Today in the Gainesville Sun, Ron Cunningham has given a review of last week’s presentation “The Myth and Magic of Florida Springs,” by Margaret Ross Tolbert and Rick Kilby. A presentation, according to Cunningham, which lived up to the subject matter in spirit and substance. Margaret Ross Tolbert is an internationally acclaimed artist known for her Florida springs subject matter, and Rick Kilby is the author of Finding the Fountain 0f Youth and is a resource for information on Florida springs.
Although the presentation illustrated the beauty and magic of Florida’s fragile springs, both Ross Tolbert and Kilby stressed the need today for recovery and protection for these declining and disappearing natural treasures.
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Documenting the myth and magic of Florida springs
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2015 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2015 at 12:47 p.m.
Improbably, Rick Kilby and Margaret Ross Tolbert arrived at the same destination by following vastly different paths.
Kilby found his way while indulging in his “addiction to Florida kitsch and campiness.”
Ross Tolbert, on the other hand, was looking for nothing less than a new dimension. Another universe not her own.
Turns out they were both looking for the same thing.
The myth and magic of a Florida spring.
Rick and Margaret are both graduates of the University of Florida’s College of Fine Arts. And both have authored books that — while dealing with the same subject — could not be more different in tone, content and complexity.
And that’s appropriate, because their subject, Florida’s magnificent springs, could not themselves be more different in tone, content and complexity. Once you get past their superficial similarities — “once you stick your face in it,” Ross Tolbert says — each is indeed a unique ecosystem unto itself.
The two explored their common obsession last Wednesday evening in a presentation titled, appropriately, “The Myth and Magic of Florida Springs.”
And fittingly, their venue was a church: Holy Trinity United Methodist.
Why not? For thousands of years before the advent of “modern” Florida, the springs were deemed sacred places by the very indigenous people who would be enslaved, exiled and slaughtered in the name of progress.
The same sort of progress that continues to slowly turn our springs into algae coated, water starved pale imitations of their former selves.
“Once sacred, now profane” Kilby says.
Kilby is the author of “Finding the Fountain of Youth,” a colorful account of how generations of hucksters, con men and boosters seized upon the Florida Fountain of Youth mythology to peddle everything from miracle cures (aka snake oil) to orange juice to retirement communities.
Hey, who knew that simply moving to Fort Lauderdale could add 10 years to your life?
“I was obsessed with cheesy Florida postcards and posters,” Kilby said. “Posters of Ponce de Leon at a bar with Indians having a glass of Champagne.”
In the course of his research Kilby also discovered that virtually every Florida spring that had ever been tricked out as another roadside tourist attraction would inevitably be billed as the “real” Fountain of Youth.
And that’s when he began to pay attention to what was happening to Florida’s real fountains of youth. Some became municipal water sources and were sucked dry. Others suffered reduced flow from overpumping of the aquifer. Almost all were losing their clarity, color and biodiversity to algae fed by agricultural runoff and other phosphorus-laden pollutants.
“I grew up in Gainesville oblivious to the springs,” he said. Now he is proud to be “part of a larger movement — a springs movement — that really originated in Gainesville.”
That springs movement, he believes, provided great momentum for the overwhelming passage of Amendment 1, the state constitutional mandate that Florida invest more money in land and water conservation.
Ross Tolbert is an artist whose coffee table book “Aquiferious” is a collection of essays, poems and her paintings and sketches of Florida’s best known springs.
Her paintings are striking explosions of light, color and seemingly alien shapes: The universe as viewed from the bottom of a spring looking upward through sun-dappled reflections of a Florida sky.
“I discovered that the more abstract my paintings became the more they looked like the springs,” she said.
Ross Tolbert recalls tubing down Ginny Springs in “torpid monotony” as an adolescent on a science club trip. Her awakening did not come until later, at Ginny Springs, when she rented a mask and snorkel and discovered “a whole new dimension” lurking just beneath the surface.
“My advice to everybody is to run right out and jump in a spring,” she said.
She would become a familiar sight at North Florida springs. Setting up her easel at dockside, and even painting while precariously balancing herself and her canvas on a kayak.
On Wednesday night she distributed postcards of her abstract paintings, urging listeners to send them to Gov. Rick Scott and ask “What are you doing to our water?”
It’s a good question. And one that should also be demanded of every state legislator who may be contemplating squandering Amendment 1 money on beach renourishment or infrastructure to support new growth and development.
“We want to make sure Amendment 1 money is spent the way it was intended,” Kilby said. Florida’s springs have always been thought to contain “elements of the divine,” he added. “That spiritual connection needs to be rekindled.”
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun.
OSFR is grateful to the Gainesville Sun for permission to reprint in full this article.