Sunday, January 15, 2012

Time after Time

I live with a physicist and a son who last week, reading H.G. Wells The Time Machine, exclaimed that he had never before read such a lucid explanation of the fourth dimension. In this mix, I am the one who believes planes work by mirrors, so I really shouldn't venture a time theory, but here goes.

Every time I go on vacation and return, I have the same image in my mind although I've never put it into words. Imagine, if you will, that a vacation is like an ant traveling across the pages of a book open in the middle. It takes the ant a good long time to make his or her way across to the far side of the book. Now -- and no ants were squished in the making of this image -- imagine that as the ant gets to the very edge of the book, the book is closed, so that the starting and ending points come together to be very close. Maybe there's a big physics explanation for this concept but that's how it feels. I had this fascinating, good long week of holidays and now, in a certain way, it feels like I was barely gone at all.

The additional theory that came to mind is that for me last week was filled with specific activities -- Tuesday was the day we swam in the ocean, Thursday was Gatorland, Wednesday it rained and we shopped until we dropped. But other weeks? or your last week? Maybe it dragged and maybe it flew by. Maybe, in terms of how it felt, you're already halfway through next week or perhaps you're still on Wednesday.

I had another experience of time last week -- being out of time. On Friday, my family and I visited Blue Springs State Park, about an hour north of Orlando. We had been warned that the park would be busy, but there was actually an overflow parking lot outside the park, and park wardens only letting people in when others left. It was a springlike day with pale watery sunlight that was only warm out of the wind.

The park was crowded and noisy with school buses, families, elderly people and daycare outings. The main source of the attraction was the fact that the Blue Springs are hot springs flowing downhill to the St. John's River and out to sea; this spring becomes the winter home for hundreds of manatees.

When you first see a manatee, it looks like a rock, a blob in the water, snuffling along the bottom and occasionally surfacing for air.

Everyone else in my family wanted to go on a 2.5 hour boat ride. I really didn't. We decided it would be okay for me to stay behind. If worse came to worst, I would knit or do some work on my novel.

Worse never came to worst.

Instead, I had the most meditative experience, walking along the fabulous boardwalk, between outlooks over the river and groves of prehistoric-looking tropical forests. It was the first cool day of our trip. The air reminded me, strangely enough, of the time we spent in Italy in March several years ago -- thin and clear, like a drink of cool water.

The water beside me, though, was not cool. It is 72 degrees year round, thanks to the hot spring bubbling up from the earth. It is this warmth that attracts the manatees that are resident in winter-time. Manatees are thin-skinned mammals that need warmth to survive. They are also apparently highly social and intelligent. The spring water is clearer than clear, and tinged blueish-green thanks to minerals that come from the spring.

I walked to the head of the spring, and one of the signs along the way explained that the water came from a cave that reached 140 feet into the ground. I walked three-quarters around the end of the stream, looking on the sides of the embankment for the cliff. I overheard a couple talking about when they used to swim in the river. I asked them where the cave entrance was and they pointed to the river floor, to what I had thought was a shadow or a different-coloured rock at the bottom. Instead it was a place where the earth opened up. I was fascinated.

We talked about the fish that swam in the river -- big fish with varying shapes. Some of the fish seemed to cling to the backs of the manatees and I asked them about that. Their daughter, all of three or four, was scrambling around on a tree stump.

"What would you call that kind of relationship?" the dad asked the girl.
"Sym-bi-otic!" she declared, and I knew that I had found my kind of people. I met others when I chose to -- offering to take a photo for a family so they could all be in the picture, listening to a man describe the time he touched a manatee that approached his fishing boat.

I wandered through a homestead, established in the mid-1800s, that had been preserved. I read the family Bible list of births and deaths, including the death of a six-year old first son of the settlers, from a rattlesnake bite while playing under the house.

I talked with two marine biologists who were swimming in the water, looking to tag a female manatee that had been badly injured by a propeller. She was stealthy, they said, because the other time she had been tagged was when she had lost a flipper to a fishing net, and she had bad associations. She had been retagged with this injury but managed to escape the buoy by the next day. The biologists swam the length of the river twice looking for her, before deciding to practice new tagging techniques on a cooperative manatee who liked human touch. I was profoundly jealous of their opportunity until they asked a man whether he had seen any alligators that day. I had seen a little one, but they told me that the river was home to a number of alligators -- a four-foot, six-foot, eight-foot and sixteen-foot alligator. "I only like the four-foot one," the biologist told me. "The one that doesn't want to eat us yet."

But mostly, I was quiet as I watched the manatees as they swam, slowly and quickly, foraging, rolling, nursing, playing, resting. I came to find them beautiful and the sound of their exhale as they surfaced was peaceful and made my own breathing slow.

I had taken my watch off before our holidays -- wanting to be off the clock -- but it was this day when I was really out of time, lost in a quiet world of warm currents and gentle creatures that surfaced and retreated like deep thoughts in a well-rested mind.

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