Our little three-boat armada pushes off from the dock at Blair’s Jungle Den, heading north towards the massive Lake George. Drayton Island is in the northwest corner of the lake, a place of gigantic live oaks, boughs heavy with the weight of Spanish moss and ancient river history. The spiritual naturalist Bartram stayed there once, sleeping on a bed of moss under a majestic oak. He reported the island had once been the grand home of a Timucuan prince and his clan. Before she died, Dessie Smith told us she and Rawlings had once stopped there, too, some 75 years ago.
And so we will stay over as well, relying on the gracious hospitality of Bill Jeter and his wife Deanne Clark, who live part time on the island. Bill’s president of the Rawlings Society, a group of folks with an abiding affection for Marj and her life’s work. “Mrs. Rawlings,” as Bill refers to her, was a complex woman, brilliant, moody, creative, stubborn, with a studied fondness for “place” and how people fit into it.
By all accounts, she also loved to laugh and to cook and to entertain visitors–food was nearly mythical for her in its dimensions. And so tonight, we are looking forward to a dinner party on Drayton that will allow all of that. Heather McPherson, a good friend of Leslie’s and the food editor for a newspaper in Orlando, has generously volunteered to drive up to cook a Rawlings-themed meal. In Cross Creek Cookery, Rawlings observed her hunger for food is “not so much for the mouth as for the mind, not for the stomach, but for the spirit…”
Aboard, we have live minnows we bought from Blair’s–and I have to admit I was tempted to take a bucket of them into one of the rustic motel rooms, just to see how steathful the managers really were about enforcing the “no live bait in rooms” rule. Leslie and Jen will fish a bit with the minnows today, so we double back south to Lake Dexter in the Lake Woodruff Refuge where the wild landscape spreads out before us, a shore not dissimilar from the one Rawlings–even Bartram–would have seen. Tom and I are in the boat with the two women, the rest of the crew shooting B roll from the pontoon boat, and Mike and intern Jason Boone driving the houseboat ahead towards Drayton.
Leslie is a good angler, but she doesn’t fish much in fresh water and after a few tries with the minnows and bobbers–which pop at the lightest touch of a fish–we pack up and head north back through Astor. We have stored lots of store-bought food aboard the houseboat. Instead of having to catch a fish or pop a duck with a .22–as Dessie did–and cook it in a dutch oven, we rely on poultry and burgers someone else has popped and packaged for us. Then again, Leslie and Jen are not adventurers out to conquer the wilderness. Indeed, as Rawlings scholar Roger Tarr has explained, the original team of Rawlings/Smith were also “not explorers,” but were “two curious wayfarers experiencing Eden.” The difference is Eden has changed in 75 years, and we want to understand how and why.
In Astor again, we slow to No Wake zone signs, and edge up to a dock on the east shore just south of the SR 40 bridge. When I was here researching a book on the St. Johns in 1999, the dock housed a busy catfish processing operation. But big money developers are buying up waterfront land along the river here, and the catfish business is another phantom in river time. A small restaurant remains a few yards away.
We tie up and Bob leads a crew across SR 40 to an ancient oak and a nearby Mayacan Indian midden. There’s a “Bartram Marker” near the oak, telling of how the artist-naturalist spent time here at what once was Spauldings Upper Store, a trading post on the tropical frontier of 18th century Florida. The store is long gone, as is most of the massive shell midden, the later hauled away in the earlier 20th century to use as road fill on a peninsula that had little natural stone to reshape into utility. Roads and railroads were replacing rivers then as avenues into the wild heart of the wet jungle that was Florida. It was a profound shift that would later trick moderns into forgetting the near-primal connection humans once forged here with the rivers and lakes, spring runs and creeks.
Back at the riverside, we walk inside the Dockside Bar Grill and meet Lou Terborg, an affable fellow with a crisp Northern accent. Lou and his wife arrived in Astor via a houseboat a few years ago, fell in love with it, bought the bar and stayed. He’s just now sold the Dockside, but will remain on as manager until the new investors decide whether or not to tear it down. Leslie and Jen sit outside at a table, drink ice teas and chat with Lou, casual and curious, and we film it. A Florida Game & Fish Commission officer pulls up in his boat for lunch, and we chat him up, too. The weather is always a concern when you are on the water, and we are worried about whether the wind will pick up on Bartram’s “Little Ocean” of Lake George later today. We are told an expected front didn’t materialize and the crossing should be smooth.
We say goodbye to Lou and regroup in our respective boats, puttering under the bridge, beyond an excited belted kingfisher chattering at us, and towards the big lake. We approach it cautiously, weaving our way through the shoals of sand the current stacks up at the southerly mouth at the Volusia Bar, and then head due north. The lake is as flat as glass, and we are all exuberant with the idea of a calm lake, a clear blue sky, and magnanimous friends waiting for us on an island with food and cold drinks and good cheer.
Aboard the ProLine, I stray into a tight shot Tom has framed of the girls navigating across the lake, and we laugh at how–out of the blue–I instantly appear in the film in the middle of nowhere, no transition or preamble, just an accidental cameo walk-on (which will later be deleted from the final cut). We finally approach the long wooden Jeter dock, where Deanne and Bill greet us warmly, and help us off-load some of our overnight gear.
Others begin to arrive for the evening’s festivities. Heather and her husband, a landscape artist from Mt. Dora, are here, as is Equinox board member Teri Sopp from Jacksonville and my friend Michelle, a conservationist from Altamonte Springs. All have driven up to the mainland shore and boated across to the island, Deanne at the helm of a impromptu shuttle. Finally, neighbors Herb Hiller and Mary Lee Adler who live in a manor house of a former indigo plantation nearby, join us. Heather bustles in the kitchen, preparing okra and homemade mango ice cream, and other culinary particulars “Marj” may have selected because they were in season.
Herb, white hair bristling out wildly from his brows, is an author who deeply cares about the broader ecology of people, culture and geography. I see Herb around Florida at book events ever so often, and always, I look forward to a few moments chatting with him. Even idle conversation with Herb seems profound and rewarding for me.
In no time, it is near dinner and appetizers begin to appear from Heather’s handiwork, delicious shards of alligator and crab, all the local animals that Marj would have appreciated. Michelle pours fine champagne into fine glasses and we all toast, to the Jeters and to the chef and to each other, and finally, to Mrs. Rawlings herself, who of all people, would have understood the ineffable life-affirming link between people and food and place. Her infectious laughter would have joined with our own, a river celebration awash in a fusion of art and nature and literature and time.
I sip from a glass of wine and think of others who have been on this island before our arrival, and if the earth spins favorably, will be on it long after we leave. I think of the Timucuan Indian prince and of Bartram and of Mrs. Rawlings and of Dessie Smith. I think of scholar Tarr’s astute observation about the original trip–that nothing is [ever] certain, except that they seem to be making progress.
And now, later in the evening on the verandah with the warm light of the house glowing from one side, and the pitch-black of the “Little Ocean” consuming the other, I think of us all as tiny life-shards caught in the slow but inextricable resin-drib of time. Part of the moment surges on, like the current of the river. But part of the moment also remains, captured forever in the golden memory light like an insect in amber, the kingfisher’s cry, the mythic river celebration of life, friends physically vanished but never fully gone.
And after all, nothing is certain, except that we seem to be making progress.
– posted by Bill Belleville