Lucinda Faulkner Merritt

Water of Memory

When I was almost six years old, I tried to drown myself in one of a chain of lakes west of Orlando, near an arc of small brown cabins that hugged the shore.

In the muggy ride out to the lake, with the windows down and the wind whipping our hair, my parents and my aunt and uncle had been talking about someone who’d drowned that summer.

“What happens when you drown?” I asked, and my mother told me that your lungs fill with water and you can’t breathe.

Later I stood barefoot in sand at the edge of the lake, sun glittering so brightly on the water that I had to squint to see. Smothered by heat and humidity, I was magnetized by the chilling promise of the lake.

I decided that I wanted to know how it felt to have my lungs fill with water.

So I marched down to the water’s edge, waded into the lake, and kept going. I didn’t get very far before I was encircled by a pair of adult arms and pulled back on shore. I screeched the whole way.

After my dad hauled me out, my parents explained why they had to stop me: If my lungs filled with water, I would die. The idea of my lungs being filled with water lost its appeal when I realized that if I drowned, I could never go swimming again.

* * *

Many Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims share a belief in nagas, unseen creatures of the animal realm that have the lower body of a snake and the upper body of a human. Nagas inhabit springs and powerful trees; they possess the magic required to guard treasures and texts that have been hidden until their discovery will bring the most benefit to sentient beings.

* * *

I never wanted to leave the water, not even when I was born. I didn’t want to leave the aqueous nest of my mother’s uterus while she labored for 24 hours before I was finally yanked into the world on the nether end of a doctor’s forceps, screaming at the Texas sky.

My mother’s womb and the lake outside Orlando weren’t the only waters I had to be extracted from; the Atlantic Ocean, Venetian Pool, and Florida’s springs are also on that list. My enchantment with water began before I was born and was consummated while I was growing up because for me, Florida—the land of flowers—has always been the land of water.

* * *

I am making an offering to the naga on a late summer morning, sunlight gracing the glen surrounding my local spring. A dry breeze stirs the water into patterns that shift and glitter as they form and break apart. The river is high and its tea-colored water infuses the spring, tinting the normally cerulean shallows to spun gold.

Motionless on the pockmarked limestone shelf above the spring vent, I glimpse a flutter to my left—a silver quiver in the amber water. A school of small fish approaches and encircles me, vibrating in place around my bare legs. I move, very slowly, and the fluttering fish follow me as I wade toward shore.

For a few moments, I am moored only to direct experience of the present: One woman being followed by a school of fish.

I remember what one of my Buddhist teachers—Orgyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Karmapa—has said about the animal realm: “These are the real owners of our world,” not only those animals we can see but also those we cannot.

* * *

When I was about seven, I remember playing in the surf at Miami Beach with my parents and again having to be pulled back on shore, screaming, after wanting to swim out to sea where the little boats were. The “little boats” were freighters in the Gulf Stream on the eastern horizon.

Every trip to the beach ended with my hollering and resisting arrest to dry land, having to be manhandled into the car while having what my mother referred to as a “Joe fit.” I never knew who Joe was, but I guess he could tear things up. I could too, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the times between our trips to the beach got longer and longer.

Somewhere between the lake episode and the tantrums at the beach, we visited Venetian Pool in Coral Gables where waterfalls and tropical vegetation charmed me again. I must have had another conniption upon being forced to leave because I can only remember going there once, even though I begged to go back.

Things were a bit calmer for our family at the 1950s tourist attractions. Swimming was not involved at Silver Springs, where we rode glass-bottomed boats that revealed a shimmering underwater world, or at Rainbow Springs, where we rode beneath the water, peeping eye-to-eye through portholes with fish and marveling at the full spectrum of light refracted through the water.

* * *

I am driving Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin, one of my Buddhist teachers, to the local spring. I imagine he must think he is being kidnapped because I’m supposed to be taking him to the church where he will teach this morning, but I’ve heard he works with nagas and it seems important to show him a small example of the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the world.

We get out of the car and walk among cypress and magnolias along the river, up a short length of sidewalk to the wooden deck that surrounds the small spring. No one is in the water and there are only two other people there, both busy taking photographs. The water is still except for the boil that is clearly visible as it bubbles up like the “blue ether of another world,” as American naturalist William Bartram described our springs in the 1700s.

Khenpo-la and I stand in silence, watching the water rise from the turquoise depths until I realize our time is up and we need to leave. “We’d better go,” I say, and we turn back toward the car.

“This is a really unusual place,” Khenpo-la says after we turn away from the spring. “Thank you for bringing me to see it.”

“Do you think there might be a
naga here?” I ask him.

A tiny smile forms. “Yes, I think maybe so.”

* * *

We settled in Orlando when I started fifth grade and it was after that—on a school trip to a park near Apopka, a place called Rock Springs—that I had my first immersion experience in a freshwater spring. I was fascinated by the transparency of this aquamarine world where fish, eelgrass, even sand and limestone at the bottom of the spring were indelibly clear.

Even better, though, was the caress of this water as it washed over my scalp, my face, my whole body. This was water like no other, water that could refresh not only the body but also the senses and the mind. I was too old to have a fit upon leaving, which would have embarrassed me in front of my classmates, but I do remember begging my parents to take me back to Rock Springs and being consistently turned down.

My parents were relieved and I was grateful when a community swimming pool was built within walking distance of our house. Throughout junior high and high school, I spent whole summer days submerged, surrounded by thrashing bodies in churning water that reeked of chlorine, surfacing only when I had to and then with toes and fingers severely puckered. I still think full water immersion tops air conditioning as the best way to survive a Florida summer.

That pool could have been the apex of my love affair with water. With an unsuccessful drowning attempt behind me, cut off from beach access by lack of a car, and with Rock Springs and the Venetian Pool only memories, I might have been happy to spend the rest of my days in crowded, chlorinated pools accompanied by the splashing music of screaming children. But karma changed my course.

* * *

I have an interview with Khenpo-la after we visit to the spring. I explain to him how the health of our springs is threatened by pollution, by pumping too much water out of the aquifer, by thoughtlessness and ignorance and greed. I ask him to pray for the health of our springs.

Khenpo-la is silent for a moment, and looks thoughtful. “Don’t you think,” he asks, “that other people may have need of that water?”

I remember the core of the teachings and how we have vowed to help sentient beings throughout the ten directions and the three times. I remember how we need bottled water after tropical storms and other disasters. I know the oceans will rise. I have heard that the Himalayan ice caps are melting.

“Yes,” I answer. “I understand that. But I also know that if all our water gets taken away, there will be nothing left to support the people and animals and fish who depend on the water we have now.”

“I will pray, then,” Khenpo-la says, “for an auspicious balance.”

* * *

The university I chose to attend was two hours north of Orlando in the middle of the greatest number of freshwater springs on earth. I didn’t know that when I made my choice; I don’t think anyone else did either, because many springs have been discovered since my college days.

It took several years of living in Gainesville before I learned there were springs nearby. A friend drove me up Highway 441 and then out a long county road to Poe Springs on the Santa Fe River. From a long rope in an old oak at the edge of the spring, we could swing out over the boil and let go, hang suspended in a bardo between earth and sky, then plunge into 72-degree water and come up gasping for air.

Other springs fed the same river. My writing teacher was the first person to tell me about Ginnie Springs, farther out the same county road as Poe. To get to Ginnie before it was developed, I passed underneath two sets of power lines that crossed the main road and then looked for two ruts in the sand that ran along a tree-lined fence at the edge of a pasture. At the end of the pasture, the ruts made a sharp right turn, hugged the edge of the woods, then veered left down a small slope into shade.

I could smell the spring before I could see it, in a spot where the woods opened to reveal an almost perfectly round jewel, the deeper part of the spring surrounded by a rough limestone shelf that narrowed where the water made its run out to the river. There, pristine and secluded, was perhaps the most beautiful spring I had ever seen.

Ginnie Springs became my haven. When my parents gave me their old black Volkswagen Beetle, I’d drive out after work during the week and spend long summer afternoons doing laps or just floating, sometimes the only person there. On weekends when there was a crowd, I’d hike east through the woods to Devil’s Eye Spring, swim across the river to July Spring, then dogpaddle back across the river to Ginnie, and repeat. Or I’d traipse west to a spring just big enough to immerse myself in and float with eyes closed in the dappled sunlight.

I didn’t think any spring could be more wondrous than Ginnie, but then two friends took me to Ichetucknee one fall afternoon when the sun was slanting through saffron leaves and the water was clear and cold. I climbed a little hill above the spring away from my friends and heard, dimly at first and then more and more clearly, a murmur of voices in a language I did not understand. I stood up and turned in a circle, but there was no one else there.

Maybe for a moment, on that little hill beside the spring, the veil between worlds was drawn back. Was what I heard some ancient Timucuan language? Was it the whisper of a naga? I still don’t know. I do know that the Ichetucknee, perhaps more than any other spring, is blessed with a palpable magic.

I dreamed about the springs when I moved all the way across the continent. In my dreams I’d be swimming like a fish, able to breathe underwater and able to see sky above, eelgrass and limestone below. I’d wake from those dreams in tears, knowing the springs were thousands of miles away. When I moved home, the springs were the first places I sought out.

* * *

My refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche—who told me how to make offerings to the naga in my local spring—explained that when nagas are sickened by pollution, some of them seek revenge by infecting the polluters with diseases. What a powerful metaphor for what may ail us, whether we believe in nagas or not!

In Kashmir, the word for “spring” is
naga, and temples for naga worship are built near springs. I marvel at how these temples must encourage a reverence for water and discourage pollution. I wonder how we, too, might begin to embody this reverence.

* * *

They are our earthbound stars, these springs, shining and twinkling indigo, aquamarine, turquoise blue and turquoise green, the largest constellation of earthbound stars on the planet. They reflect purity when our thoughts and deeds are driven by lovingkindness and compassion; they reflect murkiness when anger, avarice, and ignorance obscure our profound connection with them. Because this water that rises from the depths of the aquifer to form the springs is the same water that sustains us, we exist in an interdependent relationship: We need water to survive and the springs need our help if they are going to survive. The health of one—the water element or the human—affects the health of the other. To pollute our water is to pollute ourselves.

* * *

My Buddhist teachers tell me that we carry the imprints of our habitual patterns and karmic connections through the bardo of death and into our future lives, whatever forms those take. I have been so marked by water in this life that I wonder if I shall be marked by water in death as well, if my memories of the springs will follow me through the veil that separates the worlds.

I wonder if perhaps one day I will speak through that veil to another young woman sitting near a spring on a fall afternoon, whispering of water and timeless rituals in a language long forgotten.

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