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