Idyll 7 /

A History Of The St. Johns River

Isobel Bess

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River it has been flowing continuously north for thousands of years. I am carrying a flute made from a piece of Oklahoma river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) that spans the approximate length between the crook of my right elbow and the tips of my fingers on my right hand, a cellular phone with no service, an ebook reader that I will lose a few years later in a small regional airport in western Oregon, and a shrill yellow whistle that was given to me by a woman who works for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. She will later refer to me as a shapeshifter and I will not know how to respond.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River I am in my late twenties and I have cut my hair short. Everyone tells me that I am more likely to be killed by a bear than an alligator. The shrill yellow whistle is supposed to frighten bears, but I do not think I would like to frighten a bear or to find out what would happen if I did.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River I am not yet bitten by fire ants.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River a man in Texas was just eaten by an alligator. The news reports that he yelled Fuck that alligator! before jumping into the water. It is mating season.

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River people are leaving birdhouses in the trees to commemorate the dead. Birds do not use the birdhouses. A woman who works for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, not the same woman who gave me the shrill yellow whistle and will later refer to me as a shapeshifter, comes around periodically to remove the birdhouses.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River a storm will rise up over Lake George about three hours later. I will watch the wind scatter palm fronds and be grateful for the cool air. Storms like this one will rise up over Lake George on subsequent afternoons and I will come to think of them as liturgy.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River I am unsure about the correct pronunciation of the word Anthropocene.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River I try to picture the monumental shell mounds that indigenous peoples built along the banks between 7,500  and 4,600 years ago. Most of them have already been robbed for road fill. There are few rocks in central Florida so settler roads are laid in shell and bone. I am still technically an archaeologist but I am no longer sure why. People have been dying for a long time and I have only been dying for a little while.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River I am thinking about the last conversation I ever had with a friend who died. I have not yet read Heraclitus, who had a few things to say about rivers.

 

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River I have not been home in years. I would not recognize the people who live there and I do not think they would recognize me. It is the nature of rivers to separate one bank from the other.

When I first touch the waters of the St. Johns River there are no pristine landscapes.

Isobel Bess grew up in the rural mid-south but she doesn't live there anymore. She was a 2017 Lambda Literary Fellow in poetry and a recipient of the Bryn Kelly Scholarship. She won the 2019 Peach Gold Prize. Her poems have appeared in Paint Bucket, Nat. Brut, Witch Craft Magazine, The Wanderer, Plenitude Magazine, and elsewhere. She's a co-editor at The Wanderer.

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