[This essay received the First Place Award in the 2001 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Essay Contest. This award came one month after I left teaching to pursue writing full time. I saw it as a sign that I had made the right decision.]
My new world frightened me. I didn’t see the beauty of the live oak trees draped in moss or understand the lure of frogs singing on a summer night. The wildlife of northern Florida held threats to my safety and left me wondering why we had moved here from Michigan.
I saw danger lurking in the surrounding wilderness. One morning I looked in the mirror and saw a tick, fat with my blood, attached to the center of my forehead. The first time I saw a broadhead skink, I threatened to leave my new home and head back to a land of lizard-less landscapes.
After hearing that I wanted to leave, a neighbor suggested I read Cross Creek. I had never heard of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings even though The Yearling sounded familiar.
Not only was Ms. Rawlings a writer, something I aspired to be, but she had conquered her fears of a Florida wilderness and wrote with affection about an area much more rural than anything I had experienced. For the first time, I began to understand the rhythms of life in this land that was beginning to own me.
When I heard the call of my first “chuck will’s widow” heralding spring, I welcomed the songbird with pride because, thanks to Ms. Rawlings, I knew it was a cousin of the whip-poor-will. Now I listen for it every year.
I read about her trip to the Everglades with Ross Allen to hunt rattlesnakes. This woman became my hero as I fought to overcome my fear of snakes. When I welcomed a Black Racer into my garden last year, my appreciation for the nature of north Florida became complete. I had not made a mistake by moving here.
I devoured her novels. Jody Baxter’s struggles chronicled a rite of passage much purer than anything I’d read before. And South Moon Under allowed a glimpse into the people I had begun to call neighbors.
The picture of Ms. Rawlings, on her porch with the typewriter in front of her, remained a constant in my mind as I struggled to find the writer in me. That picture became reality when I began to put aside the distractions of my life as a teacher and started my own journey as a writer.
Recently one of my students struggled to find an American author to read. I suggested South Moon Under. When he finished, he said, “I never thought I’d like this book, but I want to thank you for suggesting it. It is the most interesting book I’ve ever read.”
No longer afraid of the world around me, I returned what had been given to me when my neighbor suggested I read Cross Creek. Ms. Rawlings lives on in those “human heirs” who sojourn here for only a short time while the creatures and landscapes around us continue their cycle of life and death and rebirth, completing the essential rhythms of a world filled with wonder.