Photos by Jerry Lein
A few years ago, we explored some of the natural sights at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in West Central Florida. It is an area visited by the artist and naturalist William Bartram in 1774 when he traveled parts of Florida along the St. John’s River. We experienced some of the flora and fauna that Bartram wrote about in the diary he kept of his travels.
When you visit this place you will see it not much changed from hundreds of years ago. One’s imagination builds on past times, roams this savanna and hears stories told by the creatures living on the plain.
In praise of a grassy plain in Alachua County Florida
By Paulette Mitchell Lein
The Alachua drumbeat drives a winding dream
enfolding the euphoria of naturalist William Bartram,
who camped in 1764 where this great savanna spreads its wings,
where once, black wolves gathered under a thicket of bent trees,
where a bald eagle acted as overseer to the waiting vultures,
where Spanish moss––long, curling locks–– hung among the oaks;
and dead branches climbed the cedars, rising like monuments
to all who used this place in times gone by,
those who smelled the odors of venison stewing in bear oil.
Now, a lone egret watches the dark waters of the channel,
layered like shale between the sedge,
lazing toward the calm of the sinkhole,
where new green bursts bright alongside decay’s drab brown,
where seventeen black-headed coots huddle in the water,
where small birds poke beaks into the muck, digging dinner,
and the great blue heron preens and poses.
Abundant alligators and turtles laze across the water.
Some distance away, buffalo and wild pigs graze the leaking meadow,
and cattle egret feed at a watery trough.
Languid movement nearly stops time.
Sound is almost silent; only the ticking of insects
breaks against the space. Then, a gurgle rises on an updraft.
Is it the confluence of waters or the alligators scattering such babble?
Daydreams overtake me.
I slip beneath the water hyacinths, a wavering lid to the sinkhole,
and swim the secret subterranean waters,
tasting fragrant orange in my mouth.
Schools of fish disperse and chase a trail ahead.
The bones of ancient people rise to meet me.
On and on I go. What memories paint these walls?
Caves open their jaws and swallow history.
Snaking my way back, drawn to the surface of the sink,
I bathe in its delights. Behold,
the Alachua savanna awaits, spacious and shimmering.
Will it always be where I can find my way?
Books About William Bartram
Bartram’s Living Legacy: The Travels and the Nature of the South by William Bartram and Dorinda G. Dallmeyer, 2010
William Bartram, The Search for Nature’s Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings by William Bartram and Thomas Hallock, 2010
Hiking in North Florida with William Bartram: 25 Hikes by G. Kent and Todd Carstenn, 2014.
And there are more. Much is written about William Bartram. I’ll be searching for this last title, hoping to expand my knowledge and experience with his travels in Florida. I own the first one on the list, admittedly I have read only the parts that pertain to his travels in the general vicinity of Paynes Prairie. I love to read about Florida’s past and to try to better understand the plants and animals, quite different from my native Midwest.
We so enjoyed our trip to Paynes Prairie. Thanks to the couple who recommended the place to us. We urge others to visit there if you have the opportunity.