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.

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

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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.”

 

Midge Endorses Cracker Gothic

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I am over the moon about my latest endorsement! Midge LOVES Cracker Gothic. I just got this text from her: “I couldn’t put it down! Probably because it weighs more than me, and I got stuck!” She also says, “The really great thing about this book is how it coordinates with my Harley outfit! It’s the perfect ensemble for Friday nights at Saloon 17.” Midge is a tough critic, and we all know that between her and Barbie, Midge is the more bookish of the two. So her opinion means a lot! Thanks, Midge!

Bang-a-bonking and Gongoozling in Green Cove Springs

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The St. Johns River at sunrise / Green Cove Springs, Florida

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.
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Bang-a-bonk
means to sit lazily on a riverbank.
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Gongoozle
is to observe things idly, and in particular to enjoy watching a body of water and passing boats.
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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.

 

 

A Swamp Runs Through My Memoir

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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.

Sulfur Water 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.