Folk who have never known a tropical summer have never luxuriated in indolence, while the world around them burst out of its sheath in a mad exuberance of growth. It is at the Creek as though Nature said to us, "You have toiled for me, now rest quietly in the shade, and the sun and rain and I will do all that is needed." The bees have slowed from their orgy in the orange blossoms and the pale gold honey is ready for gathering. They work leisurely, dipping into the long heavy sprays of the palmetto bloom, stabbing carelessly the pink tarflowers, the gallberries, the andromeda, and what may be left over of flowers in the garden. They know there will be long months of sweetness and there is no longer any hurry. Once I cut a spray of late stock with a gold and black fellow so lazy in it that he allowed himself to be brought into the house with the bouquet. The swarm of wild bees in a dead sweet gum at the edge of the lakeside hammock flies slowly back and forth, for their pantry is already full. The crepe myrtle beside the bird-bath explodes into Roman candles of bloom and showers of rosy blossoms fall hour after hour into the water, so that the red-birds and doves and mockingbirds emerge covered with flowers from their bathing. The scarlet hibiscus and the yellow allamanda bloom side by side, gaudy but not dissonant, and butterflies of the same colors flutter in to drink from them. The yellow lotus blooms on Micanopy marsh and a small black boy will wade out barelegged and gather an armful for a dime. I have lain on my veranda and asked no more of the summer day than to watch, one by one, the lotus petals falling.
The humming-birds come in, to stand on their heads in the red hibiscus cups, to sit like minute bright twigs on the tips of orange boughs, to poise, motionless except for the vibrating wings, outside the screen and stare at me. One day I selfishly picked all the hibiscus blossoms and put them in a bowl on the veranda table. A humming-bird tried to dart through the screen to come at them. His needle-bill caught in the wire and I loosened it gently. He flew away and perched on the fence and shook himself and tried to adjust his mind to invisible barriers. Martha calls them the June birds. The baby lizards are born from the eggs under the steps and emerge violently, one inch of body and one inch of tail, all youthful energy, not having learned with their parents that there is no hurry, and all things come to lizards who wait.
We have little advance news of summer. One day it is spring, with the air cool and the buds still opening. The next, it is summer, and the sun is very close to the earth, and the red-birds lift their wings and open their bills to cool themselves. They seem to discover newly the bird-bath and instead of taking a casual wetting, splash themselves all over for minutes at a time. They are angry when the water has not been changed and is too warm, and fly back and forth across the yard, scolding human thoughtlessness. When fresh cool water is put in the bath, the word goes out, and a dozen are there, scattering the water for yards around.
I leave the oranges unpicked on the trees in the yard around the house, to have them for ornaments through the summer. They are dead ripe and over-sweet and the woodpeckers come to them. They drill through the golden rinds and feed briefly on the nectar, then fly a few feet away to puncture a fresh orange. The bees and wasps cluster at the neat small holes and in a day or two these oranges drop to the ground. They fall with a heavy thud, bursting open, and the game rooster runs to the feast and calls his hens and the hens in turn cluck to their biddies. Nothing is left but the rind and within a week it has been absorbed into the soil. Nothing is wasted.
We do some work, for the ravens cannot be counted on to drop food in our mouths. But even the Negroes, who spend the summer hoeing and pruning, work as slowly and rhythmically as the bees, pulling the hoe toward them with an even, easy motion, cutting out the dead orange wood with long-spaced snips of the pruning shears. They wear Prussian blue work shirts and the shirts are the same color as the sky. In other seasons they may buy ready-made cigarettes, but in the summer they roll their own, for the rolling takes many minutes, and while they are doing it they lean against the orange trees and rest themselves with long breaths of the same cadence as the breathing of the fertile earth. They take a long siesta at noon, and it would be a cruel white man who would rise from his own to hurry them from where they lie in the shade, hats over their eyes, immobile as only the primitive can be.
The corn is rank, the cowpeas are knee-high, the peanuts are forming small nodules under the earth, and only a light working is needed for all of these, the mule moving in a dream down the rows, the Negro behind him guiding the plow deep in the same lethargy. At night there is singing in the Mickens house, for the slow time is the time for song, and Little Will's guitar is strummed softly, the sound as soft as the summer air. The whippoorwills go mad, and in the moonlight, the mocking-bird, who has been silent all day in the sun, tears his throat apart to make a melody. One night he imitates the red-bird, another he makes up a new tune all his own. Edward Bok imported English nightingales for the bird sanctuary at Bok Tower. The caretaker told me that the nightingales died, for lack of the proper food or perhaps for homesickness, but meantime the mocking-birds had learned their song. It was even lovelier, he said, than that of the nightingales.
There is time in summer to lie idly on the veranda and observe a thousand minute things that through the busier part of the year have gone unnoticed. There is time to study such things as the motion of birds and I found that I could identify various birds at a great height or distance by their flight alone. The soaring of the buzzard is unmistakable and the wheeling of an eagle is almost identical. Yet when a bald-headed eagle is so high in the sky that the distinguishing mark of the white head is invisible, one who has watched both birds can identify them each from the other. Something about the eagle's circling is more purposeful than that of the buzzard. The great wings lie in a straighter line on the air, without so much of uptilted curve. He is no more graceful than the buzzard but the hallmark of the fighting aristocrat is on the flight of one and that of the lazy scavenger on the other.
Too far down the fence row of coral honeysuckle to distinguish whether I am seeing a bird or a dragon-fly, the humming-bird reveals himself by his swinging arcs. It is as though he were suspended on an invisible wire and swung only to its limits. The woodpeckers, too, seem to be motivated by puppets' strings and drop jerkily a few feet down a tree-trunk, only to be jerked back up again. When they fly, they open and close their wings and propel themselves like a boy with one foot on a scooter.
The little ground doves fly as though uncertain of themselves, like apprentice birds learning the business. They take off with a whirring of tiny rose-lined wings, achieving the safety of the crepe myrtle with a spasmodic effort. I perpetually expect them to miss the bough they have aimed for and topple indignantly to the ground, for they flutter nervously as they land. The large turtle doves on the contrary fly with such speed and directness that they seem like gray bullets shot from a long-range gun. They are hurled across space and when they light in the pecan trees it is as though the limbs had halted them abruptly and they are only caught and tangled there. A covey of quail explodes like a pan of popcorn popping and I can recognize the spasmic scattering far across the grove.
The great blue heron often flies at great heights and labels himself plainly with his slow flapping. The ibis, known at the Creek as the curlew, flies almost as slowly but his head is carried higher and the wing-beat is more frequent. It is a rare sight to see a flock of perhaps twenty circling in the sky. I suppose this community uncertainty is an indication of a mass migration to new feeding or roosting grounds. I have seen a flock wheel for hours in an endless circle over the grove, like a merry-go-round that cannot be halted.
The most engaging of bird flights to my notion is that of the red-birds. They seem to take life very lightly and in motion they give an effect of haphazard gayety. They seem not to fly of their own volition, but, scatterbrained, to be tossed from tree to tree like wind-blown leaves.
When summer comes, our garden flowers are largely done for, except the roses. These bloom themselves literally to death, almost the year around, and we usually replace the bushes every two years, having had more dozens of blooms from them than is quite reasonable. The wild flowers burst open to fill the breach, and if any house at the Creek has no bouquet, it is either because the householder is too comfortably idle to go to the roadside to gather it or has, merely, a preference for seeing it in its natural state. The phlox grows maudlin everywhere, red and pink and lavender and white and yellow, and the small darkies carry handfuls for their own pleasure as they stroll by my gate. One season I had an early spring bean crop in the sixteen-acre field. It was heavily fertilized. When the wild phlox appeared a few weeks later, it had drawn up the foreign nourishment avidly and I had acres of phlox as large and fine as any cultivated variety.
The stretch of flats between the Creek and the village is pink all summer, first with gallberry and blueberry bloom, then fetterbush and andromeda, and lastly the showy tarflower. The individual tarflowers are shell-pink, much the shape of the large marsh pink, and impregnated with a sticky substance that gives them their name. The young Negro girls wear them for earrings, pressing the mucilaginous calyxes against the dark lobes of their ears.
The Cherokee bean puts up brilliant scarlet spikes from poor soil. It is always a marvel to me that some of the handsomest wild flowers grow profusely in the barest places. The magnificent yellow-fringed orchis and the white-fringed orchis bloom in August in damp flat-woods where even the scrub range cattle can find no pasturage. The yellow false foxglove grows like a cultivated plant in wild parts of the open scrub. The wild allamanda is a cloth of gold in late July near the Creek fences, where only myrtle and scrub oak have been before. With the summer rains come the pink mallows in the ditches and meadow beauty is riotous in all low wet places. In late August the red wood lily flames across open pine woods and is as handsome as the new exotic rubrum lily imported from Africa. The wild hibiscus, or blazing star, lines the banks of streams and rivers.
Summer is established at the peak of its lushness when the bay tree blooms. The blossom is a miniature magnolia, with the fragrance of a rare perfume. A few sprays are immensely ornamental in the house. There is a mile of bay trees, forming what we call a bay-head, just before the Creek is reached from the village. I drive or walk slowly past them, for they are flung tangibly from out a dream.
May is the dividing line, when there is one, between spring and summer. In June, in a normal year, the rains begin. With the new moisture, the orange trees remember the spring again and put out a second burst of blossoms that we call June bloom. If cold has nipped the spring flowering, the June bloom is heavy, and perhaps our only crop of fruit will come from this. The fruit of June bloom is coarse-skinned and knotted, more like the wild oranges. It matures late and seldom loses all its green of color, and is never the best of citrus.
The rains last usually until mid-August. We wait for them anxiously, for in the last weeks the elements seem stationary. The sun seems to stand all day in one steady blazing. May is sometimes the hottest month of the year. One day in June a cloud passes over the sun in the late afternoon. The cloud spreads until all the sky is gray. The air is so still that even the restless Spanish moss hangs motionless. Although the sun is hidden the atmosphere is stifling. Then an impalpable breath stirs. The tallest palms in the east grove bend their heads, the moss in the hammock lifts as though a silent hand moved through a gray beard. There is a sibilant sound in the pecan trees, the grayness thickens, and rain marches visibly across palms and orange trees and comes in at the gate. Sometimes it is a gentle shower, sometimes a rushing flood. After it has passed, the air is as fresh and clean as April and the night will be cool for sleeping. The sun strikes through the wetness, there is likely to be a rainbow, and the palms are rosy in the evening light. The Mallards are vociferous, waddling through the puddles.
The atmosphere is ominous before the rain. I recall a day last summer, when Adrenna was low in her mind at her failure to find us a man, and clouds darker than those in the sky rolled across us. The day was sultry from its dawning. The sky was a sheet of zinc, against which the sun beat hot and furious hands. The seedling zinnias and marigolds drooped and finally lay bent against the earth, sapped and exhausted. At three o'clock in the afternoon the temperature on the veranda, with the dark slat blinds drawn, was ninety-eight. The red-birds dabbled indolently in the warm water of the bird-bath and did not sing. Pat the pointer dug a futile hole under the guava bushes and lay on his side, puzzled by his discomfort. Adrenna did not go to the tenant house, but lingered.
She said, "I aimed to wash me out a few pieces, but seems like my backbone is melted in the middle."
I said, "Try to rest. No one can work in heat like this."
She said, "'Tain't exactly the heat. It's something in the air, suckin'."
"Perhaps we'll have a rain and things will be better."
She burst out, "You know I been tryin' to make out by myself, so's not to leave you. God knows I don't want to leave you."
"I been aimin' to tell you. They was tracks around my house yestiddy. A woman's tracks, with sharp heels."
"They were your own tracks. I haven't been to your house in weeks. No one has been there."
"That's what I'm feered of. But the tracks is there."
"I don't believe in things like that, Adrenna."
"No'm. I don't believe in such things, neither. But I wisht I could find me a good root man, to find out is something buried under my house."
"A cunjur bag?"
"Yessum. I been aimin' to tell you. Last night it cooled off in the night and I got up and put a quilt over me. This morning something had drug the quilt off me and dropped it in a heap by the door."
"You threw it off yourself, in your sleep."
"Yessum. And for three nights now, something been runnin' through the house at night. And I heered a pistol shot. I turned up the lamp and when I turned it down again, the pistol shot in the other corner."
"That was the tin roof crackling when it cooled off. If a pistol had been shot, I'd have heard it."
"Maybe 'tasn't for your ears to hear."
"Adrenna, nothing like that can harm you."
"No'm, for I ain't et nothing from nobody's hand. But I wisht I could find me a good root man. I burned sulphur around the house night before last. But I must of left a gap."
In the west a white cloud rolled itself together and turned gray. Thunder boomed across the lake. The sound was muffled, as though the detonation came from under the water. Lightning flickered like a tongue, then went, tasting the south.
I said, "You'd better milk early. I think we will have rain."
I heard her at the pasture gate, calling the cows. Glisson's bull was bellowing by the lake edge. The cows were stubborn and took a long time to come. The gray cloud spread as though it were a great maw, feeding on the sky. It swallowed the last morsel of blue in the north and the thunder crashed across the swamp. It was the longest day in the year, but by five o'clock the world was dark. I heard Adrenna go into the kitchen with the bucket of evening's milk. On the veranda I walked up and down. Pat whined at the door and I let him in. Lightning sizzled over the young grove across the road. I had expected friends that afternoon but they did not come, kept away perhaps by the ominous skies. City folk are afraid of the country in a storm. And I, too, was afraid. At first it annoyed me and I shrugged it off. The thunder beat closer its invisible drums. I went back to the kitchen to ask for an early supper. Adrenna sat crouched in a chair, her arms folded over her face.
She said, "I ain't afeered. But I wisht I knowed is the sperrits after me."
The spirits were after me, too. I returned to the veranda and paced up and down, up and down. Adrenna brought my tray and looked at me.
She said, "Oh, you sick. I kin tell by your face, you sick."
I was ashamed, for if I failed her, there was no other bulwark left.
I said, "I'm all right."
She cried out, "I know. You sick at heart. Don't I know. But please don't cry, else I be in the same fix."
I said, "The rain will be here any moment. You'd better get to your house before it comes."
I gave her Pat to take with her for company, for her need was greater than mine. Suddenly the palms rattled their fronds, the pecan trees bent before a nameless pressure, and the wind and rain roared in. The rain fell in a flood. I thought of the mother duck on her nest under the allamanda, where the eaves of the veranda made only a partial shelter. Her clutch of blue-white eggs was soft under the thick down of her breast, but her dark head must be bowed under the force of the torrent. The rain pounded on the shingled roof and poured in sluiceways at the house corners. The thunder and lightning were the attacking cavalry of the enemy. The rain fell for an hour. Then a cosmic broom swept it away as swiftly as it had come, and there was the sound only of spent water dripping from the eaves. The thunder and lightning were routed, and the clouds that held them rolled away into the north, like dark driven horses. Unbearable, heavy hands released their pressure from my shoulders. I went out to the clean washed road and walked a long way along it, and turned to walk back home again in company with the sunset.
The sun itself was trivial. It sank humbly into a modest bed of subdued gold. But in the north, the east, the south, cloud piled on cloud, arrogant with color, luminous with lemon yellow, with saffron and with rose. Three bands of opal blue lifted suddenly from the sun. The west took over its own. The unseemly magnificence of north and east and south faded. The sun at the horizon came into its full glory and the west was copper, then blood-red, blazing into an orgy of salmon and red and brass and a soft blush-yellow the color of ripe guavas. Northeast and south faded instantly to gray, timid at having usurped the flame of the sunset. Then suddenly the west dimmed, as though a bonfire charred and died. There was only a bar of copper. All the sky, to every point of the compass, became a soft blue and the clouds were white powder, so that in the end it was tenderness that triumphed. I went home to sound, cool sleep.
The next morning the world was fresh and bland. The sun shone benignly, without virulence. Pat romped with Old Jib and the red-birds trilled from the feed basket. The mother duck came quacking from her nest for a little corn. A light breeze ruffled the allamanda.
I said to Adrenna, "What a lovely day!"
She said, "Sho be's fine. I got me a misery in my stomach, but I feels a whole heap better in my mind. Don't you fret. Ain't no sperrits goin' to scare me off into leavin' you."
The extraordinary becomes in summer the accepted. Snow and Little Will kill casually the rattlesnakes in the path of the mowing machine and only think to mention it if the snake is large and fine and they inquire whether I shall want the skin. Foxes as big as small dogs flicker along the fence by night. Raccoons stop their frog-hunting in the ditches to lift their masked faces to the car's headlights. An alligator lumbers across the road, crossing from one lake to the other. A bull 'gator sounds his vibrating roar from Orange Lake. The hoot owls quaver all night and a rabbit squeals like a puppy as a varmint pounces on him in the darkness.
The convict road gangs come through, clearing the weed-choked ditches and cutting and trimming the right of way. Up the road I hear the swishing of scythes and the swinging of lazy-boy weed cutters, then a burst of song. I hear the Negroes sing "I want to hear my mother—swish-swish—pray—swish—again," and they punctuate the song so rhythmically with the sweep of their cutters that a set of light percussion instruments seems to be playing with them along the highway. They work evenly and not too rapidly and the white guards dawdle among and behind them. The transport and water wagons follow the gang and in the last wagon sits an enormous bloodhound. He is surrounded by Negroes idle for the moment and one or two of them always have their arms lovingly across his great neck. He is very much en rapport with those whom he is supposed to track down if the occasion should arise. I am certain they have a complete understanding and that nothing would induce him to bring one of his good friends to bay.
One summer day Fred Tompkins and I drove into the scrub and our car sank hopelessly in hub-deep fine sand. We were not within fifteen miles of any habitation. We sat a while and estimated our chances of having a truck drive by. Behind us we heard in the distance a tumult that resolved itself into a convict road gang on its way to a new location. The cavalcade of men and mules and machines came to a stop while the overseer studied our position. He gave a sign and a swarm of gray-striped black men climbed down and surrounded us.
"Boys," the overseer said in a quiet conversational tone, "I want you to take hold of this car and lift Hell out of it."
It was a shocking thing somehow to sit in a large machine and feel it lifted from the ground and moved forward by man power, with men's backs and shoulders under it. It was too primitive to be decent. Yet it was a natural thing. It is fitting in a pioneer country that men who have offended society should be at the service of society, which needs so many things done; roads built, trees hewn, rivers bridged and travellers helped through impassable trails. Organized labor protests such a use of the offenders, as an encroachment on legitimate employment. But the alternative is for men to languish sullen in their cells; and surely, if we were not so stupid as economic organizers, there would be work enough for all.
That afternoon we passed the gang at work on the grade. Each man was driving a span of mules, standing on a small dirt cart or on a sled that levelled the sand as it moved. The black men drove like African emperors in chariots. Heads were high, long whips cracked, and an ebony giant with a blue bandana knotted about his head broke boastfully into thundering song. Three stations down the grade another man picked up the irregular melody. The seething mass of convicts chanted a spasmodic chorus. Harness clanked, golden dust clouded up behind the scuffling feet of the mules, black men and their beasts sweat in the heavy summer air. Songs of love, songs of death, songs of the spirit's hope and the spirit's despair, overlaid the labors of strong black men "working for the County." Here and there a white man hobbled along with chains about his ankles. These were the dangerous characters, men who had tried to kill their guards or a fellow convict. We shared our cigarettes, and the dangerous men were as courteous in their acceptance as the others. So slight a weight in the balance of character makes a man "good" or "bad."
That night we had supper at the convict camp; boiled beans, white bacon, soda biscuits, turnip greens, chicory, and syrup to pour over the biscuits for dessert. A convict named "'Possum" waited on us. Small fires flickered here and there in the camp. Lanterns swung under the gray hanging moss. Before we had finished our supper, the camp was deep in sleep. The men had finished the day's work and the day's song. None of it seemed unnatural.
I remember the time I buried my gold, and so preposterous an accident as came about could only have happened in the summer. In the spring I knew that I should have the manuscript of a book completed by August. I wanted to take it myself to New York to consult over it with my editor. I had a hundred dollars with which to make the trip. I knew that if I did not put the hundred dollars in a place more difficult of access than a bank, August would find it gone. I converted it into five twenty-dollar gold pieces—this was before even the government began to bury gold—and I went furtively along the fence toward the lakeside hammock in search of a hiding place. Under a fence post seemed a proper spot. I lined up one of the posts with a cedar tree, a palm and a pecan tree and dug deep. I put the gold in a covered jelly glass and the glass in a covered coffee tin. I filled in the hole, patted down the earth, scattered grass over the top, and went away as contented as a dog who has done an especially good job with a choice bone.
The summer passed, the manuscript was finished, I was ready to go. I was to be driven in the grove truck to the village to catch my train. Somehow, things went wrong that morning, and I was busy until dangerously late. I decided to bathe and dress, then make a quick dash to dig up my buried treasure. The day was hot and steaming. The sun beat down mercilessly and the sand gnats swarmed and stung. I thrust my spade deep beside the fence post that lined up with a cedar tree, a palm and a pecan. I dug deeper. There was nothing there. I backed off and studied the terrain. Five posts lined up with a cedar tree, a palm and a pecan. I excavated all five in a frenzy. There was no coffee tin, there was no jelly glass, there was no gold. I stood dripping and frustrated in my best clothes. Then I began digging all over again, three times as deep as I had remembered doing the burying. Under a fence post that did not appear to line up with anything at all, my spade struck the disintegrated coffee tin and the jelly glass, full of water and tarnished gold pieces. I swung on the train at the last possible instant and paid for my ticket with money that to all appearances had been buried during the Civil War, held tightly in a grimy paw. I was wet, dirty and dishevelled, and neat passengers stared at me.
I longed to say haughtily, "My good people, you have no conception of the difficulties I have encountered in being here at all."
I remember, too, a summer when peace and war battled for possession of the Creek and for all of Florida. The conflict was grave for us. The enemy was the Mediterranean fruit fly. I remember that I walked to the sixteen-acre field in search of wild flowers and stopped at the edge to stare at the wild grape vines in the hammock around the clearing. The wild grape is a perfect host for the tropical devastator that had just invaded its last unconquered continent by way of Florida. If anything could ruin this peninsula appended to the United States, it seemed that it would be the Mediterranean fruit fly, the insect of the agricultural scientists' nightmares, a pest more destructive to fruits and vegetables than the boll-weevil, the Japanese beetle, the cotton moth and half a dozen others combined. Florida has survived the West Indian hurricanes that brush our coast. It has survived the madness of "the boom." It has maintained against all enemies its beauty, and at such places as the Creek, its privacy.
The orange industry has fought and defeated the white fly, the citrus canker and the periodic freezes. For every abandoned grove, frozen to the ground in 1895, there are a hundred new ones, incredibly neat and geometrical. My own grove has survived the freezes of early vintages, due to its sheltered location between Orange Lake and Lochloosa. It is supposed to be among the last to go when the mercury drops into the perilous twenties. My acres are part of the Arredonda grant, a grant from the crown of Spain to Don Fernandez de la Maza Arredonda and Son, and it is said that any land that is part of an original Spanish grant is good orange land. The Spaniards knew how to choose it, for soil and protection, out of the unfamiliar hammock.
Indians, Seminoles or mound builders, Spaniards in search of fabulous riches or still more fabulous youth, fugitives from justice from the Carolinas, Georgia Crackers seeping slowly over the border, Yankees with axes to grind, or seeking the sharp blade of beauty—all the intruders have seen Florida's calamities threaten them and come and go. Now a small gauzy fly imperilled the life of the state, and with it, the agriculture of all the southern states. Florida was a battleground, a Belgium, a Poland. Four and a half of federal millions and the keenest brains in modern entomology set in to do battle against the insidious visitor come without passport from the infested tropics, none knew how or when, save that the invasion was recent. Military quarantine was thrown around the infested areas. There were Zones 1, 2 and 3, with corresponding stringency of regulation. In Zone 1, vegetation was stripped down to the unfruiting plants. My place seemed safely in Zone 3, but we pulled up by the roots, and burned, the top-of-the-market crop of bell peppers and of eggplant, perfect fly hosts. I dared not juggle the safety of my citrus crop and that of Old Boss against the mere amenity of a summer's income.
Not a ripe orange, grapefruit or tangerine was left that summer on the trees. The clean-up crew went through half a dozen times. When we went swimming a few miles away in Cow Pen Pond, we crossed from Zone 3 into Zone 2, and coming and going a military guard stopped us at the boundary line. The car was inspected for fruits and vegetables and thoroughly sprayed. Inspectors net-worked the state in search of fresh infestations. Doctor Newell of the University shut himself in his office in Orlando and studied charts, reports and laboratory findings. Research scientists worked over-time feverishly, cramming a year's experimentation into a week, hoping to say, "Such and such will control the Mediterranean fruit fly." If the fly could be starved out during the summer, Florida would be safe again, and all the south-eastern agriculture. But deep in the jungles, out of reach over the fence lines, were hanging the wild grapes. They were turning rosy in the summer sun. Wild grapes, the perfect host. Wild grapes running riot in hundreds of miles of all but impassable jungle.
"Good God, with a bounty
Look down on Alachua County,
For the soil is so po' and so awful rooty, too,
I don't know what to God the po' folks gonna do."
My friend Fred will not eat a meal, at table, in the woods, or by the water, without pronouncing this grace. I suggested to Fred that he amend his prayer, for it seemed for a time that only God with a bounty could spare Alachua County from the fruit fly. If the fly reached us, we faced ruin, with the actual menace for the poorest, of starvation. In Zones 1 and 2, pitiful small crops were torn up and destroyed. Gray-bearded backwoodsmen with shotguns threatened Plant Board inspectors, but the necessary destruction of fields of beans and eggplant and peppers went on; peaches and citrus and guavas and figs continued to be stripped from the bushes. The Plant Board was ruthless. But so is the fly. Many small homes and farms in Zones 1 and 2 were deserted. Negroes migrated north in search of work.
Doctor Berger of the Plant Board said, "Only a miracle can save us. If the fly is not yet in the wild fruit—if it has not reached the wild guavas, the grapes, the wild oranges, the pawpaws and persimmons out in the jungle hammock lands, there is a chance—a chance—that we can exterminate it. Otherwise—"
Only the bulletin of the Department of Agriculture, issued long before on the Mediterranean Fruit Fly in Hawaii, could picture coldly and dispassionately enough the devastation of that "otherwise." I read the page-long list of host fruits and vegetables whose ripe or ripening crop is totally destroyed within a short space by this light-winged devourer, this prodigious layer of larva-making eggs, and thought, "But there are no other fruits and vegetables left!" The inexorable bulletin summed it up:
"The fruit fly … is an insect pest of the first importance in horticultural development. Practically every fruit crop of value to man is subject to its attack. No effort … is too great to combat it."
The horticultural development of Hawaii almost entirely ended after 1910. Florida without agriculture! Without tomatoes, beans, peppers, eggplant, peas, squash; without its golden-headed glory of citrus! Georgia without its peaches! For Georgia across the border quarantined against us and shivered with fear.
The war raged all summer. The next season proved that it was won, for the fly was never seen again. The first bitter cold night came in, blessedly cold, for now the incubation would be halted. We shivered in the icy wind.
"Well," Zelma said, "a Mediterranean fruit fly'd be a fool to lay an egg tonight."
It seems strange to us at the Creek that any one should think the Florida summer oppressive as to temperature. Our battles are the age-old ones against the vagaries of nature, but the season itself is usually clement. The wind blows all summer from the Atlantic on the east or the Gulf of Mexico on the west, cooling itself across either of the great bodies of water, and moves beneficently across the narrow Florida peninsula. The Florida summer climate in general is the most delightful I have known. Of the thirteen summers I have lived at the Creek, two have been unbearable, two on the uncomfortable side, and the other nine have been perfection. We look forward to summer, we swim, we fish, and we fox hunt.
Fox hunting with us is not the elegant northern or English matter of red-coated masters of fox hounds, expensive mounts and the serious intent on bringing in the brush. We fox hunt as we do everything else in the summer, leisurely and comfortably. We are interested in the chase and in the fox hounds, in the beauty of the night, and we hope always that the fox will get away so that we may run him another night. For we fox hunt in Florida of nights, and added to the delights of the hunt we have the tropical moonlight.
My friend Nettie Martin introduced me to fox hunting. She is a curly-headed person, so tiny that she must buy her boots and breeches in the children's department, and so ardent a lover of horses and hounds that although she owns neither, she has been an officer of the state fox hunters' association. She has broken countless bones, following the hounds on a behemoth of a stallion, but she is on a horse again as soon as the cast is off. When I reported seeing foxes near Big Hammock, she induced John Clardy to bring out his hounds.
The summer moonlight was so bright that we could distinguish the colors of the markings on the fox hounds. They arrived in a cage in the back of a truck, their long tails waving for delight in the nearness of the chase. Hounds are sad, soulful beasts, their lives darkened by the fact that there is not a fox chase every night. John let down the door of the cage and they trooped out decorously, snuffing the earth and waiting patiently for the "Hie away!" Nettie spoke to each by name; Big Belle, Flora, Sugar Boy, Black Sam, and on down the line. They acknowledged her greeting with a dignified eye and an extra swish of the tail. It is not considered etiquette to make pets of sporting dogs, but now and then one would brush her as though by accident and her hand rested for an instant on a lean, loose-hided neck. John examined the sand for fox tracks, found them and gave the dogs the signal.
They were away like bullets, voiceless as ghost dogs in the moonlight. They cut to the north, across scrub palmettos, and silence followed on the rustling and the soft padding of big feet. The hunters on horseback lit cigarettes, talked together, then took the same direction as the dogs, leisurely. I did not see how any one might hope to see or hear anything of the chase. My own broken neck was too recent for me to relish the idea of trotting through the dense growth, treacherous with gopher holes, where a false step sends horse and rider pitching. I stayed with the truck and with others cautious like myself. As time passed, and only the hoot owls sounded, it seemed to me that if the night were not so beautiful, fox hunting would be the most stupid of all sports. Then in the distance an old hound gave tongue. I had thought that talk of the hounds' "voices" and "music" was nonsense. Old Belle's cry was a deep-toned bell ringing across the palmettos. A younger dog with a high-pitched voice, known to the adepts as a "fine" voice, sounded above the lower pitch, and then the whole pack was in full cry. The harmony was like that of a Negro choir, the basses deep and rich, the intermediate tones a solid background, and the one high silver voice like that of a Negro soprano soaring above the others. The hoot owls hushed in wonder. The riders crashed back to the road.
Nettie called, "They're headed for the gallberry flats. Follow."
The truck started and we were plowing across land I should have considered impossible to cross in any car. But there were cattle trails and here and there a dim old woods road and we bounced along. Big Hammock lifted to the right and the sharp scent of orange leaves came to us on the night air. We heard the hounds and riders pass near us in the hammock. The hunt doubled back, and we were abandoned, and the cries faded.
The hunter at the wheel of the truck said casually, "They'll come back this way. We'll wait here."
It seemed to me then, and on subsequent hunts has still seemed, a complete miracle that a man should know when and where a fox would run, and the dogs after. But the great joy to the hunters lies in this intimate knowledge, and in hearing the hounds do the proper and clever thing, and in following the voices of their favorites among the dogs. We waited a long time. Very late in the night we heard the hounds come closer. The moon was high overhead, the gallberry bloom was recognizably pink in the brightness, and the sweetness of bay blossoms came to us from the thicket. The hunter driver straightened from his lounging.
"Here he comes," he said.
I had heard no sound of small sharp-pointed feet on the sand, no rustling even among the harsh leaves of the gall-berries. But a gray fox slipped past us, so close we might have touched his back. He was going slowly and his brush was dragging. It seemed to me that he was done for and I sickened at thought of the kill. But the dogs were tired, too. They came through on the trail a moment later, the riders followed, there was a great commotion at the edge of a bay-head, shouts and then silence. Hounds and riders came back to the truck.
"He treed," John said. "He's a good fox. We'll run him again."
The hounds threw themselves on the ground to rest. This is the time when a roaring camp-fire is built, allowed to die down to coals, and coffee made and steaks broiled. The hunters smoke and the bottle is passed and the camp food is nectar and ambrosia. There is long heated talk of the performance of the hounds and each man praises one and damns another, until all agree at last that whatever the merits and voices of the rest, there is no beating Old Belle. Toward dawn on this night a light fog settled down over the hammock, the gallberry flats, the bay-heads and the palmettos. The world was veiled with silver-gray and the moon struck through it wanly. I went home to sleep. Now and then I awakened to the music of the pack, for the true fox hunters were back at the chase, and Old Belle had struck a fresh trail.
The fog of the night was one of our phenomena. We have fog at two seasons, the heart of winter and the peak of summer. Both come from the sharp night-cooling of the sun-warmed earth. The humidity of Florida, surrounded on three sides by water, is precipitated into fog by the shock of the quick cooling. Spring and fall seldom produce fog, for the variance of temperature then is slight. The fog is a combination of beauty and nightmare. One's personal reaction depends on whether it has proved friendly or inimical. Summer fog will always be a nightmare to me. Even in maturity we are conditioned by our experiences, and one sharp enough leaves an imprint, no less indelible for being understood. I am not easily frightened, but I was truly afraid the night I fell asleep at the wheel of my car when a bear hunt was over, and I drove home afterward to Cross Creek in a summer fog.
Uncle Barney, whose tales I added to those of old Cal Long for much of my hunting material in The Yearling, invited me to join him and Hubert for a bear hunt. Hubert had brought us together in the first place, and the wonderful old man and I were fast friends. If his favorite name for me was "Old Ugly," he said it with a twinkle and an affectionate undertone. An invitation to a hunt with him was a command. The bear hunt was to be west of the St. John's River and I was to meet the two men at the river "just before day." I had a fifty-mile drive ahead of me from the Creek, and figuring "day" in summer at five o'clock, I set my alarm clock for three in the morning. I distrusted the alarm, which had sometimes failed me, and did not sleep all night, listening and waiting. I was up ahead of the alarm. I brewed a cup of coffee, gathered my duffle and set out. The drive was dark at first, then acquired luminosity as I became accustomed to the stars. I drove up to the bridge at Astor a few minutes ahead of Hubert's car. Uncle Barney came on foot across the bridge from his house on the river.
We met other hunters from the neighborhood, with dogs, near Juniper Creek at sunrise. The bear we were after had been making depredations on nearby stock. We tracked and trailed all morning through swamp and low hammock, and later I used the details for a bear hunt in The Yearling. The trail disappeared across Juniper Run and we gave it up. At least, the neighborhood hunters gave it up. Uncle Barney did not give up so easily. After our noon dinner, a baked ham from me, bread and may-haw jelly from Marsh Harper, coffee from Hubert, cold baked sweet potatoes from Uncle Barney, the Harpers took their dogs and went away.
Uncle Barney said, "That was a cold trail we were following on that bear. We'll find us a fresh one."
He found the fresh trail, and I lamented years of comparatively easy living, following him. He was seventy-six years old, and he whipped me down. He understood my unvoiced distress and gallantly assigned me to a futile stand while he and Hubert went on. There was a twinkle in his old blue eyes when he said, "Now, girl, don't let that bear trip over you while you're asleep." I did not sleep, but I stretched out my aching booted feet and hoped he would not return too soon. In late afternoon the two men returned. Uncle Barney said, "I believe he'll head back this way this evening." We climbed into Hubert's car and drove back to Juniper Creek. Uncle Barney studied days-old tracks.
"Now, girl," he said, "you go off into that bay-head to the south and climb a tree and sit there and wait. You're likely to have that black rascal come out snorting and puffing and feeding right under your feet."
They left me and I pushed my way through dense undergrowth to the bay-head. There was a half-fallen pine tree there, inclining at an angle, and I climbed up it and took my stand some twenty feet above the terrain. The perch was comfortable. The sun was setting. Under me was a tight thicket. A light rain fell, like a gauze veil between me and the sun. A red-bird and two bluebirds flew to the bay tree beside me and preened their feathers among the bay blossoms in the mist. I sat very still. The birds cocked bright eyes at me and went on with their toilets. The thin shower ended and a rainbow arched across the sky. The birds flew leisurely a little distance away. The bay blossoms were nacre, with diamond drops at their centers. I hoped the bear would not come, not in fear, for he would be too easy a shot. I decided that if he came I should shoot high over him and simply face Uncle Barney with the news that I had missed. The last red and orange faded from the sky, the rainbow and the birds were gone, and when it was dark, Uncle Barney and Hubert called me from the far road.
That night was moonlit and we drove all night through the scrub. Night hunting is illegal, properly so.
Uncle Barney said, "I wouldn't hunt deer at night. But if one was to attack me, I'd have to protect myself."
We saw no deer. We saw no bear. Hubert and Uncle Barney did not know that I was passionately willing the creatures, "Don't come!" We drove Uncle Barney home across the river, and Hubert and I got into our separate cars. It was three o'clock in the morning. I had been without sleep more than forty hours. All day I had fought my way behind Uncle Barney through swamp and hammock, bay-heads and oak thickets, through horse briers and bull briers. With no special consciousness of fatigue, I suddenly fell dead asleep behind the wheel of my car. I awoke with a jolt, headed at a high speed for the ditch. I swung the car sharply, bounded toward the opposite ditch, swung back again, and cleared the four-foot ditch to the left so clean that there was never any mark of the tires to show that I had crossed it. If I had not quail-hunted with Fred Tompkins in his Ford across black-jack and pine-woods, mowing down small trees, dodging gopher holes, I think it would not have occurred to me to try to steer my way through the forest in which I found myself. I dodged the larger trees and crashed across the smaller. I dared not put on brakes. I ripped past large pines and flattened down saplings. I came to a stop across a ten-foot palmetto.
I climbed out to investigate the damage. The left side of my car was crushed. The motor was still running, but the left front fender was jammed in over the wheel so that I had no play and could not move the car. I turned on my parking lights so that I could find the car again and walked back to the highway. There was no traffic at that hour of the morning. I had walked two miles back toward the Ocklawaha River when a car passed and I flagged it down with my flashlight. The driver took me back. My car lights were ominous, deep in the woods. When we could find no marks where the car had leaped the ditch, the stranger suspected a trap and was reluctant to go in with me. When I pointed out the first pine tree past which I had ripped my way, he knew I had told the truth. I had an axe in my car and with it he cut down a sapling to use as a prize-pole to lift the damaged fender a little away from the wheel. Between us we freed the wheel enough so that I could drive the car.
I was obliged to drive home to the Creek at no more than ten miles an hour. After the shock it seemed to me that it would be impossible ever to sleep again. Yet as I turned from the village down the four-mile stretch to the Creek, the deadly fatigue overtook me and it was all I could manage, talking to myself, singing, to keep my eyes open. Then I met the fog. It was a soporific enemy. It lay over the hollows like a ghostly trap. I drowsed. I stirred. The fog lay no higher than the car, but it was a morass. Again and again I dropped into exhaustion, and roused out of it with a fearful rushing feeling. The fog was about me and I was plunging blindly into it, and imaginary trees closed in on me, and the road ended, and I was doomed, and I got a grip on myself and there was still open road, smothered with the fog. I minded especially the rushing feeling—a drowning man would feel so. I reached Cross Creek and went to bed. And all that night, and for weeks after, a road swam ahead of me and suddenly ended, and the trees poured in on me, and I was damned in the fog. I still dream sometimes of rushing to destruction through the mist, and I think that for me summer fog will forever be a nightmare.
I was struck, with Harper's bear dogs on the hunt, as with John Clardy's fox hounds, by the sharp line drawn between house dogs and work dogs. Florida hunters believe that any dog allowed the run of the house cannot be made a good sporting or working dog. I cannot agree. I make companions of my pointers and take them with me in my car. It seems to me that my Mad Pat, for instance, hunts with even greater enthusiasm and earnestness than kennel dogs I have known, through his delight in sharing the hunt with me and his desire to please me. Discipline of course must be strict and business-like and must begin with the puppy. Because of this, I did once a cruel thing to a work dog whose path crossed mine.
The dog and I first met on a warm June evening. I was walking east along the Creek road, a little later than usual. The sun had set. I remember feeling lonely. I was a little uneasy, as well, for the moccasins and rattlers cross the road in the twilight. A ramshackle car came out from the lane that leads to Cow Hammock and turned toward the village. A dog followed it. He ran with the dejection of the forsaken. He was not noticed. A half-mile ahead he stopped disconsolately and began to trot back toward home. I saw that he was of a tawny yellow. He had something of the build of the Belgian police dog. As he came closer, I became aware of his mixed breeding. A black and alien smudge ran down his nose, and his long tail was ignominiously curled, revealing the mongrel. He trotted with a wolflike purpose.
I called to him with some uncertainty as to his nature. The yellow dog stopped. He came to me. I held out my hand and he snuffed it. I touched his rough coat. I pulled one ear. He rubbed his nose briefly against me in a gesture of acceptance. A feeling of friendliness passed over us in the dusk.
I said, "Come, boy," and he turned and walked with me.
It was good, after long months without a dog of my own, to have him beside me. He left me in a few minutes and went ahead, but the link between us was unbroken. Now and then he stopped and looked back, to be sure that I was following. Once he came to me to be touched; to be reassured that we were, truly, together. Studying him, I saw that he was a working dog; the catch-dog, it proved, of my new neighbor in Cow Hammock, who used him to round up his vagrant hogs. The business dog has his own ear marks. He is self-contained. He expects no luxuries of life, no graciousness. He possesses usually a simple integrity. He does his work faithfully and well and takes his pan of cornbread and an occasional bone, not with gratitude, but with the dignity of one who knows he has earned, that day, his keep. His gratitude is reserved for the rare expression of friendliness such as I had given him. That first night he ran well ahead of me and up his home lane, not taking too much for granted the closeness of our relation.
The next day I set out up the road in the late afternoon. I passed the entrance to Cow Hammock.
I called, "Here, boy! Here!"
I expected no response and there was none. I was halfway to Big Hammock when a clicking sound on the gravel road caught my ear. The yellow catch-dog was running to overtake me as though his life depended on it. I waited for him and he bounded about me with the joy of the alien who comes at last to his own. I was as glad as he. We walked that evening in a great content and that time he did not turn up his lane until I passed it with him. After that he waited for me with a faithful regularity. If I went early, I might have to call. Invariably he heard and joined me as soon as he could leave his business. If I went late, he was waiting at the lane. A few strokings of his head and he was satisfied. He went ahead, not far, looking back often over his curled and shameful tail.
Sometimes we romped together. We enjoyed most the game with the bull-bats. We stalked them together. They have a trick of sitting bright-eyed in the road, waiting for the approach. At the last instant they take off, circling to swoop low over their pursuer's head. It is a good game of tag. The yellow dog beat me at it. Often, a bull-bat too sure of himself all but lost his tail feathers. When this happened, the catch-dog raced joyfully around and around, or chased a quite imaginary rabbit.
One evening we loitered, for the approaching night was hot and sultry. As we turned west again, the last red stain of sunset faded from the sky and the road was dark. The catch-dog walked slowly beside me. Suddenly he stiffened. He made a sound, half growl, half moan, deep in his throat. Then he backed against me. I became aware that he was pushing me with his strong hindquarters, moving me away as deliberately as though he possessed an arm with which to do so. I backed with him to the far side of the road. On the gray gravel what had been a wide shadow resolved itself into a large rattlesnake that slid now into the grass. The catch-dog and I quivered, for the blood curdles instinctively at such an encounter in the dark. We hurried the rest of the way. Then and afterward we were joined by the closeness of those who, together, have escaped a danger.
One night I heard him being beaten for having gone away when he was wanted. Once he failed me, when an outlaw boar was being cornered. I heard the shrill squealings of the hog and knew that the catch-dog was at his work. He came later to my gate, as though to show me that his failure to join me was not of his intention. He did this sometimes, too, when circumstances kept me from my walking. Otherwise he did not intrude on my life of which, he recognized, he was not a part.
Some weeks after we began our jaunts together I was given the high-bred pointer puppy for which I had been waiting. The puppy was captivating. I devoted myself at once to his care and training. I wanted to raise the handsome young fellow as a companion, so that I was especially anxious to discipline him firmly from the beginning. I ended my evening walks down the highway, going about the grove instead. The puppy was not yet broken to go to heel and I could not risk the distraction of the catch-dog, a rabbit chaser, to disturb his training. Two or three days later the yellow dog came to my gate, wagging his tail. I ignored him and he went away.
A week later I took my young pointer on a leash. We passed the entrance to Cow Hammock. Passing, the catch-dog must have scented us, for some distance on he came after us on the gallop. He was insane with joy. He jumped against me, he went taut proudly, introducing himself to the puppy. He dropped his forelegs to the ground and shook his head, inviting the new dog to play. The puppy barked shrilly and tugged at the leash. Discipline was hopeless. There was nothing for it but to drive the catch-dog away. I made a menacing gesture. He looked at me unbelieving and did not stir. I picked up a handful of light gravel and threw it in his direction and went on, dragging the puppy behind me. The catch-dog followed. He watched me with bewildered eyes.
I shouted with as much sternness as I could manage to bring from a sick heart, "Get back!" and he stopped and made no further effort to go with us. On the way home, we passed him, lying at the Cow Hammock entrance, his head on his paws. He fluttered his tail a little, as though in hope that I did not, could not, mean my rejection of him. The pointer and I hurried by.
Now we pass as though we were strangers. I am ashamed to face him, having used him in my loneliness, and then betrayed him. He shows no signs of recognition. His tail curves over his back. He trots with a high head, looking straight ahead. He is a work dog, and he must be about his business.