Making Plain Things Precious

Once I lost touch with the Creek. I had had hardships that seemed to me more than one could bear alone. I loved the Creek, I loved the grove. I loved the shabby farmhouse. Suddenly they were nothing. I talked morosely with my friend Dessie. I do not think she understood my torment, for she is simple and direct and completely adjusted to all living. She knew only that a friend was in trouble.

She said, "We'll take one of those river trips we've talked about. We'll take that 18-foot boat of yours with a couple of outboard motors and put in at the head of the St. Johns River. We'll go down the river for several hundred miles."

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

From "Hyacinth Drift," in "Cross Creek"

THINGS last when we write them down.

Words, joined with honest skill and a good eye for detail, can preserve a time and a place as surely as a chunk of amber holds a nugget of another age in the shape of a leaf or a dragonfly.

Thus, a few square miles of north central Florida is still Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings country. It's on the map, vaguely defined by Gainesville and Cross Creek and the sprawling old Ocala National Forest. And, Rawlings country is also there in the mind's eye, in the memory, the imagination that her words brought to life in "The Yearling," "South Moon Under," "Cross Creek." Those books about another Florida were written more than 50 years ago.

They preserve; they preserve. Like sugar and salt and smoke. The words wrap the ordinary stuff of life into something the alchemists looked for, the elusive spell that makes plain things precious and changeless.

Dessie Smith Prescott was 24 years old, 10 years younger than her friend Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, when the two women set off on a lark that has become a literary voyage shared by generations of readers. It's a boat trip that has gone on for almost 60 years, that 10-day drift with the hyacinths on the St. Johns River from Fort Christmas north to Welaka and from Welaka up the Oklawaha River home to Cross Creek.

They didn't set out to drift into American literature. They just set out to get away from it all, and to see a couple of hundred miles of the St. Johns River, running, in 1933, through some of Florida's wildest country.

"One night Marge had expressed a desire that she would love to get away for an indefinite period and just hibernate," Mrs. Prescott said. "I had always wanted to make this boat trip, but had never had anybody to go with me. I told her what I wanted to do. She said, 'Well, that would just suit me to a T. Let's do it.' "

Mrs. Prescott recalls that in the light of day, her friend tried to back out of the deal. "She was thinking of a thousand excuses for not doing it, none of which I accepted."

And, a good thing.

"Hyacinth Drift," one of the closing chapters of Mrs. Rawlings's 1942 memoir, "Cross Creek," is a classic. The language is plain and clean and lovely, and the story of the women's intimate contact with the river and the land is haunting.

"And, oh, it was fun," Mrs. Prescott recalled, and smiled across almost 60 years at some recollection of herself and her friend, setting out on that trip up the St. Johns River.

We were having lunch in a little restaurant on another river, the Homosassa, on Florida's west coast. It was raining, hard, and water streamed down the big window that overlooked the marina, the sleek fishing boats tugging at the dock. A family of ducks paraded down the dock, just under our window. A good day for ducks.

On the hyacinth drift, the ducks would have ended up in the Dutch oven.

"We cooked over an open fire. We had biscuits, and we had broiled shad, and Marge traded a pack of cigarettes for roe shad with these commercial fishermen who'd dropped their cigarettes in the river. I cut a swamp cabbage and we had that. I had taken a ham and a side of bacon so we could cut off of it any time we needed it. We had a .22 rifle and I shot a squirrel and a duck and what have you."

They never put up their tent, not the whole trip. Didn't need to. It was spring. The weather was beautiful. They just set up their Army cots under the sky and arranged the oars at each end of the cots to support mosquito nets over the cots.

"One morning, we both had frost in our hair," Mrs. Prescott said.

Now, there's a picture.

One night, they found more substantial shelter than the open sky.

Marjorie Rawlings wrote:

"If I could have, to hold forever, one brief place and time of beauty, I think I might choose the night on that high lonely bank above the St. Johns River. We found there a deserted cabin, gray and smooth as only cypress weathers. There was no door for its doorway, no panes or shutters for its windows, but the roof was whole, with lichens thick across the shingles ... Dess nailed a board between low rafters in the cabin from which to hang the mosquito bar over our cots ... We had hot baths out of a bucke t that night, and sat on the cabin steps in pajamas while the fire died down. Suddenly the soft night turned silver. The moon was rising. We lay on our cots a long time, wakeful because of beauty. The moon shone through the doorway and windows and the light was patterned with the shadows of Spanish moss waving from the live oaks. There was a deserted grove somewhere behind the cabin, and the incredible sweetness of orange bloom drifted across us."

Traces.

Places, people, a roe shad, the sweetness of orange blossoms on a spring night last when someone writes them down.

Words can hold the most fragile moment safe against time.

The sweetness of orange blossoms.

The St. Johns River is forever changed. There is only a little wilderness left here and there along its banks. Groves have been rooted up and burned to make way for real-estate developments. Marjorie Rawlings is long dead. Dessie Smith Prescott's hair that was full of frost that morning on the hyacinth drift is white now, caught back in a knot, wispy, held in place with a net. She could be the grandmother of the young woman camped on the bank of the river, sleeping with frost in her hair.

It has all changed.

But the words hold the sweetness of orange blossoms safe against time and all its bulldozers.

Dessie Smith Prescott took a trip once upon a time on the St. Johns River. She drifted right into American literature where she is forever 24 years old, shooting a wild duck that her friend roasts for their breakfast on the porch of a deserted cabin somewhere along the river, just north of Puzzle Lake.

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