by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2012
The entrance to the St. Johns River from the Atlantic Ocean was a treacherous place. Bar pilots found plenty of work navigating ships across the sandbars that moved with the tides across the bottom of the St. Johns. It took three lighthouses to erect a lasting sentinel on these waters.
Congress began setting aside money for a lighthouse near the mouth of the St. Johns in 1821 and nine years later, it was built near where French explorer Jean Ribault placed a monument of claim in 1562. Immediately the sea began its work in taking the lighthouse down, and within three years, the government beat the ocean to it. In 1853, the next lighthouse went up a mile away, though its whereabouts now remain unclear. It last almost 20 years. The river eroded its foundation. The shifting dunes blocked its light from ships at sea. In 1858, the third lighthouse went up. Made of red brick, it was built 85 feet tall. Confederate soldier shot out its light in the Civil War, but neither the sea nor the river ate at its base. Its light was restored, but not for long. The light in the Old St. Johns River Light went dark for the last time in 1929.
When the United States Navy took over most of Mayport, it tore down the one-story lighthouse entry building and raised the grade of the land around the lighthouse by seven feet. That’s why when the activist from BEAKS (Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary) is admitted onto the military base with the young journalist, they have to crawl through an old window eight feet off the ground to get in. The lighthouse door is now buried underground.
The inside of the lighthouse stinks, dank and dark. The lighthouse descends down beneath the grade of ground raised by the U.S. government. Down there stands filthy water, reeking. The walls inside seem soft and moist. The steps spiral tightly, up, constricted, up. Nearing the top of the steps, the journalist and the wildlife activist encounter bones, more and more bones, bones of lizards and mice, then feathers spread all over the steps. In the top of the lighthouse, the lens is gone. In its place the climbers find an owl’s nest. The nest is full of bones and feathers and mostly eaten small carcasses, but the great nocturnal birds themselves are out, hunting, even in the daytime. By nesting here, they have asserted their greatness by equating themselves to the missing lens of the lighthouse. The owls have equated themselves to the missing light. The owls have claimed the place of the missing thing from which the lighthouse takes its name.