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Saturday, December 29, 2007

GUNS AND ONIONS. 27 December 2007 [Ron Hunt, my son's father, would have been 67 today.]


On the deck.

Someone I wish would go away is firing a revolver upriver—not into the river, I hope, but it surely sounds that way. And now a boom. Ouch. Shotgun. The birds sound alarmed and I could be, if this keeps up.

Am I alone is thinking silence preferable? Well, maybe I don’t mean “silence.” I sure didn’t like it in the sensory deprivation tank I tried out. No, I want to hear leaves unfastening in the wind, geese honking their way south, birds chirping at the feeder. A volley; someone got guns for Christmas.

Just as housing developments follow the seeker of solitude, so does noise follow she who feeds on quiet. Another volley; Pakistan’s B. Bhutto died today.

I meant to sit on the deck here beside the river and remember backwards to Mary Harris’s onions I spent two hours with this afternoon. I wanted to recall my childlike delight in rolling back and forth her wire contraption that finds and collects pecans on her back lawn. More shots. The baby squirrels are crying. I left Mary’s and drove south on 41 to the gas station for milk, amazed that only days away from January we still have whole trees that are red and yellow; this isn’t winter, but John Muir’s “summer.” (Muir said Florida has two seasons, “summer” and “warm summer.”) I was resigned to losing this color when it rained a few days ago, but my surprised eyes feasted on burgundies and cherries all the way to the buttermilk aisle, then to the foot of my own driveway where one yellow tree’s leaves glint like coins in the afternoon light.

Mary had set (planted) her onions too deep. These are Vidalia* onions, some of the best onions in the world a man in Georgia discovered were mild and sweet because of less sulphur in his soil, back in 1931. Mary’s onions needed the soil worked away from the bulb at each plant’s base, she told me yesterday. She said I couldn’t do it by myself, but I did. I dug around the base of, maybe, 250 plants, enough that my right arm got tired and I switched to using my left (always meant to practice that, anyway) long before I got finished. Out there, in the dirt, my mind dug right along with my fingers: Daddy coming in from the field and how Mother never did get him trained to take off his boots outside the front door; “Beans, Heat, Sweat, Breeze,” a piece I wrote about cultivating a garden 20 years ago and never published; I thought, too, of that line in my book, “This lovely dirt to which we all belong”; I wonder if, when Mary reads the book, she’ll object to that. After all, she says our bodies will be restored in Heaven. Well, I tell myself, maybe she’ll look on that sentence as meaning we temporarily belong to the dirt—and then to the stars.

It’s dark now and the shooters have gone inside. Those stars will be out in a minute.

*The State of Georgia owns the Vidalia trademark. You can read all about its 14,500 acres of Vidalia onions at

Saturday, December 22, 2007


Saturday, 15 December, 2007: I drove the back road to Live Oak: a black, tornado-like sky all the way. Stopped at WalMart, then going into the city I passed a covered stand filled
with beautiful turnip greens. On the way back, I asked Mr. Quincey Young, whose stand it was, if I could take pictures. He said I’m the first person to do that, and, yes, so I did. Got pictures of Mr. Young, an older man working with him, and several shots of his admirable produce. Told him I was too lazy to cook turnips, but I sure admired his, that I document connections to the land in this area. What else does he grow, I asked.

“Okra,” he said, and asked if I had a business card.

I furnished the card and asked if he makes his living, farming.

“No! This is not about money,” he answered. “No, I drive a truck.”

On the back of my card he saw the picture of Southern Comforts: Rooted in a Florida Place, me on the front cover perched on what’s left of my father’s corral at the old farm that now belongs to someone else.

“This you?” he asked.

“Yes, I’ve been interviewing the great grandchildren of African slaves and the descendants of white pioneers, digging at an archaeological dig . . . .” I gave him the rundown.

“How long you been doing this,” he asked.

“Did my first interviews in 1960 for the High Springs Herald.”

Quincey Young laughed. “That was before I was born.” You know, he said, “You might want to talk to my wife’s grandfather. He’s 88, remembers the Depression.”

“Yes, I might.” I got Mr. Young’s phone number. Now, to cook those greens.


Saturday, December 15, 2007: Tomorrow night the temp’s supposed to drop to 28F, but last night it was 65F at 9:00 p.m. Outside, no “Lucy,” but her diamonds popped, one by one, out of the darkening sky while frogs serenaded a new sliver of moon. 13 December 2007—eleven years since I dragged my raggedy trailer here in 1996. I’ve never kept watch on the deck without being rewarded and as I watched dark come on last night, waiting for my treat, a bird or an alligator, I knew something would show up. Finally, I spotted a white comma standing half a mile away in the Suwannee’s black waters. The white curve told me I was watching a heron of some kind, I just didn’t know which one.

It grew darker and I nearly gave up and came in. I was squinting downriver, hoping he’d feel my eyes on him and actually move when, just as the leaves on the water oak curled into crystals, while the furred ribbon of a squirrel rattled down the big cypress, as I was determinedly ignoring sounds of breakage in the foliage across the river in order not to take my eyes from my find, he lifted off and flew straight upriver, yellow feet dangling 20’ higher than the deck. I don’t think he even knew I was there.

That bird made my day. I’d been feeling ornery after a long conversation with a woman about her husband’s death, the ups and downs of their marriage, and how she, like everyone else our age, is inundated with Medicare paperwork. Thank god for the bird.

His yellow feet tell me this was Snowy Egret, Egretta thula* which, according to my bird book “during courtship sports long, lacy plumes on his back, chest, and crown.” I have seen such plumes once, but on another heron, the night crowned black heron Aunt Nadine fed bits of “weenie” at her back door when I visited Nokomis last May.

Nadine, too, lived alone, but vibrantly, and she’d still be there at age 94, dreaming up recipes and snipping pieces of hot dogs for her heron, but on October 1 she left us. My daddy’s baby sister and I learned late in life that we shared a love of the natural world and for the last few years I slipped colored leaves and dried wildflowers into the notes I wrote her. When I walked, I wasn’t walking just for my health; I was on the lookout for what I could send.

Outside today we have more squirrels, I swear, than moss, but momentarily they have allowed a cardinal to come to the feeder. Whoa! Two birds with black and white stripes on their chests. Got to get the binoculars and go.

89F at 5:00 p.m., 14 December 2007, on the deck: fish plop, dogs bark, images of white clouds and blue sky appear on the black surface of this slow river. I am looking for Snowy Egret. Fortified by the last of the Kashi cookies and a cup of milk, I have gathered laundry from the clothesline and taken up my post here, where the sky makes quick changes: the moon, a slightly fatter sliver than it was last night with a white whiff of cloud drifting over its curve and, to the west, blends of peach and gold. To the east, upriver, the water is glass. The dogs stop, a fuss comes from nearby squirrels.

This time I have the binoculars and zoom in. I’ve seen a smaller squirrel, but it was a flying squirrel; these two are the first babies I’ve ever spotted, furry ribbons whipping along tree limbs that hang over the water. Gold glints beneath them. Now I see three—three tiny heads—crammed into a hole in the hollow tree. Orange sherbet in a blue sky, white wisps gone, another volley from the dogs. Three pops from a faraway shotgun, then echoes. I count ten pops in all. The sherbet is now tangerine. I don’t see my white comma on legs.

The sky turns gray, the moon egg yellow, and I am reminded of Thomas Hardy’s “tangled bine-stems [that] scored the sky.” This Suwannee sky is a lattice of leafless limbs that speaks of winter. I slap a mosquito off my knee, think of the coming cold. Black lines of limbs and vines, carved on a sky of pearl. Friend owl offers one “whoo.”

Dark, and an old vehicle slugs past, or is that a plane? From the opposite bank—Suwannee River Water Management Property—I hear somebody in an off-road vehicle, somebody with a loud mouth, a teenage male, most probably, or several teenage males. It’s Friday night. They move on, away from me. Night insects start up. No Showy Egret. “And heron, as resounds the trodden shore,/Shoots upward, darting his long neck before.” (William Wordsworth, from “An Evening Walk,” 1787, 8, & 9)

*The snowy egret breeds on the Atlantic, Pacific , and Gulf Coasts and is found in some inland areas. On the west coast, it winters from California south to South America and on the east coast from Virginia south to the West Indies. ( (

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


December 7, 2007: In desperation, I am back in front of this computer screen, intent on writing my way out of frustration; the book’s situation is a worry: there are, to my knowledge, fewer than twenty copies available for sale in the U.S.A.; a man out west called the other day, saying he’d found a copy. The other copies are on a boat somewhere in the Pacific and I don’t see how they can arrive from China in time for the Florida events scheduled to begin mid-January. “Oh, well,” a more experienced writer friend says, “Publication is punishment for having written.” It sure does feel that way.

On the other hand, it has driven me here, to the keyboard, this fountain of renewal I turn to when there is no other escape from anxiety: this explains most of my output. Writer Paul Varnes (Confederate Money) says that for him “writing is fun.” I’m glad for Paul, but that’s not my experience; I like having written, but most times the actual work, the not knowing what words will appear next on the page (quite often nothing like what Wordsworth meant when he spoke of “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; . . . from emotion recollected in tranquility”; no, not poetry. Sometimes I get only words. But the great thing I want to tell you is that it always helps me get back where I belong: here, waiting for the story.

I have one and it explains the anxiety: In only ten days I have read in three places (two of which didn’t have books and one—that sublime southern bookstore, Square Books, in Oxford, MS—where the books showed up only five hours before the signing/reading). During this same ten days, my lifelong friend Larry Westmoreland moved to another dimension, a tumultuous reunion with an estranged family member surprised and delighted me, I canoed in north Mississippi, stayed in the homes of three different friends, memorized the look of Oxford’s streetlights coming on at sunset as I listened in Warren Steel’s car to a CD of his Baroque organ music, sat on a panel at the thirtieth anniversary celebration for the founding of The Center for the Study of Southern Culture and ate fried catfish in front of Barnard Observatory on the Center’s University of Mississippi lawn.

I first saw Barnard Observatory—not yet restored to its antebellum glamour, shutters hanging loose and curtains flying from its windows, during the Faulkner and Religion Conference of August, 1989, when I investigated the Southern Studies Grad Program, then flew home and put my Alachua house up for sale. One day later, a man I’d never heard of called and arranged to buy the house without even driving over. The rest is history; the rest is Southern Comforts: Rooted in a Florida Place, teaching at UCF, LCCC, NFCC, FSU (and its Ph.D. program I haven’t completed), the building of this house on the Suwannee, the losses of Ron Hunt, Laura Newman, Thom Mannarino, my Aunt Nadine, and Larry Westmoreland.

Born in High Springs in 1941, Larry graduated from Santa Fe High School and Valdosta State University. He grew up to love history and people and he always had time for his friends. He traveled to Europe and lived in Belize, was fascinated by the metaphysical, most of which he decoded from materials put out by the Southern Baptist Convention in whose shadow he grew up and for all of his 66 years he continued to interpret and reinterpret his King James Bible and subsequent versions of holy writ. A friend (said to be able to see into the past) who passed through High Springs a year ago last spring observed Larry and me in conversation, then announced that many lives back we’d been friends; I was a nun and he was a monk.

But you don’t have to look that far. Larry and I loved the dirt back roads of Alachua County, the always flexing boundaries of Waters Pond in Gilchrist County, a shot of good bourbon, theorizing about the lost Spanish mission of Santa Fe de Toloca, and he loved his Pall Malls. He probably didn’t love his inherited weak heart, the fact he was orphaned before he started public school, his hundred emergency room trips brought on by the sugar lows of diabetes, or the cruel and secret reason that prevented his ever having learned to drive a car. His friends drove him: Davie, Mary Alice, Cindy, Bill, Kim; we drove him everywhere, including our dash just a year ago through the reds and yellows of North Florida, to Valdosta, with the car windows open so that as the colors rushed past, so we could better follow the winding loops of the wild yellow grape vines that ran like garlands through the plums and apricots, the tangerines and wines of Autumn, 2006. And we visited him wherever he was, including the Woodlawn Nursing Home which called Mary Alice at 7:00 a.m. on November 6, 2007, and told her that he was gone.

Less than three weeks later, North Florida’s fall colors are almost gone. The roadsides have reddened and yellowed and a brisk wind teases the leaves on my pear tree out back, loosening its translucent amber slivers. Larry, student of European History and opera, graduate of Valdosta State, a gifted mimic who quoted the Romantics at parties, the man who always and forever would stop whatever he was doing to speak with or listen to any friend—my friend who talked me back to Florida when I was near collapse in Mississippi in 1994, the friend of my youth who drew me home: gone, kazam! And I hope without pain. He had a lot of pain, but never mentioned it, drank coffee at all hours, went blind and took up music--arias and show tunes--with an even greater vengeance, was there in High Springs for my No Book Book Event on November 4.

What a great audience Larry and those other 52 souls were, what energy between speaker and listeners. A few hours after I learned of Larry’s death, I called his cell phone: “This is Larry,” he said, inviting and easy, pulling me to his chest, gathering me again into his arms, into the gladness that was Larry Westmoreland.