PILGRIMAGE TO CROSS CREEK
‘I do not know how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.’
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
In 1928, as America was sliding into the Great Depression, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband Charles bought (sight unseen) an old orange grove at Cross Creek, in the marshy backwoods of Central Florida. When the couple divorced in 1933 Marjorie stayed on. It was here she wrote her Pulitzer prize-winning nature novel; The Yearling.
The book expressed her sheer joy in her surroundings. She wrote of fragrant native jessamine, wild honeysuckle, and night scented jasmine. She also loved the huge Bull Bay magnolias, despairing when their leaves were illegally stripped for the making of funeral wreathes. Of their giant flowers she wrote; ‘The perfume is a delirious thing on the spring air….their red seed cones are as fine as candles. They mature slowly from the top of the tree down, as a Christmas tree is lighted.’
She was also a keen observer of wildlife, from humming birds and charming chameleons, to raccoons, bears, alligators and snakes.
While holidaying in Florida, my partner and I visited Cross Creek, so named because it lies between Orange Lake and Lake Lochloosa. We drove north from Orlando to Micanopy, the town where Marjorie Rawlings knew a man who would remove a skunk’s scent sac for a dollar! Micanopy began as a trading post and by all accounts lived up to its earlier name of Wanton! The final stretch to Cross Creek is via a smaller, county Road. We stopped mid-way to buy boiled pinders (peanuts) from a roadside stall. Much loved by Rawlings, the nuts are sweet and gelatinous, cooked in their shells before they are fully mature.
The Creek is approached through natural pine forest, with dark trees shrouded in Spanish moss. At Cross Creek bridge, heavily buttressed cypress trees stand like ancient washerwomen, up to their knobbled knees in water. The surface of the Creek was carpeted in water hyacinths; a nightmare weed according to two elderly fishermen, who chatted to us from their dinghy. The pair were fishing for small-mouthed bass, but admitted they were happy to simply smoke their pipes and drift downstream. Apologies in advance for the poor quality of the pics in this story.
Just around the corner is the writer’s single storey ‘cracker’ farmhouse, built of heart pine and cypress, and roofed with hand cut cypress shingles. A magnolia was in bloom in the garden, and red winged blackbirds were drinking at a stone birdbath.
The house contains much of its original furniture. In the screened verandah is the cypress table at which Marjorie Rawlings wrote. Her typewriter remains in place, holding page one of the first, heavily corrected draft of Cross Creek.
Rawlings was not only a writer and citrus farmer, but an enthusiastic and creative cook. Her appreciation of the wildlife did not prevent her serving dishes such as turtles in egg batter with hearts of palm, gopher stew, and aligator tails simmered in butter and lemon juice. For years she shot warbling, red-birds and baked them in pies – unaware it was a federal offence. Her fondness for the birds finally removed them from her menu.
No such sentiment surrounded the superb blue crabs she caught in a local scrub spring. Rawlings used sherry, brandy and cream from her beloved cow Dora to produce ‘Crab a la Newburg, Cross Creek.’ Describing the effects of this dish on dinner guests, she wrote;
“My friends rise from the table, wring my hand with deep feeling, and slip quietly and reverently away. I sit alone and weep for the misery of a world that does not have blue crabs and a Jersey cow.”
Custodians of the house sometimes fire up the old fuel stove and cook dishes from Marjorie Rawlings’ recipe book, Cross Creek Cookery. The herbs and vegetables she used are still grown in the old kitchen garden. Nearby, her muscovy duck pen and chicken house have been re-stocked
The property’s original pump house remains intact, along with the door-less lavatory that so horrified the writer’s Uncle Fred. Embarrassment drove Fred to fashion a red flag, to be planted outside the building when someone was ‘in residence’.
Although her background was in journalism, Marjorie Rawlings moved to Cross Creek with the intention of making a living from the orange grove. However, the trees struggled to survive during central Florida’s cold winters. In Cross Creek, she described the magical sight of the grove illuminated at night by fatwood pine fires. The fires were lit in an attempt to raise the temperature and prevent ripening fruit freezing on the trees.
Native forest has enveloped much of the old orange grove, but my partner and I made our way through, brushing aside vines while keeping a sharp look out for coral snakes and cotton mouthed moccasins. In recent years, sections of the grove have been replanted using original root stock.
In 1941 Marjorie Rawlings found personal happiness when she married Norton Baskin, a hotel manager from the coastal resort of St Augustine. However, she continued to spend much of her time at Cross Creek. A darker side of the writer’s life involved an addiction to alcohol, which she fought for many years. She also spent five long years defending a libel suit brought by a neighbour portrayed in Cross Creek. In 1953 Rawlings died from a cerebral hemorrhage, aged only 57. She is buried in Antioch cemetery, not far from the Creek. In 1983 the movie Cross Creek was made.
The administrators of the Cross Creek site aim to recreate the landscape that inspired those writings, while keeping in mind Marjorie Rawling’s firm belief that; ‘the shabbiness of the Creek is a part of its endearing quality’. The grove is an increasingly precious microcosm of rural Florida. Thankfully it remains ‘a small place of enchantment’.
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