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View from the screendeck

BY MARY GOUCHNOUR

Why do I return season after season, spending my vacations freezing in October or fighting off swarms of bugs in May? Many of my friends say this is a sickness - digging through dirt and river sludge looking for some old bones and artifacts, living in "primitive" camping conditions out in the middle of nowhere, keeping company with a bunch of scuba divers and science cowboys. Hopelessly afflicted with the same sickness, we all return season after season to rise before the dawn, shiver and shudder as we step into those cold wet suits, and work hard until dusk, exhausted and starving. At the Aucillal like the Eagles' "Hotel California", "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave"

What magic lurks beneath the cold, dark waters of this ancient Aucilla River? There is magic too among the woods and many animals native to this old and sacred land. As we toil together in search of man and mastodon or gather by night at the Nutall Rise project cabin, telling tales, playing cards, and preparing feasts, we share more than a common interest in an exciting scientific expedition. We share enthusiasm, dedication, and the intensity of a great quest. Solid and lifelong friendships are formed here at the Aucilla, as well as professional ties that will enrich our lives for years to come. The experience of being part of this project changes and directs our lives, both personally and professionally. One cannot be a part of this project and walk away unchanged. Therein lies the secret to the magic (or sickness, as some may call it) of the ARPP.

We come together as an extended family. Even the poet/writer Robert Bly surely would remark on the bonding and nurturing that exists among the various ages and levels of education and experience among the team members. Most of this goes unspoken, and yet, I believe it is felt by everyone. The value of field work goes far beyond the scientific information acquired during the fast paced seasons of work and toil. The interaction of various professional scientists, avocational volunteers, students, and financial and political supporters all have their place of importance in the success of this project. And it is the relationships that are formed which create its soul. The strongest asset we have as a project is our spirit, and that rests upon the individuals involved and their relationships to each other.

I have many teachers here at the Aucilla who are very eager to share their knowledge and who patiently answer my many questions. Watching from the screen deck or from some other vantage point, I see everyone involved in teaching. This is an ongoing phenomenon. Newcomers as well as veterans are actively involved in teaching and learning from the very start. This initiates motivation and interaction and provides the basis for the respect evident for each individual involved in the project. This in turn promotes much enthusiasm and gratification. It is very satisfying to see everyone not only feeling good about the important work we are doing, but also feeling good about themselves.

I feel indebted to each and every person I have met on this important and wonderful endeavor. To ties that bind and deeds that weave the fabric of our journey into a life full of adventure, purpose, and meaning, I leave you all with your own special memories of this wild and magical project, and the place that it embraces deep within our hearts.

Matt Mihlbachler scrutinizes exquisite details of the distant past revealed by his view from the screendeck

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Mary Gouchnour, right, and Bob Knight admiring their mid-river view from the screendeck