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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.