In 1962, Ishmael Bermudez, then a schoolboy, began excavating the yard of his family’s home in search of an ancient well that his neighbor Queenie had heard about from Native American lore. The Cuban Missile Crisis was looming and Miamians feared losing access to potable water in case of a hit. Using shovels, Bermudez carved away at the hard yet porous limestone that forms the bedrock of Florida. As he looked for the fabled well, he uncovered countless fossils and artifacts belonging to early inhabitants.
He finally discovered the well in 1969. Water still flows from the well today. And so does a great story.
“Tell the truth”
When I met Bermudez recently, he told me straight away that he wasn’t too happy about recent press coverage, some of which has focused entirely on his refusal to entertain offers from developers to buy his property, build over the well, and raze the home where he lives with his wife, artist Burke Keogh.
This soft-spoken well digger doesn’t care much for gold diggers. He declined to talk about the sum.
Something bigger and more profound is on his mind. “The history of humanity is here,” he said. “I am here to protect the site.”
“Please, please tell the truth,” Bermudez implored as we walked through his yard one rainy afternoon. I sensed urgency in his voice. “The truth is about the water. Life is about the water.”
Bermudez pointed to the northwest corner of the yard, where the abundant supply of fresh water springs forth from a hole in the ground. According to Bermudez, it’s here that pre-historic animals and humans once gathered to quench their thirst along an ancient trail skirting Biscayne Bay.
Around 280 million years ago, Bermudez claims, a meteor crash in the area instantly wiped out all living creatures. He showed me a rock with two concave indentations that vaguely resembled a skull. “That’s the death scream,” he said.
We were standing on a tomb.
The well digger was really a gravedigger.
Eons later, in the digital age, the well, the site of that supposed natural disaster, springs forth next to a 7-11 parking lot and a herd of modern mammoths — the Miami high-rise condo.
The irony of a Foursquare listing for “The Well of Ancient Mysteries” among the trendy restaurants and shops of Brickell isn’t lost on me. Million dollar condos sit above ancient history. Glass railings boast concrete jungle views. Bathing water comes from luxury sink fixtures. Drinking water comes in plastic bottles from the convenience store.
As if to mock their neighboring concrete giants, green ferns sprout defiantly from the pockmarked landscape that Bermudez has painstakingly excavated. The Well of Ancient Mysteries is an anomalous sanctuary amid the loud cackles of Brickell’s street chickens, the rattling noise of the Metrorail, and the din of pneumatic brakes and construction drills that make up the symphony of progress.
Where is the sacred?
“Earth is sacred,” reads a sign facing outward toward the 7-11 parking lot.
It’s not easy to get your sacred on in noisy, congested Brickell, but I did.
I first met Bermudez last year, when a friend from the Coconut Grove Drum Circle invited me to join a group of drummers in Bermudez’ yard. An acquaintance of mine, a shaman from Colombia, was performing a communal ritual. While we drummed and chanted, we also sampled the water, which had a slight mineral flavor.
I was curious, of course, about the experience, but it didn’t seem like an oddity at the home of a man who called himself Golden Eagle and counted Native Americans as his ancestors. I really didn’t think much about the site until last month, when I walked by the property during one of my now famous Miami schleps.
There are no coincidences. I had just moved back to Miami Beach and joined a group of environmental activists on Facebook who frequently discuss water quality issues and sea level rise. This time, I was drawn to the well like a divining rod dowsing for some truth in a very dirty city.
More than ever before, I began to notice what a pigsty much of Miami-Dade has become, with trash infiltrating every single nook and cranny visible to the eye. I’ve seen piles of garbage spewing out of storm drains and polluting our waterways, littering the mangrove roots along the shore of the bay. We’re living in our own filth. We don’t respect the land. Nothing is sacred.
Bermudez may seem like a Miami eccentric, but he’s really not that different from many concerned Floridians who know that the land we build on is just an afterthought to the Everglades, our unique river of grass, and the vast watershed that travels underground through the peninsula to make up the Florida aquifer.
“This isn’t about Ishmael,” he kept repeating. “It’s about a natural legacy. We are responsible for the earth. Earth gave us life.”
The threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis may be long over, but there is a greater threat now to life-sustaining water. Keeping the property intact is part of Bermudez’ wish to encourage dialogue about the planet’s health. For him, the well isn’t just a symbol of the past; it’s also a promise for the future.
“What we are doing here will make the earth a better place for our children,” he said. “Why not start here, in Miami, to open minds and hearts around the world?”
Bermudez then referred to one of history’s legendary explorers. “This is what Ponce de Leon was looking for,” he said. “The fountain of youth.”
It’s when he mentioned the Spanish conquistador that I thought about the irony of all this — Miami’s new development is all about fresh, young energy and the promise of a carefree lifestyle in sleek towers built for new money and foreign investors. Ancient history doesn’t make the cut for fashionable real estate publicity.
But all that glamour spells denial. It’s easy to cast away what seems inconvenient while the garbage of our “advanced” civilization makes us sick. Chemicals contaminate our water supplies. The plastic bottles we buy containing “pure” water pollute our springs, rivers, and oceans.
The real mystery, then, is not what lies beneath our feet. It doesn’t even matter if Bermudez’ claims are scientifically valid or not. The Well of Ancient Mysteries simply begs a glaring question: Why haven’t we been better stewards of our planet?
And then it hit me: Water isn’t a disposable commodity. The well is really an oracle to remind us of our own death. Who’s really dying here? The ancient death screams, captured in fossilized skulls, might as well be our own.
“Are we dying slowly?” I asked myself as I looked up at the one of the surrounding skyscrapers. “Are we killing ourselves by not honoring the earth?”
“Yes,” I thought. The whole of Brickell is a living tomb.
Should sacred be the new normal?
Unfazed by development, Bermudez and his 100 ft. by 50 ft. double lot go against the tide of development, redefining what it means to “own” a valuable piece of real estate.
It’s a different kind of investment that’s not about money.
Inspired by a drink of some of the purest water I’ve ever tasted, I couldn’t help think that there was really nothing particularly “mysterious” about something that belongs to all of us — water. Something that always was and always will be. Ownership is a fiction.
As I left The Well of Ancient Mysteries, where the truth seemed as transparent to me as the water from the well, I rushed back toward the train into a world that seemed rather uninspired and mundane.
“This Miami is temporary,” I thought. “That well is here to stay.”
Bermudez’ truth is obvious to me. Without water, we die. It’s that simple.
The well in Brickell only seems out of place because we have disconnected ourselves from the source. You can’t buy sacred in a plastic bottle. And the sacred is now — not in some distant past. After all, do you ever stop to ask, how old is water?