Diving for fossils with Archie Carr

By Archie Carr

Excerpted from Audubon, 85, no.2 (1983). Permission to reprint courtesy of National Audubon Society.

It was back in a time before tubing; before the Crackers started storming up the spring runs in boats with ten-horse Johnsons; before Cousteau perfected his first scuba regulator - a time so far back that the face mask through which I saw was only a circle of window pane in a headpiece cut from an inner tube. In those days it was enough just to ride down with the stream and look for things to see and never see a single beer can from Ichetucknee Springs to the Santa Fe. I hung belly down in the air-clear stream and looked at the bottom slipping by, one moment a waving yellow-green of a naiad bed or the sudden red of water purslane, or moving soft horns of pinktipped coontail set with slim cones of spiny snails.

It is a fine sight down through new spring water. One of the sad parts of my lot is that goggling needs more drama than pretty plants to stir my slight metabolic fires and keep off the dire sickness of the skinny skin diver - the ague we used to call the "big shakes".

There was that day, for instance, a long run with no break in the water gardens - no bone-strewn riffle or shards of Indian pottery or Suwannee chicken cooter shying at my passing with nothing there but the man-killing cool and the sweetness of a spring run at summer noon. The zeal began chilling out of me, and I thought how welcome a fire on the bank would be, and a chocolate bar; and the bottom began to look like only wet plants. Then an eddy swung me over a bed of stonewort and I felt the prickle of the little leaves, and the smell made one of the queer smell-imprints that stick hard forever; so that now, to me, the faintest scent of stonewort or even of some sorts of onion soup brings back the sight of the big molar tooth lying there on swept sand beyond the stonewort bed, with all its roots and cusps, and its enamel shining as if a big man had lost it the day before. It was the tooth of a mastodon, and the heat came back in me at the sight. I worked back along the edge of the sluicing channel, dived and grabbed the tooth and rode the current down to slack water. Then I stood there knee-deep in more musk grass, turning the fossil in my hands, looking back plainly to a time when real giants lived in the Suwannee Valley land. The tooth was half the size of a football - too big for the bag that held my match bottle and chocolate bars - but its being so ponderous and such sure proof of different times had warmed me, and I dropped back into the current to ride on down, with the four pound tooth held tightly in one hand. There was a quarter-mile of smooth travel, with now and then a Suwannee bass rolling his red eye from under a jutting log or a sprinkling of silver minnows all nose-upstream in the channel edge, or a moss-thatched stinkjim craning his neck to scramble from under my slipping shadow. Then suddenly I slid over another swept shallow and in a litter of meaningless pieces of brown bone saw bulk like a shaped lump of coal half out of the dark sand bottom. I clawed back to a point upstream from the object, dived, and rooted out the chunk of shiny black with my one free hand. Then I kicked away downriver to feel for shallow water and see what the new find was. When my feet found bottom, I gulped air, scratched the mask off, and stood studying the object.

It was clearly a piece of another tooth, but it was very different from the first. It had an undivided root, and the crown was crossed by repeated low, wavy ridges instead of high cusps. One end was broken off, and I was barely able to summon the lore to know that this, too, was a bit of Proboscidean, a relic of some elephantkind of another sort. It was the grinding molar of the big Columbian mammoth. I thought the matter through, and then stood there in the suck of the current with bits of two Florida elephants in my two hands. I was so fired up by the coincidence and the triumph that the water stayed warm as new milk for the whole mile down to the landing.

(This scenario from several decades ago was reenacted and videotaped underwater by ARPP personnel last spring. Some of the footage will appear in a one-hour tribute to Archie Carr’s life as Florida naturalist to be aired on Public Broadcast System television stations late in 1997.)