Cross Creek was immortalized in the movie of the same name in 1983. The small village exists on the banks of Orange Lake in North Florida amid the hanging Spanish moss and spirits of those who once called the Creek their home.
Two women whose photographs grace a hallway in the capitol building in Tallahassee in the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame for their innovative achievements in Florida’s history, both lived there in the 1930s and ’40s.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Dessie Smith Prescott, despite differences in background and personality, became friends. Rawlings immortalized that friendship in her book Cross Creek in the essay, “Hyacinth Drift.”
While Rawlings died before I was born, I had the privilege of interviewing Prescott several months before her death in 2002. The occasion was her 95th birthday, and I was on assignment for a magazine. I arrived at her home on the Withlacoochee River near Crystal River just before the big birthday bash to chat with Prescott, who was the first female licensed wilderness guide and first licensed female pilot in Florida.
One of her friends, Hutch Hutchinson, said at the party, “Even if Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings hadn’t been born, Dessie would be famous in her own right.”
Prescott married six times, with the sixth marriage lasting 26 years and the only marriage to make her a widow.
“If the person didn’t fit in with my life,” she told me, “I decided the best thing to do was to give them their freedom. I paid for all my divorces.
“I enjoyed them all [husbands] for a time,” she said.
Prescott met Rawlings after a neighbor came to the rugged outdoorswoman and asked her to visit a new couple who had recently moved onto an orange grove near Cross Creek. Prescott’s friend predicted that without help the Rawlings might starve to death.
“The grove had been neglected for years,” Prescott said. “Groves take about twice as long to bring back as you’ve neglected them, and they hadn’t got a chicken or pig or anything on the whole place.”
So Prescott visited the house in Cross Creek where Rawlings wrote her Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Yearling and took Marjorie under her wing. Despite being ten years younger than Rawlings, Prescott took to calling her “young un” because “she didn’t know anything about anything that I did.”
When Rawlings’ marriage began falling apart, Prescott suggested the two take a trip on the St. Johns River from its beginnings in Volusia County up to the Ocklawaha.
“Hyacinth Drift” begins with “Once I lost touch with the Creek …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.”
Prescott summed up the differences between the two women in an interview with Florida Magazine in 1995. “I always said Marge could describe a magnolia and I could smell it. She was that good.”
During the trip, Prescott and Rawlings encountered men who were amazed at the audacity of two women traveling the river without accompaniment, but they paid little attention. They came upon Sanford on a Sunday morning, and Prescott prepared for the place where large-vessel traffic on the St. Johns stopped.
Rawlings writes, “Dess strapped around her waist the leather belt that held her Bowie knife at one hip and her revolver at the other, and felt better prepared for Sanford than if we had been clean.”
The trip helped Rawlings settle her mind, and she returned to Cross Creek ready to end her marriage knowing the Creek had come to own her.
I myself returned to Rawlings’ home in Cross Creek on a February morning several years ago. The birds sang from atop the orange trees laden with ripe fruit. The frosts of February had not damaged the crop of the few trees still growing in the yard.
I walked to the front porch and sat on the steps because the house was not open to visitors on this sunny morning. I sat within feet of the typewriter that still rests on the round oak table on the porch. It’s easy to imagine how Rawlings wrote magic in this setting that is still relatively untouched by the conveyances of modern life more than sixty years after she typed Cross Creek, The Yearling and South Moon Under.
No wonder those pieces read like a song with the birds providing a musical score on which her lyrics perch.
My image of myself as a writer rests between the reality and the porch where I sat. The winter sun bore down on me within feet of her place of creation, and I found myself alive with the possibility that I too can create poetry from place.
While both have passed from this lifetime, their words and actions live on in me and others who look to their examples to give us courage and hope and appreciation for the beauty which surrounds us.
“But what of the land? It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned …We are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time.”
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Cross Creek, 1942