Equinox Documentaries Blog

documentary films which inspire a sense of "place" through stories and images

IMW goes national!

Filed under: In Marjorie's Wake,Latest Updates — Stacey at 10:25 am on Sunday, November 16, 2008
Brickyard Slough, St. Johns River

Brickyard Slough, St. Johns River

On January 31, 2009, In Marjorie’s Wake will be released to PBS stations throughout the United States. The release, which will be in both Standard and High-Definition (HDTV) formats, is good for 2 years, making IMW available for broadcast across the country until 2011.

We’re most excited to now offer the HD version; the higher quality of digital broadcasting will really bring the beautiful imagery of the St. Johns River to life.

To make sure In Marjorie’s Wake is broadcast in your area, contact your local PBS station. Tell them you want to see In Marjorie’s Wake and let them know it will be available on 1/31/09.


Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 7:03 pm on Thursday, October 18, 2007

Like the Ocklawaha, the road that winds by the Rawlings home at Cross Creek is narrow, quiet and canopied. The house today is part of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site. Rangers wear period dress and lead visitors through the home on guided tours, interpreting lifeways the place once inspired.

Before I pull into the parking lot, I drive over the creek itself. The original wooden bridge where everyone in the community used to gather when there was an issue to be discussed is gone. But the concrete one that has replaced it still has a nice vintage feel to it, the sort of bridge you would see in Florida back in the 1930’s. I stop the car, walk across the bridge and then down under it. There is a little blue heron feeding at the edge of the water under the branches of moss-hung cypress. Stuck into the soft river bank is an understated sign that identifies this as Cross Creek?. Lochloosa opens up at the east end; Orange to the west. A few old boats are tied up to wooden docks, but other than the heron, nothing stirs. The pace is pre-industrialized, out of another time.

Back at the parking lot, I meet the others and we unload the gear. Leslie and Jen will chat a bit with some of the rangers here, and then finally, will reminisce about their trip on the porch out back. Rawlings left her estate, which includes the house and the grove, to the University of Florida when she died in 1953. Originally, she hoped the place would turn into a retreat for students and, like it did for her, serve as inspiration to help them understand the fine details of the rural Florida life. But it didn’t work out that way. Perhaps the site was too far for regular use by students; perhaps they simply didn’t feel the tug of the muse as she did here. At one point, the house begin to fall into disrepair and, with virtually nothing left inside, it appeared as one more vacant Cracker farm house, not unlike those at nearby Island Grove. By 1970, the state park service took it over.

This was a place where the life of one very special woman had changed a place where stories were created that have now taken on lives of their own. Supporters of Rawlings rallied and the house was revitalized, its decor restored to the authenticity it deserved. Today, much of what’s here once belonged to Rawlings, including the desk she used to write out on the front porch. The rough hewn desk, with its sabal palm log pedestal, was handbuilt for her by her husband Charles.

Valerie Rivers, the state manager for the site, greets me in an ankle-length dress with a sort of long apron around it. She is candid, unpretentious. She tells me that before the movie Cross Creek was released in 1983, visitors here were more likely to be devoted fans of Rawlings’s work; after that, visitation tripled. Now, in a state that is in serious jeopardy of losing its “sense of place” there seems to be a renewed interest in that notion, in the idea that landscape has the energy to rewire the imagination, and even in the face of great loss, to lead us to the core geography of the human spirit.

But the story of Cross Creek is nothing if not the story of tenaciousness. Charles left Marj in 1933, five years after they moved here. With few backcountry skills to allow her to live off the land, Marj could have turned and ran herself. But she didn’t. Indeed, it was Dessie Smith who helped her new friend learn to fish and to hunt, who helped introduce her to the local version of subsistence living. The story of Hyacinth Drift was a seminal moment in her life, a turning point far more profound than a floating water weed in terms of what it symbolized.

“We cannot live without the earth or apart from it,” Rawlings wrote. “And something is shriveled in man’s heart when he turns away from it, and concerns himself only with the affairs of men…” Marjorie nailed it, certainly, presaging by several decades the small but vigorous movement back towards nature as a salve, a reprieve from the numbing techno-culture of inanimate, plugged in, wired up material things.

Gail Rowley, one of the guides in period dress, goes right to the core of it all: “I think the world outside these 74 acres is getting a little crazy and we have folks who just enjoy coming in and sitting on the tenant house porch in the rocking chair…and listening to nothing.”

The Cracker style of the home, built of heart pine and cypress, is familiar to me. I lived in one like it for fifteen years, and when development closed in, regretted deeply having to leave it. I was there long enough to appreciate the wisdom of vernacular architecture like this, though. And I came away with an abiding respect for the way such structures fit seamlessly into the native landscape, a reflection of how the people who lived here once adapted, rather than forced the land to adapt to them. I figured they became every bit as speciated by the experience, just as our native animals have been transformed by living here over time – the subspecies known as the Florida black bear, the sand hill crane, the scrub jay.

Ironically, Marj once wrote that she could have picked any place to settle, as there were a hundred Cross Creeks available to her at the time. The interior of Florida then, was lonely, isolated. There are certainly not a hundred such places left in the state today, and that is part of the dilemma in which the true costs of unbridled growth are not yet fully accounted for. While we are losing natural land and places at an astonishing rate, some of us still yearn for a geography with meaning attached to it. Park manager Valerie Rivers tells us: “There are some people today who have built homes based on this house. People have become so inspired, they want to live the life they discover here.”

And so, the Rawlings farm at Cross Creek is more than a series of built structures. With many of Marj’s belongings still here, with the thoughtful and sensitive stories of the visitor guides, with the seasonal bloom of the blossoms on the orange trees nearby and the vegetables in the kitchen garden, well, the experience becomes almost one of a conceptual art performance, an immersive moment that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge linear time. I walk onto the porch, see the old typewriter with an old piece of paper in it, look out into the front yard and see what Marj herself saw: The citrus, the red blossom of the sleeping hibiscus, the old wire hog fence, the canopy of the country road. If it were night, maybe I would also hear the soulful cry of the whippoorwill.

We film a segment individually with Jen and Leslie, and then a last one of them sitting together on the edge of the porch at the back of the house. Rawlings, says Leslie, taught people so much about the beauty of Florida…She told us about a place and time that no longer exists, reminded us of all we had…and all we’ve lost. She reminded us of how deeply spiritual nature can be.

“I find that the river in its own way and the nature we saw is a language all of us can speak,” says Jennifer. “And it’s common ground we can share.” She pauses, smiles. “And it’s very tangible. All we have to do is show up.”

Of the several songs Jennifer will be inspired to write from this trip, one entitled “In Marjorie’s Wake” expresses her newly forged connection with Rawlings. It is both a celebration and a lament:

I read your letters
Resonating, sober
Couldn’t take your heart
from your craft
Obstacles greater than compensation
In that state you’d never last

Eight days in your world of long ago
You can only write what is real
A chance worth taking
I’m riding in your wake and
I know how it feels
I know how it feels

In the lexicon of mythology, a river is a metaphor for life, flowing, changing, and transforming, beginning and ending. Rawlings life was a river, certainly, and for just now, little branches from it have settled here like sloughs, at Cross Creek, a place that is across the lake from where the little boy, now an old man, once built fluttermills, where real stories and hammocks and blackwater became iconic. Where imaginings and yearnings coalesce into art into stories that will be retold until the day when their own era becomes so distant that the clues we now see in the landscape are fewer, more cryptic.

I wonder what becomes of the human spirit when the rich pastoral world of mythology becomes the ordered one of the engineer ? And I wonder how far, really, any of us can stray from the wisdom that binds us to the earth ? I want to ask Marj that, to ask Dessie, to ask Jody and Penny Baxter. But I think I know the answer.

We break down our gear and go just down the road to The Yearling restaurant, a fitting local place for our last meal together. There’s frog legs and gator meat and catfish and hush puppies on the menu. It is geography, breaded and fried, and we consume it with great gusto. Outside, only a hundred yards away, the Creek quietly flows into a lake that will flow into a river, and then ultimately, will join the great sea itself. It is both a beginning, and an end.

– posted by Bill Belleville

THE OTHER SIDE OF ORANGE LAKE: Where Cross Creek Used to Be

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 2:27 pm on Wednesday, October 17, 2007

We are headed finally towards Cross Creek. But before we get there, we’ll make a short but meaningful detour to visit with J. T. “Jake” Glisson.

Jake lives in Evanston, which is another little hamlet across Orange Lake, about four miles from where he grew up in Cross Creek. Jake was born a year before Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings moved there with her husband Charles in 1928. The Glissons were the Rawlings’ closest neighbors–“within screaming distance”of each other. Orange and Lochloosa lakes are linked by a tiny creek called Cross. Another stream flows out of Orange Lake to the Ocklawaha. The Big Scrub is to the east; the River Styx to the west.

We caravan to Jake’s, driving in from all points on the compass to the home he shares with his wife Pat. I overshot the exit off the interstate and by the time I arrive, Leslie, Jennifer, Bob, Mark and the rest of the crew are already set up. It is a glorious Florida fall day and the road in front of Jake’s house is quiet and tree lined. Jake is tall, distinguished looking with his silver hair and a soft North Florida accent. He is both confident and gracious, as men are who have fully lived their lives. He has no need for pretense or posturing. He is close to 80.

I talked with Jake earlier on the phone to see if he would accommodate us today. He was gregarious and friendly, but he had a caveat: Over the years writers and reporters had come to him with a preconceived idea of what they expected him to say, and they grilled him until he said it. Having been a reporter earlier in my life, I am familiar with that particular malaise; I promised Jake we would be open to most anything he wanted to tell us.

And so today, we wander out into Jake’s expansive backyard, walking and chatting and filming, moving generally towards a white wooden fence at the back of the property. In a pasture nearby, a half dozen Florida sand hill cranes call out in their distinctive throaty trill.

We walk beyond a barn-shed. An old outboard sits under the shed on a trailer. The boat has been bought and sold by neighbors and friends, but here it stays. “Rip Torn owns it now,” says Jake, referring to the actor who played a major role in the 1983 movie Cross Creek. Torn also wrote an introduction to The Creek, Jake’s memoir of growing up where he did and how “that writer from up North” affected his life. If Rawlings’ old home at Cross Creek is the human-built embodiment of her life here; then Jake is the human-born counterpart, a warm, engaging spirit effortlessly mixing the “then” of the Creek with the “now.”

Jake generously reminisces about “Mrs. Rawlings.” He remembers her not as a pretty woman but a “handsome” one with striking features and beautiful eyes. She was a person who could get along with anyone, on any level. And she had a certain facility that must been helpful during her exhaustive research. “If she came on a group of men hunting in the forest, she would lower her voice and way of speaking to blend in with them,” said Jake. “They would accept her right away.”

Certainly, Mrs. Rawlings had her share of “black moods,” but Jake contends her drinking was grossly overplayed. “She didn’t drink anymore than most ladies would drink at a fancy country club today.” And certainly, she was headstrong: “When she would go out driving around the Ocala Forest on those old sandy roads, she would take me along to help get her out when she got stuck,” remembers Jake. “One day, I said: ‘Miz Rawlings, if you “gun it,” you won’t get stuck as much.'” She shot a look at me and said: “Are you telling me how to drive?”

Some scholars have theorized that Rawlings, who had no children, always yearned to mother a young male child. On one level, the creation of “Jody Baxter” was the manifestation of that yearning. But her fondness for young Jake also morphed into some of Jody’s fictional behavior. It was Jake who actually built flutter mills in the flowing ditches around the Creek. One day, Rawlings stopped and quizzed him at length about what he was doing, and why. In The Yearling, the flutter mill Jody built at the spring run was almost an iconic device, a symbol of his boyhood whimsy.

But there was certainly quid pro quo in the relationship with Mrs. Rawlings for Jake: While his father Tom gave him the emotional support he needed, Rawlings inspired him. She wrote so descriptively of local plants and animals that young Jake could actually visualize them. “You could taste the food; you could smell the flowers. It was that real.”

And she also encouraged the young boy to follow his own dreams. To live then in the hardscrabble backwoods of Florida and to aspire to be an artist was as impractical as flying to the moon. But Jake knew it could be done. Not only did he see Rawlings do it with her writing, he also saw visiting artist N.C. Wyeth set up his easel at the side of the road and do it. Wyeth was there to illustrate the first edition of The Yearling with his detailed art. “He was the first person I ever saw wearing knickers,” says Jake, smiling.

After high school, Jake attended the Ringling Museum of Art, and later, traveled widely, visiting Europe, the Far East and South America. Now, he is both an artist and via two books, a writer. And he returned to Evanston, a little hamlet that he says “reminds me more of Cross Creek then than Cross Creek itself does today.”

Jake readily acknowledges that celebrity of place has now entered the equation; as a result, the image changes depending on we each perceive it. “There’s at least four ‘Cross Creeks,'” he says. “There’s the one of the movie. There’s the one of the book. There’s the way people who come here imagine it to be, sort of a blend between the movie, the book and what they see today. And there’s the Cross Creek I remember growing up.”

Rawlings herself admitted her nonfiction account of the place sometimes stretched the truth, that she wasn’t the woman she made herself out to be. But, if she recast herself in Cross Creek, she seemed resolute about how the geography of the North Florida woods affected her neighbors: “Isolation had done something to these people,” she wrote in a letter in 1930. “They have a primal quality. …the only ingredients of their lives are the elemental things.”

For Jake, one essential notion still needs to be explained: “Sure, Mrs. Rawlings was a character. We were all characters in Cross Creek. You had room to be, you had room to spread out.” He stops for emphasis, a good Southern storyteller on a roll. “Hell, nowadays, if you lived in a condominium with a wall only six inches thick and you tried to be a character… well, they’d ask you to leave.”

As if on cue, the sand hill cranes let go with another one of those near-mystical calls. It is as if the birds of heaven are punctuating a mortal truth, an avian Greek chorus. I have written of the “mythic” before, of how a certain event has the energy to transcend the moment. In doing so, it creates a sort of hyper-reality in which ordinary life is suspended and something almost magical takes its place. In those moments, I feel I am the best I will ever be. The songwriter Van Morrison once wrote: I pray to my higher self: Don’t let me down. Today, my higher self may just be listening.

It is late in the day, and we still need to find our way to the old Rawlings house, on the other side of Orange Lake . “To get to Cross Creek,” says Jake, gesturing with one arm, “You just go out on that road there, cross a little bridge and turn right. And then you keep on going.”

And we bid Jake Glisson a warm goodbye, following his directions, only knowing for sure that we will find the geographic site mapped as Cross Creek. “To get to Cross Creek,” the one known by J. T. “Jake” Glisson, will require considerably more effort.

– posted by Bill Belleville

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