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
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