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.