‘Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?’ –William Faulkner, ‘Absalom, Absalom!’
Last week I wrote about how much my family moved around when I was a kid. But despite that, most of my formative childhood years were spent in Florida. And not the Florida you see in movies or TV; no white sand beaches here, and few palm trees to speak of. This is North Central Florida, where the humidity rarely drops below 90% and the live oaks stretch their great branches down to skim the ground. Sandwiched between the prairie and the swamp, my Florida is the land of sharp palmetto fronds, bayonet plants, and cypress knees. Of armadillos and gopher tortoises and red-headed buzzards. My Florida is the South, plain and simple.
I grew up in this Florida. I remember spending summer days knee deep in Hogtown Creek, hunting for sharks’ teeth and fossils, relics of Florida’s prehistoric past. I’ll never forget the sweet taste of fresh blueberries picked from the bush, still hot from the blazing Southern sun. Dancing in an afternoon downpour, building tiny dams out of pinecones and not caring that I was soaked to the bone. Diving into the aquamarine depths of a natural spring, the water as clear as glass and as cold as ice. Buying watermelons not from the supermarket, but from sunburned farmers on the side of the road selling them out of the back of battered and muddy pick-up trucks. Tubing down the Itchetucknee and kayaking on the Suwannee. Avoiding the cold, prehistoric gaze of six-foot alligators sunning themselves on the banks of Lake Alice.
I grew up with the wisdom of the South. That Spanish moss hanging like the strands of an old woman’s hair from the boughs of every tree will give you chiggers (I still don’t know what a chigger is). If a ‘gator chases you, run in zig-zags (this advice cannot be valid; I pray I never get the chance to test it out). Light a citronella candle at sunset unless you want mosquitos big as grasshoppers to feast on your blood. Carry a stick into the woods lest you find yourself caught in a Banana Spider’s clinging web. Red to yellow: kill a fellow, red to black: friend of Jack. Come summer, expect a thunderstorm every afternoon at 4pm sharp.
The South is a place of contradictions. There is an insistent fecundity here, damp earth and stagnant water breeding all manner of growing things, living things, creeping things. But lurking beneath all that fertility is decay, and death. Entropy, inexorable and inevitable, rotting the logs in the swamp and creeping beneath the window-sills of plantation houses boarded up against time and progress. Here lives God, and here lives the Devil. Southern hospitality shakes hands with bigotry and hatred. Writers like Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner capture the often disorienting ethos of the South in their tales of deeply flawed and often grotesque characters, exploring a region that is at once disturbing and enthralling.
Although I no longer live in Florida, I find that the South still haunts me, surprising me with sudden memories like the fragments of half-remembered dreams. The smell of cool rain on hot tarmac. Wood smoke on a chilly evening, rich with the tangy scent of dried pine-needles and cedar. Strains of Creedence Clearwater drifting from a far-off radio. An angel-white egret at the edge of a lake, balancing like a dancer on delicate legs. And when I return to Florida, visiting family and friends, I surrender myself to this lush, humid, hot, mysterious land. I buy a quart of hot-boiled peanuts and roll down the window as I drive across the prairie, blasting the Allman Brothers as I sip my sweet tea. I let a y’all or two cross my lips. I put on some denim shorts and get a tan.
And sometimes, just sometimes, I think I just might be a Southern girl after all.