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.
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.
“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
I’m barreling toward Interstate 95, the north-south artery that will hurtle me into Florida. A friend tells me, “No one loves a road trip better than you,” and he’s right. I have been traveling this journey since I was a baby, a thousand-mile round trip embedded in my DNA. My mother’s ancestors settled in the Okefenokee Swamp of South Georgia before the Civil War. Later they migrated further south into Florida. My father teased my mother that her family crawled out from under a log in the Okefenokee Swamp, and there is more than a little truth to that.