August 13, 2016
The birth of the great Caloosahatchee
Cynthia A. Williams
Seventy to 75 percent of the surface of the earth is covered with water. In geologic time, these waters have risen and fallen almost rhythmically — as with the slow pulsations of an immense heart.
On the long inhalation, earth temperatures drop and the waters draw up into ice. In the warm exhalation, earth temperatures rise and the ice melts. On the slow inhalation, land emerges from the sea; in the long exhalation, the land is gradually submerged.
Fourteen thousand years ago, during the last glacial period -- a long inhalation of some 13,000 years -- a broad peninsula at the southeastern extremity of the North American continent was exposed by the drawing up, like a lady’s petticoats, of water into ice — the ice that covered, in glittering splendor, the entire northern half of the continent. This emergent peninsula would someday be called “Florida.”
The peninsula is a savannah, the air swimming above its sea of grass clean and cold. A great bird, soaring down the length of this broad cape of land, twice the width it is today, casts a menacing shadow of wings over woolly mammoths and scatters herds of camels, galloping with undulant necks to escape the shadow. Veering to the southwest and lowering, circling over thickets of scrub oaks and hickory, the bird descends to a broad, shallow valley of marshes puddled with small lakes. Alighting, he folds his heavy wings and drinks from the puddled footprint of a mastodon. A herd of little horses, delicate as fawns, whirl away, their hoof beats soft in the spongy earth.
From this valley will arise the river we call the Caloosahatchee.
Fourteen thousand years ago, the only sounds to be heard in this marshy basin might be the clicking tusks of two mastodons battling for territory, the snuffling of pigs, the wind in the grass. At night, only the quiet knocking of teeth on bone, the rustling movements of rodents, the sudden, chilling scream of a jaguar.
At night, in the pallor of moonlight, each lake in this broad valley mirrors in still perfection a tiny moon, shimmered by the digging of an elephant-sized sloth nearby or by the night passage of a giant armadillo.
Two thousand years later (12,000 years ago), the rising water in this marshland pools in the footprint of an animal new to the valley. Over thousands of years, its species has drifted downward over the icy continent above, moving in small herds across the ice and the plains below the ice and wandering curiously, at last, into the broad peninsula at the southeastern edge of the continent. Now, early one morning, a group of these animals stands at the rim of the valley. Except for the long hair hanging from their heads and flitting a bit over their shoulders in the morning breeze, they are nearly hairless. They are reared on their hind legs, standing motionless, staring at a woolly mammoth sucking water from a basin of limestone. Alerted perhaps by a whispering movement of feet in the grass, or the scent of an unfamiliar animal, the mammoth lifts his head with its curving, 7-foot-long tusks, and gazes for long moments at these hairless little beings standing two-legged before him, spears uplifted, and then calmly lowers his head again to the water.
Two thousand more years pass and at night now in the valley (10,000 years ago), the marshes reflect not moonlight but the glow of small fires. They crackle softly, and the great dire wolves keen and wail, their sorrow drifting with the wood smoke into the cold silence of moonlight. The wolves are few. The saber-toothed tiger, whose eyes had once reflected the lights of these fires, are gone, the mastodons, the mammoths, the giant sloth and giant armadillo, the camels, the little horses, delicate as fawns, have vanished. The small, hairless animal with cunning eyes has eaten these animals to extinction. Firelight licks shell spearheads darkly stained with blood.
Over the next 5,000 years, the glaciers are dripping, and the seas flowing around and among the continents of earth are rising. Water laps at the edges of the peninsula, sculpting it, narrowing and tapering it. The deep, flat limestone base of this land is filling. Water is flowing into the grass, rising from beneath the earth in springs, filling cavities in the limestone, becoming lakes feeding rivers. A great inland basin is filling (Lake Okeechobee); it overflows into smaller depressions (Lake Hipochee, Lake Bonnet, Lake Flirt) and waterfalls over the rim of the shallow valley, becoming a winding rivulet of water making its way inexorably to the sea.
The water in the valley continues to rise, curling from its source along low banks of cypress and palmetto, moistening the warming earth, urging from it great oaks, cypresses and pines, and along its brimming banks, jungles of mangrove and cabbage palm. Moss drapes the limbs of the oaks, mournfully caressing the slow, reluctant passage of the water. The oaks are adorned with bromeliads in wondrous colors and filled with the peeping and fluttering of tiny, myriad-colored birds.
And the young river, seeking its way among twisted mangrove roots in its slow pull to the sea, becomes tidal estuary. Tasting salt water, it quickens, widening and hurrying now as if in joyous embrace of its freedom and now, sheeted with tropical sunlight, a new river enters a great gulf cupped in the palm of a new continent.
In the deep silence of the nights of 5,000 years ago, the river appears to be motionless, as if transfixed by the shimmering galaxy of stars that lie, veil-like, upon its surface.
But the river is in motion. The water laps gently at the river bank. The river is traveling.
In its journey through the nights of 5,000 years, it flows past the lights of small fires filtering through the saplings of circular dwellings and playing over growing mounds of mollusk shells, tossed there by people wearing anklets of shells that make a soft jinking sound as they walk.
The dark river moves, in the night of 500 years ago, past the flicker of firelight in the metal crest of a Spanish helmet, carrying with it for a moment the voices and laughter of bearded men.
Rounding a bend of 300 years ago, the river lops along a muddied bank where firelight slivers the logs of a cabin and, leaving behind the stench and bawling of cattle, the river rolls on past lantern light circling the boots of a soldier crunching along a crushed shell walkway of 160 years ago, leaving behind the echo of boots on a wooden army wharf 150 years ago.
One hundred and thirty years ago, the big river passes beneath a Disston dredge, lifting and lowering it and moving on, unknowing, uncaring.
Straightening now for its run to the sea, the river swirls among the pilings of the Pleasure Pier of 90 years ago, reflecting briefly there a dance of electric lights, and moving on, traveling into the night, sweeping full, deep and dark now far below the lights of a high rise condominium where, 13 stories up, a woman stands at the picture window of her riverfront condo, the bright sliver of a smartphone to her ear.
Backlit by soft light, the woman cannot see beyond the window, but gazes at her own reflection in the glass, her lips moving. A tiger-striped, golden-eyed cat does silken figure eights around her ankles. Pausing, the cat yawns, exhibiting a trembling pink tongue and needle-sharp teeth.
At the northern and southern extremities of this spinning planet, the glacial ice of the fifth and present ice age continues to recede. It is dripping, smalling to the poles of the earth, dissolving. And the seas, the rivers of the earth are rising.
The river, triumphant, rolls on.
Brimming with the moon that it has lifted with it in its slow rise from the cradle of its birth, the river runs deep and fast and wide-mouthed with its chalice of moonlight to the far, the shimmering, the rising sea.