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.
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.
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.
“…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.