Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon's quest for eternal youth through quaffing at a magic fountain is an enduring Florida story. It is indeed just that, most historians agree – an engaging myth.
But Florida's springs – natural fountains that bubble from underground rivers from deep inside the earth – are very real. Photographers, artists, geologists and naturalists have ranked them among the Earth's greatest wonders.
To dive or snorkel in them is to experience an otherworldly sensation, a weightless flight through an underwater garden shaped by water clear as a lens, gnome-like rock formations, darting fish and billowing aquatic plants.
"They are magical places for the solace of the soul," said Margaret Ross Tolbert, who has dived in the springs and painted them for nearly three decades. She finds in them a rejuvenating element, perhaps akin to that legendary fountain of Ponce de Leon's.
"The experience of being in the springs is a kind of ecstatic harmony," Tolbert said.
"In other times in life we sometimes feel this – emotionally, spiritually – as if everything and everyone is pulsing with the same energy, flow and radiance. The springs is the experience – the model, metaphor and illustration of that ecstasy," said Tolbert.
Sometimes sketching under water, sometimes painting on a huge mural balanced delicately on her kayak floating over huge caverns, Tolbert is Florida's premier springs artist, interpreting their beauty and mystery in diverse ways. Through paintings, poetry and essays, she celebrated the springs in her 2010 book AquiFERious, which won two Florida Book Award prizes.
Tolbert chronicled and illustrated more than a dozen of the 700 springs percolating in north and central Florida. These springs range from tiny trickles known only to deep backwoods explorers to mammoth gushers like Wakulla, Manatee and Silver Springs, known as "first magnitude" because they discharge more than 65 million of gallons of water per day.
Many offer swimming, snorkeling, diving, photography, camping, canoeing, tubing or kayaking in water with a constant average temperature of 72 degrees. Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs offer glass-bottom boat tours. Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon often is considered the most beautiful of the state's 33 first-magnitude springs, more than any other state and more than any nation can boast.
A few hours' visit to any of Florida's bubbling wonders can reveal a living composition of wildlife and plants.
Frequently seen creatures include manatees, otters, the secretive, eel-like greater siren, loggerhead musk turtles, Florida gar and maybe an alligator – which should be given wide berth. Eel grass, the delicate, pale spider lily and stately bald cypress trees help paint the biological variety that is such a part of Florida's character.
Restoring and preserving the springs and all the life within them is one of Tolbert's goals. Doing so means learning about them from multiple perspectives, which is among the purposes of AquiFERious, she said.
"I'd like people to immerse themselves in art and the ideas that inform it and the artist's journey, just as they immerse themselves in the springs," Tolbert said. "I'd like that paradigm shift of considering art and science both to illuminate reality, the poetic as perhaps the only way to wholly understand it."
Those who find the springs entrancing can see Tolbert's interpretations in a number of locations. Her permanent exhibit at Orlando International Airport is scheduled to open in late September. It is a collection of hundreds of mosaics, or small canvases, at Airside 1, the international terminal of the world's 25th-busiest airport. Hundreds of thousands of passengers yearly will learn – or re-learn – that Florida's appeal reaches to the recesses of its geography.
Much of her mural-sized artwork stuns strollers in hotels around the state and the Shands and North Florida Regional hospitals in Gainesville, Tolbert's home town, where a huge springs painting also is on display at the University of Florida's Reitz Union Building.
"Walk into (a) gallery devoted to Tolbert's paintings and you probably will suppress a gasp," wrote St. Petersburg Times critic Lennie Bennett.
Tolbert understands such response.
"A spring is the object of desire for so many people," she said. "Any encounter is possible. Five hundred-year-old water. Two hundred-year-old crayfish. It is a repository for dreams."
If You Go
For a map of florida springs, go to www.floridasprings.org.