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The Color of Water

By Walter Mills (Found in Recipe du Jour's great newsletter.)

My father ran a charter boat out of Flamingo in the Everglades National Park, and from an early age I loved the names of the places where he fished. On the navigation charts that he sometimes laid out on the dining room table after dinner, I searched for the places my father mentioned – Whitewater Bay, Flamingo, Elliot Key, Coot Bay and especially Cape Sable on the tip of the Florida peninsula where the waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico come together. I have early faint memories of him taking us in his fishing boat to the western beach to see the sun sinking far out in the Gulf.

On the maps I traced a route with my finger through the hundreds of small islands that make up the Shark River country and imagined I was really finding a route from the Florida Bay to the Gulf. It was like playing the maze games in the children’s section of the Sunday comics. But out on the water of the Shark River all of that changed. The islands looked almost the same to me, and I never could tell one from the other.

“How do you know where we’re going?” I asked my father when I very young and he was letting me help him steer the boat. “Look carefully,” he told me. “See that crooked branch on that tree? That’s a sign you can look for. Look at the large nest in that mangrove. You take the wheel now. Steer a straight course to the right of that island and watch out we don’t get caught on the flats or we’ll tear out the bottom.”

Click photo to enlarge

With my father behind me ready to take back the wheel, I strained my eyes against the bright Florida sun. Up close to the flats I could see a line in the water showing the abrupt change in depth from five or six feet to four or five inches. The color of the water changed from blue green to greenish brown, and even the light chop of the waves changed. I knew if we ran up on the shallow flats we might not get off. It was not as easy as it had seemed on the maps. Everything that was clear on the charts was intricate and confusing out on the water. After a storm passed through, everything was rearranged once again. The nests blew away and the shape of the islands themselves changed.

“You need to find new landmarks all the time,” my father told me. “And don’t forget to look behind you now and then. Nothing looks the same coming back home as when you’re heading out.”

I never learned the secrets of the Shark River country, which can take years to untangle. But the names stay with me and Florida retains a mythical place in my memory, the eternal green land of summer and childhood, the familiar place I return to in dreams. Looking backward through the years, I find some pattern in what otherwise might seem to be a tide of random events.

It is hard to navigate through the modern world. Most of the landmarks are missing and the perpetual storm of modernity changes the world right in front of our eyes. We barely recognize the present, and the future is a buzzing swarm of uncertainty, not a path we can trace with our finger.

I've seen how the color of water changes, and on occasion I've missed the changes and gone up on the flats. There were times I stayed when I should have gone and times I ran when I should have stuck around. You have to read the changes. No matter how safe we try to make ourselves, we live in a precarious world where the things we count on blow away.  Everything is temporary.

“Find new landmarks,” my father told me years ago. He may have only been guiding me through the Shark River country then. Now his advice has new shades of meaning. If I could read the world around me like he read the open book of nature, I could find my way safely to that western beach and see the sun set on the blessed isles.

(Reprinted by permission. The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2007 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. See American Impressionist)

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