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  Field Notes From
A Naturalist’s Vision of Frontier America

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From Author

Glenn Oeland

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From Photographer

Annie Griffiths Belt

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Annie Griffiths Belt (top right) Greg Cunningham (top) and William L. Allen

image: stones
In William Bartram’s South

Field Notes From Author
Glenn Oeland
After spending hundreds of hours delving deeply into someone’s life, you develop a kind of personal relationship with your subject. At times it seemed I could almost feel William Bartram’s presence.
I’m sure I glimpsed his ghost at Salt Spring in the Ocala National Forest. I sat on the bank where Bartram had sat and read his description of the spring printed in Travels. He was blown away by the clarity of the water and the color of the fish, and I felt the same sense of wonder. He never mentioned swimming in the spring, but I feel sure he did. I found it irresistible.
At some point a concrete retaining wall was built around the spring proper, but the river that flows from the spring is still wonderfully natural. I canoed it one perfect May morning and for a few hours it seemed I had become William Bartram and was exploring the “old Florida,” the one that existed before Disney and time-shares. The experience left me grateful that even in a thoroughly developed part of the country there are still places of refuge, places that Bartram would probably recognize were he to come back today.
I had been warned not to travel the St. Johns River the way Bartram had, which was in a canoe. These days there are so many power boats on the river that a paddler risks getting run over like a manatee. So I rented a houseboat as big as a Winnebago.
The first night on the river I was joined by some folks from the Florida Audubon Society, and we anchored in what looked like a safe spot. About 2 a.m. we were jarred awake by the blast of a ship’s horn and the blaze of a floodlight. A barge was bearing down on us. My first thought was that we’d never get out of the way in time. Panic was rising inside me when the barge veered and disappeared downriver. I had come to the St. Johns hoping to experience what Bartram felt when he encountered a gauntlet of alligators there. So as I settled back down I decided that this industrial-size dose of fear served my purpose well enough. As soon as I could, I returned the houseboat and set out again along the St. Johns—this time in a rental car.
I had just started work on the story when photographer Annie Griffiths Belt invited me to join her and a wilderness guide on a canoe trip into Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp—a very Bartramesque place with lots of owls, alligators, and big old moss-hung cypress trees.
Most of the time Annie and I shared a large, steady canoe, she in the bow shooting photographs, I in the stern working as helmsman. After a while I got a bit bored with this arrangement and asked our guide if I could take his sleek one-man model for a spin around the swamp. He seemed reluctant at first, but he agreed.
It was like trading a big Buick for a BMW Z-3. The guide warned me that the little canoe was “tender,” which I soon found out was a euphemism for “unstable.” The dunking happened so fast I never knew what I did to cause the canoe to roll. One instant I was upright, the next I was spitting Georgia swamp water. At first I was embarrassed, but later I was glad it had happened. I had inadvertantly obeyed the cardinal rule of Geographic writing: Experience your subject matter firsthand.

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