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Story Two
Being River-Friendly
By MaryAlice Yakutchik
Switzerland -- After several hours on the water, biologist David Girardin is just about finished giving the St. Johns its regular   physical. Having taken its temp and measured dissolved oxygen, Ph, acidity, light attenuation and salinity, he's now   plunging a long hollow tube vertically into the river to sample phytoplankton in the water column.

His diagnosis: The river is sick. Five years worth of careful sampling and data crunching show that it's not getting   better, David says: "It's getting worse."

A 7th-generation Floridian, David is a 27-year veteran of the St. Johns River Water Management District where he's a field   program supervisor in the environmental sciences division. He and his team collect the data upon which permitting decisions   get made.

River experts like David Girardin agree that the No. 1 problem now affecting the St. Johns is an overload of   nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff and faulty septic systems, for instance.


We're at one of the widest points in the river: It's three-and-a-half miles across here where the Julington Creek   enters. The Julington is the St. Johns tributary with the most development, both residential and industrial. The Stewards   of the St. Johns River, a nonprofit volunteer group of environmental activists, is fighting against the destruction of   wetlands at the head of Julington Creek.

On the east side of the river is Switzerland, settled in 1772 when the British owned Florida. We motor up to a long dock   where Jimmy Shine has hung a flag out to greet us. Jimmy is a master gardener who's anything but neutral about the root   of the river's problems.

"Personally, I feel that the golf courses and private family homes are more of a problem than the farmers," Jimmy says, stowing   red pruning shears in his back pocket so he can tamp down the tobacco in his pipe.

River experts like David Girardin agree that the No. 1 problem now affecting the St. Johns is an overload of   nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer runoff and faulty septic systems, for instance. Nutrients cause   algae blooms on the top of the water; algae robs oxygen from the water and keeps sunlight from penetrating,   impeding the photosynthesis of native aquatic grasses which serve as food for manatees and nurseries for fishes   and crabs. It doesn't take long for algal blooms to throw the entire system out of whack.

Some nutrients in the water are naturally occurring, but levels in the St. Johns are dangerously out of balance.   The river can't rid itself of all the nitrogen and phosphorus that humans continue to load into it. Wetlands   are to a river what kidneys are to a human, and the wetlands of the St. Johns, those that haven't been paved over or   drained, can only do so much filtering.

"Crabbing here used to be good," Jimmy says, walking from his dock to his yard. "Now we're lucky to catch one."

"They're clearing land across the road for a subdivision," he says, dreading green lawns as much as traffic.


Jimmy bought four-and-a-half acres of wild and tangled riverfront property in 1956. He cleared a path to the river,   taking care to leave enough towering live oaks in which to hang a hammock and anchor the native vegetation. He built a   home where he and his wife hunkered down during hurricanes and raised a family.

Now a widower in his 80s, Jimmy busies himself raising living things in his "garden," a succulent slice of Old Florida   jam-packed with citrus trees -- tangerine and grapefruit and lemon -- and native plants. I remark that his home still   seems like a far-away paradise.

"They're clearing land across the road for a subdivision," he says, dreading green lawns as much as traffic.

"We like to keep it as natural as we can," he adds, describing one of his missions as a master gardener. "We are all   about slowing down the use of fertilizers."


He shows us two tulip poplars he just planted in the midst of native ferns, and invites us to tour a steamy homemade   greenhouse in which he painstakingly cultivates orchids and orange trees from seeds and clippings.

New homeowners -- many hailing from northern climes -- expect "instant Florida" as soon as they move in, David   Girardin says: "Their symbol of how successful they are is how green their lawn is."

They have neither Jimmy's patience nor his wisdom. They want full-grown trees throwing shade on carpet-like lawns.   If one bag of fertilizer is good, they figure that two will be better and three, best of all. Some are pressured to   attain a prescribed look that adheres to ill-conceived community landscape ordinances; ordinances that require the   planting of St. Augustine grass, for instance, a variety that's hard to grow in Florida's climate without lots of   watering and fertilizing.

"We like to keep it as natural as we can," he adds, describing one of his missions as a master gardener. "We are all   about slowing down the use of fertilizers."

The nurtured wildness of river-friendly properties like Jimmy's may not be fashionable and might even be misinterpreted   by some as unkempt and neglected. Hardly. It's full and voluptuous; beautiful in the way that a Botticelli is beautiful.

Jimmy shuffles into a grove of trees, one heavier with fruit than the next. He insists that before we leave, we fill as   many bags as we can manage with red navels, juicy tangelos, and Duncan grapefruits as big as my head and sweeter (I swear!)   than chocolate.

Jimmy's hospitality is pure St. Johns. It harkens to more than a century ago when a flag fluttered from a dock just a little   ways up the river, in nearby Mandarin, where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived and wrote. (She, of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame, also   wrote a collection of essays about Florida, entitled Palmetto Leaves.) She frequently lured steamers filled with   tourists to her wharf by doling out souvenir oranges to one and all, sharing with them a taste of her love for the   still-wild St. Johns.

A good number of those steamers were bound for Palatka. And so are we.


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