Child of Small Waters

by Elizabeth Westmark

grassy small pond lined with pinesI am a child of small waters. My thoughts are not grand, not oceanic. They meander like a brook, crossing fields, woods and swampy areas. Sometimes they submerge beneath the earth’s surface and become subterranean, cold.

The magnetic pull of big waves that undulate and beckon me away from my tenuous foothold on earth unnerves me. I love to walk the sugar white sands of Pensacola Beach. Small, translucent crabs tickle my feet as they scuttle into their holes when I bend to examine tiny pastel coquina shells. But if the goal is swimming, give me a cement pond, please, where I can see through the chlorinated water all the way to the bottom, where the edges are no farther than I can gracelessly dog-paddle in any direction.

The last time I swam in the warm Gulf of Mexico was a few months before Buck and I married, more than thirty years ago. It was a Sunday afternoon. We frolicked like porpoises. Buck swam away from me in a fast line underwater, playing, showing off like a boy. Unfortunately, his trajectory took him straight into the middle of a small group of women treading water, where he surfaced, a sinner in a school of nuns! The good sisters were having a day retreat on the beach. Some were in the water and others were rowed up in a line of folding chairs on the shore, wimples on their heads, their noses an impenetrable blob of thick white sunblock. They looked like big, placid sea gulls.

I am a true child of ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs. As a young girl, I spent many early mornings and late afternoons dreaming into the dusk while I sat on a dock on Lake Valrico. That pretty little lake was in a rural area of central Florida, near Tampa, where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. Barefoot, a skinny kid in shorts, I loved sitting on that old dock, conversing silently with my mirrored reflection, dark fish shapes darting just under the water’s murky surface. The tree-lined shore on the far side seemed a world away.

Lake Valrico received my tears, both flash floods and the slow, constant drip from my eyes into the eyes of my reflection, in those dreadful weeks and months after my father died. I was twelve. Small waters have always been there to comfort me.

Longleaf, a hundred-acre wood where we live in Florida’s panhandle, has a series of natural springs. They bubble up into a sandy stream bed. The water flows with the tilt of the land through a mixed pine and hardwood forest, trickling deep into a swamp where it is nearly dark even in the middle of the day. Treetops form a high canopy, and only a little light filters through in spots. It is one of my favorite places to wander. The stream is close to two feet wide in most places, with musical rills created where logs have fallen and formed makeshift miniature waterfalls. Gorgeous ferns drape along the banks, together with unusual plants like Neverwet (also known as Golden Club or Orantium). The occasional wild lily shows bright yellow, even in the gloom. The damp earth is heavy, black and fragrant. Animal tracks abound. Wrenching “dry cork in a bottle” woodpecker sounds split the silence, and the beating of a large owl’s wings may be heard.

It is a place of mysteries; of answers and questions.

I don’t think I could ever get my mind around oceans and seas. But ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs have a human scale that suits me. I can poke along our stream bed, exploring, and watch minnows as they dart from sunlight to shadow at my approach.

Give me a pocket full of pecan halves, a tangerine and a native plant reference guide. I’ll be home in time for supper.

For more than a decade Elizabeth Westmark has been writing about and photographically documenting life in a Longleaf Pine preserve near Pensacola, Florida. Visit her at Longleaf Stories.

Photo by William Silver

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