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"Rediscovering Rawlings, a River and Time" (Feb. 2008)

Dessie Smith when she made the Hyacinth Drift trip with her friend "Marj" in 1933


As filmmakers, we get our first look at Puzzle Lake in the upper St. Johns River basin today. This is where Pulitzer prize winning Florida author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her Cross Creek neighbor Dessie Smith began their ten-day boat trip here in 1933. We’ve been funded for a documentary that will not only recapture that journey, but will also explore how the river and its geography has influenced culture over time.

We’re after “sense of place” in our film, and we’ll get plenty of it on Puzzle Lake—which is about as aptly named as any place on the map can be. When Rawlings took her own trip, she launched south of Puzzle off of HW 50 east of Orlando, Florida. And then she and Dessie almost immediately got lost. Writing of her experiences in her non-fiction book “Cross Creek”, Rawlings said they finally found their way through the shallow lake by watching the direction that the hyacinth, a floating water plant with a lavender blossom, was drifting. Things that float on rivers simply move faster where the channel is more forceful, and thus deeper. The chapter of the book that recounts that trip was entitled “Hyacinth Drift.” (The story had earlier appeared in Scribner’s Magazine.)

In a larger way, the device of watching the drift of the current was symbolic of how Rawlings was learning to more fully trust nature. It allowed her to get outside of her intellect and to rely more on her senses. After all, she was a relative newcomer to the little village of Cross Creek when she moved there in 1928, a northern transplant who was a Phi Beta Kappa grad of the University of Wisconsin. Although it offered more security, living in a northern city seemed to be a “maze that went nowhere.” Even with its risks, this strange place called Florida carried with it “the possibility of the almost perfect life,” Rawlings once wrote.

While “Marj” had spent time outdoors, her experience in the backwoods of Florida was nothing less than full immersion in nature and place and, eventually, her writing here reflected that. I can think of few other authors whose work has been so completely transformed by the geography and culture of as hers. Florida, as scholars have noted, was her “Walden Pond.”

Although we will allow for real moments of discovery during our eventual filming, we also need to scout enough of the route to make sure we don’t strand a film crew during the actual on-water production later in November. Leslie Poole and Jennifer Chase, the two women who will recreate the trip then will be navigating their own small open boat, and when possible, camping along the way, as did Rawlings and Smith. We will follow along in a pontoon boat to shoot from, and a houseboat to store gear, recharge batteries, feed and berth the crew.

This morning, there are few hyacinths on the river to consult for advice. But we have other advantages—a GPS system and an airboat piloted and guided by two intrepid land managers from the St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD), Pete Henn and Doug Voltolina. The District owns a lot of property here as “conservation land” to protect the river and keep the marsh healthy and functioning like a wetland ought to.

On board today are co-producer Bob Giguere, Pete, Doug, and Michelle Thatcher, a conservation agency director who has worked with us on previous documentaries. All are good sports who seem game for whatever the day will bring. We climb into the airboat, which is sitting on a concrete ramp down a gravel road off the edge of HW 50 near an old dilapidated fish camp. We stow our gear and put in ear plugs to muffle some of the noise. Pete cranks it up and the giant prop blows us off the ramp and into the water in one great mechanical bellow.

I’m not a huge fan of airboats since they are loud and tend to scare the bejesus out of wildlife. But it’s about the only way to go on this portion of the upper river: We’ve been in a prolonged dry spell and the St. Johns—which is almost entirely rain-fed at this point—appears as less of a river and more a series of sloughs, creeks, and rivulets, all scattered inside a flat, broad marsh. The channel is neither dredged nor marked here. We are on our own. The St. Johns flows north, of course, and that is the direction we will follow today.

When I researched a book on the St. Johns a few years ago, I paddled much of this section by kayak. Certainly, a kayak drawing just a few inches of water can go most anywhere as long as it follows the necessary compass points on a map. Larger boats with motors don’t have that luxury.

After the launch, the first half mile seems like a piece of cake because it is narrow and deep, almost canal-like. Tall phragmites, an exotic grass that looks like sugar cane on steroids, push up close to the shore. Occasionally, we pass a clutch of sabal palms and southern red cedar rooted on ground that is slightly higher than the rest of the marsh. The smooth going is a nice illusion, one that would lead most boaters to believe the river might actually continue to behave like this as it gains downstream momentum.

Despite its noise, the airboat is a rush, nothing for me to do but sit in the front, let the force of the air press against my face and body, and watch the natural world zip by as if on fast forward. Michelle takes digital photos while Bob fiddles with the GPS and Pete pilots the contraption. I have some topographical charts with me but don’t use them, opting instead to draw my own map with reference points as we surge along. Later I will try to match my handmade chart with that of the topo maps.

As we go, I think of how Florida was so little known by the outside world, for so long. Warm, wet and soggy, the interior of the peninsula was one giant Puzzle Lake. I once saw a series of vintage maps owned by Allen Lastinger, a collector who prizes the nuances of Floridiana. Each map was a historic snapshot, and taken in dated chronology, the charts illustrated a remote peninsula that grudgingly revealed itself to the world over time. Even by the 1940’s, the actual headwaters of this river were still widely unknown and and uncharted. As recently as the post-World War II era, Florida was the least populated state east of the Mississippi. The St. Johns River, at 310 miles, was the longest and surest route down into the heart of this strange and exotic place until not so very long ago.

Airboats like the one we are in today are giant jon boats powered by an aircraft engine which spins a mammoth prop in the back. The prop blows the sled-like craft over shallow water, even across shoals of dry land, if necessary. As we go, the shoreline gradually changes, and to the west, it splays out into a lagoon known as Cone Lake. The tall reeds fall away, the water becomes more shallow and we are afforded a look at the broad prairie that consumes the upper river here. The tree lines of hardwoods are pushed back to the east and west, almost a mile or more of marsh in between. When tropical storms repeatedly dump a lot of rain here and on the upstream river south of here, the marsh itself will flood from tree line to tree line.

Our first stop is a Native American midden mound, a place where the pre-Columbian Native Americans had lived for centuries before Europeans came and started throwing their weight around. It is mapped as Bear Island and it rises several feet above the flat marsh on the eastern shore, a composite of shucked shells, animal bones, and pot shards. Unlike the grassy marsh, it is high enough to support a hammock of old sugar hackberry trees and some wild persimmon trees. It also sports a dilapidated shack where airboaters come to slurp immense quantities of booze and fire up the barbie during the weekend. The shack has a hand-written slogan on it that said something about being “built by the public for the public.” We pull back a creaky screen door and go inside; it is full of trash, empty bottles and cans and spider webs.

Pete tells us a story about a famous local poacher who would come here and take customized orders for the meat and hides of just about any wildlife that lived on the river—gator, snake, otter, etc. He was usually armed and drunk. He was blown away one night a few years ago when he threatened a family camping elsewhere on the riverbanks. The father of the family also had a gun and apparently knew how to use it. Remote portions of the river like this are relics out of time and certainly, the local culture reflects that. Despite all that has changed on the St. Johns since Rawlings was on it, some things have remained the same, for better or worse. I can imagine coming back here on the weekend and finding some special “Deliverance” moments unfolding before us.

We poke around Bear mound some. I find some old .45 caliber bullets in the midden and Michelle finds an ancient turtle shell fragment. Like most river middens, the great majority of shells are from the little gastropod, Viviparus georgianus, also known as the Banded Mystery Snail. But bones from nearly every animal that crawled, flew or swim are usually found in such middens as well—deer, bear, alligator, otter, snake, anole lizard, fish, and just about all the wading birds. Behind the shack, the rise of the mound allows wildflowers to thrive here just above the marsh water.

Back to the boat we go, cruising downstream in the natural channel. Soon we come to another mound on the opposite side of the river mapped as Orange. This one is thickly wooded with no shack. Pete says ancient human femurs have been found here, leading archaeologists to believe it may once been used as a burial midden. The hardwoods on this midden are densely packed together, each crowding the other for space on this rare spit of high land.

Rawlings was always fascinated with the dark mystery of Florida hammocks like this, and so am I. “Any grove or wood is fine thing to see,” she wrote in Cross Creek. “...To feel the mystery of a seclusion that yet has shafts of light striking through it. This is the essence of an ancient and secret magic. It goes back perhaps to the fairy tales of all half-luminous places that pleased the imagination as a child.” We consider the hammock for an overnight during the actual filming, and then moved onward, into Puzzle itself.

The original word “hammock” (hamuca) actually comes from the Taino, the pre-Columbian, Arawak-speaking people of the Caribbean. But as historian Irving Rouse, who once studied the Taino, points out, there were many cultural similiarities between the Taino and the Timucua of early Florida. Hammock was said to mean a thick woods on high ground; it also meant “home”. For nomadic fishers and hunters looking for a high and dry site to camp for the season, a forested rise in the landscape could rightfully be called home.

The water under us today is tannic, colored like iced tea, and at times, only a few inches deep. There is no longer one channel, but many. The river here spreads out generously, acting more like a sheet flow across the marsh than a real river. The St. Johns drops barely an inch a mile over its entire gradient, and a prairie without high banks can easily become river bottom. Even with our airboat, we get stuck several times and run head first into some water reeds (airboats have no brakes). I remember the wonderful Rawlings description of this sprawling aquatic riddle as “a labyrinth of confusion...a blue smear through the marsh.”

The marsh itself is great habitat for wildlife, and today we see a pair of roseate spoonbills—the outrageous pink bird with the paddle-like beak— many wood storks, ibises and tricolor herons, bald eagles, and some of the largest gators I have ever encountered, anywhere. This is one day I am happy to be riding up high in an airboat instead of paddling my kayak. Some of the gators measure at least ten feet, and many hang in the water just at the surface far longer than they should.

The sky is wondrous, large billowing cumulus so thick with vapor they seemed to be pushing down on the marsh, making it even flatter. It reminds me of the Everglades in this way. We pass one boat with a lone fisherman, then another, and that’s it for the river company. Sometimes, we see PVC poles stuck into the ground, homemade channel markers left by other boaters. Several times, we stop so Bob can get some GPS markings on the electronic map of his gadget. When we do stop, we manually sound with an oar. The depth is seldom more than two feet.

Finally, we reach the mouth of the Econlockhatchee River, just south of the SR 46 bridge and causeway east of Sanford. The “Econ” is one of three major tributaries that feed the St. Johns, and all are found along our “Hyacinth Drift” route. I had paddled out of the Econ some months ago with Bobby Boswell, a friend who is an excellent photographer. Bobby and I had put in on the Econ under a road bridge several miles upstream and spend much of the day exploring the shore. Our most exciting discovery were scads of green fly orchids growing on the thick gnarly branches of live and water oaks. (On other trips down the Econ, I have stumbled over the more showy butterfly orchids, also in full bloom.)

Today, we duck inside the Econ for a few miles on our airboat, see some cattle resting under a hammock of sabal palms. The county we are in is named Seminole, and for much of its run here the Econ is protected as public land. A lot of what is left near its mouth is on the Yarborough Ranch, another relic left from the time when ranching families owned thousands of acres to range their livestock. Of all the private uses of land here in Florida, ranching is one of the least destructive to the landscape. Hammocks are often left intact, since cattle can go there to rest and to calf, and the wide natural prairies are great for grazing. Row crops drastically re-arrange that equation, and housing subdivisions smother it. (Before our film airs, the Yarboroughs will even sell some 6,200 acres of their land to the water management district, ensuring that it stays natural.)

Back on the St. Johns, we head for the SR 46 bridge with its public boat ramp and little fish camp restaurant, the Jolly Gator, which advertises “Yummy Food” on a sign. Overhead, the cumulus now hangs black and large like giant rain piñatas. Just as we pull ashore, they burst and we are showered with great pellets of water. Safe inside the Jolly Gator, it is comforting to watch the rain fall outside on the river in a pale white sheet. There are lots of fried things on the menu, most with hush puppies. For decor, there’s taxidermied alligators arranged so they appear to be doing human-like things. They look, if not jolly, then fairly amusing in a redneck sort of way—gator standing on hind legs wearing a baseball cap and clutching a longneck Bud, and well, you get the idea.

All in all, it was a swell day on a swell river, a place out of time where nature and geography and history merge as one, where a blue smear through the marsh 75 years ago is still a blue smear today. Even with Florida’s maelstrom of growth and change, it was a place where we could still find authentic wildness. And that’s pretty damn jolly all by itself.