“Vistas were disclosed glade after glade, fringed on all sides by slender files of the cypress. The beauty was exquisite, almost supernatural.”
OKEFINOKEE ALBUM, Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley, 1981.
The Okefenokee Swamp is in the news a lot recently. I take notice anytime I see something about the Swamp, as that particular piece of land—mysterious, rich in biodiversity, haunting, environmentally critical and endangered—is my ancestral soil. I write about my ties to the Swamp in my memoir, “Cracker Gothic: A Florida Woman’s Memoir.” I grew up in northeast Florida, which is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as south Georgia. Back in September, my weekly email from Bitter Southerner featured a link to an article written by one of my all-time favorite authors, Janisse Ray. Ray grew up in Appling County, Georgia, just north of the Swamp, and her memoir, “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” is a book that I count in my top ten favorite books of all time. Unlike my other favorite books, however, hers is the only one that I will purchase and actually give to friends. Everyone should read that book. Southerners should have already read that book.
In south Georgia everything is flat and wide. Not empty. My people live among the mobile homes, junked cars, pine plantations, clearcuts, and fields. They live among the lost forests. The creation ends in south Georgia, at the very edge of the sweet earth. Only the sky, widest of the wide, goes on, flatness against flatness. The sky appears so close that, with a long-enough extension ladder, you think you could touch it, and sometimes you do, when clouds descend in the night to set a fine pelt of dew on the grasses, leaving behind white trails of fog and mist. At night the stars are thick and bright as a pint jar of fireflies, the moon at full a pearly orb, sailing through them like an egret. By day the sun, close in a paper sky, laps moisture from the land, then gives it back, always an exchange. Even in drought, when each dawn a parched sun cracks against the horizon’s griddle, the air is thick with water…the land is so wide, so much of it open. It’s wide open, flat as a book, vulnerable as a child. It’s easy to take advantage of, and yet it is also a land of dignity. It has been the way it is for thousands of years, and it is not wont to change.”
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray, 1999
So you see, if you haven’t read anything yet by Janisse Ray, it’s probably time. And I would like to suggest that while you are waiting for her book(s) to arrive from your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org (which supports indie bookshops everywhere), you can begin your introduction to Ray now.
This is the article that Ray wrote for Bitter Southerner last September as a response to the attempt by a titanium mining company to establish an operation on the eastern boundary of the Okefenokee. Ray writes deeply and passionately about the Swamp, recalling that the same struggle ensued in the 1990s, when DuPont tried to set up shop, mining titanium. That attempt failed, but history repeats itself; wealthy corporate interests might move on to another project, another opportunity for profit, but they are back, banking on a forgetful public. There is no need for me to duplicate the information and points of Ray’s essay. I wanted to create this post as a way to elevate the story, and because I care about the Okefenokee. As a bonus, you can hear Ray read her essay on the Bitter Southerner’s podcast, Batch.
I had not heard anything more about the mining issue until earlier this week, when another of my favorite authors, Margaret Renkl, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times concerning the threat to the Okefenokee. Hopefully this link will take you to a gifted, non-paywall version of her piece. If the link does not work, please visit Renkl’s Facebook page, where she has a link there to the non-paywall article. Renkl’s essay sounds the alarm; the window for accepting public opinion about the mining operation closes on March 20, 2023.
Additional information is available at the Okefenokee Protection Alliance. That website will take you to a pre-written email form that you can complete and send to Georgia legislators. You do not have to be a resident of Georgia to register an opinion.
Please read these two articles by two important female Southern voices. Please support the protection of the great Okefenokee Swamp.
I recently had the honor of participating in a Writer’s Talk event at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. I joined two other Florida authors as we read from our books on the porch of the tenant’s house, just across the yard from the house where Marjorie wrote her books: The Yearling, South Moon Under, Cross Creek, When the Whippoorwill, The Sojourner, and others. As I sat in the rocker on the porch, held my own book in my hands, I thought about the pilgrimages to the Rawlings house I’ve been making for over forty years. This simple homestead, the orange trees, outbuildings, chickens and ducks running free range around the yard, the wire clothesline tied to two palm trees – this place is sacred ground to my writer’s heart.
My pilgrim’s tale begins in the summer between my junior and senior year in college, when I had returned to my home in northeast Florida. I got an office job and met an interesting woman there who went by the name of “Mike.” I don’t remember why her name was Mike. Was it short for Michelle? Or a nickname picked up when she was a kid? There’s no way I’ll know at this point, but Mike has stayed in my memory all these years for two reasons. First, she introduced me to tabouli. Mike occasionally brought homemade tabouli for lunch at the office. When she found out I had never eaten, much less even heard of tabouli, she prepared a generous container for me to take home and share with my family, plus she gave me her recipe. Bulgar? What was that? And parsley? Not as a tiny garnish, but heaping cups of it, chopped up and used as the primary ingredient in a dish. How crazy was that? Even though homemade tabouli did not become a standard dish in my own kitchen – I can’t say that I made it more than maybe once – I will happily order it when I see it on a menu, and I think of Mike every single time.
The second thing that I remember about Mike, something that became much more significant for me than the tabouli, was she told me about the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home. I must have said something to Mike about my love of Rawlings, how I had read some of her writings when I was in high school and felt a deep connection to her. I was unaware that her house existed, that it was an actual place one could visit. Mike had been to Cross Creek and the house, and she urged me to make the 60-mile drive into the north central Florida scrub, to see where Rawlings had lived. This was back when you found places by following directions written on paper, or by using a large fold-out map of the entire state. It was also a time that when you started out on your journey, you often had no idea what you’d find when you got there. No reviews on Google or TripAdvisor, no aerial views, no state park website. If your destination was someplace off the beaten path, you showed up and hoped for the best.
I found the house. At that time, it sat empty, just an old farmhouse next to a two-lane county road. There was no staff to speak of, no group of cheerful volunteers who served as docents for the house, as is the case now. There was a man who was doing some chores in the yard, and he stopped long enough to say that I was welcome to walk through the house. Unescorted. The house was mostly empty, very few furnishings, and there was no one there to talk about it, to provide any history or information. But despite its sparseness, or because of it, I loved it. I loved the remoteness, its unassuming nature. This was not some fancy estate, not an elaborate, over-blown shrine to an American woman of letters. It was a clapboard house with a roof of aged cedar shakes, a screened front porch with a squeaky screen door, wide plank floors leaning a-kilter, an old iron bed, red-rose linoleum flooring peeling up from the corners in the tiny bathroom. Within these walls, pacing these floors, smoking on the front porch and typing away, this was the place where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings conjured characters and scenes that are imbedded in our American literary psyche: Sandy-headed Jody and his beloved fawn; Fodder-wing, the little crippled boy; the memorable river trip that Rawlings took with her friend Dessie.
I had grown up in a small town in north Florida, and when I read The Yearling, I found my surroundings, the people that my family had come from, portrayed on the written page. You could ride just a mile or two outside of my hometown and see the piney scrub that Rawlings so vividly described in many of her books. However, one thing that Rawlings wrote about that was not familiar to me was the growing and care of orange trees. There were no orange groves in my part of the state. There was an occasional mandarin tree, or sometimes a stunted, moss-infested orange tree in the front yard of an older home, producing a few sour fruits that hung on the branches until they rotted and dropped onto the dark sandy soil. So it happened that on one of my later visits to the Rawlings house, the orange trees in the grove around the house were in bloom, and it was the first time in my life I had smelled orange blossoms on trees themselves. And do orange blossoms smell like oranges? Not at all. It’s a fragrance similar to the creamy sweetness of magnolia and gardenia. I was enchanted.
When I was invited to read from my book at the Rawlings homesite, one of the first things I noticed as I walked into the yard that day was that the orange trees were full of blossoms. All afternoon, depending on the breeze, the scent from the flowers would occasionally float through the air. Never overpowering, but a presence nonetheless, lending a sweetness to the circle of my life. I had first stepped on this ground when I was twenty, and now I returned in my sixties, with an entire lifetime of experiences, but with some of the same dreams and passions intact that were held by that young woman that I once was.
As time has passed, my first visit to the Rawlings house looms large in my mind. I didn’t go there knowing how significant the visit would be. I took that trip without any grand intention, with no agenda. Mostly happy curiosity. I simply went. But, I went. And the rest of my life has been shaped just a little differently because of that visit. Or maybe it’s that the rest of my life has taken on a shape that, in hindsight, makes sense of that day. I put a stake in the ground of what my life might look like, the things that would matter to me. And some of those things took decades before I could realize them. Something the twenty-year-old me knew, even as I was not conscious of the knowing.
Over the years, I’ve gone back many times to Marjorie’s house, and every time I go, I always wish I had better recall about that first visit, wish I had taken my camera that day and captured the house, the grove. How wonderful it would be to think back to details from that day, create some type of arc through time, bridging the past with the present. But the wisdom of being older is to know that the specific details are not important. They were never the important thing. I can’t fix my memory, I can’t create photographs out of thin air and dust, but I can do this: I can always be grateful for Mike, who shared tabouli and Marjorie with me. I can be thankful that I did wander down into the Florida scrub on that summer Saturday decades ago, that my soul connected with something deep and alive, mysterious and surrounded by the scent of orange blossoms. And I can be very thankful for the people who make it their mission every day to keep this sacred space, to tend the grove, holding a place for others’ pilgrimages, whether it’s their first, or if they have been pilgrims for decades. Thankful for those who create and maintain a special home for Marjorie’s spirit.
“When I came to the Creek, and knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home, there was some terror, such as one feels in the first recognition of a human love, for the joining of person to place, as of person to person, is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy. The farmhouse was all dinginess. It sat snugly then as now under tall old orange trees, and had a simple grace of line, low, rambling and one-storied.”
from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“For the seasons at the Creek are marked, not by the calendar, but by fruits and flowers and birds.”
from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“With my first available money I planted the field to orange trees. I chose Valencias, for they are our late orange, maturing in March and April, and I longed to have the bright globes of fruit to look at after the earlier citrus was harvested. But the field proved to be what we call a cold-pocket, lying a little lower than I had realized, and I have been obliged to nurse the young trees year after year. The late maturity for which I chose the Valencias has nearly been my undoing, for they must weather the most severe cold, long after the other oranges have been safely picked.”
from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“We need above all, I think, a certain remoteness from urban confusion, and while this can be found in other places, Cross Creek offers it with such beauty and grace that once entangled with it, no other place seems possible to us, just as when truly in love none other offers the comfort of the beloved…I walk at sunset, east along the road. There are no houses in that direction, except the abandoned one where the wild plums grow, white with bloom in spring-time…It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.”
from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“This was the thing that was important, the cycle of life, with birth and death merging one into the other in an imperceptible twilight and an insubstantial dawn. The universe breathed, and the world inside it breathed the same breath. This was the cosmic life, with suns and moons to make it lovely. It was important only to keep close enough to the pulse to feel its rhythm, to be comforted by its steadiness, to know that Life is vital, and one’s own minute living a torn fragment of the larger cloth.”
from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“Moe replaced the walls and two small windows with French doors, all the way across the front of the room. Now the sunlight streams in across the veranda and gives the long shabby room an elegance that comes from being one with the sky and clouds, the orange trees and the palms, with the red birds like moving flowers across the panes. And when the winter’s-night coziness is wanted, the long linen curtains may be drawn, and the hearth fire lighted, and the old snug closeness is still there.”
from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
“The formal opening of the bathroom was a gala social event, with a tray of glasses across the lavatory, ice and soda in the bathtub, and a bouquet of roses with Uncle Fred’s card in a prominent and appropriate position.”
from “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Embossed cover image of “Cross Creek” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, copyright 1942
I’ll be speaking about my book, “Cracker Gothic: A Florida Woman’s Memoir,” at the Writer’s Talks at Rawlings House on Saturday, February 12. Two other Florida authors, Dorothy Weik Smiljanich (“Bringing Home Jessie – A Story of Canine Rescue, Human Redemption”) and Lucy Forsting (“The Adventures of Miss Twiggs and Company”) will also be there to discuss their books.
I became a fan of Rawlings’s stories of old Florida when I was in high school. She described a Florida that I recognized: rural Florida, where pioneer Cracker families lived off the land and endured many hardships to survive in the backwoods scrub. It is such an honor for me to be invited to read from my book in the same space where Marjorie wrote.
If you haven’t visited the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home in Cross Creek, it’s worth the drive! Come early and tour the house. The event begins at 1:30 pm, is free with park admission, and light refreshments will be served. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, Cross Creek, Florida. For more information, call 352-466-3672.
There are plenty of legit and delicious-sounding recipes in these books, mostly in the Desserts and Sweets sections (for example, the Grand Canyon Cake calls for a cup of homemade “whiskey sauce”- recipe on page 86; Bonnie Jean Butt’s Banana Puddin includes a can of crushed pineapple; Covina’s Peaches and Dreams is a divine-sounding concoction of mashed peaches, sugar, whipping cream, and crumbled macaroons). And then there are some entries that are not so much recipes as they are cryptic notes about a favorite food item, like the Kiss Me Not Sandwich: Spread mustard on two pieces of bread. Then slice onion on one and cover with the other. Ice tea helps wash it down.
Both books include a center section full of color photos taken by Mickler – of kitchens, churchyards, fruit stands, a hog-butchering. And there are essays where he captures the feel of the people around him, living their lives, preparing and eating the foods described in his books.
If you don’t have recipes for Thump Salad, Snippy Grits, Quick Loretta, or Deviled Pig’s Feet, then you probably need these books on your shelf.
Cracker Gothic is featured on The Florida Book Club Podcast – Season 3, Episode 1. Catch my conversation with Christopher Nank, where we chat about dead gators, a swamp monster movie, cemeteries, love, healing, and abounding morbid goofiness. If you are a fan of Weird Florida, The Florida Book Club Podcast is for you!
Today, August 8, 2021, is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Just last week, a few miles from Rawlings’s home in Cross Creek, Florida, I had an opportunity to see an extraordinary exhibit at the University of Florida’s Harn Museum – A Florida Legacy: Gift of Samuel H. and Roberta T. Vickers. It was the final week of the exhibit, and my expectations about what I would see were far surpassed. I was delighted at the wide range of artistic expression on display. This gift from Mr. and Mrs. Vickers is certainly a treasure for all Floridians to enjoy for generations to come, and this particular exhibit was only a fraction of the full collection. There were formal portraits, breezy beach scenes, dramatic landscapes, studies of flora and citrus fruit, a few examples of the Florida Highwaymen, and an impressive representation by female artists. Most of the works were by artists not familiar to me, but there were also pieces by some big names in American art – John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, N.C. Wyeth and Andrew Wyeth. The staff at the Harn even created a playlist of Florida music on Spotify to accompany the exhibit – so fun! Music by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Frederick Delius, The Buena Vista Social Club, and of course, Jimmy Buffett. The Spotify playlist is at the Harn website link above.
One of the primary pieces that drew me in immediately was the original oil painting by N.C. Wyeth, used as the endpaper illustration for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling. The painting portrays a blonde-headed Jody, the main character of the book, running barefoot along a sandy path in the Florida scrub, followed by his beloved pet deer, Flag.
Movement directly in front of him startled him so that he tumbled backward. The fawn lifted its face to his. It turned its head with a wide, wondering motion and shook him through with the stare of its liquid eyes. It was quivering. It made no effort to rise or run. Jody could not trust himself to move.
He whispered, “It’s me.”
The fawn lifted its nose, scenting him. He reached out one hand and laid it on the soft neck. The touch made him delirious. He moved forward on all fours until he was close beside it. He put his arms around its body. A light convulsion passed over it but it did not stir. He stroked its sides as gently as though the fawn were a china deer and he might break it. Its skin was softer than the white ‘coonskin knapsack. It was sleek and clean and had a sweet scent of grass.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938), p. 170.
Like many of the artists featured in this exhibit, Rawlings came to Florida as a non-native. She observed the people and the natural environment of the Florida scrub, and drew upon her writing skills to weave stories of early American pioneers in an eerie and magical place – a place not easily imagined by those who had never traveled here. This magic is reflected in many of the pieces in the Vickers Collection, as artists from around the country and also Europe traveled to Florida, bringing their paintbrushes, palettes, oils, and canvasses, capturing the many facets of Florida in their art: tropical vegetation, fortress ruins, hidden dark rivers, spectacular beach skies. I hope you were among the people who visited this exhibition. If not, and if you are in Florida, keep an eye out for future exhibits at the Harn Museum of Art. I believe they already have a plan for a permanent rotation of some pieces from the collection in their galleries. I certainly look forward to seeing future exhibits drawn from this special treasury.
January 25 is National Florida Day, the one day set aside every year for the citizens of the other forty-nine states to celebrate the fact that their state is not as crazy as Florida. In fact, Florida is surprisingly rich in literary history, with the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Ernest Hemingway all finding inspiration for their literary works while living in the state. Malone’s New Literary Map of Florida is an interesting piece, painstakingly compiled and illustrated by E.T. Malone. Malone is a journalist, editor, author, cartoonist, and an ordained Episcopalian Deacon. Living in North Carolina, he produced Literary Maps for the states of North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida between 1990 and 2001. Can you find your favorite literary figures from Florida on this map?
I could not resist jumping on the Bernie Meme Bandwagon with this iconic photograph from Green Cove Springs, Florida. I first saw this photo (without Bernie, of course) on the wall of Spring Park Coffee in Green Cove Springs about eight years ago, and was struck by its strong Southern Gothic vibe. I immediately posted it on my Facebook page as an entertaining oddity. I had no idea what the source of the photo was. Gator-hunting was a common activity on the St. Johns River at the turn of the last century. Hunters made a livelihood from the meat and skins, but it was also a recreational activity for Northern tourists who traveled to escape the cold winters and were curious about the exotic South. Soon after posting the photo to my Facebook page, a cousin commented that the man on the far left was our great-great grandfather. I was dumb-struck. It was a pivotal moment for me, as I was gathering my thoughts and writing essays at that time, which eventually became my memoir, “Cracker Gothic.” In Chapter 18, I do a little mental exploration of what it feels like to realize that I am descended from a dragon-slayer. It doesn’t look like Bernie really enjoyed the outing, though.
Zora Neale Hurston was born on this day, January 7, 1891. Hurston arrived in this world at the beginning of a new year. In her masterwork, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” she writes, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer them.” It feels like we’ve just emerged from a year of difficult, painful, soul-exposing questions. So much depends on how those questions get answered in the coming year.
It’s the anniversary of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ birthday, born on August 8, 1896, in Washington D.C. I’ve written about Rawlings in a previous post, linked here. She has been one of my favorite authors since I read The Yearling in high school. In December 2019, I visited Rawlings’ home in Cross Creek, Florida, for a delightful Open House hosted by the Friends of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Farm. During the lantern-lit tour of the old farmhouse, we were ushered into a room that held all of her works on display behind glass, including versions of her books translated into other languages. Seeing all of her books housed together gave me the idea that I’d like to read my way through Marjorie, start to finish. I set out in January of this year with a printout of her works in chronological order, and my stack of Rawlings’ books that I have accumulated over many years.
Rawlings’ first published writings were short stories, spanning the years between 1931 and 1949. Her novels fall within those years, so I read her earliest short stories first, then moved to her first novel, South Moon Under, published in 1933. In her short stories, Rawlings practiced character sketches and scenes from what she saw in this remote corner of Florida, an area referred to as “the Big Scrub.” She was developing an ear for the patterns of speech, watching interactions of moonshiners and subsistence farmers, familiarizing herself with a land of hidden swamp and overgrown hammock, then incorporating these elements into her later, better known novels.
South Moon Under was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and in it, Rawlings captures the lifelong struggles of Florida Crackers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book’s title refers to one of the moon’s stages, what they believed to be a critical influence upon hunting and crops, the basis for survival or death.
A neighbor of Piety’s has taken her son Lant under his wing, passing along his knowledge of survival in the scrub:
They had become cronies, as close as the distance between them allowed. They visited back and forth several times a year. Paine had passed on to the boy his lore of scrub and hammock… “Why, the boy’s right,” he said. “He knows the deer feeds on the moon, like most ary wild creeter. Four times the deer feeds. Stirs or feeds. Moon-rise and moon-down, and south-moon-over and south-moon-under. Come moon-rise, say, the deer’s done been sleepin’, ain’t they? They comes out about a hour ‘fore the moon. They feeds a while and frolics a while.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under, (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1933), 100.
I finished South Moon Under, but before I could start the next story, the world as we knew it ground to a halt. It was the middle of March 2020. And I don’t think I’m alone when I confess that I just couldn’t. Couldn’t read. Couldn’t write. Prepare meals? Shower? Were those things really necessary every day? We all were paralyzed in overwhelming uncertainty about everything we knew up to that point.
After a bit, I resumed reading, but I took a detour away from my Marjorie project. I had lost my enthusiasm for it. Instead, I followed a reading route that paralleled the mood of quarantine: May Sarton (A Journal of Solitude), then Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own). Next, my brother and I created a two-person book club on Faulkner, so I read As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and a partial read of Absalom! Absalom!. That was followed by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It was more reading in four months than I’ve managed to do in a long time.
It’s August now, it’s Marjorie’s birthday, and I must get back to the Florida scrub. The next book on the list is Golden Apples, not considered one of her strongest works. I read it many years ago, and I will admit that it didn’t make much of an impression on me. So we’ll see. Maybe I’ll post something about it here after I have finished it.
Here is one more quote from South Moon Under, just a sample of so many visually rich descriptions of her beloved Florida wilderness that Rawlings left us in her writings:
The scrub was clearing. Instead of the cathedral half-light, as though the sun came down from high small windows, the space ahead was bright. Lant stepped suddenly out of the scrub and was on a dim wagon road. Ahead was a low stretch of gallberry flats and beyond, a growth of small bay trees, “the bay.”
The precipitousness with which the scrub stopped always astonished Lant. It rolled, a great ocean of scrawny pine, with boundaries sharper than any sea. There were no pine breakers, feeling out an alien soil. It was there, the scrub, immense, aloof and proud, standing on its own ground, making its own conditions, like no other. When it ended, it ended, more implacably than a life, for there was something in a life that went on–a memory–a related life–a union with the earth, producing new growths and new lives. The scrub made no unions. The two swift rivers bounded it; a fringe of hammock, of swamp; as here, a strip of gallberry flats and bay-head flats; within, it was inviolable.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, South Moon Under, (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1933), 125.
A list of Rawlings’ works is located at the end of the Wikipedia entry about Rawlings, linked here.