Exploring the natural world of one of America’s renowned rural writers
A woman in a white-striped blouse sits in an old wooden chair and poses for a photograph: Her hand reaches out to pet a black and white spotted hunting hound. Behind her, palm trees and Southern spruce grow like jungle in Florida’s interior scrub land. Her expression is soft, but there is an intensity isolated to her eyes as if she sees something no one else does.
I stood in the parlor of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ home, now a state park and museum, contemplating the photo hanging on the wall. It was a sweltering day, but inside the house was unexpectedly cool thanks to the ‘cracker’ design — high roofs and large windows — popular in the heartland of Florida before centralized air conditioning. I imagined it was a similar day as the one when Rawlings posed for the photograph; the kind of breezeless hot when everything, except for the mosquitos, seems to stand still.
Rawlings is a major figure in Florida’s literary tradition, a tradition that includes the likes of William Bartram and John Muir. Her Remington typewriter with its worn keys still sits on a front porch table at her home next to a pack of Lucky Strikes.
Cross Creek is a small hamlet just outside of Gainesville surrounded by two lakes, Orange Lake and Lake Lochloosa. Rawlings moved from Rochester, New York to Cross Creek in 1928 when she bought the house and accompanying orange grove. It was between Orange Lake and the town’s namesake slow-moving brown creek that she found inspiration for her greatest works. Rawlings recognized water as the community’s connecting force, as it still is today.
Much of Cross Creek looks the same as it did when Rawlings lived and wrote there. Crossing over the creek into the town, one sees a couple of new additions: campgrounds and a restaurant named The Yearling, after Rawlings’ popular novel. Locals pulled into the restaurant parking lot with canoes and airboats attached to pickup trucks at 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. A silence stuck to the air as people chattered softly about the day’s catch.
“Five bass and three speckled perch,” a white-haired man in overalls said to another wearing khakis and an aged fedora. Nobody was in a hurry to be anywhere else.
A hill near the restaurant slopes down to Cross Creek’s edge. At the bottom was several large swamp cypress, Taxodium distichum, their trunks hard and sprawling, like bones from the earth breaking through the surface, then splintering towards the sky. Houses on stilts blend into the trees. It was the originators of this water way of life, the Florida Crackers, that inspired Rawlings.
“Not many people know she was a naturalist,” said Rick Mulligan before he toured a small group through Rawlings’ home. “It’s evident in her writings. She noticed details in nature that nobody else did and revealed a mysticism in it all.”
Mulligan pulled at his suspenders as he talked about Rawlings’ relationship with the Florida crackers. She often stopped them as they passed on the dirt road in front of her house, returning from Orange Lake with their sacks of fish, he said. She learned how they lived off the land, and how water shaped their lifestyle and their survival. It connected everyone via a water-induced culture, she soon discovered.
In Gordon Bigelow’s “Frontier Eden,” he calls living along the banks of Cross Creek “a fringe of life.” The Florida scrub, he writes, is “a vast wall, keeping out the timid and the alien.” Rawlings was anything but timid, living alone in the Florida backwoods alone for decades. She rejected being called an outsider or a “Yankee” by locals. For her, the backwoods were a single system. And once there, she was absorbed into its cosmos, becoming part of an interconnected life force. But Cross Creek belonged to no one, not even herself. She writes in her autobiography: “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”
Past six in the evening, the humidity had not abated. On the bridge, a boy tossed fishing line into murky water below. Looking west down the bank, Cross Creek was running into the setting sun, glistening like river trout. I walked up to the bridge and peered down into the creek, riffling softly beneath the water oaks and brush plants.
Those who find themselves in this shrouded place, covered by hydrallia, lily pads and reeds, are usually pilgrims seeking the reality of Rawlings’ paper world. The people who live here on the fringe, however, aren’t a secretive bunch. A woman walking her dog told me to take a boat downstream on Cross Creek to Burnt Island where it’s not unusual to see bald eagles soar through the cypress.
I told her I was there visiting sites that inspired Rawlings.
“Do you know she’s buried just south, in Island Grove?” she asked.
“How far south?”
She gave me a long, winding list of instructions mentioning a variety of vague land markers.
“And then make a left at the second dirt road past the railroad tracks…”
After much searching, I found Antioch Cemetery and Marjorie’s modest grave with a tiny fawn ornament at its head. There was a collection of ink pens left by fellow pilgrims — writers and admirers of her works. The oaks and magnolias whispered and a summer shower rumbled in the distance. Even now, 63 years after her death, Rawlings is connected to the magical silence and the very earth of this place. I left her my pen.
By Stephenie Livingston