each trip with him has presented a different set of challenges.  When I took him on the Wakulla River, he was sleepy and I wondered whether he might be bored.  On our first Owl Creek trip, he was disappointed that the other paddlers continued down the river without us; though eventually we had a fantastic time on our own.  Most of out nature outings have been great, even if sometimes it feels like I’m making things up as I go along to keep him engaged.  But that’s why I write these posts.  I’m no expert, but I’m figuring it out.  It’s doable, and I hope parents see that.  More kids should be exposed to nature, even if it’s going to your neighborhood pond to see tadpoles in various states of limb growth and turtles basking in the sun (one of my personal favorite activities).

Anyhow, it’s starting to warm up, and the wheels are turning to plan the next adventure.  Where should we go next…

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A Song of Protection for Wakulla Springs: EcoShakespeare

Video: Titania’s fairy retinue sings a song to ward off beasts of ill omen as she goes to sleep.  Likewise, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to ward off threats to America’s largest spring.  Jim Stevenson, a board member of Wakulla Springs Alliance, leads our trip, which is based on the Wakulla Springs Overland Tour he he leads with Palmetto Expeditions.
EcoShakespeare is a series of adventures through north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  During each trip, adventurers view a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each with its own significance to the day’s habitat.  Florida State University English professor, Dr. Bruce Boehrer, ties it all together.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.

A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.

While editing the video above, I kept hearing the Standell’s Dirty Water  in my head.  It’s a strange sort of ode to Boston, with its chorus, “Love that dirty water, Boston you’re my home.”  It refers to the polluted Charles River and contains some other less than flattering Bean Town references, but that song and Sweet Caroline are staples at Red Sox games (my wife and I were married in her native Massachusetts, where both songs were loudly sung along to during the reception).    Looking at shots of algae mats, the garbage piled into Lake Henrietta, and, most sadly, algae covered turtles, I don’t feel like writing even satirically about loving the quality of the water heading south to Wakulla Springs.  Instead, I offer you a song written by William Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and arranged by Southern Shakespeare Festival’s Stephen Hodges).  In it, Titania’s fairy servants call upon Philomel the nightingale to protect her as she sleeps in the woods.

We won’t be interpreting the song literally, because what’s the fun in that?  The fairies are attempting to ward off what Dr. Bruce Boehrer calls “beasts of ill omen:” spiders, snakes and snails.  In the Wakulla Springs ecosystem, though, these are important members of the food web.  Our beasts of ill omen are defined by Madeleine Carr, President of the Friends of Wakulla Springs: dark water, hydrilla, and algae.  The creatures mentioned by name in the song actually need protection themselves from these threats to the spring.

When I was meeting with our partners at the Southern Shakespeare Festival to plan EcoShakespeare, one of the themes we wanted to explore was the Victorian concept of the Great Chain of Being. I had a wonderful brainstorming session with Lanny Thomas and Laura Johnson, the Artistic and Executive Directors of the Festival, and Wakulla Springs seemed an ideal place to filter through Shakespeare’s worldview.

On thew shores of Lake Munson, Titania's fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders.  Lake Munson is Tallahassee's most polluted lake, receiving nitrates filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.

On the shores of Lake Munson, Titania’s fairy attendants sing a song to protect her from snakes and spiders. Lake Munson is Tallahassee’s most polluted lake, receiving nitrate filled runoff and having previously been a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.  Lake Munson feeds Wakulla Springs through the Munson Slough system.

In the Victorian Great Chain, order in the world is maintained by God and queen.  It’s a top-down model.  You see this at play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Oberon and Titania, as king and queen of the fairies, are a type of nature deity.  Their marital discord upsets the skies and the seas, causing problems for plants and animals.  That upheaval moved from the top-down.  But nature often operates from the bottom-up.  Hydrilla entered Wakulla Springs State Park and crowded out apple snails, which deprived one of the park’s showy attractions, the bird on its sign, of its food. So the limpkin left, and has been gone almost two decades.  That problem moved its way up the chain, not down.  Likewise with algae.

Jim Stevenson leads our pursuit of water as it flows south from Tallahassee and collects contaminants.  One contaminant, nitrates, feed a microscopic plant, algae, which accumulates in the water.  It forms mats which block out the sun for native marine plants.  It blooms and sucks the oxygen out of the water, killing fish.  Those fish in turn are meals for birds and other larger animals, the ones tour guides point out on Wakulla Springs boat rides.

Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida's State Park Service.  In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state's springs.  At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.

Jim Stevenson was once chief biologist for Florida’s State Park Service. In retirement, he has become a fierce advocates for the state’s springs. At the water Treatment facility on Springhill Road, he explains how sewage effluent was treated and piped to spray fields that had been feeding nitrates into the Wakulla Spring system.

Of course, algae and hydrilla didn’t decide one day to become a nuisance and wreck the spring.  Hydrilla is an asian import, an aquarium decorative that found its way into American rivers.  It was introduced by humans.  Nitrates originate from people, too, often right within us.  It’s in our poop, which we like to think disappears to a fairy realm once we flush it down.  That’s just not true.  Utilities have to figure out how to sanitize and dispose of that waste, and the City of Tallahassee’s solution had inadvertently been putting nitrates directly into the aquifer.  They have spent a lot of money to fix that problem.  Nitrates also come from the synthetic poop substitute we use to make green lawns and larger tomatoes.  This assault on the aquifer starts in our homes and is carried by storm water down the streets and into lakes and streams.  Many Leon County lakes have sinkholes directly depositing water in the aquifer; many of our streams flow south into the Woodville Karst Plain, where sinkholes abound.
So, top-down and then bottom-up.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of a world controlled by the emotions of fairies is probably more fun than our reality of poop, algae, and invasive hydrilla.  Still, with his imagination, and his often wicked sense of humor, I can only imagine that he would craft something simultaneously tragic and comedic from what has happened in Wakulla Springs.  In the play, the gentle sea cow, the manatee, comes in and saves the day by coming in and eating the hydrilla in the spring run.  In reality, the power to fully save Wakulla Springs lies closer to the top of the Chain of Being, with the humans living in the Wakulla Springshed.

EcoShakespeare and the Wakulla Springshed

It just so happens that our three EcoShakespeare adventures move southward through the geological regions within the Wakulla Springshed, illustrating the different ways we interact with our aquifer depending on where we live.

EcoShakespeare 1: The Streams Region

old growth longleaf pine forestIn our first adventure, we visit the “Big Woods,” a private forest outside of Thomasville, Georgia containing a tract of old growth longleaf habitat.  This is in the heart of the Red Hills region, in which a layer of dense red clay sits atop the aquifer, slowly filtering water.  It’s referred to as the streams region of the Wakulla Springshsed because much of the rain that falls on it doesn’t actually recharge the aquifer, it just flows away on rivers like the Ochlockonee and Aucilla.  According to the Wakulla Spring Restoration Plan (released by the Howard T. Odum Spring Institute), this region adds about one inch of water per year over 770 square miles to the Floridan aquifer.

EcoShakespeare 2: The Lakes Region

BerriesWe follow Colbert Sturgeon down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia (sounds kind of like ammonia), foraging for natural edibles along the way.  Lake Iamonia is one of four major sinkhole lakes in the Red Hills region.  Here, we still have that thick red clay to filter our water, but we also have four direct inputs to the aquifer that bypass the clay.  These lakes are Iamonia, Jackson, Lafayette, and Miccosukee.  This region adds eight inches a year over 250 square miles.

Last spring, we played on Lake Iamonia and hiked Klapp Phipps Park, which protects Lake Jackson.  In that video, we looked at our lakes and their relation to the aquifer with Tall Timbers and some other friends.  A couple of months later, we looked at the cleanliness of our lakes by reviewing Leon County’s 2011 Water Quality for Selected Lake and Streams report.  They have since published an updated report, which you can view here (the reports are long; you can use our blog post containing the older data as a guide to the information in the newer report).

The Cody Escarpment

Also known as the Cody Scarp, this is Florida’s ancient shoreline (and maybe, with sea level rise, its future shoreline).  This is where the Red Hills end, and our aquifer sits nearer to the surface.  This is an important dividing line when thinking about how water penetrates the limestone beneath us.

EcoShakespeare 3: The Woodville Karst Plain (WKP)

IMG_2987Even those of us living in the very south of the Red Hills see our water roll down the Cody Scarp and into the more porous WKP.  Rain is more directly in contact with the limestone aquifer here, and so that limestone is more likely to collapse and form a sinkhole.  There is little filtration here.  In the Red Hills, many contaminants are removed in the ten years or so that it takes to flow through the clay; in the Woodville Karst Plain everything flows right in.  This is the most vulnerable part of the Wakulla Springshed.  This region recharges the aquifer at a rate of eighteen inches a year over 145 square miles.

The Southern Shakespeare Festival

I’d like to take this opportunity too thank all of our partners in the venture.  Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Palmetto Expeditions (for whom Jim Stevenson leads the tour we feature in the video above), and the Friends of Wakulla Springs.  I’d also like to thank Colbert Sturgeon for enlightening and entertaining us, and FSU Professor Bruce Boehrer for the way in which he tied all of our crazy elements together.

Most of all, I would like to thank the Southern Shakespeare Festival.  Projects with this kind of unique twist are always great to work on, and more so when you can collaborate with people like Lanny Thomas, Laura Johnson, Kevin Carr, and Stephen Hodges.  Michele Belson designed the costumes worn by our uncredited performers, who braved some cold and windy weather to bring this project to life.  The SSF performances of a Midsummer Night’s Dream will take place from April 17-19 in the very place that the video above begins, in Cascades Park.  You can watch their groovy 60s take on my favorite Shakespeare play, and then gaze at the water flowing from beneath the stage and watch as nitrates feed algae (seriously, that’s what that waterway was meant to do.  Please do not touch it!).  It promises to be a doubly educational experience.

EcoShakespeare has been produced in association with WNET-TV's Shakespeare Uncovered.  Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.
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Foraging and the Magic of Plants: EcoShakespeare

Video: William Shakespeare grew up in nature, and it shows through in his plays. We visit Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy with wilderness survival instructor and star of National Geographic’s Live Free or Die, Colbert Sturgeon. As we walk down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia, we gather wild food and explore Shakespeare’s knowledge of plants and their uses.  Once again, FSU’s Dr. Bruce Boehrer makes the connections in this second installment of EcoShakespeare.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Oberon, the king of the fairies, sends Puck to find an aphrodisiac flower in the woods outside of Athens.  Puck then uses a potion derived from the flower on the queen of the fairies, Titania, to set up some of the most comical moments of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Oberon, the king of the fairies, sends Puck to find an aphrodisiac flower in the woods outside of Athens. Puck then uses a potion derived from the flower on the queen of the fairies, Titania, to set up some of the most comical moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If William Shakespeare were alive today, would some local BBC producer ask him to show  the plants of his native Warwickshire on camera?  Or would he consider flying to Tallahassee to sample persimmons growing by Lake Iamonia for WFSU?  In our year-end post for 2014, Dr. Bruce Boehrer starts to paint a picture for us of a man whose classic works are inextricably tied to his country upbringing.  It’s cool to think that the things that inspired him also inspire us here in north Florida.  He might have been right at home in the Red Hills region of farms, forests, and rivers; perhaps incorporating tupelo swamps and RCW cavities into his verse.

In the scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we explore in the video above, we see that he likely had a good knowledge of the plants that grew around him.  Where Colbert Sturgeon extols pine needles’ abundance of vitamin c or the curative properties of St. John’s Wort, Shakespeare was versed in the magical properties of plants.  It’s reflective of a contemporary world view, just as his sense of ecology in our last video was rooted in interpersonal relationships.  He didn’t have the benefit of our science, but it is interesting to note that he had a general understanding of cause and effect in nature.  He might not have understood greenhouse gases and their role in climate change, but he could conceive that people could cause an imbalance that would change the weather and upset plant productivity.  Likewise, he knew that different plants had the ability to affect us, even if he didn’t understand the chemical basis for this.  Magic is just a name for all that we don’t yet understand.

In our final installment of EcoShakespeare, we’ll explore what Dr. Boehrer calls Shakespeare’s “proto-ecological” sensibilities.  Unlike the other leading playwrights of his day, Shakespeare didn’t have a university education.  Yet he still learned classical literature, inventively mixing drama and comedy, the high-brow and the down-home.  It’s much the same with his perception of the natural world.  Two-hundred-and-fifty years before the word ecology is coined, he sort of intuitively gets it.  It’s nothing less than you’d expect from a man whose works still resonate four-hundred years after they were first written and enjoyed by audiences.

As we walked down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia, this is what Colbert collected.  The bright purple beauty berries are attractive and nearly flavorless.  The duller colored berries are sumac.  When we shot this in really November, they were slightly out of season.  The persimmons were not quite ripe.  Our local variety is intensely bitter until it ripens.  As Colbert was making his medicinal tea, we realized that we had no cups or straws, so Colbert fashioned this straw from a bamboo stalk and we all sipped straight from the teapot.

As we walked down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia, this is what Colbert collected. The bright purple beauty berries are attractive but nearly flavorless. The duller colored berries are sumac. When we shot this in early November, they were slightly out of season, whereas the persimmons were not quite ripe. Our local variety of persimmon is intensely bitter until it ripens. As Colbert was making his medicinal tea, we realized that we had no cups or straws, so he fashioned this straw from a bamboo stalk and we all sipped straight from the teapot.

Next week, we conclude EcoShakespeare with a song of protection for Wakulla Springs.  Nitrates, algae, hydrilla, and dark water have weakened one of our area’s foremost ecological resources.  Just as Titania’s fairies cast a spell to protect her from spiders and snails, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to protect the beloved local tourist destination and wildlife habitat.

Special thanks to WFSU’s partners for this EcoShakespeare segment, The Southern Shakespeare Festival and Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy. EcoShakespeare is funded by a grant from WNET’s Shakespeare Uncovered. Catch their take of a Midsummer Night’s Dream Friday, January 30 at 9 pm ET on WFSU-TV. For more information on Shakespeare Uncovered and WFSU’s associated TV and Radio projects, visit our Shakespeare Uncovered web site.
Shakespeare Uncovered is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Major funding is also provided by The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Dana and Virginia Randt, the LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, the Lillian Goldman Programming Endowment, The Polonsky Foundation, Rosalind P. Walter, Jody and John Arnhold, the Corinthian International Foundation, and PBS.