Atlantic Beach: Aquatic Gardens (The Flood & the Poet)

by Tim Gilmore, 12/2/2015

Most rainstorms wax and wane, but on Sunday, November 8th, the rains increasingly increased, pouring more than 13 inches of water on Mayport and Atlantic Beach.

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Linda Max Collins watched the rain blanket the patio set behind her back sliding-glass doors. The waters laid flat her red-blossoming hibiscus and purple Mexican petunias. Then it inched its way under the front door. Then in beneath the sliding-glass doors.

“It’s a shame,” she tells me, “the irony.”

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To reach these two blocks of handsome modest townhomes, you pass the sign that identifies the 1985 development: “Aquatic Gardens.” That’s the irony. On the sign, a white heron soars across a faded sun above a background of aquamarine.

The neighborhood took its name from the Beaches Aquatic Center, a community swimming pool built in 1963, but sometime toward Monday morning, Aquatic Drive more closely resembled the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden.”

After midnight, the rain pounding her roof deafeningly, Linda watched the waters from the front door and the waters from the sliding-glass doors draw together. But before they met, the rains rode in from under the side walls of her dining room and living room.

On the Wednesday I drive out to meet Linda, trucks with huge pumps line the sidewalks, and I count 17 mobile ministorage units parked in driveways.

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A basketball goal lies on its side. Amidst the tall indestructible blades of sawgrass and their broom-like blooms, rolls of ruined carpets and piles of sodden mattresses await garbage trucks.

When I kneel down by Hopkins Creek, seven or eight basking turtles fling themselves into the water. One turtle flips over on his back, his yellow striped black legs paddling helplessly, and I gently turn him over and send him safely away from me.

Linda taught Creative Writing, Yearbook, and Stagecraft for years at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, and until the flood on the 8th, current D.A. Creative Writing teacher Tiffany Melanson, Linda’s former pupil, lived across the street.

Tiffany’s a poet who’s rooted multiple generations in Florida, and Florida inhabits her word choices and rhythms. Reading Tiffany is a reminder of how much Florida is water.

In her poem, “The Creek: Grandmother’s House,” published in the Jacksonville-based literary journal Bridge Eight, she writes, “As we round the tight corner / that leads to a shallow creek bed / I enter my body like a deep breath, / burdens laid down along the roadside / like fat bunches of blackberry / so heavy they choke the razor wire fence.”

The venues for Tiffany’s poetry also reflect Florida’s waters. She’s been a regular reader of poems on Swamp Radio. The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens chose a video installment of her work for its seven-month exhibit Reflections: Artful Perspectives on the St. Johns River.

As Florida’s waters rose across Sunday night into Monday morning, Tiffany took her family upstairs, from where they watched the waters rise.

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By morning light, the rainwaters covered the hoods of both Tiffany’s cars, flooded the engines and electronics, totaled them.

“You know, I write about Florida as if it’s a living, breathing person so often,” she says. “I shouldn’t be surprised she asserted herself as if she actually was one.”

As I stand in Linda’s dining room, on her bare concrete floor, baseboards pulled from the walls, piles of books temporarily stacked on tables, she points to the water that surrounds this neighborhood on all sides.

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Immediately to the east, the streets border Hopkins Creek, while just the other side of Mayport Road to the west, the many branches and deltas of Kestner Creek and the Intracoastal Waterway flow into the surrounding lowlands and wetlands. A mile eastward’s the Atlantic Ocean.

The alligators and great blue herons know this landscape, and work it, far better than engineers and real estate developers.

Florida is flat, largely sunken, its waters extend across its plains and make them swamps. Its hills are rare. Even more rare is the Candy Cane Gate I find at the dead-end road back of Aquatic Gardens in warm and humid Florida November.

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For most of its history, Florida lay underwater. Even now, the state is pocked with tubers descending deep to underground waters, and the peninsula is underlaid with rivers deep down. So much Florida is karst, land laid on limestone, a landscape skin whose soft pores allow deep chthonic waters to breathe upward and crack the land’s bones and chart new passages far beneath forests and streets and trailer parks and suburbs. Every now and then, a sinkhole opens in the middle of the night and a couple sound asleep in bed falls in.

Other nights, the water from above seeks to rival the waters underneath. Cars are carried away off asphalt streets just barely 30 years old, but the sandy soil and the stalks and grasses that bloom here weather their world in between.

The Aquatic Gardens Flood made Tiffany Melanson think about “the idea of the flood myth as a means to explore the myth that it’s actually possible to start over.”

The result, of course, was a poem:

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“The Myth of the Flood,” by Tiffany Melanson