Cannon Springs ,  2017, 90 x 90 90 inches,  oil on canvas

Cannon Springs,  2017, 90 x 90 90 inches,  oil on canvas

Tobacco Patch Springs  , 2014, 48 x 36 inches, oil on canvas

Tobacco Patch Springs, 2014, 48 x 36 inches, oil on canvas

Margaret Ross Tolbert

UF Alumni, BFA and MFA, Painting
Artist, Gainesville, Florida


The Ocklawaha River is a historic and beautiful river in North Florida,  scene of numerous settlements of Native American and indigenous peoples over millennia.  In the 1960s construction began inn earnest on the Florida Barge Canal,  an ill-conceived project that would have had disastrous impact on the Floridan aquifer, and a dam was built on the Ocklawaha River near Palatka.  

The project  was stopped by President Nixon in 1971. But the vestigial Rodman Dam continues to operate and keeps the Rodman Reservoir 18 feet above normal water levels to this day.  

Over 8000 acres of flooded forest land are underwater; the dead trees remain with broken stumps in a drowned forest that is revealed every 3-4 years during the drawdowns.  The Drowned Forest is one of the most haunting and searing images of the ecological ruin caused by the dam. What goes unseen is the number of fish, manatees, and other aquatic migratory species that cannot pass through to continue their journey up the river to the numerous springs,  beds of lush eelgrass for grazing that lead up to Silver Springs. Biodiversity in animal and plant species in a river is key to the health and purity of the water. Species diversity is kept low by the continued existence of this dam. Additionally,  the typical riverine existence, with natural shores and banks along the water,  cannot occur with the artificially high waters keeping all species, including humans, away from this natural interface. 

Our Lost Springs project ( calls for the restoration of the Ocklawaha River, the opening of the dam gates, and invites us to imagine the proliferation of species that can live in the Ocklawaha River if it is restored and free-flowing.  

 My paintings Tobacco Patch Springs (where a biologist counted ten different species of fish during the drawdown, and one endemic crayfish),  and Cannon Springs show the springs from underwater, brimming with all varieties of fish, during the times of the drawdown when fish reappear in the numerous springs on the Ocklawaha. These upriver  springs can only then be seen, and only flow freely, during the drawdowns. The springs in the actual Rodman Reservoir are covered with 6 feet of water even during the drawdowns, and have never flowed freely since the dam was built.