Saturday, January 28, 2012

With Zora in Eatonville

On the porch of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville, Florida, today, a group of teens performed James Weldon Johnson's poem "The Creation" with choral recitation, drums, and dance--and it was very good. Street vendors hawked shea butter, colorful hats, African masks, and music that inspired an impromptu dance in the middle of the street, where children and youths and gray-haired grannies shook and shimmied and showed off fancy steps. It's the final weekend of the annual Zora Neale Hurston festival, a sort of homecoming for all who celebrate the author and the town she put on the map.

I lived not far from Eatonville until 1980 but I don't recall ever hearing Hurston's name until a few years later in grad school; today, though, I doubt that anyone could grow up in central Florida without being aware of the cosmic Zora. The Eatonville she described so lovingly in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Dust Tracks on a Road, and other works has been bisected by an interstate highway, but if you step down a sandy side street past tiny houses and look on Lake Sybelia, it's easy to imagine Janie and Tea Cake bringing in a stringer of catfish and sharing a feast.

I ate some fried fish with beans and rice beneath an oak tree that must have been here in Hurston's time. The woman sitting next to me claims that she danced in one of Hurston's stage shows, and who knows? She may be right. The spirit of Zora lives in the energy of the street dance, the elegance of the hats, and the memories of the residents; it shines in the eyes of teens performing James Weldon Johnson's words and sizzles in the big pots of beans and rice. I kept expecting to see her laughing and singing and dancing with the crowd--and who knows? Maybe I did.

Feathery courtship

This morning I saw a colony of Great White Herons nesting in trees in a park along a lake near my parents' house. Single herons displayed their plumage in one tree while couples squawked and spooned and carried sticks to build nests in another. I counted eight birds in one large tree and more nearby.

I used to ride my bike to this park in my adolescence, but I don't recall ever seeing this kind of assemblage of gorgeous birds. Maybe I was too distracted by the hunky young men rowing sculls on the lake, an entirely different type of courting behavior. What would human beings do with the herons' amazing plumage?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Angelic archivists and other observations

Random observations on visiting college campuses:

  • No how big (or small) the campus, parking is a problem--but the early bird catches the parking space.
  • Cheese-stuffed olives, breaded and deep-fried: so good they're evil.
  • There are wonderful students everywhere, but no students are more wonderful than my students.
  • What do you call a college bookstore that stocks more T-shirts than books?
  • Let's give a big shout-out to academic archivists, guardian angels of special collections and always eager to assist researchers. 
  • To inspire a universal groan from any assemblage of academics, just use the A-word: Assessment.
  • Our popular media may prefer to portray professors as stiff and arrogant, but I don't see it. So many busy professors have taken time to talk to me about their specialties that I don't know how I'll ever thank them all. I just hope that I can be just as gracious to those who need help from me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Travels with Marjory

"Look for the tower," I told myself, but the tower was shrouded in fog and so was I, wandering around the University of Florida campus looking for the library that was so easy to find yesterday. Where is Marjory when I need her?

Marjory is the name my old friend and I gave to her gps-equipped smart phone, which guided us around south Florida last week with exquisite patience even when we bluntly refused to follow her guidance. She kept telling us to make a U-turn, but we generally had other ideas. I don't remember exactly how we decided to name her Marjory, but it had something to do with our quest to explore parts of Florida that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings might call "not pretty but beautiful" and something to do with Marjory's serendipitously sending us down Marjory Stoneman Douglas Boulevard, which took us to some beautiful places. By the end of our travels together, Marjory felt right.

But my old friend is back at work this week, so I'm finding my way around northern Florida without her help. When I finally glimpse the UF clock tower rising from the fog to guide my way to the library, my inner Marjory tells me, "Make a U-turn"--and for once, I obey.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In the Sink

I could have spent the whole day in Special Collections today but I quit at noon because I had an urgent appointment with an anhinga, a heron, an ibis, and an alligator, all hanging out in the slimy dampness of the Alachua Sink.

If the Alachua Savannah is a big bathtub, the Sink is its drain--a deep hole in the bedrock where water sinks into the underground aquifer. Right now, it's the sole wet spot in the drought-stricken area and a great place to see water-loving wildlife. The Sink itself is a slimy green oval surrounded by moss-draped oaks and a boardwalk, and at first I couldn't see the turtles for the leaves. Big gators drifted across the water while three juveniles sunned on a rock and ibises dabbled in the water nearby.

I really wanted to join them to cool off after the hot hike out there, but I'm not sure the gators would have appreciated my company. Next time I visit a Sink, I'll remember to take some soap.


Monday, January 23, 2012


The Wood & Swink General Store in Evinston houses the oldest continuously functioning post office in the state of Florida. In addition to stamps, postcards, and mailing envelopes, you can buy a cold can of Coke, an ice cream bar, beets, beans, and peas; carrots with the dirt still on 'em sitting next to the biggest cabbage I've ever seen; jars of mayhaw jelly, local honey, and hot pickled peppers; dusty jars of patent medicines, shotgun shells, and books, both new and used. Plus more--much more--at the Wood & Swink General Store, where you can stop and sit a spell on an eclectic collection of chairs gathered around a space heater. But you'd better hurry--the U.S. Postal Service is threatening to close down the post office at the Wood & Swink, and then where would you go for your mayhaw jelly?

Just add water

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once wrote that the scrubland of northern Florida is "not pretty, but it's beautiful." I think I'm beginning to understand what that means.

Last week beauty bombarded me in the Everglades, the Keys, and Miami, but today I traveled through parts of Florida that wouldn't immediately grab a tourist's attention. When William Bartram first saw the Alachua Savannah in the 1770s, he waxed rhapsodic about the wealth of wildlife inhabiting the swampy prairie: deer, bison, alligators, snakes, and birds of all description.

Long years of development and drainage permanently altered the ecosystem, now preserved within Paynes Prairie Preserve (see it here). A narrow road winds through pine forest, palmetto scrub, and live oaks draped with Spanish moss, and then the vista suddenly opens up into broad grassland stretching to the horizon. In a normal year it's possible to see bison, wild horses, alligators, and many wading birds, but recent droughts have driven the wildlife away to swampier climes.

In the heat of the afternoon I hiked through woods to find a wide path leading to a viewing platform in the midst of the savannah. Signs warned me not to molest any bison, wild horses, or alligators that might block the path, and it was pretty easy to obey. I stepped over piles of manure in the path but never saw a living creature except a hawk, a few buzzards, and some nondescript little brown birds. The path was so long, flat, and featureless that the viewing platform in the distance never seemed to get any closer, but I kept plodding along anyway, wondering whether the bison, wild horses, and alligators were just waiting for me to turn my back so they could come out for a frolic.

The River Styx needs water too--I crossed it on dry ground--and I passed a swamp where cypress knees that should have been poking up out of slimy water were instead sitting high and dry. The lakes near Cross Creek are low and the swamplands parched, but Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's house and grounds still offer a rare look into the writer's life. I took a short hike through oak and palmetto scrub where the only sounds were a woodpecker's tapping and the gentle swaying of Spanish moss.

Most of what I saw today wasn't quite pretty, but looking at Cross Creek and the Alachua Savannah through the eyes of the authors who loved them, I can see how these places could be beautiful.

Just add water.

Friday, January 20, 2012

He-man's laptops

Key West is the only place I've ever been where tourists applaud the sunset. Granted, it's a pretty impressive sunset: this big yellow disk touches the horizon and then slides out of sight to the sound of a thousand clicking shutters. What makes it disappear so quickly? (My theory: it's trying to get away from the horn blast from the cruise ship moored next to Mallory Square.) As soon as the sun is out of sight, everyone applauds madly, as if expecting the sun to come back up for a few quick bows and perhaps a dramatic encore.

I should have taken sunset pictures but I didn't want to get conch-fritter grease all over my nice camera.

That was before the key lime pie.

Yes, I am doing some heavy-duty literary research on my sabbatical. For instance, yesterday I interviewed several of the cats that inhabit Ernest Hemingway's house. In Hemingway's writing studio, a cat was sitting on the table next to a Royal manual typewriter, which made me wonder: would the He-man have written any differently if he'd had laptop computers instead of laptop cats?

Computers are more portable, which is a good thing. I'll pack mine up today and start moving north toward more literary sites and academic libraries. But first, let's give the sunset one more round of applause!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dispatch from a different world

This is what I look like after snorkeling. Trust me, you don't want to see what I looked like before snorkeling or even, to a certain extent, while snorkeling. I don't want to get too graphic here, but let's just say that I believe the fish enjoyed my breakfast more than I did. If you get my drift.

(Drifting is the problem: I felt fine during the 30-minute boat ride out to the coral reef, but as soon as the boat stopped moving straight ahead and started bobbing, I was lost. Yes, I took Dramamine, and no, it didn't help.)

But forget the seasickness: what did I see?

Well, reefs, for one thing. Coral and spiny things and leafy things waving gently in the rolling swells. Fish, in schools or solitary, darting amongst the floaty stuff in sparkly silver or neon shades of yellow, indigo, and orange. There's a whole world down there!

And there's a whole different world just minutes away among the mangroves along shore, and several different worlds just up the highway in the Everglades, where a few inches' difference in elevation or water level can allow two adjacent areas to support entirely different flora and fauna.

I can't hope to understand all these different worlds in just a two-week trip, but that won't stop me from immersing myself in the environment--sometimes literally. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Birds, eyes, views

Anhinga, front view
In the Everglades I was sorely tempted to uproot a gumbo-limbo tree and take it home with me, but how would I squeeze it into the overhead compartment on the plane, and how would I explain the new acquisition to my longsuffering husband?

I've never seen a gumbo-limbo tree before (that I am aware of) but now that I've seen one, I'll never forget it: the rubbery red-orange bark would be at home in a forest of animatronic talking trees, with the sharp-angled branches serving as arms. They're not very tall--few trees are in the Everglades--but a few gumbo-limbo trees would really liven up our Ohio landscape.

Anhinga, rear view
The alligators we saw looked similarly rubbery, but my, what big teeth they have! We saw a few solitary gators along the pathways and then a whole crowd them of gathered in a particular muddy pool. What attracted so many gators to that particular place? If it was a great place for tourists to watch the gators, it was an equally great place for gators to watch the tourists.

I don't need to take any anhingas home with me because it makes me happy just to say the word: anhinga anhinga anhinga. Their blue-gray plumage looks like a ball gown from the back and their long, sinuous necks are the essence of elegance.

Many Florida birds are a mystery to me. I know I saw cormorants, storks, ibises, and herons, and we saw both vultures and a sign warning that vulture may damage vehicles (!), but I can't put a name to many of the birds whose beady eyes ended up in my photos. I wish I could take them all home with me, but someone would squawk if I tried to smuggle them through airport security.

Maybe I could hide them in the branches of my gumbo-limbo tree. It followed me home--can I keep it?

Even in the dry season, it's easy to see why Marjorie Stoneman Douglas called the Everglades a Sea of Grass.

We kept trying to canoe out to this mangrove tree in Florida Bay, but we never quite got there, thanks to (1) wind; (2) sand bars; and (3) mad canoeing skills.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A sabbatical state of mind

My flight was smooth. I had an empty seat to my right, so no crowding. The plane touched down 40 minutes early (!) and my suitcase was the first one off the luggage carousel. There were no hassles at the rental-car counter, and the weather in Orlando is pretty close to perfect.

Something is seriously wrong here.

Or else something is seriously wrong with me. Why can't I just accept my good fortune instead of skulking around waiting for an anvil to fall on my head?

Time to get in a sabbatical state of mind. My son wrote this morning that a Sabbatical "sounds like it should be some sort of monk's meditation period, wandering in the forest and living with families of bears and kangaroo" and then continued thus:
The Sabbatical is a metaphysical experience that transcends all environments and states of being at the same time. Scuba-diving with porpoises on a coral reef in Fiji. Having a conversation about Hungarian politics with Matt Damon on his private hovercraft on a hot day in Antarctica. Chopping down bamboo stalks in a remote forest near Shanghai. Eating a raw chicken-head whilst watching the mating habits of the platypus in Australia. Making a working hybrid car out of parchment paper on a small island on Lake Winnipeg. This is the essence of the Sabbatical, understood only by those who have experienced it.

If my son is to be believed, anything can happen on Sabbatical--planes can land early, luggage can avoid the usual side-trip to limbo, and rental cars can appear as promised. The Sabbatical State of Mind is a great place to be and I intend to stay there a while.

Now where's Matt with that hovercraft? Better get moving before the chickens come home to roost.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Earth and sky mirror each other today, both painted in flat shades of gray and white. Yesterday's sharp wind that whipped my face and sucked the breath right out of me has gone to wherever the wind goes, leaving behind just enough snow and ice to make a walk interesting.

Rows of pointy icicles hanging from the rocks make the bluff across the road look like a giant mouth getting ready to chomp down on something juicy, while the drips refreeze below in impossibly fragile curving shapes--fountains or cascades or ampersands. Below the cliff, fungi inhabit a tree stump, while up above a red-tailed hawk circles and then perches not far from its treetop nest. After a vigorous tromp through the snow, I'm ready to find my perch--but not in the treetops. Time to go inside and warm up by chomping down on some hot spicy chili.  

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eyes (and windows) wide open

The low point of my week arrived on Wednesday when I got stuck in my car and had to beg a passing student for help. The seatbelt got jammed in the door so that it wouldn't close all the way or open at all, and I had to wonder which would be worse: to open the window and call out for help (inspiring a  whole new series of "How many PhDs does it take to open a car door?" jokes) or hunker down so no one could see me and then slowly starve to death, hoping that someday someone would discover my desiccated skeleton so it could be properly interred.

(Which for some reason reminds me of the wonderful opening of Jo Ann Beard's novel In Zanesville: "We can't believe the house is on fire. It's so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we're supposed to be in charge here, so there's a sense of somebody not doing their job.")

Now where was I?

Oh yes: the low point of my week arrived when I had to open the window and call out to a passing student to help me open my car door, a moment I won't mention in my annual review. The student's willingness to rescue me, however, did reinforce the lesson provided by the high point of my week: "We're a residential campus for a reason. The campus is group work."

That line was part of a session at our annual all-day teaching workshop, which happened yesterday but required my full attention for most of the week (when I wasn't trying to maintain my dignity while helplessly stuck in my car). Colleagues from many disciplines led sessions on various methods of getting students to work effectively in groups, but my favorite moment arrived between sessions, when I was busy attending to some petty details while participants sat around chatting with each other and informally sharing their experiences using group work. I love the sound of colleagues getting together to make each other better teachers.

The opening session included a hands-on component, and I wish you could have seen a whole bunch of highly dignified college professors trying to build tents out of newspapers while blindfolded. Even with our eyes wide open we don't always realize how much we rely on each other, a lesson I'll surely remember next time I'm stuck in my car.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The doubtful Dart

Photos from the Detroit Auto Show reveal a sleek, shiny red compact car masquerading under the name Dodge Dart (see it here), but the new Dart has all the earmarks of an elaborate hoax:

1. The person who officially introduced the new model is purportedly named Reid Bigland, an obviously invented name.

2. This alleged Bigland calls the new Dart is "a revolutionary car," which is preposterous. The Dodge Dart of my youth looked like the car the vicar came to tea in, the car in the gray flannel suit. You'd take a battalion of Dodge Darts into a revolution only if you wanted to bore your enemy to death.

3.Similarly preposterous is the claim that the new Dart will sell for $15,995. We sold our last Dart to a pimply young Kentuckian for $650, an appropriately Dartly price. (He paid $500 in cash and promised to bring the rest the next week--and he did, miracle number one. Miracle number two was what he had done with our stodgy old Dart: scraped off the bumper stickers, installed a new sound system, and jacked up the back end. "I'm planning to race some cops," he told us, and we would have said "TMI" if the acronym had existed back then.)

4. The alleged Reid Bigland also claims that the new Dart will get 40 miles per gallon on the highway, which is patently absurd. Our Dart got 12 miles to the gallon on a good day--when it started up at all. The most efficient way to run it was to simply leave it parked.

5. The new Dodge Dart looks nothing like a Dart. This is a Dart:

In fact, it's a pretty good stand-in for the Dart I married: a sturdy 1970 two-door in a shade that testifies to the power of true love. This is a car you can trust: it raises no expectations and is therefore unlikely to disappoint.

The new so-called Dart sparkles and glimmers and seems to promise adventure, but a car like that could break your heart without batting a windshield wiper. I don't deny that it could be a great car, but a Dart? I doubt it.    

Monday, January 09, 2012

Gone fishing?

Yesterday a woman at church asked me when classes start up again and I told her I'm not teaching this semester.

She got a horrified look on her face. She thought I'd been fired.

I quickly cleared up that misconception only to replace it with another: the belief among the uninitiated that going on sabbatical means being paid to sit around doing nothing. How do I get people outside academe to understand that I'm still working when what I'm doing doesn't look much like work?

I'm not standing in front of a classroom or grading papers or attending committee meetings, and until August I don't have any good reason to drive to campus every day. But I'm not sitting around twiddling my thumbs either: I'm just letting my brain cells do the heavy lifting as I absorb ideas and try to turn them into sparkling prose.

In my youth my folks used to warn me that I'd never get ahead in life if I spent so much time reading. "Nobody's ever going to pay you to sit around reading books" was how they put it, but they didn't know about sabbaticals--and neither do many others outside academe. I suppose I'll have to find a good answer to the question about what I'm doing this semester.

"Research" sounds great when it refers to scientists seeking to cure the common cold, but my literary research trip to Florida sounds like a junket: "Um, yeah, I hate to run away to Florida in the middle of winter, but someone has to study these musty old manuscripts, so I guess I'll have to make the supreme sacrifice...."

"Exploration" sounds bold and adventurous, as if I'm beating my way through uncharted territory in search of unknown treasure. Maybe I'll post a sign on my office door: "Gone Exploring." Nobody really needs to know that most of my explorations will take place between the covers of a book.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Winter woods

  From a distance the winter woods look like dull compositions in brown and gray, but a closer view reveals variety--sun-dappled oak leaves ranging from rust to brown to beige, green mosses and ferns clinging close to the ground, lichens camouflaging rocks and limbs, violet brambles reaching across the path to sink thorns into a careless hiker's legs. The woods are mostly quiet this time of year except when hunters invade bringing orange vests and gunshots, but today the only sounds are the crunch and slap of bodies moving through dry leaves. From a distance the woods look insipid, but look out: there's treasure inside. 

Friday, January 06, 2012

A forgotten sojourner

The last novel Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings published in her lifetime, The Sojourner (1953), differs from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (1949) in almost every respect: Rawlings's novel follows the long, dull life of a character who clings to the slow pace of farm life, loves soil and people more than money, and never ventures beyond his county seat until his 80th year, while Miller's Pulitzer-Prize-winner play focuses on the frenetic last days of Willie Loman, the success-seeking traveling salesman who is most himself when he's on the move.

However, the two works are similar in one important way: both feature a wandering character named Ben who lights out for the territories to make his fortune and then, in his absence, takes on undue importance among those he has left behind. Willie Loman's dead Uncle Ben appears only to scoff at Willie's insignificance, holding out the promise of glittering success beyond the far horizon. The absent Ben plays a similar role in the Rawlings novel, heading west to seek success in gold, timber, or gambling and by his absence serving as a reproach to his brother Asahel, who stays home to tend the farm he can never own because it belongs to his absent brother.

Ben, then, seems to be the sojourner for whom the novel was named, but in the end Rawlings makes it clear that the more rooted brother, Asahel, has sojourned farther into understanding of the human spirit than has his rootless brother. Ase remains on the land initially not because he loves the farm but because he loves Ben and always expects him to return home to claim his rightful ownership. Ase sees himself as a mere steward of his brother's riches:
Why, any man had only temporary rights to the earth. His mother's talk of control, of ownership. Tim's talk of legal rights and papers, these were nonsense. No man owned the land....He asked himself now what he expected of the land....It was not what he expected of it, but what it required of him. He felt himself on firm ground. The land asked to be worked, to be taken care of properly, and in return it would nourish all men, as long as they were indeed its brothers.

The Sojourner follows the seasons of farm life and proceeds with the slow pace of the meager events the punctuate those seasons: the birth of a calf, the hailstorm that destroys a crop of wheat, the birth of a child and then another and then, sometimes, a death. His closest friend calls Ase "the most wordless man ever," but he proves a loyal and valuable friend, both to a rag-tag group of social outcasts and to the reader. He joys are subtle, his sorrows deep, and his final flight well worth the 300 pages it takes to get there.

Yes, it's a long novel and not without its flaws, but Rawlings writes with tremendous tenderness toward the man whose life appears narrow but whose inner landscape stretches deep into unknown territory that rewards exploration. When he finally manages to travel west, Ase discovers that a man's travels are not defined by his movements but by his mind; when the porter comments that "You could ride the train a hundred years and you'd always think it was the earth moving and not you," Ase replies, "I expect we're all moving all the time, all together, only we don't know where or which way."

Wherever we're going, Asahel Linden makes an excellent traveling companion.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Land beyond time

It's a strange paradox: the less time I have available for writing, the more urgently I seize and use that time, but when I have plenty of time to write and no pressing commitments, I'm more likely to shrug my shoulders and say, "I'll do it later."

Already I can see that being on sabbatical will require a whole new way of thinking about time. With no classes to teach and no regular meetings, the days blend together and I have trouble remembering whether this is Wednesday or Thursday. In the summer months my days are structured around working in the garden in the cool of the morning and in the house in the afternoon, but when it's 20 degrees and blustery, I'm staying inside unless someone comes up with a really compelling reason to make me bundle up and step out.

Compelling reasons are what I need. Next week I'll be on campus preparing for a pedagogy workshop and the following week I'll be in Florida, but after I return, I'll need to develop a way to structure my time so it doesn't feel so shapeless and empty. Maybe I'll set up a standing lunch date on campus once or twice a week to give me a good reason to leave the house and use the library and rec center. Maybe I'll find a way to bundle up enough to make long walks possible in this weather. Maybe I'll set daily writing goals, so many hundreds or thousands of words, with rewards for reaching certain levels.Will it work? Who knows?

I only know that I feel more idle than I have in decades and I'm disgusted at how little I'm managing to write.

Monday, January 02, 2012

The call of the mild

Before I opened my eyes this morning I could feel the presence of snow, that muffled silence suggesting that the world has been packed in soft cotton. It's just a light coating of white, but snow is a tremendous relief from the recent incessant cold rains.

And now a ray of sunshine beams into my inbox all the way from California. Some time ago--September?--a Los Angeles Times reporter called to interview me and some of my students about my California Literature class. The tone of his questions made me fear a headline like "Hicks from the Sticks Seek Gold in California," but the article has finally been published and I'm pleased to report that it's pretty good (read it here). I wish he had included more comments from my students, but the article puts my class in some pretty good company and also offers a pretty interesting reading list.

My reading list this week focuses on another sunny state. I leave for Florida two weeks from today but I've been living there in literature for quite some time, following William Bartram through the Alachua Savannah, Karen Russell through the Everglades, and Zora Neale Hurston through Eatonville. Do students in Florida and California take classes on Ohio Literature? Do they make pilgrimages to Clyde and Lorain and Columbus and Martin's Ferry during Spring Break? Do they even know why Clyde and Lorain and Columbus and Martin's Ferry are suitable destinations for literary pilgrimage? 

Probably not. I'll be sure to tell them while I'm there.