Three Florida-Inspired Authors
Watching the film version again the other day, I realized why the story of Cross Creek made such an impression on me at multiple levels when I first read the book.
Marjorie Rawlings' account of her life in the central Florida backcountry during the 1920s and 30s is so well written they seem to describe a mystical experience. Some passages are as magical-sounding as One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, even though they are set in a hard scrabble place that killed some residents and drove others crazy.
But she came to love the place despite its difficult challenges. A woman accustomed to city life, she learned to feel at home in the Florida wilderness of scrub pines, cypress swamps filled with alligators and cotton-mouth mocassins and bush neighbors as mysterious and volatile as the wild animals.
She had already lived a dream I had been nurturing for a long time. When I first laid eyes on Florida as a 13-year-old, I wished to live the story I had read about in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling. I wanted to withdraw from civilization and lose myself in nature.
Rawlings had beaten me to the dream by 30 years in the same state where I took up residence. In the Florida Everglades I discovered a natural environment remarkably similar to the setting of Cross Creek and old-fashioned Florida crackers who reminded me strongly of her neighbors.
We also shared a lesson about bush life. Both Rawlings and I (much later in the Hawaiin rainforest) wanted to live like hermits, alone in peaceful solitude, and we were dismayed when our few distant neighbors intruded upon our privacy time and again. They refused to let us live aloof. Eventually, we both realized that no one is ever left alone in remote places. (If you want to be anonymous and invisible, you have to live in a big city.) As compensation for lost solitude, we wrote about our neighbors because they were a different breed of people -- eccentric, non-conformist and ultimately more interesting than the people we had known in city life.
On a different level Cross Creek is the story of a struggling author finally finding her unique voice as a writer. The same thing happened to me in Naples, Florida, where I spent much of my time in the nearby Everglades wilderness that looked and felt like what Rawlings described in her book.
After I finished my first book, I began corresponding with another writer whose work I discovered through a friend. Robert Mason had returned from the Vietnam war without all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact (to quote a line from my favorite Salinger short story), but he was able to write the best book I ever read about the war, Chickenhawk.
The fact that Mason settled in High Springs, Florida, about 25 miles as the crow flies from Cross Creek, didn't seem like a coincidence to me. Three writers from other places became legitimate authors while living in the same Florida natural environment at different times -- Rawlings and Mason and me. This tied us together somehow in my imagination.
Sometimes I wonder exactly what it was about the Florida bush country that inspired us to become authors. On the negative side it's unbearably hot and humid much of the year, mosquitos and creepy-crawlies are everywhere, some of the wildlife is quite dangerous, hurricanes periodically ravage the region and survival can be a challenge.
But there is also the strangely hypnotic beauty of the place. It's a dark and brooding beauty of shadows and murky water, of mosses, ferns and wild orchids, and the air is a pungent mix of sweet odors and the smell of decay. It seems primordial, like the whole earth was eons ago during the time of Pangea or Gondwanaland. If you squint your eyes, you can almost see giant dinosaurs wading through swamps still occupied by an even older inhabitant, the alligator.
Perhaps it was the primeval beast rather than the angel in us that inspired our writing.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa