I’ve never touched earth much. Water, yes. As a child, I unbuckled knee pads and thigh straps to lift legs out of their braces. My skin hissed as it pulled away from the brushed leather thigh cuffs. With braces and crutches left in a jumble off to the side, I crawled into snow-fed lakes with sudden, immense depths or swim in pools until the world acquired a chlorine-rainbowed hue. My legs pushed though the water and expanded into their own natural shape. The abeyance of gravity would smooth the indentations of straps and aluminum rods designed to untwist and make plumb.
These days, I slip out of a wheelchair and into Florida waters. Spring-fed rivers warm or cool depending on the season, and Atlantic waves toss me until the sea floor scrapes against my skin and water burns my lungs. In summer time in the bathtub-warm and gentle Gulf, I lie on my back with my glasses off, stare at the now-blurred, impressionist sky, and float with no effort the way big women can.
But it’s not often that I touch earth directly. Sometimes my hands dig at the surface to plant or pull in my yard. More often it is less immediate: still connected, but once removed. A friend digs for me, her shovel hits a root, and I hear the thud of metal and see the sudden strain in her forearms. I search out the narrow reaches of blackwater creeks where leather fern spores bronze against my shoulders. My kayak noses into the high-tide openings in salt marshes until maiden cane tangles the paddle and black needle rush leans in to itch over my knuckles. Driving over the wash board ripple of a dirt road after rain can shake the topography of a landscape into my bones. And now and again, the rasp of littoral grasses at the edge of a lake sounds into the keel of my boat and feathers the backside of my thighs.
The La Chua Trail into Paynes Prairie is one of the places I’m least removed from the earth. Here, I first saw a bald eagle, a lotus in bloom, a whooping crane. I’ve pushed my wheelchair past two hundred alligators lined along the trail, their heads following in slow motion, while friends and I make jokes about looking as little like poodles as possible.
One year when low water levels attracted hundreds of wood storks, I went day after day to see the fluffed necks of the young ones, and it’s not unusual for a water moccasin to raise a warning head out of the grass alongside one of my wheels. The Prairie is a reason I moved to Florida.
I first traveled the trail in a manual chair, then in a scooter, and now in a power wheelchair. When I hear the hiss of sand under my wheels, feel the sink and pull, I know to shift my weight and turn onto a clump of grass that congeals the surface and gives traction. I traveled this trail before there were signs or gates. I traveled it before the state built an observation deck with steps instead of a ramp. It blocks the piece of dry ground where I used to perch each winter to look over the marsh and watch thousands of sandhill cranes mix with occasional groups of white pelicans. And now a vista-destroying boardwalk snakes around Alachua Sink, but it is still a place of connection. I still travel here.
All the seasons on Paynes Prairie have touched me. The purple and yellow days are in the spring – swaths of marsh marigold and spikes of pickerel weed. You have to go in the summer to see the lotus and the June weight of air in my lungs is a comfort even as sweat slicks the vinyl of my arm rests and stings along my spine.
September—still summer in Florida—is always a judgment call. Clouds, black and shot through with a metallic green, tower into the sky, and I brace against downdraft winds to watch the last sunlight at the edge of a storm. It races across the Prairie, tinting the oranges from rust to tangerine, the yellows to neon. It is only when lightning strikes close that I can turn away. Full speed, leaning forward over the controls as if that will make the chair go faster, heedless of hips and back, I bounce over the trail to my van. If I’ve timed it right, I’m closing the doors before the first, fat raindrops turn into a voice-drowning rush against the metal roof.
Once, in the season of government-controlled burns, a sheer curtain line of fire came close, so thin that it barely blurred the view beyond, and it seemed possible to take a single step and be through it. The inner structure of the air changed as ions shifted and crackled the hairs along my arms. It was as if I were on another planet.
Sometimes in the winter there are cold days that make my bones ache. Alligators burrow in the mud to stay warm, the low humidity blues the sky, and egret and ibis white glints against the eyes.
In the late nineties, the Prairie flooded. It wasn’t like in 1873. Then the Alachua Sink that drains the Prairie blocked and stayed that way for almost twenty years until, in a sudden drop, the lake disappeared and left steamboats, waterfront tourist attractions, and thousands of fish stranded. For us, it flooded high and for long enough that water lapped over the outside lanes of the highway that cuts the Prairie in two, and alligators, desperate for any high ground, lay nose up to the traffic.
There were daily reports. Would the road crumble apart? Float away? Crack? I wanted it to. I wanted to witness the Prairie become once again the Great Alachua Savanna. It did not happen.
But I started searching the road for a place to pull over, yank my kayak out from the back of the van, and slip into the water. I planned to leave my empty wheelchair beside the road as a puzzle for the police or State Park rangers. All I had to do was get beyond bullhorn range. It would be worth the ticket just to see what it was they charged me with. But I’m not quick, and my van is not stealthy, so I never tried. Of course, I wasn’t the only one thinking this way, and eventually the State Park allowed guided kayak trips. I signed up.
When the day comes, I’m early so it’s just Lars and me at the edge of the flood. The water is wonderfully disorienting. The big oak where I usually park my van and start my strolls is at the new shoreline. Lars, the man who literally wrote the book on the Prairie, is unloading all the rental kayaks while I snap and click the gear into place on my own boat. He has to go unlock the gate for the rest of the people. Will I be okay? Yes, I say. And this is part of why I admire Lars; he believes me. He lets me be on my own. This type of respect is usually something I have to fight for, even threaten lawsuits over. Sometimes in groups Lars introduces me as an outdoorswoman. It’s my favorite thing that I’ve ever been called.
He leaves. I’m alone on the Prairie. It is still rising, they say. There is no one else here. I stare at the water and think I see it creep along the trail. The gate is locked until Lars unlocks it and lets the rest of today’s kayak tour in. I don’t have long to be alone, but I do have this time. I won’t wait. I drop out of my wheelchair and land on the very last of dry earth, at least for today. I scoot on my bottom, pull the kayak, scoot more, pull the kayak. Through my nylon pants, under my bare hands, the ground becomes first cooler, then wet.
This isn’t a regular lake edge. No pennywort laps through stalks of arrowhead and bull rush anchored in muck. No buttressed trunks of cypress trees line the shore. This has been high ground for a hundred years. The spiderworts, star and pepper grasses, accustomed to sun-baked sand, are dying under the water, but their roots hold firm in earth that is reluctant to become mud.
Again, my arms lift the weight of my body and this time my palms press through sand into water. The path is becoming lake bottom. I pull the kayak to me and lean against it as a red-tailed hawk screams past. This used to be a dry meadow that provided mice and snakes. It will be again. This lake won’t exist forever. These events that have led to me being alone, here, on the ground are as ephemeral. I listen for engines, but it’s too soon to expect anyone.
I lie on my back, knees bent. A thin skin of water ripples down it. My legs flop to the side, my hip follows, and now my breasts are against the earth. My body mixes the wilted grasses with the soil. I roll again and my shoulder blades sink into the smoothness of dissolving plantain leaves. I spread my arms and rotting grasses wrap around them. A twist of my head and I’m at eye-level with everything I used to wheel over. Another roll further into the water and wet slides along my ribs and covers my wrists. And now I think about an alligator swimming and searching for dry land.
I reverse direction until my elbows scrape into hard sand and the stiff edges of hedge-nettle and Spanish needle. I lift onto my elbows and look around. I can see for a long ways. There are no alligators. I leave the myth of safety on high ground and roll back into the new mud. I stretch out flat, face up. Am I an agent of erosion? Am I joining water and land? My arms reach over my head until fingertips brush into the loosened fibers of earth and muscles pull in a stretch that I usually only feel in bed. It tugs at my flanks and below my belly where thighs and hips are in an unaccustomed straight line. The underside of both knees aches—a good ache—with extension. My head falls and creates a well of water that laps at my earlobes.
Lars’ old van rattles over the gravel. I squirm to sitting, readjust my clothes, pull strands of brown grass off my shoulders, and push the kayak through wilting dog fennel to a floatable depth. I splash the less muddy water over my front to clean up a bit. Leaning on the kayak, I kneel over it and tumble and twist into the seat. My knees are the last part of me pressed into the watery earth of Paynes Prairie.
For hours we kayak through fields of lotus and alongside the sunken steps of the observation tower. Attached to the drowning branches of elderberry, gelatinous balls of frog eggs rock in the slow wake of our boats. I stop paddling. The others are ahead of me. I lean towards the bow to ease my back, and my face lowers over my knees and into the oily plant stains and heavy velvet smell of the shoreline. The kayak, responding to the shifts of my body, the wind, the pull of imperceptible currents, turns itself around. Behind us, where we’ve just traveled, alligators rise.
I’m home. It’s evening. I’ve hosed the sand and slime off the boat, rinsed the paddle, and untangled rotting morning glory from around the bowline. My body is showered and smells only of oatmeal soap and chlorinated water. Now, I’m going to sprinkle baking soda over the laundry, but I hold the clothes against my nose one last time. The water will rise over where I was today and then fall away.
What will the path look like when it emerges? Will there have been time for sagittaria to root and grow tall over the water? Will the purple, white, and yellow of bladderworts skim the surface to either side? As I roll over a barely dry trail, shifting away from the patches of mud that remain, will my front wheels dip and lift out of the lingering physical memory of my body? Perhaps lotus will have spread close to the path. I’ll perch at the edge of my seat, anchor one arm around the backrest, and lean over the water that remains to reach the oval petals and touch into the swirl of orange-stalked stamens at their center. I close the washing machine lid and set the rinse water to hot.