By Erika Webb
Once a contemplative aquatic companion, Cassadaga's Spirit Pond is now completely dry.
Residents and friends of Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp will gather at Seneca Park, bearing shovels, from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, March 23, in their fifth cleanup effort since December. Camp association members, residents and neighborly supporters are determined to restore Spirit Pond to its former serene, and water retentive, state.
The small basin connected to Lake Colby has been a dusty relic of its former self for several years, choked by dog fennel and in want of rain.
In recent years this type of catch-22 has plagued many Central Florida communities. Water dries up and nuisance plants take root, preventing the re-filling of lakes and ponds.
The Rev. Diane Davis said because the area is a wetland, no heavy equipment or chemicals are allowed.
"We could do a controlled burn, but it would require state permits and (fire) would be too much for nature in that area, in my opinion," Rev. Davis said. "We've tried to do it this way in order to be the least invasive, and to be in total compliance with the state, county and St. Johns River Water Management District."
By "this way" she means digging the sturdy -- in some cases 15-feet tall -- intruders out with shovels and carrying them to a dump truck for removal.
Rev. Davis said Richard Penner, an arborist from Lake Helen, has offered his knowledge, time and dump truck.
"Richard Penner is not a member of the association," Rev. Davis said. "He's lived in the area for many, many years and he cares about what's happening to the water."
Concerned residents of neighboring Lake Helen also have seen lower than normal water levels in the town's namesake lake.
Lake Helen Mayor Buddy Snowden said there is a natural flow between lakes in the area, including Lake Helen, Lake Macy and Lake Colby.
"The elevation of Lake Helen is higher than Lake Macy and Lake Colby so the underground hydraulic pressure dictates water levels," Mayor Snowden said. "Since it's a descending elevation, as Lake Colby dries up the next one in line is Lake Macy, and it has receded. Next is Lake Helen."
"You know what's happening there," Mayor Snowden said.
In January the mayor told Hometown News the water in Lake Helen has receded so much docks built in four feet of water are now 10 feet from the water.
Adjacent Lake Harlan, which did receive Lake Helen's overflow, is completely dry.
Some officials blame rainfall deficit. Mayor Snowden and others blame construction along Interstate 4, in addition to development nearby.
"Drought is the number one reason," said David Griffis, County Extension Director for the University of Florida/ Volusia County Extension.
"We've been 12 to 13 inches below normal rainfall in the last 12 months," he said.
Fluctuation in water levels and weed invasion are part of a natural cycle, "Mother Nature's way of keeping lakes clean," he explained.
The dog fennel, native to Central Florida, takes hold in "disturbed, open areas," Mr. Griffis added.
When organic material or muck oxidizes and dries up it serves to clean up the bottoms of ponds and lakes, readying them for when adequate rainfall occurs, he said.
Members of the association and cleanup crew can only hope.
Just behind Cassadaga's Colby Memorial Temple, Seneca Park, overlooking Spirit Pond, was a place for solitude and meditation as well as Easter Sunrise services and other gatherings.
In the late 1800s Cassadaga's founder, George Colby, searched high and low for a southern retreat to practice his religion -- Spiritualism. Plagued by tuberculosis, Mr. Colby heeded the advice of his northern doctors and searched for a healing place in a warmer climate.
It is reported he was guided by a spirit called Seneca who led him first to Orange City and then east to what is now Cassadaga. Its uncommon hills and plentiful lakes were reminiscent of Lily Dale, N.Y., where Mr. Colby attended summer Spiritualist Camp meetings. An adjacent town to Lily Dale also was called Cassadaga.
Residents would like to preserve and restore that which first attracted Mr. Colby.
Rev. Davis said she's pleased with the plant-removal effort. Some have warned the exertion is futile, that the weeds will grow back, but volunteers have seen such a difference since December, they plan to keep shoveling, she said.
They keep sessions short so as not to exhaust workers; they laugh and have a good time working with and for nature.
"We've had all kinds of suggestions and offers, but what we're trying to do is be compliant, so I say bring (the advice) on, but bring your shovel," she said laughing. "We need to honor and respect the legal requirements."
Rev. Davis joked about how members of the group tried to make use of the pesky, but hardy, weeds. She said they called the county's agricultural extension office to learn more about the vegetation.
"We thought there might be some magic way to learn to weave this (material) and sell it," she said.
What she learned is that it's all part of the natural order.
"In Florida, you have tropical storms. They (ponds and lakes) come in and go out," she said.
Winds ferry vegetative squatters.
According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences website, dog fennel seeds are "surrounded with hairs (similar to dandelion), allowing effective dispersal by wind."
"We love nature and we want to help it," Rev. Davis said. "It's not that we want to change (the natural course of things), but we want to help if we see opportunities for improvement."