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.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was born on this date, August 8, 1896, in Washington, D.C. She spent her early years north of the Mason-Dixon line, in D.C., Michigan, and Wisconsin. Marjorie began writing as a young girl, and continued writing into her post-college career, living in New York City, then Rochester, New York, and in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1928, Marjorie and her then-husband, Charles Rawlings, made a bold move and purchased a 72-acre plot of land, including an orange grove, in rural, north-central Florida. The land and its inhabitants enchanted Marjorie, and provided a rich source of inspiration for her writing for the rest of her life. Her neighbors across swamp and hammock were from old pioneer family stock, Florida Crackers who lived from the land, wavering perilously on what would have appeared to any outsider as the brink of abject poverty.
My love for Rawlings’s writing began in high school. Her descriptions of old, primitive Florida resonated with me, the Florida that I experienced growing up in a rural county. Her Florida matched mine: sandy road beds leading through palmetto scrub, shaded by the dark, curving branches of mossy live oaks; friends and family members who lived at the ends of those sandy roads in weathered-wood houses with darkened tin roofs, a clothesline in the side yard, chickens in a wire pen.
I’ve pulled out one of my copies of “Cross Creek” in the last few days, picking it up in the evenings to read a few chapters as Rawlings’s birthday approaches. It has been a long time since I indulged myself in the singular pleasure of reading my favorite author. Here is her accounting of traveling with a friend by horseback through the Florida backwoods of the 1930s:
We entered the River Styx gently. Surely, death itself must come as quietly. The open fields, bright in the reality of sunlight, gave way easily to pine lands. The pines grew thicker, the sweet scent of their needles rising. The sunlight was spotty, the shadows of the tall trees wider. Here and there a live oak told of changing soil. Then, imperceptibly, we were in deep hammock. Coolness came in on us. The leaves of magnolia and bay trees shut out the sun, as all dark everlasting foliage must shut it out from the silent places of the dead. The hammock merged into cypress swamp. A trumpet vine dropped flamboyant flowers from a lone palm. The blossoms seemed gaudy funereal. There were no birds singing from the cypresses. No squirrels swung in and out of the sepulchral arches of the trees. Out of the dimly defined road a great white bird rose, flapping noiseless wings. It was huge, snow-white as an angel of death, with a wide black mourning band around the edge of the wings. I became aware that the soft dampness of the road had turned into a soft rippling. The whole floor of the forest was carpeted with amber-colored water, alive, moving with a slow, insidious current. We had entered the River Styx.
Rawlings captured the essence of an old, forgotten wilderness in her writing, and the surprising thing is that it was not her native land. She easily fell into the category of “damned interloper,” a term I use frequently as I observe outsiders moving into the rural corners of my Florida, building stucco-covered McMansions in hideous housing subdivisions. But I’ve come to consider now that maybe that is what’s needed to fully appreciate and describe a place—the eyes of an outsider. Rawlings became immersed in a world that was exotic and foreign; she wrote sensitively about the people and the region, seeking and eventually winning acceptance as an insider. Without her fateful decision to buy a parcel of land in faraway Florida, we all would have missed the opportunity to experience the quiet seasons in the marshes and hammocks, the world of Jody and Flag, the song of the redbird in the scrub.
The class from my years at Clay High School in Green Cove Springs that had the longest-lasting effect on me was EH101, a dual credit college-level English course that I took my senior year. Our teacher was Coach Robert DeWitt. Coach DeWitt not only taught English, he was the boys’ basketball coach, a published and award-winning poet, a Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who had fought in the Normandy invasion of Omaha Beach. He was a large man, tall and bulky, with a graying-blonde comb-over, frequently a quiet smile on his face and a bit of twinkle in his eye. I doubt that most of us who knew him as a coach and English teacher ever fully appreciated what his life had been like before we knew him, and what it was like outside the walls of our high school.
Nonetheless, EH101 stuck with me, and I am ever grateful to Coach DeWitt for introducing me to the study of Greek and Latin roots of the English language. It sparked in me a lifetime fascination with etymology, the study of word origins (not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects…not interested so much in that, thank you very much). I love learning about the roots of words, odd words, extinct words, idioms, colloquialisms, euphemisms, portmanteaus. One of my regrets in life is that I did not embrace this interest early on and pursue it as a vocation. But I do get a lot of joy from reading books about where our words come from, and more recently I’ve taken up listening to podcasts on the topic.
A Way with Words, Lexicon Valley, and The History of English are some of my favorite podcasts that delve into all things word-nerdy. A relatively new podcast I’ve just discovered is Something Rhymes With Purple, hosted by two Brits – Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth. Listening to their podcast is like eavesdropping on a couple of friends who are chatting whilst sipping Earl Gray tea, in a cozy thatch-roofed cottage nestled in the English countryside. But these two are not uptight, prudish, overly academic word scientists. They have a lot of fun with these podcasts. The episode entitled “Lalochezia” deals exclusively with swear words. For example, you might ponder where the phrase “fornicate under consent of the king” might lead, in a strictly etymological sense, of course. And in case you wondered (I certainly did), lalochezia refers to the exhilarating sense of physical release that one feels upon spewing profanity.
At the end of each episode, Ms. Dent shares a few of her favorite and very obscure words. Two that she mentions together are bang-a-bonk and gongoozle. I will demonstrate their usage here: When I am in Green Cove Springs, I love to bang-a-bonk at Spring Park while I fondly gongoozle the St. Johns River. It usually depends on the weather, but I try to both bang-a-bonk and gongoozle at least once every day. Based on what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people who take the opportunity to bang-a-bonk at the park, especially now that the city has installed new heavy-duty bench swings along the river bank. Once bang-a-bonking is underway in the swings, it’s usually followed by prolonged gongoozling sessions. Sometimes bang-a-bonking and gongoozling occur simultaneously, but it seems to depend entirely on personal taste.
Bang-a-bonk means to sit lazily on a riverbank.
Gongoozle is to observe things idly, and in particular to enjoy watching a body of water and passing boats.
Coach DeWitt wrote poems about the St. Johns River, and I’ll share some of them in a later post. I like to think that he, of all people, would have appreciated the idea of bang-a-bonking near the edge of this magnificent river, gongoozling while poetic lines about sky and water, birdcalls, lapping waves and sailboats drifted through his thoughts and onto paper.
The Okefenokee Swamp covers almost a half-million acres in south Georgia, spilling over the state line into north Florida. It is a vast and imposing wilderness, and has been a protected National Wildlife Refuge since 1937. Before that, it was also home to Swampers, Crackers, people who were social outliers. My ancestors. The Chesser Island Homestead is a preserved 19th-century Cracker structure hidden deep within the Swamp, open to the public, where visitors can experience what life for Swamp pioneers might have been like. When the Okefenokee became federally protected property, the residents within the Swamp were forced to leave, relocating to nearby towns, deserting the life and livelihood they had known for generations. Some of the Chessers traveled into northern Florida, where I was born, creating my ancestral line back to the Swamp. I did not visit the Okefenokee Swamp nor Chesser Island until I was well into my adult years, but I have come to love and appreciate its beauty, its serenity, and the sense of primeval wisdom that I feel whenever I am there. Connecting back to an actual ancestral home in a primitive place became an important touchstone as I wrote my memoir. These were not people of means or any type of societal stature. But they were resilient and resourceful, much like pioneers who settled in other frontiers of our country: the Appalachian mountains, the far West. I am proud for their blood to run through my veins. I am proud that a Swamp runs through my memoir.
This is Spring Park in Green Cove Springs. The water feeds from the spring boil into the pool, flows out the deep end into a waterfall, then meanders to the river in the spring run. I cobbled together three short clips to make this video, so it’s not exactly professional grade. But it has music!
The water that emerges from the spring has a high sulfur content, and on most days, even the area surrounding the park has a particular “aroma,” often compared to rotten eggs. If you grew up drinking sulfur water, you might actually prefer stinky water to bland, filtrated water. I sure do. Spring Park has always been a popular place for people to gather, to sit under the huge oak trees, gaze into the dark turquoise-colored spring, enjoy cooling breezes from the river. My parents met at the Park on a blind date, so my origin story is tied to this spring, where clear water bubbles up from the earth. Sulfur water, with its distinct taste and smell, runs through my memoir.
Hoofer reached up on a long shelf and pulled down a stack of flat, stiff snakeskins. Four, five, six feet long, and anywhere from three to eight inches wide. They were like thin pieces of tree bark. Grays and browns, speckled with deeper browns and blacks, repeating hypnotic geometric patterns. All similar, but with unique differences, like snowflakes. Earth-toned tessellations.