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Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I'm hearing Simon and Garfunkel again: "Still crazy, after all these years." Well, yes, I am, and especially so after the "holidays." I haven't been getting better at them, but I've got a new plan for 2009 that I'm implementing with a vengeance.

First and foremost, there is going to be no more waiting for things to "slow down," "clear up,"for time to expand so I can do the things I love but haven't been doing. In 2009 I am taking on time: time and delay and procrastination and waiting and "worry."

Here's a response from my friend Anne Steel who wrote to comment on the Dec. 6 post in which I quoted my friend Norma on the subject of "worry." Here's Anne:

Hello my friend!
I have a response to your blog of December 6 in
which your friend says "We worry, we worry, we worry, and then
we die." It is a poem by 14th C Persian poet Hafiz,
in a book of his poems sent me by my sister-in-law
Donna this holiday. Here it is!


The subject tonight is Love
And for tomorrow night as well,
As a matter of fact
I know of no better topic
For us to discuss
Until we all


****Part of my email conversation with Anne included this poem by Matthew Arnold, a poem I've always loved, one never more appropriate than it is tonight, 31 December, 2008 (though you might want to lop off the final two lines):


The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;--on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the {AE}gean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another!
For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


THERE'S A REASON I'M GIVING you these two poems together: they say the same thing. Arnold and Hafiz are reminding me of what I learned (I thought so thoroughly at my mother's deathbed) in 1991: there is no more time for anything but love. Look at the news, look at your friends and neighbors aging, suffering, dying, your world torn apart with violence; LOOK IN THE MIRROR. When you're listing priorities in the midst of all that's difficult, there is but one answer. Do as Alachua's Deacon Lawson said, practice this "religion of love" everywhere you go. Don't stop. Stuff every free minute or crevice with love. Don't stop. Don't stop. Don't stop.

[Learn more about Hafiz at]
[Learn more about Matthew Arnold at]

Saturday, December 6, 2008


(A late posting for) Sunday, 16 November

“What we do with our days is, of course, is what we do with our lives.”
---Annie Dillard


all day long the sky is gray
until the last moment, when the sun comes, striking
the undulating folds of the cypress
across the river, gilding the tree’s sculpted flanks.
The light moves, taking the fine white sand
at the edge of the Suwannee, dark waters lapping
at the white, a small blue heron, an infant lizard scattering
sand as he races for cover beneath yellow pansies
licking the ground: all this, against
the longing of an oboe, soft hoot of owl.

I wanted to relive the drive to Valdosta Mary Alice and I made with Larry Westmoreland just before he died last year; Larry got his B.A. at Valdosta State about 45 years ago. I visited his alma mater in October, but I wanted to go back because of Larry. I shouldn’t have been surprised that cold November morning a week after our initial trip when Mary Alice called to tell me Larry was gone. After a thousand 911 calls, ER visits, open-heart surgery, and the ever-present syringe he’d ask us to check while we waited for our orders in restaurants, I’d grown nearly as cavalier as he was about his health. Most of his friends probably took Larry for granted; he was always there for us, eager to share our good news or lighten our loads with laughter. One-on-one with Larry we got a quality of attention most of us never found anywhere else. Larry could, on occasion, worry as well and as intensely as any of us, but most days it seemed he opened his eyes on worlds of possibility and, before rising, calculated that day’s possible glories how many of them he could grasp. This was on my mind as I set out north, toward Georgia, last Sunday afternoon.

Readers sometimes say they don’t believe I actually write so much in the car; I do, though. I write everywhere; Friday I took notes during a funeral. There’s something about the rhythm of a moving car—and maybe the fact of driving without passengers—that lifts old memories up, silhouettes them against the windshield’s light.

Sunday, along 154th Ave., I traveled past the new neighbor's fence line marked with a long row of small Xmas-tree shaped cedars, then past the place where I always slow because I once hit a small dog I’d mistaken for a shadow; the dog lived. To the east, a favorite tree, the one I passed on my five daily trips between my house and the trailer park where I lived while the house was being built. I know this tree and its field—a Sassafras (albidum)with arms lifted to the sky, its lower branches lopped so the cows can’t chew them off; I know this tree in winter, spring, summer, and fall. Once, it was my daily walking destination; when I got there I actually ran my fingers over the tree’s bark before turning back. I may do that again, now that a certain scary pit bull has gone to live elsewhere. On the right, I pass Jerusalem Cemetery, its graves with photos of the deceased, some with plastic wreaths; Mr. Odeen Cook’s young daughter lies there, along with some of the Scippios, early settlers in Florida’s Hamilton County.

Swift Creek is on my left, then I go north on U.S. 41. It’s 2:00 p.m. at Genoa (pronounce it Jen-oh-uh); no autumn color yet, but the white stacks of phosphogypsum, a byproduct of the naturally radioactive uranium and radium dug out in the processing of phosphate for fertilizer—a billion tons stacked in Florida—rise on the east, as improbable as ziggurats in this landscape. (Many thanks to my generous librarian for her help with the chemistry.) A friend who daily drives this road closes her windows and air vents as she passes. On the leafless Chinaberry trees, drying seeds dangle like golden raisins in the afternoon light.

I drive from home to Jasper to Jennings, listening to the first half of the score from The English Patient whose central male character is remembering his life in painful and erotic fragments. Jasper’s old Main St. buildings would be beautiful if they were restored; it’s rumored this may actually happen. I pass cows placed like statues at even lengths along a fence line, a place selling grave monuments, a pawn shop-music store, a Dollar General, a young black man in bright yellow, Veterans Park where U.S. flags flutter from dozens of crosses, a house with three pumpkins on its front steps. “Jesus loves you/He is coming/Get ready” I read as I cross over the Alapaha that, to my horror, is only white sand imprinted with the tread of off-road vehicles. A half mile of rusty cypresses off to my left, then a dab of yellow, a red streak, and on both sides of the road a fluffy white fullness in bushes as tall as small trees. “Great Florida Birding Trail” a sign says and I come upon the Jennings Bluff Cemetery in the Upper Alapaha Conservation Area. On my right are postmodern irrigation lines, huge metal spiders, long legs splayed across fields.

I turn onto F O’Connor’s Misfit's road (in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find") by which I mean silence and absence of light on white sand shadowed by tall trees that curve from both sides and intertwine. There is no way to turn around and I remember that I am a white-haired woman in jeans. I have ¼ tank of gas and there is a limb in the road I get out and remove, remembering I am an American who suffers the lure of the road and, what’s more, prefers overgrown roads of dirt; just because I might be mistaken for a little old lady is no reason to stop driving these roads now. There are hickory and sweet gum the colors of cured tobacco and red wine; further on, the road’s low places are covered with baseball-sized rock.

At the bottom of 31 wooden steps a bit of emerald green algae floats in the cold water of the river and I discover a shimmer on the water like oil heating in a hot skillet. At Jennings Bluff I make a mental note to tell my son that if/when I ever go missing he should have the authorities look down the less-traveled dirt roads, expect hog panel gates and the twists and turns that so often mean I’m getting lost. The sun slants down as I start back to the dirt road that preceded the dirt one I am currently on, turn left, and come upon Jennings Bluff Cemetery and the JB Plantation which is closed with chain and padlock. I am interested in the dates on the crumbling grave markers, but I don’t get out. I’ve just passed a guy in a pickup truck.

On the "English Patient" CD's ninth track (as I am thinking of the nurse’s decision to help her patient out of his misery with a few extra pills), two wild turkeys step aside to let me pass. I emerge from my mini-adventure and turn right, again headed north. I pass many churches, the latest the Church of Christ at Oak Grove opposite a garden of winter greens, straight lines against pink earth; this is not where I came in but that’s the way it often turns out when I venture off road. Soon, I pass over the state line and cruise through Echols County, Ga., and into Lowndes County, passing naked limbs of trees knotted like silver fingers against the sky. I am nearly out of gas, but spot Inner Peninsula Road and turn in at a Swifty Mart with an oddly rooted tree, large and delta-shaped, one corner of its triangle red and the rest still green. I often see this with pear trees. I am 55 miles from home and after gas and a stop for cheesecake and coffee, I turn at Victory Church and sail on past white fields of cotton toward I-75, thinking of Norma Herndon’s response when I called to tell her of Larry’s death: “You worry, you worry, you worry, and then you die,” she said. I think on that, jot notes for my poem.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008


This comes from my 1988 interview with African-American Letha Wright DeCoursey who here quotes her grandfather, the emancipated slave, Brisker Blue:

"Bottom rail's gone rise."


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Richest Woman in the World

Robert Baxter’s Sunday Shot

Copied from journal for November 2, 2008
[Tomorrow is the 15th birthday of my granddaughter, Ashley Danielle Hunt.]

I have been wordless for nearly two weeks. Now, finally, the words come and exultation surges through me, delight because my writing "fast"—my fast from writing—is done. It ended abruptly; I have laid down my book-–Doris Betts’s good book—and uncapped my pen for this sudden rush of syllables onto the page, for my seeing this room and myself as if from a distance. Now my two-week depression will fade.

There is so much to be glad for—-the reds and greens in this room, these books, and the blood galloping in my veins. Writing loveliness down is my way of praising creation and I am best fitted for exactly that (and perhaps not much more). When I don’t sing, my word-bag's contents dry up; thanks to Betts, here I am at my old writing table (that’s been to Mississippi and back) over which I have spread a red cloth of deep roses and wines and on this cloth sits a pile of notes for that unfinished paper, “The Idea of Sacred Space at White Springs,” a black-spotted conical shell I can’t identify, two horribly-scribbled pocket calendars, and a small spiral notebook like the ones I habitually carried as a child.

There’s also a stack of other people’s books: Wendell Berry’s essays, the oral history of White Springs Barbara Beauchamp put together, Mahon’s book on the Seminole Wars; The African-American Heritage of Florida; the most recent Chattahoochee Reivew, Robert Louis Stevenson, and that’s not all; my elbow rests on Janson’s thick History of Art I study over coffee each morning and, looming over me, a treelike swatch of green elephant ears destined to die under frost if I hadn’t cut and brought them in. They dominate the room which, already, is decked with three vases of palmetto fans, its windows crowded with herbs and young avocado trees.

Robert Baxter’s Suwannee River photograph shows exactly what we see immediately before the odd, trilling bird soars upriver; what I was staring into when a deer appeared, swimming downstream; the look of the river immediately before the mourning dove calls. The river is low now and mirrors the roots of cypress trees on the opposite bank. Although they haven’t yet flown into Robert’s frame, it’s easy to imagine birds all around—the cardinal, titmouse, and jay that watch me sip coffee on the morning deck, a pure surround of birds. Faraway (very far, thank goodness), a small roar of traffic from Interstate 75.

In the November-December issue of Orion, I just read a piece (p. 64, "Silence like Scouring Sand," Kathleen Dean Moore) about Gordon Hempton who has marked with a small red stone one square inch where “he can listen for 15 minutes” and hear nothing humanmade, except the movements of his pencil on paper. Hempton is making it his business to preserve a spot of pure silence; well, not silence, just a quiet that allows him to hear a bird on the wing, a leaf rip loose from the branch of a tree. The article says there are very few places—in this country and perhaps on the planet—where it’s possible to sit for fifteen minutes without hearing another person or something manmade. That “silence” is what most of us at Suwannee Bend were looking for when we first came.

The farmer’s market is not far away, nor the stage where during the Florida Folk Festival May Frances Marshall belts out powerful gospel songs. Here, I can catch the drill of the woodpecker as well as those of two mosquitoes, watch skimmers ski over the surface of the water. I can study the orange berries of the palmetto, the no-red-on-his-tail hawk, watch for alligator, deer, egret, duck, the doglike, slither of an otter.

I could hide behind these towering elephant ears (see picture above); in fact, the entire southwest corner of the room is hidden from my view. It’s grown cold outside, another winter coming. The holidays rise before me like fresh, white index cards; thank god I can write, can sit here surrounded by riches. The richest woman in the world.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


All photos in this blog come from Robert Baxter, resident genius of Suwannee Bend.

Two nights ago a friend and I ate beans and rice on the deck by the river while dark dropped down around us and stars lit up the Suwannee River’s punched-tin sky. There were so many stars! I once had a rule that I didn’t go inside until at least ten stars appeared; I should implement that rule again.

Now it’s cold, rumored to get near freezing tonight and that’s nothing short of stunning for Floridians just coming out of a long, hot summer, six months of broiling heat that makes you forget what cold ever felt like. As I studied the river Sunday evening, an unidentifiable bird with some white on him flew upriver, whistling. In less than a minute he came back by, headed downriver; same sound. I have never seen that happen before. Maybe he was looking for something; maybe he was calling to it.

On 25A in the dark last night, a whitetail deer skittered across the highway in front of me. Seeing deer and the hope of seeing deer on that 25A drive north have sharply reduced the speed at which I drive. There’s some worrisome logging going on along that county road, woods thinned out like hair on the heads of customers Daddy barbered with his thinning shears. The thinning shears had uneven teeth; they cut some hair, but not all, and that’s what happening now down the road.

25A is a less quieting country drive than it was when I started driving it to Live Oak a year ago. There are new houses and several stands of pine gone. Not an actual subdivision yet, not as far as I can see. The family garden with tall sunflowers is bare and the roadside sales of fruits and vegetables have disappeared. People are still selling, though; that same unforgettable sign hanging from a mailbox reads “Moving Sale – Furniture.” The sign’s placed as though hurriedly, in between packing the boxes of a family that must get out quickly. I wonder what that’s about but do not stop. Further along, on the other side of the road there’s an auction of farm equipment. I can’t name most of the red, yellow, and orange behemoths parked there; I find myself wondering if these two sales are a response to our economics at the moment.

Last Saturday I took part in the Healing Day at Stephen Foster State Folklife Center where chiropractic, massage, yoga, and tai chi were offered along with a lecture on nutrition, Jamaican plate lunches,haunting guitar music from a park ranger, all under the orchestration of Walter McKenzie who lives in White Springs. I was there to speak about “The Idea of Sacred Space at White Springs.”

“The Idea . . . ." isn’t finished, lacks focus, needed organizing, but still I was fascinated with my subject and figured throwing out the paper’s material sans conclusion or anything else one expects with such a topic might be useful. Kind people said it was thought-provoking; I’ll work on it some more. There are many definitions of “sacred space” and I was leaning toward the notion that it’s all sacred, whether or not we recognize the holy right beside us or beneath our feet. After all, isn’t Mother Earth holy, every inch of her, and by extension, her people and our kinfolks, the stars?

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Here's photographer Robert Baxter's Sunday photo of fall colors along the Suwannee.

John Muir wrote that Florida has only two seasons, summer and hot summer, but I'm unwilling to leave the word "autumn" up north. Having suffered through our long, "hot" summer, many of us greet cooler, breezier days with enormous pleasure. The seasons mark change and this year the season is about more than a change of weather.

Coming home from Live Oak in the dark Friday night, I was startled to see two lit jack o'lanterns the size of Volkswagen Beetles. There are quite a few country yards decked out in orange and black, witches, cats, and scarecrows. There's something else I'm seeing more and more often this season. I am surprised by the things I see people selling as I pass by their trucks, tents, and signs like one Friday evening at a mailbox that read: "Moving Sale - Furniture." I'm certain there are more roadside sales than ever before and I'm pretty sure I know why.


As happy counterpart to these sober roadside thoughts, my friend Wendy Garrison's CD was playing as I drove. Wendy and two other women in Oxford, MS, call their new band "Maybelle's Lovers"and the music on this CD testifies to their love of movement and sound; I sure do like that slide guitar.

Here's a poem from my first fall season (2002) in this stilt-legged house on the floodplain of Florida's Suwannee River:


The voice of an unknown bird,
a grate severing night from sunrise,
scratches at the sky and I leave my bed,
lean southeast over the porch railing
just as he rasps again. No movement
along the limbs of the oak, the cypress, the pine.
River so low, I can’t see it. Again his voice lifts
morning’s soft face.

A mile away on the Florida Trail,
translucent stems of Indian Pipe
force their way out of the ground, white
flowers left by a ghost. Mushrooms litter
the sides of the trail, white as the muscle
in God’s own eye. The orange flames
in the fallen needles of the pine, muted now;
the ferns will soon lie down, flattened and brown.

But this is no reason to mourn summer,
not when trillions of jewels will flash
in the upturned purple bowl of night, come dusk.
In the bird’s call I hear all of this and the generosity
of the day spreads out before me. Like doors
opening on leather hinges in some ancient cloister
this new voice heralds
the glad strangeness of large hours.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Four and Twenty Blackbirds/Baked in a Pie"

Seriously, a squad is circling the house. Yesterday’s cutting of the dead tree has triggered a convention of birds: 3 kinds of woodpeckers came at once, including the small black-and-white striped, downy woodpecker. There were two of those and woodpeckers with red on their heads in two versions, also cardinals and brown birds of all kinds. This morning, black birds zooming past the windows. Maybe they are migrating. These are not starlings. I’m going downstairs and take a look.


Downstairs I see that the tree was rotten at top and bottom. In fact, its rotted bottom sticks out of the ground like a scraggly tooth, broken off, uneven. I kept this tree as long as I could because it attracted woodpeckers but the rain of Hurricane Fay so saturated it that it fell and was caught in a net of grape vines. Nobody could walk there until it came down.

BEING CARIBOU: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd (by Karsten Heuer)

I just turned the last pages of this astounding book that, in the way the best books always do, hurt me with its beauty.I have never left any fictional character more reluctantly than I leave the caribou that have filled my mind for two days. As I read, I became caribou, too, a knot in my throat at the thought of leaving this herd for civilization, not wanting any break in the oneness of my travel with Karsten and Leanne who went with the caribou through wind, rain, snow, rivers, ice, bear, wolves, past fleabane, and through mountain passes.

When Heuer speaks of the necessity for closing down in order to navigate civilization’s roads and lights and sirens and phones, all of that, he speaks of going back to civilization as moving “toward hurry and disconnection,” which is how I feel in front of a tv or a computer. We have fallen out of Eden and into pizza and television and our lives as consumers, something never dreamed of by our ancient ancestors who in a time and place now nearly unimaginable must once have run with the caribou in a fluid oneness that left nothing out, not the trees or the sun or the clouds or the bugs or the cold and heat. I know we had that oneness once; otherwise it would not have been possible for me to be caribou myself for these two days. Karsten Heuer has captured not only the wildness of the Alaskan caribou herds; he has documented the wildness within us, too, that dimension of oneness we all long for.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


It looks yellow, everything--ditches, trees, the light . . . no, the light isn't yellow. The light is clearer than summer light. And maybe the trees, their leaves, at least, aren't yellow but amber and tangerine. This is a golden river tonight; I don't think it's been called this before. River of Echoes, River of Deer, yes, both of those; Florida's Suwannee bears those names, sure, but anybody sitting here on the deck right now @ 6:30 p.m. could probably be persuaded by the sight in front of me to adopt this new name.

The river is low again, all white beach and exposed cypress knees that only weeks ago were under 12-15 feet of water. At high water in the rains of Hurricane Fay, most of what I can see here was covered.

Tonight's light falls through greens and golds, the delicate leaves of the river birch, lace of cypresses, and the starred shapes of palmetto fronds. Even the gray of the Spanish mosses is white in this light, the sun at 45 degrees in the west.

I don't usually follow popular culture but I will never forget where I was sitting earlier today when the news of Paul Newman's death appeared on my computer screen.

Below the deck here some small creature dimples the water with movement and the sound of "glug, glug." Far away in what I almost fail to notice, the great ruff of interstate traffif moves on, that little fish jumps again, a squirrel cries faintly, and there's a faraway bark from a dog. Almost October, the fall of the year 2008.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

ANNOUNCEMENT - Bringing the Book Home

This photo, courtesy of Michael Curtis@Greene Publishing, Madison, Florida.

At 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, 13 September, I will have the immense pleasure of bringing SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place home to the community from which it came.

Saturday is important, long-awaited, because this book belongs to the Alachua community. It also belongs to High Springs and to the larger North Florida Community. I am so looking forward to being in Alachua. Come and meet the people of the book--Cellon, Herndon, Horner, McFadden, Hill, Traxler, DeCoursey, Everett, Spencer, Lee, Washington, Dampier, Richardson, Frazier, Wallace, Lundy, Moorer, Escue, Cherry, Welch, Lawford, Bryant, Watson, and Potano Woman. Please JOIN US for music furnished by the Greater New Hope Missionary Baptist Church Mass Choir headed by Gussie Lee; Introductions by native son, Will Irby; a showing of the video, "This Place, Alachua"; Refreshments furnished by the Friends of the Library, and a reading/signing of SOUTHERN COMFORTS. See you there(at Alachua's newly-remodeled Branch Library)!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Hurricane Fay

Summer is leaving me. At midnight the sky is black, stars out, one lusty frog ratcheting the hour away, and it smells like summer, the end of summer: a squished stinkbug, curtain of crickets in the background. When the magnolia’s pods are turning red and the holly berries gain color, roadsides are one yellow fringe, and a distant field of tobacco is a golden ribbon rippling against the horizon, there’s not much summer left. For some reason, tonight's cooler temp, the sound of the wind lifting the branches of the birches, then letting them drop and the rhythmic trickle between the trees, remind me of this poem by William Butler Yeats:

The Ragged Wood

O hurry where by water among the trees
The delicate-stepping stag and his lady sigh,
When they have but looked upon their images -
Would none had ever loved but you and I!

Or have you heard that sliding silver-shoed
Pale silver-proud queen-woman of the sky,
When the sun looked out of his golden hood? -
O that none ever loved but you and I!

O hurry to the ragged wood, for there
I will drive all those lovers out and cry -
O my share of the world, O yellow hair!
No one has ever loved but you and I.

After the liatris (Blazing Star, see three photos above) had opened in a downpour and I’d resigned myself to its swift disappearance beneath the rising Suwannee; after laying in candles, sardines, soy milk, and enough canned goods to see me through a period of No Shopping; after my friend and I painstakingly carried the lawn furniture and croquet set halfway up the elcctric tower so it wouldn’t float away; and after we moved 67 pots of kalanchoes, coleus, aloes, ferns, and amarylis bulbs to the upstairs porch, SRWMD posted a bulletin saying the flood is off: the anticlimax to the anticlimax that was the storm, Fay.

Meanwhile, the river rushes past, carrying jetsam and flotsam, mostly pieces of trees and an occasional paper cup. For months I could not see the Suwannee from inside this stilt-footed house. Then, viola! Two Friday mornings back I woke up, walked into the kitchen, and saw out the window a river twice its usual width. Fay played with us, taunted the residents in every county of this state but, hey! that,writes my friend Ron Cooper, is how it is with the riparian way of life.

Small price to pay for the privilege of drinking morning coffees on the deck at the edge of the water, for the changing golds and greens of sunset as summer’s red globe moves westward, lighting up the channel of the Suwannee in front of my house, turning cypress skirts pink, gilding the hanging mosses in the trees on the opposite bank.

I’ve retrieved my car from my neighbor’s property, 20 feet higher up. No need for the canoe. This time. My helpful friend who bore the heaviest plants upstairs offers, “Could we leave them until after the hurricanes?”

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


This has been a strange day, not one of my favorites, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s because nothing has felt completed and there’s a stack of documents, notes, and mail on my desk that’s just a little higher than it was yesterday. On the other hand, I can hear the frogs outside and that’s worth a lot. Also, Narrow Fellow came back upstairs; right this minute Thomas is sniffing at the front door. I think he must be able to smell the snake (Southern Water) out there. Well, that snake’s harmless; I wouldn’t be so cavalier if we’d been visited (three times now, and that’s merely what I’ve seen) by a poisonous viper. This snake is so unassuming that I reached out and moved the white rock he was lying against that was amplifying the glare from my camera. Narrow Fellow didn't like my moving the rock nor the camera's flash.

I assume he came back for the eggs in last week's abandoned nest but I was too busy and too close and he turned tail, quite literally. Look how in one photo he is climbing over himself backward to get away from me. In his other photograph I’ve just spotted him, his whole length rippling over three wooden pieces salvaged from the felling of a pine. I love the ripples of the second photo but, disinterested in artistic poses he turns and slithers away. (His head, at furtherest point from the camera, is white.) I'm sorry these photos are in wrong order, but sometimes that's how interactions with my machine go and how its interaction with the blog site goes, etc. I hope you, Dear Reader, have better luck.

Today's Tuesday; Saturday I stopped by the side of the road to look over these enormous squashes being sold out of the back of a pickup truck by two young Hispanic men, Lazaro (from Cuba) and Richard (from Miami) whose English far surpasses my Spanish. I didn't buy anything, but they didn't seem to mind; these are enormous vegetables and I hope they sold.

Oh, Patient Reader, Please sort out these photos and understand that the two at the top of the men selling squashes from the truck belong with the paragraph immediately ahead of this apologetic one. You begin to see, I suppose, why I say this has been a difficult day. "Nothing finished," I said when I started, but I will have to let these photos stand as they are, at least for now.

I wonder if my difficulties here mightn't be related to what I saw described in the recent Atlantic article titled something akin to "Is GOOGLE Making Us Stupid?" Well, yeah, it begins to look that way. Simultaneously uploading photos while doing email while watching a movie on the computer just might account for my frustration.

Thanks for your indulgence. I hope you have a good night.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


I've often said to Mary and Ivey Harris that I'd like to see a newborn calf; my daddy never allowed me to see one as it was being born though he did let me see them when they were quite small and once my sister Emily and I watched while Daddy lifted a midget calf up to nurse at its mother's teats. It's been a long time, so I was delighted when Mary called at midday to tell me this brand new donkey they've named "Peaches" had been born in the night. She has big ears, white on her snout ("snout?"), and gets around like a human baby just learning to walk; that is, she gets around quite shakily.

Driving Swift Creek Road to the Harris Farm I punched on some music and immediately the smoky, unforgettable voice of Mr. Ray Charles filled the car. "Georgia," he sang, "Georgia . . . on my mind." There's a really special song at the end of the tape Charles shares with Willie Nelson, but I kept playing "Georgia," over and over, and wondering why in the world I didn't think to mention Ray Charles last night when I wrote about visiting Madison, FL. Although he was born in Georgia, not only did Ray Charles grow up in Florida's Madison County, but his CD was what I'd plucked from the stack and put in the car for my drive to Madison four days ago.

Thinking about this, I remembered the posthumous movie about Ray Charles I saw a while back; I detest that movie. Wanta know why? Because when somebody like this man gives the gift he gave, it's sacrilege to portray him in the sleaziest possible way. It happens a lot, doesn't it, especially with the "rich and famous?" But aren't there sleazy scenes from anyone's life? Would you like to be remembered for your weaknesses when, as a matter of fact, in spite of your handicaps you succeeded in delivering your singular gift?

I've had this discussion before, in graduate school where some southern woman writer was being dissected for her sexual preference and childhood traumas while her gift to us went unmentioned. I've even sat through classes that treated William Wordsworth* the same way but Wordsworth expresses his distaste for this approach better than I can:

          UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet, 10
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness. 20

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves; 30
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Wordsworth was my first favorite poet; I met him in 1962 and, through his poetry about the English Lake District, recognized and fell in love with my own North Florida woods, Burnett's Lake, the tendrilled green of all leafy things in Alachua County. I left the University of Florida, married, worked in Brevard County's space program, and finished my B. A., finally, 12 years later, in 1974, at The University of Central Florida in Orlando (where I encountered a poetic genius in the person of Bob McCown). By the time I entered graduate school in 1990, poetry was no longer valued so much for beauty, truth, and facility in language as it was for hints at its author's take on political issues, albeit many of them ours and never discussed in the author's lifetime at all. This was a huge disappointment; I'd wanted to plunge in again where I'd left off with Nathan Comfort Starr, my first genius professor, but there was no pool to plunge into.

Eudora Welty works against that politically conscious grain by praising the natural world. We do see her characters' problems and faults, but we are not allowed to forget how gorgeous the moment can be, if only we situate ourselves squarely within it. She is a lyricist and lyricists sing.

I'd love a contrary comment on this. Have at it, friends, but if you pass a newborn donkey on a dirt road, turn up your Ray Charles and sing out. Sing out loud, as loud as you can.

Monday, July 28, 2008


About 6:00 p.m. this evening, I met this narrow fellow* not "in the grass" but descending the stairs. I believe he is the same Southern Water Snake (Mangrove race, the Nerodia fasciata of the Colubrid Snake Family) I met as I climbed the stairs about 10 days ago, shortly after Mrs. Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus, Wren Family) laid three lovely eggs in the nest she and Mr. C. Wren had built in the planter full of spider plants opposite the front door. This poor couple has had a time of it: first, they built a nest downstairs and I, not knowing it was in the wooden cube I picked up, managed to dump the entire nest onto the ground. They probably thought they'd be safer upstairs, so days later they were weaving back and forth with bits of pine needles and pieces of string. I meant to give them a wide berth, but the first time I dared look into the nest, poor Mrs. Wren flew straight up into my face, frightening me and probably herself. I have not seen the birds since.

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him,--did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun,--
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

*See more about Emily Dickinson and her poetry at

Besides this narrow fellow on the stairs, another party for the book happened last Friday night, in Madison, FL, that lovely southern town with handsome courthouse, 19th century mansions, three rivers nearby and many first magnitude springs, The "Four Freedoms Monument" commissioned by FDR to commemorate the death of Madison's Capt. Colin P. Kelly, the first hero of World War I, and the building right off the square that houses Janet Moses & Co. where 70 people turned up for a reading so congenial, so warm, I felt we were dancing. (See more of Madison at We were serenaded with Florida folk songs from the Willinghams of Jasper, FL, the food was ambrosial, and our conversations lasted hours after I'd finished presenting SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place. Lastly, here is my B&B hostess, Rae Pike, showing off her replica Confederate dress jacket.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


ANNOUNCEMENT: Reading/signing at Newberry’s Branch Library on Saturday, 19 July, at 2:00 p.m. Afterward, I hope to see a bit of contemporary Newberry where my grandfather, Malachi N. Strickland, delivered rural mail nearly a hundred years ago. Although I wasn’t born in time to visit my grandparents in Newberry and knew only their Alachua home, we sometimes visited their Newberry friend, a Mrs. Marable who allowed me to climb up into the wide arms of her backyard fig tree.

I had a beautiful walk this morning while the tall, green grasses along River Road were still covered with dew. Found a running deer’s tracks and the Partridge Peas, (Chamaecrista fasciculata of the Pea Family) are thick with yellow blooms. Many of one of my very favorite wild things, the Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus grandiflora of the Mallow Family),have opened the petals of their lovely white faces so that their scarlet throats can be seen. This plant is related to Turk's Cap, the Hibiscus so often planted in flowerbeds on south Florida lawns and the commercially grown cotton plant that I first examined in the Mississippi Delta. I am happy when it appears here each year.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Party for the People of the Book

June 26, 2008

Something wondrous happened Sunday; I went to a party for the book, SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place.The invitation from our hostesses, Dottie Price and Merri McKenzie, read,“The Book’s Having a Party,”and, indeed, it did have quite a party. Mary Elizabeth Knight Irby, Arthur Spencer, Jr., Vada Beutke Horner, Leoris Richerson, Steve Everett (of Gainesville), and Gussie Lee were here in White Springs at the Suwannee River Yoga Studio where we were fed better than any bride at her own wedding.
Also from Alachua, representing Tommy (the fox hunter) and Huldah Malphurs, his mother (with whom I baked Communion bread in Ch.5) were Fay Malphurs Vaughn and Peggy Malphurs, daughter and daughter-in-law of Huldah.

I introduced our special guests by reading snippets from their sections of the book. To my astonishment, when we ran out of chairs, the rest of our audience of more than 50 people dropped to the floor and sat, motionless, through the entire reading. I had no microphone and, yet, we could have heard pollen falling. Janet Moses, who drew the book’s wildflower motif, the Linaria canadensis, more commonly called “Toadflax,” was also on hand. I’ve never been to a reading anything like this one which came together miraculously, as though perfectly rehearsed. At the end, the people who bought books went about the room, requesting autographs from the People of the Book. Linda Gafford thought of that; I just wish I'd had my copy so I could have got those signatures on mine, too.

At this rate, summer will end shortly. The days unfurl so effortlessly. Sun up, sun down, a little rain in between that cuts the heat, this afternoon from 95 to 65 here on the deck where’s it actually a little nippy. A light jacket would not be uncomfortable. I hear the interstate this minute (is there a single spot in Florida where one doesn't?), an unremitting drill on pavement, perhaps more trying in this quiet place than if I were driving I-75 myself.

I finally had to admit the blue men’s work shirts that have been my daily costume since I came to White Springs are worn thin enough that they might shred and fall down around my ankles as I’m walking along the street. I went into a second hand store for replacements and came out with two wild Hawaiian shirts, the length of mini-skirts. They are very happy and I plan to wear them all summer long. I’ll buy some more work shirts, but cheaper ones next time; I shouldn’t complain of their $30 price, though; after all, I have worn these two nearly every day for two years.

Mmm. A mosquito on my cool deck. Beyond the sounds of semis, my imagination reaches, all the way back to Sunday afternoon’s party when Suwannee River Yoga was decorated with handmade baskets and quilts, reminding me of the Bellamy Road Exhibit of 1988 when Bellamy Road folks gathered in a similarly decorated room at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

In celebration of the museum’s Tenth Annual Heritage Day, Betty Dunckel Camp invited me to create an exhibit based on my interviews along the Alachua-High Springs length of the Bellamy which is part of Florida’s historic Spanish Trail, a path worn by Pleistocene mammals, barefooted Native Americans, the Spanish, French, and the English, then early Florida pioneers and the slaves they brought with them.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chicks, Ducks, Pups, and Watermelons

Saturday afternoon, somewhere between I-75 and Downtown Live Oak, I turned around and went back to these roadside vendors who I wish now I’d asked whether they make a practice of setting up for sales in 95 degree heat or is the current economic situation their inspiration.
But I didn’t think to ask; I was too busy admiring the pale, buttery fluff of the Peking ducklings (raised for eating), absorbing the fact that when grown the toes of one chicken will be covered with feathers.[feathers growing on toes] )

I considered buying Guinea chicks, which would roost in my trees and make good substitutes for watchdogs, but the seller, Terry, who also sells dogs, assured me Guineas would not stay out of my neighbors’ yards.
I exchanged cards with Brenda Welch who was selling Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, and miniature Dobermans. Brenda is from O’Brien where her business is known as
“Brenda’s Lil’ Joys”
. She answered a lot of my questions and exchanged cards and I asked how much a puppy costs.
“Three fifty,”
she said.
“Gosh, that’s an awfully good price for a dog, three dollars and fifty cents.”

“Three-hundred, fifty,”
she answered.
There’s certainly much that goes past me.

Reading on the internet last night about the pleasures of solitude I saw where somebody, explaining why many people actually enjoy being alone, says that without distraction these people can more closely examine details. I would like to think so, but isn’t this the same as not seeing the forest for the trees?

Sunday, June 15, 2008


The State of Florida Department of Education just posted its Summer Reading Series and included SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place on the list. Before I leave the subject of awards for Florida books, I want to recommend The Swamp by Michael Grunwald, a masterful and highly enjoyable study of Florida's history; Grunwald won the Gold Medal for Florida Nonfiction last year and he deserved it.

Now that the book tour's been suspended for the summer, I'm tackling the next book, DON DOMINIC THE FIFTH. I'm amazed to find how much of it I had already written; I'd put it away in 1994, some of its files were mildewed, but I'm sorting it out and finalizing its prospectus.

NFCDS, INC.: Please do check the website (about to be updated) and/or my blog which you can reach from the website. In near future, there will be a second blog devoted to UPDATES on the work of The North Florida Center for Documentary Studies, Inc. (now incorporated as a not-for-profit); the new blog will be reached by link from the website.

Friday, June 13, 2008


If you were driving between Jasper and Live Oak yesterday afternoon, perhaps you saw a woman in a black and white striped dress lying in the ditch taking pictures; that was me, admiring the Gaillardia pulchella Fougeroux. Coming home I stopped to photograph a lush garden with sunflowers on CR25A.

Reader, I have not served you well; in recent weeks I failed to report on the flowering of spring shrubs, flowers, and fruit trees. Among this spring's wild plants that have already blossomed, dropped their seed, and vanished are sheep's sorrel, toadflax, the wobbly-headed Cinnamon Fern, and the wild blackberries and huckleberries I ate from along my driveway. Along our county roads I spot signs advertising U-PICK blueberry operations. Our Suwannee Valley Blueberry Farm right here in White Springs has a luscious crop of organic berries. "A bumper crop" this year,, says owner Mark Quitero.

I have passed whole fields of dandelions, admired the chartreuse fruits of the Saw Palmetto, Serenoa repens (Bartr.); untangled myself from Catbrier, smilax lavafolia Linnaeus); and passed many tall, white spires of Spanish Bayonet. The purple Spiderwort, Tradescantia ohiensis Rafinesque I first learned in my Alachua backyard has come and gone, along with the white bells of the Dwarf Huckleberry, Gaylussacia dumosa Andrews; also the Anual Phlox, Phlox drummondii (Hooker) which spills its colors like blackberry pie a la mode along roadsides. The Fringe Tree, Chimanthas virginicus Linnaeus on the opposite bank of the river dropped its delicate white handkerchiefs within days of their appearance; here on Lot 22, the Chinaberry has shown its lavendar, and the Mimosa is blooming now, also Swamp Mallow and Passion Flower.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


A busy fish today. He has jumped—a fat, plopping sound—twice in five minutes and, of course, gives me no warning beforehand so that I can see him. He disappears so quickly. And I, immersed in Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, can only hear him. Why do fish jump?

I suspect True Heat begins today with the predicted 88 degrees and I hold out slight hope for more days like yesterday and earlier, days of sunshine and cool breezes, and low humidity. I was close enough to last year’s Bugaboo Fire that I now realize low humidity has its downside, but only an idiot could fail to appreciate these glorious green and gold days of new growth on every limb and branch along which caterpillars—yellow and orange, horned and not—creep, the cries of birds both far and near, the house of twigs hanging from the nearest palmetto frond.

I must sound like I’m on vacation, sitting here with binoculars, books, and coffee, writing it all down, even the small olive lizard who has stopped before me and marvelously inflates the orange goiter on his throat as though to warm me the hawk is coming, the river will rise, this ethereal weather will wane. Why am I writing all this down, anyway?

I describe this scene because doing so intensifies its effect. Putting it on paper mirrors the inscription of it on my brain, which is why I scribble. This is the reason I encourage others to write. Doing so brings the sharp tips of the palmetto’s fans into focus as I look more closely. It sharpens my hearing so that I know a bee approaches, though it is still out of view Here comes an interesting bird, batting its white wings, a bird with a voice like a slide guitar—more than one long note, something more complicated, bluesy.

I got interrupted, reading the Otto book. Found it pretty dense and, anyway, isn’t it possible either that everything is holy or nothing is?

Last night I saw a wild hare in the driveway, also one on the county paved road. This evening I went out onto the deck just before dark, sat down, and observed directly in my line of sight a female deer, frozen in position on the opposite side of the river. She stared at me for all of 30 seconds, then snorted and flew, springing from one place to another in leaps that took her six feet off the ground.

Now I am working on “pupa” and “chrysalis.” I am trying to find out what creature lives in the minute twig basket that dangles from the very tip of a palmetto’s frond here at the edge of the deck.


Sunday, May 4, 2008

Blue Needle


Beside the deck where I am drinking coffee, a fish jumps. Across the way, a blue needle of a bird appears on the opposite bank, stalking deliberately along, one slow step at a time. He could be counting steps, but he is staring steadily at the water. As though he has just heard “about left,” he turns, dimples the water with his bill, stands straight, shakes his feathered head, threads his way between the roots of a cypress tree, and resumes his march. When I move, he rises into the sky, curves over me, and flies away. I go inside for a second cup of coffee, come back with binoculars just as the bird’s double appears, flying upriver, wings beating, black head pointed straight east.

At this early moment of the day it is near-wondrous to picture the hours ahead as fully conscious ones, gifts as pristine as the white beach Blue Needle strides along, as mysterious as the furred caterpillar climbing my chair’s front leg toward a destiny he is not thinking of, lost as he is in the moment. What I don’t like to slip into is the unconscious part, when the brain goes numb with clerical tasks and I plod on, forcing myself to complete paperwork, slit anonymous envelopes, record information while the day drops away; it happens. Just as any friendship is forever informed by one’s initial impression, this one morning on the deck plays within the context of mornings that have gone before. The birds’ medley twists through these newly green trees, knotted with the all the dancing lights, squirrels, otters, and fish I've seen over more than ten years.

I sit on, under the delicate, white bells of the Highbush Blueberry, Vaccinium Corymbosum, surrounded by a United Nations of birds: “I told, I told you, I told you” says one and, hardly audible, an answer comes-- “Wait, wait, wait,” followed by the sharp warning of a red-tailed hawk as his shadow crosses the deck. The birds keep on, sprinkling their songs through bushes and trees.

The second fish of the day jumps, and circles within circles appear, casting mirror-like shadows onto the lowest limbs of the trees leaning out over the river. There goes Blue Needle, headed south, one step at a time. At the foot of the bank a wild dark wisteria twists its way toward a hummingbird. The river is low, maybe at about 52’, not worrisome at all (since 77' is flood stage). The relative humidity is the lowest it’s been this year; this is Eden, you understand, Eden where leaves of plants I could label pinnate, palmate, bipinnate, and tripinnate flourish between my chair and the river. One of this morning’s messengers, a small dark bird with a black bill, appears. He is unknown to me, nameless. I wish I knew his name but I can’t throw nets of words over every single aspect of Nature. And perhaps that’s a good thing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rock Dove

I must have been reading a magazine or washing my hair or inventorying ant beds each time this bird appeared; the i.d. book says he is common here, but until today I'd never set eyes on him. The Rock Dove is 11" of oak bark until he moves slightly and the sun glints neon on the dark gray hood that reaches to his shoulders. Against the limb of the oak tree he was nearly camouflaged, his dark gray head and neck flashing greens and purples, his dove gray back, white body, pink beak and feet, and his yellow eyes surprised me. I often see a more familiar pigeon, but this one, never before. He sat in the elbow of the oak's limb for a long time, occasionally snapping his head to one side, giving me long enough to go for the two bird books and my binoculars. I watched for an hour, and he never left the tree but, then, as I turned to put the books back, he spread his black-banded white wings and fluttered to the ground where last week I'd dropped some seed, sat there as though he might have decided to try nesting. A little while later I saw him stand up and toddle toward the river in the odd gait that must have inspired the descriptive label "pigeon-toed." Sort of a delicate waddle from side to side, looking like a wind-up toy.

I thought I'd seen the last of him, but ran downstairs and put out corn where he'd been and, an hour later, I saw him sitting on top of the pile of corn, not eating it, just claiming the spot. He didn't move when I walked toward, then away from him. At a distance he looked like a ceramic decoy, a perfect porcelain bird. The book says: "ROCK DOVE (domestic pigeon) Columba livia." This common, introduced pigeon of farmyards and city parks has a white rump and (except in white birds) a dark terminal tail band. Wing tips collide on takeoff. Glides with wings raised at an angle. Nests on buildings."

I hope our new Rock Dove breaks the rules. I hope he/she stays here in the country and eats piles of corn while he's sitting on it. He chose a good day to visit. I was outside doing nothing but admiring the cool breeze and the sunshine on the deck, all that green hanging over the river, loving the low humidity that's such a rare treat. This was the kind of day you memorize and, so, I have memorized the whole 11" of our Rock Dove. I want to learn more about him and the one photo I found doesn't look like what I saw.

In the garden, tomatoes and snapdragons are blooming and a long line of lettuces is fattening. Pink and red amarylis buds are opening. This year's wisteria is more lush than last year, but has no flowers. On the river bank, wild wisteria is blooming in fat corsage size clumps whose sweet scents drift all the way to the house.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Notes From 3 March Flight to Key West


The whirl and vibration of propellers, along with our pilot's emergency instructions, are a buzz behind my orange earplugs. This Beech 1900 is vulnerable, its skin no thicker than mine, the sheeting on its wings held together by rivets no more impressive than upholstery tacks. I am hungry, working on a headache.

We leave Gainesville, FL, headed toward “a bright sunny day of +80 degrees” in Key West." The vibration of the plane forgotten, I look down on three lakes, three more lakes, a boat trailing a white tail behind. The strips of floss below are roads between neatly combed woods I surmise are planted pine.

On my (road) map, Archer, Bronson, and Chunky Pond* show. We cross I-75, fly over cattle that glint like metal filings in squares of tan and mauve, then houses of hunter green, olive, khaki, and pink; some of the houses have very few trees. On the wing out my window, blue panels open; I wonder if those metal rivets could pop loose.

The many subdivisions we pass over are iconographic, elaborate patterns of red tile laid in mathematical precision, then interrupted by the scrimshaw of the Suwannee River, a black ribbon scrolling toward the Gulf. Already we are dropping to the southwest, to Tampa. No coffee or pretzels on this flight; below us, long lines of ants on the north and southbound lanes of I-75. A bit of turbulence.

As the pilot announces our landing at Tampa/St. Pete, I see that the gray areas surrounded by green are cypress forests and the coastline is bejeweled with houses. Ball fields, construction sites, the windows in those houses. I am praying for the pilot's loves, whatever they are. We have each done something dangerous today.

Change of planes and I am in the sky again. The Sunshine Skyway, a curved eyebrow above water, doesn't bother me; I was far more nervous driving it in a car .

Below me, a geometry incised, it appears, by someone with a very long tool; then deep water over bands of chartreuse, the grid again, blue sky, houses crowding the water's edge, cloverleafs. From another planet we may look like we know what we're doing.

Captiva and Sanibel, a palette of green, brown, and chartreuse, then mauve patches of differing shapes that remind me of frescoes on old walls, bison in the caves at Lascaux. All one gleaming, iconic loveliness and, though it's a worry, right now I can't condemn people with houses situated on
fill for wanting this beauty every single day. Below: water and boats gleam like dimes tossed into a North Florida spring.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Florida Voices, Florida Changes

A NOTE ABOUT THE BOOK: Southern Comforts: Rooted in a Florida Place has been nominated for the 2008 Lillian Smith Book Award.

Florida Voices, Florida Changes

"Glimpsed" is the operative word in the 1996 piece printed below. One almost must search for the landscapes known even fifty years ago. In my 2008 travels about Florida, I've been astounded by the numbers of new dwellings, the thousands of orange barriers lining miles of roads being reconstructed, the bridges, the tourist stops, the billboards.

I dug out this piece (see below) written a dozen years ago in order to compare how Florida seemed to me then versus how it seems in 2008 after visiting cities to the south and in the panhandle for book readings. In 1996, the state had 12,938 million residents and it now has in excess of 18,349 million; hurricanes George, Earl, Charly, Charlie, Francis, Ivan, Rita, Wilma, and the infamous Jeanne have borne down on us. In 1996 the state registered 129,000 housing starts and in 2006, we had 165,000. I first got interested in these statistics when I drove the Florida Turnpike for the first time since 1998. Florida is under far more of a strain than she was when this piece (see below) was written in a duplex on Terrace Street in Tallahassee where I lived for fall semester, 1996, before bolting to the woods in Hamilton County. I went back, of course, but eventually I was able to build here on the river where I might easily be accused of "hiding out." But now, because I've been traveling, I know what’s going on in the rest of the state and it’s startling.

This weekend I'll be at Debary Historic Site (10 a. m., Saturday, 12 April) where I hope to be involved in a spirited discussion of what's happening to Floridians, the place where they live, and what we can do about crowding.

One good thing: people are talking about Florida's environment, growth, development, and our future. More on this subject when I get back. Here's the 1996 piece:


Florida is now home to many peoples, but her earliest languages were spoken by the hunter-gatherer tribes of pre-history, the Apalachee, Yustega, Utina, Potano, Ocale, Tocobago, Ais, Calusa, and Tequesta. These were the Floridians who met those first explorer-conquerors of the New World. “La Florida,” the Spanish named it “land of flowers.”

These peoples ate clams, trout, and mullet. They wore blue beads and were of Asian descent, but they wrote no books and their voices were never taped. Decimated by European diseases to which they had no resistance, the first Floridians are found now only in the archaeological record and in the descriptions of European diarists. However, in the graffiti on a boarded-up wall at coastal Cedar Key, an anonymous author has given them voice:

Tall we were, splendor was in our persons, comely our women, our waters
bountiful. Life was joy in our cedar-scented islands under the cloud-drifted
sky. Then came the ugly pygmies with their bright hard shells and devil-stone
knives, their demon-driven vessels rising up from under the edge of the sea.
By pure evil they triumphed over us. The plague that spread from their souls’
sickness that robbed us of our children, that stole away our beauty, brought
us to an end . . . .

Despite theme parks and tourist beaches, the unspoiled Florida, the Florida of her first peoples, can still be glimpsed.

*Copyright Sudye Cauthen,15 July 1996

ENDNOTE: 10 April 2008 - Sunday at 2 p.m. I'll be at the Micanopy Public Library at the southern end of Alachua County, not all that far from Cross Creek where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote Cross Creek in which she said:

If there be such a thing as racial memory, the consciousness of land and water lie deeper in the core of us than any knowledge of our fellow beings. We were bred of the earth before we were born of our mothers. once born, we can live without mother or father, or any other kin, or any friend or any human love. We cannot live without the earth or apart from it, and something is shriveled in a man's heart when he turns away from it and concerns himself only with the affairs of men.

Friday, March 7, 2008

UPDATE on the book, SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place

While I was in Key West this week we got word that SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place has been awarded the Bronze for Florida Nonfiction by FLORIDA BOOK AWARDS.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Gentle Fireworks of Spring

Some Notes:

29 January 2008:

Evening, and robins, wild and fat, clutch the tallest shoots of the huckleberry bushes at river’s edge. They sway and dive. The 75’ space between house and river throbs with robins. These puffy-chested, red-breasted robins clutching the tips of the tall pines are swinging in the wind.

This evening the trees at the river’s edge are a little less naked than when I wrote a few days ago about the samara of the red maple, small bits of pink, thrown like silken flame onto Hwy 41. Now, I carefully work my way down the river bank to see if any have fallen from the Florida Maple at the river’s edge.

Thomas flies past me and runs straight up a tall water oak that leans out over the water. “Careful. Water,” I say, reassured by the thought I’ve never yet seen a cat in the river. I have seen logs, boats, kayaks, inner tubes, canoes, people, fish, otter, snakes, alligators, small turtles, and once a white tailed deer swimming past. Thomas comes down in his own good time and is sprawled here beside me now, in case I need help with the spelling of “cat.”

Sunday, 10 February 2008:

This is too much: here I am, having just written about the wonders of cold weather and there’s a bee buzzing the new huckleberry blooms beside the river. It’s 5:00 p.m. and splendid on the deck, light whitening the upper reaches of the west sides of tree trunks, limbs, branches, and twigs all grayed out on the north and east. Close to the ground, the tree trunks are in shadow, the black gum especially dark.

The bee’s buzzing stops and I hear a mewling, maybe the cry of an infant squirrel. The black berries on the smilax move in the wind as the bee drones from one bell-shaped flower to another, blossoms so small that ten could easily fit on my thumbnail. Along the branches of the wild azalea and curling vines of the wisteria, I finger nubs that will unfold into leaves.

Here, trees, bushes, and palmettos all lean toward the river. In strong winds, dead trees fall forward, the cracking of their wood sudden as thunder. Such a tree lies only a little way from where I am sitting. I heard it rip and crash from inside the house during a high wind, perhaps last Tuesday, the night of tornadoes in Tennessee and Mississippi. The broken tree is now a heap of huge splinters, lying on the Suwannee’s bare, white beach. The bee returns, circles my head, slows before my face, considers whether or not I am a flower he can drink from.

The sun’s an inch from falling out of sight behind Suwannee River Water Management woods and only the tip top of the black gum here beside me is lit. My own shadow extends the width of the deck and ten feet beyond, dissolving into the thick piles of coppery straw fallen from longleaf pines. Thomas appears frozen in place; he's my watch cat and alerts me to the presence of fox and deer.

13 February 2008:

While folks in other parts of the country are sloshing through horrid (magnificent) winter snowdrifts, in North Florida we are counting the winged samara bearing the seed of the Florida Red Maple ((Acer rubrum) that sprinkles them down by the river in early spring. The two halves of the samara are delicately joined, as fragile as an insect’s wings, and a deep rose. Under the gossamer covering are the maple’s seeds.

Primary colors: Driving today along the road I saw the year’s first blue-lavender blur of toadflax, Linaria canadensis. On the roadsides, whole bushes are curled over with the vines of the Yellow Jessamine (Carolina Jasmine, Gelsemium sempervirens), and the two reds of sheep’s sorrel and the Florida Maple.

At Suwannee Springs near Live Oak, I stood on last year's brown palmetto fronds and prickly sweet gum pods , to photograph the long crack in the wall of an old springhouse built, along with hotels and private cottages, when these springs were a tourist destination (from the Civil War until the 1920s). A branch of Florida Maple hung just in front of the camera, its unopened samara, points of red. The Black-eyed Susan (Rudibeckia hirta), phlox, Horrible Thistle (Cirsium horridulum), and Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) will soon be blooming.

The curly red plant on the sides of the road is called Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) and that may be what the ground-feeding songbirds are eating, also the rabbits and deer. In folk memory, Sheep sorrel represents the language of parental love. Think about that when you pass a whole field of cream-of-tomato red soup. Observe how it spreads.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

UPDATE On The Book, SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place

SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place (available from the University of Georgia Press and at has been nominated for The American Book Award, The Florida Book Award, and the Florida Historical Society's Samuel Proctor Award.

Lizard, Cat, Cold Porch

Blog Sunday 10 Feb 2008

I believe this is Sceloporus undulatus, an Eastern Fence Lizard, this fellow Thomas has brought in. Thomas, of course, doesn’t know “lizard” and thinks this is a toy, his own toy. I praise Thomas for his amazing lizard catching skills and, while his eyes adore mine, I snatch the lizard and hide him behind my back. Out on the stairs, I place Sir Lizard on the top of the stair’s banister: dark brown stripes on his sides, neon blue on belly and throat, a really astounding blue.

Mr. Sceloporus isn’t moving and may have internal injuries, so I set him down in bannister sunshine. Ten minutes later, I open the door and he looks exactly the same, a miniature dragon, toes splayed, but unmoving. When I step toward him, he comes alive, scurries along the banister, and pauses at the edge of the upstairs entrance as though considering a jump. I pull the door closed behind me, lock the cat door so Thomas can’t get out, and give Mr. S. some time.

This day is why people move to Florida: full sun, slight breeze, 70 degrees at 2:00 p.m. It doesn’t get any better than this which is why, last night, I undressed for bed on the dark, screened porch. I wanted to feel the cold and remember it in summer when even the screened porch is almost too hot for stepping out on though, not, I suppose, too hot for shucking one’s clothes.

When I built and moved into the house in 2002, I resolved to live without ac, a notion I endured for less than two months, during which I remember wearing nothing but bathing suits and large scarves. So now there is ac and, as with every other comfort I can think of, something has been gained and something lost, which is why I take outdoor showers in the summer and sometimes sleep with the porch doors open on our coldest nights.

A certain measure of discomfort is invigorating. In fact, I know of a man who has for many years taken all his baths outside, cooks outside, and eats from his own garden. He does have a phone and a TV, though, so he is only a partial Spartan. If you think on this for about five seconds, you will realize that, in attempting to keep things simple, this modern Thoreau stands a little closer to hundreds of thousands of people he’ll never see anywhere but on his tv screen, folks for whom a drink of water is a gift and a bath, unimagined. When I was undressing on the cold porch, it seemed to me that in the night sky each star grew whiter and more distinct and, in embracing dark and cold, I had joined myself more surely to many things I could not name or even see.

Mr. S. is gone, invisible, has left us, but in the feeder below three pine warblers with yellow wash across their backs peck out a beat, small, feathered drummers, keeping time.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The River Casts Its Flambeaux

27 January 2008 -- my son's birthday; he's forty-two.

Hard to believe so many years have passed that, until just a moment ago I had never looked through binoculars and witnessed oak leaves transformed into cat's eyes and emeralds, bare stems and branches laced into ethereal lattice. This is too early, really, for me to be on the deck with binoculars. I usually do sunset here, and it is only 3:00 p.m.

The various sizes of cypress knees, through the binoculars, appear to be nested like Russian dolls on the opposite bank. It is a little cold and very sunny. Thomas is here, too; he's sensed I'm leaving tomorrow morning and, so, sticks to my side.

Below, the sun is so bright in the water it's unpleasant. I squinch my eyes and look beyond the sun's reflection, further south where the water has divided itself into kajillions of crystals, each many-faceted: water become jewel; it took us a long time to see this, that water is precious and prized beyond any other jewel but air.

The train whistles over on SR 41, always melancholy, reminding me of other places, people far away, Jack Nicholson as Francis Phelan, riding the rails in the movie, Ironweed.

On the opposite bank, bright sunlight brings fire to the longleaf pines; small miraculous mirrors dangle from the oaks. I must have been forty-two myself before I could see the beauty in a leafless tree, how its form was freed, arms lifted to the sky. And, because I was so late appreciating winter and because we have it for so short a space each year, I am jealous now of these winter days and want them to pass more slowly.

As much as I love springtime, I want to shout at the Florida maples, now all flame along the roads, Slow down. You are coming too fast. You spend your beauty too quickly. Let me look at you.” And to the wild huckleberry bushes and the pink-lipped film of the wild azalea, I want to shout at them, too, and insist on slowing time.

Let me see you open, huckleberry; do not open while I am sleeping or my back is turned. Open one blossom at a time. Wait a month or a year because I know this is one less winter, another winter gone. Ah! Mr. Housman; one season less of my mortal store.

The Chestnut Casts His Flambeaux

The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away,
The doors clap to, the pane is blind with showers.
Pass me the can, lad; there's an end of May.

There's one spoilt spring to scant our mortal lot,
One season ruined of your little store.
May will be fine next year as like as not:
But ay, but then we shall be twenty-four.

We for a certainty are not the first
Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.

It is in truth iniquity on high
To cheat our sentenced souls of aught they crave,
And mar the merriment as you and I
Fare on our long fool's-errand to the grave.

Iniquity it is; but pass the can.
My lad, no pair of kings our mothers bore;
Our only portion is the estate of man:
We want the moon, but we shall get no more.

If here to-day the cloud of thunder lours
To-morrow it will hie on far behests;
The flesh will grieve on other bones than ours
Soon, and the soul will mourn in other breasts.

The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.

---Alfred Edward Housman

Monday, January 21, 2008

UPDATE on SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place

Sold out at Goerings Bookstore in Gainesville on 13 January with a standing-room-only crowd; so many old friends, I thought for a moment I’d stepped into a “This Is Your Life” episode. Also, on 19 January at Brooker Creek Preserve in Tarpon Springs, a lively discussion of Florida’s environmental problems and how we can honor one another’s opinions by “agreeing to disagree.” On Sunday, the 20th: calls from my Cauthen cousins saying they love the book; it means something to them.



On New Year’s Day, 1 January 2008: I drove the back way to Live Oak, listening to “Robert Cole” (see note below), a song about a young boy, waiting for his ninth birthday.

“Hey, little man,” the song begins, “ . . . . tomorrow’s your big day.” It’s his birthday, but the singer speaks of “a swell of shame and sadness.” The song’s refrain tells us,

“I am your mother./ I told your oldest sister, your baby brother,/ your dog, Champ, and your best friend/ that your name is Robert Cole/ and tomorrow you are nine years old. /But you, you will not walk this road again.”

Driving past the last of the bronzed foliage along our winter road, I wiped my eyes, shut off the CD, stopped for coffee.

The man facing me from the next booth in Waffle House could have been Harry Crews’s younger brother, or maybe Harry himself, 30 years ago.

“Well, at least you got a roof over your head,” the man said to the woman whose face I couldn’t see, a woman whose red hair was caught up in back with a gleaming aqua clip.

“I might get married again,” she answered.

In “Robert Cole,” the parents fight. His father has left his mother on her knees, cursed, and said, “My life is mine,” then speaks to his young son about family, sacrifice, and children. Over and over in the song, Robert’s warned by father and mother not to walk the blacktop road that burns his feet. Robert Cole will be walking a different road. No longer a child and without a father at age nine, he won’t be hop scotching along a hot tar road, but remembering tire tracks “that’ll lead you down and round to where a car’s off in the ditch,” evidently his father’s car because now Robert Cole is “the one to take my daddy’s place,” and “ . . .. I will not walk this road again.” Cole’s father has died violently and made age 9 forever the demarcation between childhood play and the “heavy load” of an adult understanding, the knowledge of loss and how pain twists within a family.

After the woman said “I might get married again," the Waffle House man nodded, pushed the one coffee cup across the table, toward her. The late afternoon sun lit his face. A young girl with dark eyes who must have been seven or eight years old crowded in beside the woman, twisted around so her back was to the man, stared into my eyes.

When they got up to go, the man lifted a sleeping girl to his shoulder, a girl I hadn’t seen; so there were two children. Carrying a paper cup with a straw in one hand, the woman followed along behind the man. The staring girl followed too, but with her head twisted back, looking backward through her large brown eyes.

This little girl, wherever she was going, she wasn’t coming back here again. Her eyes never left my face. Out in the parking lot, the girl and her folks climbed into the cab of a moving truck. “BUDGET: Moving Up” ran in red letters across its length and fastened behind were a red pickup with no license tag, two German Shepherds inside that were wildly ricocheting off the windshield, a red Craftsman tool box in the truck’s back bed, and a child’s bicycle. Anybody could see this was a big move: the first week of the New Year; school wouldn’t start for another week.

“Please tell your mother/your older sister and baby brother/your dog Champ and your best friend/that your name is Robert Cole and tomorrow you are nine years old/But you, you will not walk this road again.”

That long moving truck with the man, woman, two girls, pickup, dogs, tools, and bicycle pulled out onto the highway, crossed the lane heading back to the Interstate, and pulled into a Shell station. I followed them and watched from the parking lot nearest the station.

They finally pulled out and headed toward the Interstate. I watched both ramps, one going east to Jacksonville, the other leading west to Tallahassee. A house trailer and a LOOMIS security truck followed them.

A long time passed before the trailer and LOOMIS truck appeared on the I-10 overpass, “Robert Cole” was playing again on my car stereo, a piano tinkling delicately. After the fireman calls “This one’s torn to hell” we realize the unrecognizable accident victim’s face is that of Robert Cole’s father. The boy sings on, telling how innocence was hammered out of him, how, on the morning before his ninth birthday, he lost one life and was catapulted into another. Over and over, we hear the words

“ . . . . sister/brother/father/mother/dog/best friend”; the familiar, now lost borders of a child’s world.


NOTE: Brent Best, on JUST ONE MORE: A Musical Tribute to Larry Brown, a Great American Author.

The reenactment of the Civil War's Battle of Olustee (which was won by the Rebs) is a few days away and here's a gentleman setting up for customers.