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.
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.