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The Manatees at Blue Springs

Lewis Hyde

Cold January--a frost on the fruit trees--and manatees swim down the north-flowing St. Johns

to the great artesian springs of the Ocala limestone beds in northeast Florida.

At Blue Springs a hundred million gallons of thin-emerald water--

exactly seventy-two degrees winter, spring, summer, and fall--

pour from caverns measureless to man down to the sunny St Johns. 

The manatees float, almost motionless, in the melted-emerald water. 

How large they are--like sunken ironing boards--and how slow-- 


as if for them the great hungers that keep us running up and down the river bank had been fully satiated in the generations after mammals returned to the sea,

slow, as if trying to show us how to break the spell of Newton’s strange obsession with gravity,

slow, like ideas in dreams that wake you in the night and then disappear utterly into the wavy blankets,

like ideas waiting patiently for their poets to be born (“Song of Myself” was once a manatee, and so were seven of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and most of Pablo Neruda’s work after the fall of Spain, and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”),


slow gray skin-sacks showing how thinly the neocortex could be stretched, how much dark flesh it could contain, how much fur it would desire once it had lost contact with the other lobes of the brain,

fur the color of oiled mice,

the color of orphans’ coats,

color of the painter’s cleanup rag washed a thousand times,

gray fog in starlight, gray cremation ashes,

gray here overlaid with with the beaten-emerald green of the first algae that bore the first chlorophyl, that first earth molecule able to drink from the sun’s old waterfall of light....

William Bartram at Manatee Springs, June 1774:  “A skeleton of one, which the Indians had killed last winter, lay upon the banks of the spring; the grinding teeth were about an inch in diameter; the ribs eighteen inches in length, and two inches and a half in thickness, bending with a gentle curve; this bone is esteemed equal to ivory; the flesh of this creature is counted wholesome and pleasant food; the Indians call them by a name which signifies the big beaver....  They feed chiefly on aquatic grass and weeds.”

The Florida Manatee, Trichechus manatus latirostris -- 

manatus, manos, hands, the handed one, the handed sea-beaver,

fingerless, thumbless paddle hands

like the cardboard fans in little dirt-road Mississippi Baptist churches, stirring the warm liquid without ambition,

hands adequate for finding warm springs,

hands spread to greet the stony world below and the airy world above like an economy based wholly on waving hello and goodbye,

hands that have stolen nothing during the last ten thousand years, and comb no hair, and cut not meat, and oil no metals....

(oh, maybe the whole opposable thumb thing
was a sorry mistake)

The great gray-green manatees float 

like lead balloons,

like mouth-breathing slugs,

like pools of mercury,

like hundred-year-old fat people,


like mermaids who got interested in reading books,

like conscientious objectors at a Marine soirée,

like a vegetarian proof of pacifism,

(soon they will all be dead,

soon we will have killed the last of them)

like sincere compliments given to homely children,

like blind trusts where attorneys-general keep their compassion,

like nineteenth-century inventions lost in the patent office,

like Buddhist monks reborn as huge noses,

like depositories for the patience of great teachers.


They have no interest in the thickness of the tiles on the belly of the space shuttle,

they tell no stories about evildoers,

they do not argue over John Locke’s definition of property,

they take no sides in regard to that,

they do not measure our ribs and are not curious about the size of our teeth,

they have no rumors in regard to the taste of our flesh,

they do not compare our bones to ivory, nor even to aquatic weeds,

they have not counted their own number this year, nor last year,

and they perceive the decimal system as the fossil scream of the cells that died to separate the fingers from the flipper.


Their wide backs bear the propeller-bite white tooth marks of our speed,

just taking the boat out for a spin, just trying to be quit

of the endless mangrove swamps, I too

have pushed the throttle open,

I too have heard the soft thump and wondered

what I hit and sped on

through the darkness with my private cone of light;

my people too have had trouble keeping warm

and the springs we found were pools of oil left by ancient ferns,

and we lit them with a match in 1906 and they will burn for two more generations --

(a hundred million gallons!
we light that with a spark plug
every three seconds now)

I myself burned a thousand gallons to come south to see you, dear manatee,

my trail of carbon dioxide rises toward the sun

as your gray-green back rises toward the surface.

We come to worship in the small area where our greed has been held back

(a little rope strung with white floats marks the edge);

we have left our cars in the parking lot and come to stare across the fence in an elegiac mood

nicely watered by the condensation dripping from the cooling exhaust pipes. 

On their side of the line, the manatees float, their broad backs inscribed with the white hieroglyphic scars of our hurry;

on our side we stand with our black tattoos, and all this gravity, and our hands covered with fingers. 


-- February 2003, New Smyrna Beach, Florida