Equinox Documentaries Blog

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


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

The Yearling Trail: A Landed Slough on the River of Time

Filed under: IMW: Producer's Journal — Bill at 2:01 pm on Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The river leg of our trip may have ended, but we are still poking about in the folds of our story before we finally reconverge at Cross Creek.

Our film is more than just the recreation of the historic “Hyacinth Drift” river journey, of course. There are many “characters” in this documentary–Marj and Dess, Leslie and Jennifer, the rivers and their wildlife, the river-influenced art, and of course, the way Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings herself learned to pay attention to it all. Her skills as a narrator and her ability to listen and record the world around her were profound. As a human, she was imperfect, as we all are. But as a writer she transcended her mortal life, and taught us something about ourselves along the way.

For now, Bob and I drive up into the Ocala National Forest to hike and to shoot some footage along The Yearling Trail, west of Lake George. I miss the camaraderie of our production team, miss the dynamic of Leslie and Jennifer, miss the aesthetic of the river itself, by dawn and by dusk. Nonetheless, after being surrounded by an entire film crew for over a week in a small flotilla of boats on the water, never quite sure what works and what doesn’t, the solitary road trip up into the Forest is a quiet respite.

I have always found a singular beauty in the rolling pine landscape of the “Big Scrub,” and have always cherished the springs here. I have scuba dived into Alexander and, during another project, into the chasms of Salt and Silver Glen. On other trips, I have paddled the runs of those springs along with that serpentine sliver of ether that flows out of Juniper. While I know the scrub and sandhills on public land not far from my home in Sanford, I am less conversant with that of Ocala. The visit today gives me the chance to better understand the intimacy Rawlings once knew here with both the landscape and its people.

Earlier, Bob and I had traveled to the Smathers Library’s Special Collection at the University of Florida in Gainesville where archivist Flo Turcotte graciously arranged for us to have a look at the Rawlings memorabilia willed to the school. We both put on white gloves, Bob to shoot and myself to sort through files of photos, letters, old home movie footage, and original manuscripts. There were photos of the Fiddias, with whom Marj stayed when researching South Moon Under, and of Barney Dilliard, who was preparing to skin a bear he had shot. Dilliard’s story of a giant, marauding bear made it into The Yearling where the bear was immortalized as “Old Slewfoot.” Another showed Calvin Long with a hunting dog, holding a shotgun in front of his homestead on Pat’s Island.

Here, I also saw an astonishing 1938 map of the Ocala Forest where Rawlings had scribbled handwritten notes to identify the real places she had fictionalized in The Yearling. On the map, Pat’s Island in the scrub became “Baxter’s Island.” Other notes marked where the “first tangle with Old Slewfoot” took place on Juniper Creek run and identified the fictional “Forrester’s Island” as “Hughes Island.” I sifted through a chronology of old photos, from Marjorie at age two to just before her death at age 57. She grew into a pretty, vivacious young woman before my eyes and then, prematurely, grew heavier and jowly, her smiles less frequent. Towards the end, her face was puffy and her eyes were tired and she looked as she were in pain.

And, I held the original typewritten pages of The Yearling and of Cross Creek, let my fingers retrace the Courier type and penciled-in edit changes Rawlings herself once made. The moment moved me, to be sure. It was if the yellowed page in my hand was more than processed wood fragments, was in fact an image capturing the split second when information passes between the human heart and the human mind, and is thrust out from the spirit onto the tangible worlds that flash when a spring bursts forth from the limerock, or when a lightening bolt leaps from the heavens to the earth. The creative gust is no less than that; it is simply much better at pretending to be invisible.

I thought a lot about all of that during our drive up into the Ocala National Forest today, earnestly hoping that deconstructing an author’s work is not an intellectual charade. I remember the poet Browning once said: “When I wrote that, only God and I knew what it meant… and now, only God knows.”

Finally, we reach the entrance to Silver Glen Springs on SR 19. Just to the left in the palmetto scrub is a sign with a fawn on it that reads “The Yearling Trail.” I am grateful that someone in the national forest service had the good sense to match literary fiction with reality.

It is a sunny midmorning during the week and the road we have taken is straight and quiet. The Forest itself is bordered by both the St. Johns and the Ocklawaha Rivers to the east where a hardwood swamp rims the water’s edge. But here, in its heart, its geography is vastly different. It is this rise in the topography, these many square miles of sandy terrain, that serve as the uplands where the great springs of the Forest are recharged by rainfall.

We pull over and walk to the trail head kiosk where we find some description of the literary heritage of the landscape. We learn that “Pat’s Island” is one of the most popular historic attractions in the Ocala National Forest. Here, of course, an “island” is not surrounded by water but instead is a fertile, cooler hammock of longleaf, wiregrass and turkey oak in a virtual sea of rolling, arid scrub.

I shoulder the tripod and Bob the camera satchels, and we hike a trail, past the low saw palmettos and the gullberry and the little wild blueberry bushes, tiny leaves reddish and shiny. It is November but after a mile or so we are both covered with sweat. We find the old cemetery where the extended Long clan is buried, a tiny plot of grave stones surrounded with a dilapidated picket fence. The air is heavy, no sound but that of our own breathing.

From the kiosk, I learned that a Rueben Long first came here in 1872 with his family. Others followed, and by the turn of the century the population of the 1,400 acre island peaked when about a dozen families worked the land, making a meager living with small crops, cattle, hogs, fishing, and moonshining. By the time the National Forest was created here in 1908, many of the original settlers had sold or leased their homesteads. When Rawlings visited descendent Calvin and his wife Mary Long in 1933, they were the only ones left. Calvin told Marj colorful yarns of the scrub, narratives made real because story telling was still an art then. Rawlings heard the tale of a fawn being nursed to a yearling by one of the Longs when they were young boys.

My time here in the Long cemetery under the hot Florida sun is difficult to fully process. It means fiction and history have met and that the poignant, heartbreaking stories that Rawlings told so well were once lived by men and women and children, and that many of them–the prototypes for Penny, Ma and Jody Baxter–are still here, beneath the sandy graves at my feet.

The wondrous irony is that there were plenty of people throughout Florida living hardscrabble lives, scrapping together a subsistence existence from the land and its rivers. Some were courageous and some were not, but they were all human, with deeply abiding human qualities and human frailties; they laughed, loved, lived, died. A writer brought some of them back to life, and then with the grace of a god, animated them so that the eternal amalgam between her heart and theirs became one. And now they are all gone, the evidence that they lived at all found here in this place, and in the stories of the books one human once wrote.

We pack up and leave the little cemetery, hoping to find our way to the sinkhole, the one the fictional Baxters used to draw water for drinking and washing. We walk from the open, hot scrub into the hammock where it is cooler and more pleasant. A hammock is not unlike a river, because you can no longer see straight ahead across the horizon; your vision is blocked by oaks and pines, and the trail inside of them seems to meander, almost without purpose. A hammock begs a story to tell what is behind the next tree, the next thicket of muscadine vines. Jody’s little friend Fodderwing in The Yearling saw “Spaniards” in the hammock, willing mythic images from the mystery of the dark woods. And, Rawlings herself wrote of the enchantment found in the dim light of the hammocks, and how comforting it was for her.

Suddenly, the edge of the earth falls away and the entire terrain descends into a giant earthen hole, steep sides thickly colonized with foliage. This was the Baxter’s sink, where limestone catchments held tricklings of water from the slopes of the sink. With no well, it was the only fresh water for miles around. I stumble cautiously down the edges to the bottom, and look carefully for water, but see none. The terrain of Florida is much drier now than when Rawlings lived here. We have drained over half of our wetlands away, and our springs are now declining in magnitude because of over-use and the loss of places where rain once replenished them. Perhaps the “pure filtered water” that seeped into the sink from lateral limestone veins in the earth has been compromised by all of this.

At the lip almost a hundred feet above, I see Bob, and he is dwarfed by the scale of it all, a stick figure in the midst of all the shadowy green. With a child’s eye, he could easily be a Spaniard moving in and out of the narrow shafts of sunlight.

The day is growing long and I am still anxious to visit the little spring where Jody built his fluttermill. It is the sort of place I would also have loved as a child, the sort of place I still love now, really. Most of my own wonder for nature as an adult comes from that nascent awe I first experienced as a little boy, walking in the woods with my dad, fishing, and hiking for miles through the countryside.

I know “Jody’s Spring” is across the road beyond the main spring at Silver Glen, so we pack up and head over there. We walk beyond the two large vents of the main spring along a quiet trail into the hammock, following the clear rill that arises from somewhere deeper in the woods. Jody came here to be alone as child, to build his little “flutter mill” out of sticks and palmetto fronds, and to watch it spin in the flow of the current. Rawlings wrote of it:

“A spring as clear as well water bubbled up from nowhere in the sand. It was a though the banks cupped green leafy hands to hold it… Beyond the bank, the parent spring bubbled up at a higher level, cut itself a channel through white limestone and begin to run rapidly downhill to make a creek.” The Silver Glen creek joined the St. Johns at Lake George and then flowed north to the sea. “There were other beginnings, true, but this one as his own.”

When Ma Baxter complained Jody’s play took away from his chores, Pa Baxter said: “A boy ain’t a boy too long… Let him kick up his heels, let him build his flutter mills. The day’ll come when he’ll not even want to.”

The sand boils still roil today, small gambusia and killifish skirting about the edges of each, and the roils flatten out into mirrors of light, and just as in Jody’s time, they flow out to the great river and then to the sea. Bob fiddles with the camera, shooting some footage of the tiny spring. I build a crude version of a flutter mill, and for a few precious moments, watch it spin about in its own beginnings, poetry and science and a boy’s dream captured in this moment, in this place, just for now. The peace it gives me is immeasurable.

And then we pack up and leave the timelessness of the hammock and return to the harsh glare of the sunlit world with its roads and traffic and all its grown-up chores. And I think with great nostalgia, of the stories Rawlings told, and of the life I have known as a man growing up in the South. And I have a great longing for it all, both for my own reality as well as the natural world Marj saw and imagined, a mythical place cobbled together from springwater and dreams and old timely yarns. Maybe, a boy ain’t a boy too long. But if he works at it, he can carry a sense of wonder with him that lasts a lifetime.

– posted by Bill Belleville