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Students Spend Spring Break On The St. Johns River

This past spring break, seven University of North Florida students went on a trip led by the Environmental Center to a Florida water destination, but it didn’t have the bikini and beer pong ambiance one might expect.They stayed in cabins at Blue Spring State Park for a week and each student worked on an individual project for academic credit.

The spring is part of the St. Johns River and it has a much different atmosphere than the one Jacksonville is home to. The banks are much narrower, the sounds of cars are much fainter and animals emerge from the camouflage of nature to bask on the banks.

WJCT's Lindsey Kilbride went on the trip and interviewed several of the participants.

Dr. Keith Ashley is the coordinator of archeological research at the University of North Florida. He spoke to the students on a rainy day and brought artifacts from the Timucuan Native Americans who once lived on the land around the river.  

Ashley’s research focuses on the natives who used to live along the St. Johns River. He said that archeology provides a great time-depth for the St. Johns. He often takes students to the mouth of the river to compare the environment of then to the environment of now.

“One of the big things we notice at the mouth of the river is the natives kind of lived off of oysters and other types of shellfish that are no longer living there today,” Ashley said, “because of all the pollutants and things like that.”

He said that working in a field that focuses on the past gives people a sense of what the river was really like and that is can be disheartening to see the changes that have occurred. 

Even more recent history provided perspective for students. Dr. Charles Closmann, an associate professor of history at the University of North Florida stressed the importance of people learning from their mistakes.

Closmann grew up in close contact with nature. Upon moving to Jacksonville he fell in love with Florida’s beautiful landscapes, so much so it inspired him to study environmental history.

Closmann referenced legislation in his presentation and included the Clean Water Act that was passed in 1972 largely in response to the 1969 fire in Ohio’s Cuyahoga River.

“I think it’s important that people know the struggles that we’ve gone through.” Closmann said. “We’ve come a long way, but you have to remain vigilant about those things.”

While some people use the river’s history as an educational documentation, others use it to express art.

Sarah Crookes Flaire gave the students an art lesson on the trip. Her work largely focuses on her personal experience with nature.

She said it’s important to get people to have a direct experience of nature and that it is one of the best ways to create that mindfulness.

“The artwork then becomes a map of that experience,” Flaire said. “I think that’s what art does now, it’s no longer selling you something, the exploration is that personal journey."

"I think that’s what’s going to save ourselves and save the environment, is getting people connected in positive ways and then opening them up.”

And though the river runs right through Jacksonville, many people don’t have much of a relationship with it. That’s the lesson students learned from Mark Middlebrook, a former journalist who is now executive director of the St. Johns River Alliance. He’s concerned about water being pumped out of the river for drinking water and lawn irrigation.

As someone who worked in the media he said he regrets spending too much time in the newsroom and not enough time in the community, in particular the river. For him, the river is a transformational experience.

“It changes the way you look at the state and it also brings home the issues of water,” Middlebrook said, “which is going to be a dominant issue for us really from now until forever.”

He said the biggest problem that people have with the river is that they drive over it and watch fireworks downtown over it, but not enough people really know about the river itself.

“It’s a dominant feature of the city of Jacksonville,” Middlebrook said. “Its health is critical to the health of the community and the health of the economy.”

The trip was eye-opening to many students. They learned about the effect that their everyday actions can have on the environment, along with the issues associated with the St. Johns River and maybe most importantly, how spending a week with nature can really enhance one’s connection with the river.

As singer and songwriter Benjamin Dehart told students on the trip, sometimes a day of nature can actually be an escape into reality.

You can follow Lindsey Kilbride on Twitter @lindskilbride.