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.
“This wonderful spring is located in the Park opposite the Clarendon Hotel. The water boils up from a large fissure, some twenty feet below the surface, at the rate, it is said, of three thousand gallons per minute. It is as clear as a diamond, and the effect is most beautiful at noonday, when the sun shines directly into the spring, and objects can be seen at the bottom tinted with the prismatic hues. The swimming pools are only a few feet from the basin of the spring, and the water flows through them in an immense volume, but so quietly as hardly to be observed. The tourist will find nothing in Florida more delightful than a bath in this water. Ladies who enjoy bathing should not forget to take their bathing suits with them, as “swimming in the pools” is a great sport at Green Cove, and those who cannot swim may easily learn under the tuition of Miss Smith, the obliging Managress of the Spring. It is said that you can enjoy these swimming baths every day in the Winter. Certainly it has seemed odd enough to me, just after reading a letter from home telling of a severe snowstorm, to go and take my bath, with the accompanying chorus of mockingbirds in the surrounding trees.”
-excerpt from a tourist brochure, Where to Go in Florida by Daniel F. Tyler, 1880
January 25 is National Florida Day. Florida joined the United States of America as the 27th state on March 3, 1845. It is unclear why January 25 was chosen as National Florida Day, nor are there any apparent instructions on ways to celebrate. So here’s my suggestion for a great way to pay homage to the state that gave us the Fountain of Youth, lovebugs, hanging chads, and of course, #floridaman.
- Slip into a pair of flip flops.
- Mix up a batch of Florida Cracker Sours: For each glass, put 2-3 slices of orange in the bottom of a ball jar or glass and press. Add 3-4 tablespoons of fresh orange juice, 3-4 tablespoons lemon juice, 2 tablespoons simple syrup, 1/4 cup whiskey. Stir, then garnish with orange and lemon slices.
- With your Florida Cracker Sour(s) in hand, proceed to the porch and sit down, ideally on a swing with a squeaky chain, but if not, a nice wooden rocker will do, and settle in with one of the following Florida authors’ works:
Cross Creek by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Florida Frenzy by Harry Crews
“…Both Cody and Jimbo worked with their daddies on two of the biggest watermelon farms in North Florida, the watermelon capital of the world. Years of tossing thirty-pound melons up to a man on a high-sided truck from first light to first dusk had given them bodies so keyed up, coiled, and ready to strike that if they weren’t actually heaving melons, they literally did not know what to do, how to act. The problem resolved itself in random violence full of joy and love masquerading as anger. Nobody ever said it, but everybody knew it. It was this knowledge that gave the senseless, meaningless, childish moments late at night a certain and very real dignity.”
-from “Tuesday Night with Cody, Jimbo, and a Fish,” a short story in Harry Crews’s book Blood and Grits.