Pilgrimage to the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic Home

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

Writer’s Talks at Rawlings House

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.

Ernest Matthew Mickler and White Trash Cooking

Happy Birthday to Ernest Matthew Mickler, born on this day in 1940. Mickler was a product of rural northeastern Florida and best-selling author of “White Trash Cooking” and “Sinkin Spells, Hot Flashes, Fits and Cravins.” He died of AIDS in 1988.

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.

Florida Book Club Podcast – Cracker Gothic

Florida Book Club Podcast

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!

Gator-hunting with Bernie

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.

The Florida Book Review: Cracker Gothic

spoonbill

Big news! “Cracker Gothic: A Florida Woman’s Memoir” has recently been reviewed on The Florida Book Review website. It is an honor for me to be included among so many legendary Florida books and authors! FBR Contributing Editor Victoria Calderin writes:  “Anyone who has ever cared for an ailing family member, lost a spouse, felt that tourists just don’t get their town, won free coffee for a week, knows #floridaman, understands gator hunting to be a profitable business, or grew up looking at calendars in awe of their mysterious white winters will find a kindred spirit in Wanda Suttle Duncan.”

You can read the full review here.

The Florida Book Review website is a great resource for all types of Florida reading –  you’ll find reviews and articles on works by Harriet Beecher Stowe to Carl Hiaasen to Zora Neale Hurston, and of course, my favorite, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. There is something for everyone in Florida literature, and you’ll find it all on the FBR website. Contemporary works like “Mostly Dead Things” by Kristen Arnett and Lauren Groff’s “Florida” are reviewed there. So are the books that have come to be known as the bastions of Florida history and culture: “A Land Remembered” by Patrick D. Smith and Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s “The Everglades: River of Grass.” The website is divided into sections, providing a hint to the broad diversity of literary genres plumbed by Florida writers. Working through all of the books listed in the  “Classic Florida Reads” section would keep me happily reading, nonstop, for a year.

Along with many literary standards, there are some surprising jewels to be found as you peruse this website. A visit to the “Food and Drink” page provides a detailed and entertaining review of “The Storm Gourmet: A Guide to Creating Extraordinary Meals Without Electricity” by Daphne Nikolopoulos. Lynne Barrett is the reviewer, and she explains why this book is invaluable not only to Floridians subject to arbitrary and lengthy power outages, but anyone who wants some culinary creativity when camping or boating, And let’s not limit this to Floridians; it could really come in handy if you’re stranded without electricity in January after an ice storm takes out the power lines to your neighborhood for days.  How can you resist a survival book that has the audacity to suggest a menu of Tapenade Toasts, Salmon-Tabouli Salad with Sun Dried Tomatoes and Pine Nuts, and Peach-Raspberry Torte? Another great find on the website’s “Food and Drink” page is “To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion” by Philip Greene. Reviewed by Bob Morison, the book is a cocktail itself of recipes, literary notes, and photos. There are children’s books, YA books, sports, fantasy, crime, mystery, you name it. As a writer, the list of Florida presses and Florida literary publications is particularly helpful.

I highly recommend a visit to The Florida Book Review, and send my thanks to them for taking the time to read and review “Cracker Gothic.”

 

Historic St. Marys, Georgia

StMarys-FirstPres
First Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Marys, Georgia

St. Marys is the southern-most town on the coastline of Georgia, situated on the St. Marys River and near the Cumberland Island National Seashore. It is a charming town with lots of history, and is a short drive from the Okefenokee Swamp. St. Marys is the oldest city in Georgia and the second oldest continuously-inhabited city in the United States, having been established by the British in 1787. St. Augustine, Florida, about 75 miles south of St. Marys, holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the country.

Below is a link to St. Marys Magazine, where Cracker Gothic was featured in the latest issue. You can navigate to the article by sliding the bar at the bottom of the screen to “Page 32-33.” I hope you will enjoy browsing through the entire magazine and learning more about historic St. Marys!

St. Marys Magazine – Volume 28

Blog: All the Biscuits in Georgia

jodie-morgan-610290-unsplash

I am grateful for the recent review of “Cracker Gothic” on All the Biscuits in Georgia. If you love the South, have lived in the South, or have roots in the South, you will enjoy this website. And here’s a shameless plug, since this is my website and I want you and your friends to find my little orange book: please spend a couple of minutes and read the review of “Cracker Gothic.”

While we’re on the topic of biscuits, let me take this opportunity to opine about the meal that I would probably choose as my last, if it ever comes to that: I’d ask for hot buttered biscuits, sopped in molasses. One of my earliest food-related memories is of being scooped up into my father’s lap at the head of the table, after a meal of fried chicken or pork chops and biscuits. More often than not, those biscuits came from a shiny blue cardboard Pillsbury can, popped open and laid out on a cookie sheet, perfectly uniform cylinders of pale dough. So unlike scratch biscuits with a tender and crumbly interior, these bread products were a construction of mechanically produced mini-layers of dough. Or the biscuits might have been baked from that other convenience food product of the 1960s and 70s—Bisquick. Clumpy flour measured from a cardboard box straight into a bowl, mixed with milk, and scraped from a large spoon into golfball sized blobs. After supper, Dad would pour a puddle of dark molasses in the middle of his dinner plate and place a pat-sized slice of margarine in the middle. With his fork, he’d work the margarine into the molasses, creating a caramel-colored pool, with small bits of yellow floating about. We would then commence, together, to drag our biscuits through the molasses, lifting the dripping morsels into our mouths.

The following biscuit recipe comes from the Jarrett House Cookbook that I purchased at the historic inn in Dillsboro, North Carolina. This recipe produces consistently fluffy, high-rising biscuits, and I’ve used it for over thirty years. My daughter uses this recipe now, and her biscuits are even better than the ones I make.

Southern Biscuits

2 cups plus about 1/4 cup self-rising flour (I prefer White Lily)
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ cup milk
½ cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425. Cut the shortening into the 2 cups flour, working with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal.  Stir in both milks with a fork, and blend well. Transfer dough onto a well-floured board and fold/knead for a few minutes, until the mixture keeps an intact shape and stays firm. You will likely have to add a extra flour while kneading, because this makes a wet dough (up to ¼ cup more flour).

Pat or roll out dough to about ½ inch thick. Cut biscuits with a biscuit-cutter, and place on ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake for 9 minutes, or until golden brown on top.

These biscuits are best enjoyed hot, buttered, sopped through molasses, while sitting on your daddy’s knee. 

What Does Art Do For You?

Side of Palmist Building
William Christenberry: Side of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama

​What does art do for you? I was recently asked that question as it pertains to my writing. The assumption of the person asking the question was that my writing somehow qualifies as Art. Capital A. And therefore I should be able to articulate some easy correlation between what and how I write, and how my life intersects with Art, with a capital A.

My first inclination was to immediately deny that what I do is Art, and that would mean this interview question could become problematic, pretty quickly. I am not widely published. I don’t manage to write full time. As a way to deflect the question from me, I considered forming a response about the authors I love, the literature that I find meaningful, the books that I turn to when I indulge myself with time to read. My favorites, the women writers who achieved the literary greatness that I can only dream of: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Despite my attempt to provide a weak, predictable response—here are the writers I love, here are the books I love—the question was asking something else of me. It would not be satisfied with a watered-down answer. What does art do for me? Surprisingly, I kept coming back to how much I am particularly moved by visual art. But this was an interview about my writing. How does visual art have anything to do with my words? Words, language, lines of tidy symbols on paper—these are the tools with which I am most comfortable when I meagerly consider what I do to even approach Art. Why did my brain keep sliding sideways, over to visual art, try as I might to force it to stay focused on words, lines, language, books, authors? My brain insisted on another train of thought: what was my experience with visual art, visual Art?

I grew up in a tiny southern town with loving parents of modest means, not educated beyond high school. There was an art museum in the city thirty miles away, and my parents, the post office clerk and school bookkeeper, put my brother and me in the car several times during our childhood, and drove us to that museum. There were large, quiet rooms, paintings on walls, proper adults in fine clothing. Nothing specific comes to mind from those visits, but they did happen. Our parents took us out of our small rural town to an art museum.

I have taken art museums for granted during my adult years, without thinking back to how that early experience must have been formative. I’ve been to the British Museum in London, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago—probably my favorite. When I go to an exhibit at a museum, no matter if it is a grand and famous institution, or just a small collection on display, often something happens inside of me, a welling up, a deep resonance. It presents itself in physical ways: a chill, tears in my eyes, an expansiveness in my chest cavity. And it’s not necessarily when I visit exhibits of artists who are famous, so I don’t think it is some type of bias toward well-known artists and their pieces. Not a star-struck reaction. There have been plenty of times I have walked out of an exhibit at a museum, a library, a public hall, and fought off the desire to lie down on the lawn out front of the building and weep. My parents planted that seed, and I never acknowledged it, not until this interview in 2019. What did art do for my parents that I never realized? What does art do for me? 

​I saw the William Christenberry exhibit at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2010. I had never heard of Christenberry before visiting this exhibit. He was an artist and photographer whose lifework centered around simple photographs taken in the rural South, primarily in Alabama. He documented the decay of roadside scenes with an old Brownie camera. His art frequently called out racial injustice, violence, and bigotry. Shacks and tumble-down buildings surrounded by overgrown weeds, cemeteries with primitive grave markers, rusting metal signs on roadside poles. I remember walking around and around in the empty exhibit hall that afternoon, looking at every piece intently, feeling the need to burn all of it into my memory, and the near-panic that I felt, knowing that I would need to leave. That I could not stay in that hall and continue to exist in the space that held those prints on the walls. That my time in the presence of those pieces was finite. This was Art, made from the love of simple and often-overlooked scenes, but elevated, and speaking a message, a truth. Those images aligned with something in my soul that day, fanned a flame within me, because the direction for the writing about my Southern home, my heart-place, emerged soon after that. I wrote essays, I dropped deeply into old memories of home, I opened my eyes and soul to a more compassionate rendering of the stories I was weaving together. 

What does art do for me? More than I realized, and it has more to do with my writing than I imagined. Visual art fills my heart. It challenges my thinking to connect abstract ideas. Invites me into the soul of the artist, then pushes me into the souls of others, encouraging me to go with the perspective of the artist. Makes me laugh. Makes me think, hard. Makes me want to write. Makes me cry.

What does art do for you?

 

(Some of the content of this entry came from an interview published in the May 2, 2019 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, Winston-Salem, North Carolina)