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River of Dreams · Fireflies on the Ichetucknee
The Evolution of a Photograph

by John Moran

Sometimes I lie awake at night and think about the ceaseless flow of the miracle we call Ichetucknee Springs. Even as we sleep, the river is always out there, silently yielding its gift; a daily offering of two hundred million gallons of life-giving water flowing onward to the sea. In my mind's eye—from the comfort of my bed—I often journey to the springs, alone in the dark, to relive in memory the experience of being at the sacred river.

The Ichetucknee has long been heralded as Florida's most pristine river, but in recent years a dramatic spike in the level of nitrates in the groundwater feeding the springs has fueled the growth of noxious algae, a thick sludge that is choking native river grass and upsetting a delicate balance of flora and fauna thousands of years in the making. The sacred river is polluted. Fertilizer from farms and homes, animal waste, stormwater runoff, failing septic tanks and Lake City's municipal wastewater spray field have all been implicated. Public awareness is rising, and a river awaits a solution.

Early in 2006, at the invitation of the river advocacy group Save Our Suwannee, I presented a program at Lake City Community College to show in pictures and discuss the changes I've seen on the Ichetucknee in the past 20 years. I spent a week on the river in advance of the program, making new pictures to add to my archival edit.

By nature I'm an optimistic person. I've long believed that you tend to find in life what you look for, and I've found few places in Florida that have inspired me like the Ichetucknee. It was my time spent here twenty years ago—days of wonder and gratitude—that set me on the path of photographing natural Florida with real passion.

But my days of bliss and beauty on the Ichetucknee have become an exercise in painful avoidance; a calculated effort to selectively focus on the remaining beauty of the river. And to be sure, there is still plenty to celebrate here, but I have adapted by composing most of my recent pictures on the river with an eye to eliminating the algae and the sludge that reminds me of the problems of the world beyond the boundary of my favorite state park.

Which brings us to the photograph I've titled River of Dreams/Fireflies on the Ichetucknee, the culmination of several trips to the river in the spring of this year.

A gushing pulse of water rises audibly at Mill Pond Spring; it ripples and boils, dances and retreats; quickly joining the flow of the gathering river downstream. Alone and in awe, I am mesmerized by the scene, but it's time to get to work.

Standing in the water, late afternoon sunlight dapples through a veil of tall oaks. I compose the picture, instinctively moving closer to the spring boil. I shoot, and consider the photograph I've made. Not bad, but hardly a picture that conveys to the eye what I feel in my heart. I wonder how the water would look if the sun was an hour higher in the sky, reflecting directly off the boil.

A week later, a late-season cold front delivers a flawless blue sky. Returning to the river, I wait and watch as a blazing sun drops into position, neatly punctuating an opening in the tree canopy. The roiling water comes alive, the intense light almost painful to behold. A million molten diamonds skitters across the scene. Sweet!

Still, I want more. In a state overflowing with incredible water, this is a scene of uncommon beauty. I decide to attempt a picture of beauty beyond words, a visual love letter to my River of Dreams. And I want the picture to include fireflies, those bioluminescent bits of childhood wonder that I hope will bring the finishing touch to my night vision.

Two weeks later, I'm back at Mill Pond again. After sunset, and cast in a new light, the water has softened and the diamonds have morphed into silk, yielding new layers of luminous beauty.

Night settles in and the fireflies begin their flickering dance in the woods. Rising at my feet, the endless gushing waters of a living planet complete the seduction. Once again, the river affirms that magic still happens in the dark.

River of Dreams • Fireflies on the Ichetucknee

(click here to download this photo as wallpaper)


© John Moran