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Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

Late-blooming cardinal vine

Shortly after we moved to St. Louis, my Quaker friends from Jacksonville sent me a copy of Faith and Practice, the Quaker guidebook.  It includes short, usually one-paragraph stories from Quakers beginning with George Fox in the mid-1600s and continuing through today.  Quakers believe that we all learn things that can be useful to others, and this is their way of collecting that wisdom into one place. I’m going to share my favorite piece from it in a bit.

But first, let me just say that the Jacksonville Society of Friends was a wonderful group, perhaps because it was so choice. Usually there were only six to ten persons in attendance. They met in the library of a private boarding school on a pretty wooded campus. The first time I attended, I drove onto the campus and was almost immediately faced with a choice of unpromising roads, none marked. An elderly gentleman in a golf cart was nearby, apparently serving as a gatekeeper.  I asked him which way I should go to attend the Quaker Meeting. 

“Follow me,” he said, and his golf cart lurched forward onto a straight and narrow way.  We wound confusingly and very, very slowly past several charming vintage buildings and quite a lot of in-process new construction, dirt piles, and orange perimeter fencing. The road was unpaved—or possibly it just appeared to be unpaved due to all the construction-related earth-moving.  I followed the golf cart for what seemed like several miles, ending in a tiny parking area in front of a small library. My guide waved a hand and lurched forward again, heading in a circle, I presumed, that would lead back to the front gate.

The library was a single large room. All of us worked together to shift tables and clear an area where a variety of stationary and rolling chairs could form a circle. This circle, snugly tucked into the center of the room among the displaced library tables and desks with computer monitors, had a view of double glass doors that opened onto a back deck and a thickly wooded area.

The Jacksonville Friends Meeting practiced an unprogrammed type of worship, no minister required. Quakers believe that all Friends have the Light of God within, so they often gather in silence to listen meditatively for God’s voice. If anyone feels called to share the Light, that one may do so.  I admit there were times when the silent meditation seemed to stretch on forever, and I became concerned that instead of the Light of God, the sound of my stomach growling would break the peace. It might not have been audible; nearly every week one or several of the computers would jolt awake with a high-pitched hum. Perhaps they meant to introduce a little quiet singing into the Meeting.

One week, when the silence ended and we greeted each other as if suddenly arising from a refreshing nap (as indeed I was), one of the Friends said, “I wanted so much to say something, but I knew it was not from God. It’s just that I opened my eyes for a second, and saw a big raccoon on the deck. He stood up on his hind legs, pressed his front paws against the glass, and looked right in at us. I wonder what he thought.”

I wish I had opened my eyes at the right time so that I could have enjoyed the sight of the raccoon peeking in on a Quaker Meeting.  But there you are; whenever there is something happening, my eyes are sure to be tightly shut.

Here is my favorite passage from Faith and Practice, in a chapter titled “Experience.” It was written by Elizabeth Yates in 1976:

(5 a.m.)  Something is happening around me: the dark is less dark, the silence is less deep. Even the air is changing. It is damper, sweeter. Morning is at hand. Light will soon come flowing over the edge of the world, bringing with it the day. What a gift! Whether wrapped in streamers of color or folded in tissues of mist, it will be mine to use in ways that I can foresee and in those that are unexpected. The day will make its own revelation, bring its own challenge; my part will be to respond with joy and gladness.

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Missouri Botanical Garden

Roger Deakin’s book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees—which I have mentioned before—includes an interesting bit about early 19th-century naturalist, Charles Waterton. Waterton owned a wooded estate in England where he took care to see that the birds were treated with proper respect. 

Waterton did most of his bird watching from inside trees… [His estate] was full of thousands of ancient trees, which Waterton nurtured and protected, even retaining dead, hollow or rotten ones for the sake of the owls, jackdaws and woodpeckers. … He went barefoot about the park and climbed the trees barefoot, reclining for hours in the boughs of the old oaks, reading books or watching owls or foxes. Waterton stood six feet tall, all but half an inch, wore his silver hair in a brush cut, slept on a bare elm floor with a hollowed oak block for a pillow all his life and was double-jointed until his death.

I wouldn’t have thought that double-jointedness was a talent that you lost with age—or even with death, for that matter. It seems to me that your joints would still be jointed exactly the same, which makes me wonder if Charles Waterton could have been folded like a letter and buried in a shoebox. A true preservationist would not wish to take up too much land.  

I was once a bit of a land preservationist, myself. When I worked for the City of Fernandina Beach as a grant writer, I wrote detailed requests for state funds to purchase land for conservation and light recreation. I had to trek through the oak hammock that ran down the middle of the island along Egans Creek, where I took pictures of animal trails, endangered green orchids, gopher tortoise burrows, and areas of degradation. I studied the soil composition, took pictures of magnolia and elm trees, sabal palms, and live oaks and the understory of saw palmetto, ferns, and holly. I never got inside a tree to observe the birds, but I did research the painted bunting, which used Amelia Island as a way station during migration. It was hot, nasty, spidery work, and I loved it.

(One prime section of the hammock that the city wished to preserve was owned by a gentleman called Smiley Lee. Lee owned a lucrative scrap metal business and had served a legendary and, yes, scrappy stint on the city commission before my employment began. Lee’s property unfortunately provided habitat for rather a lot of junked machinery, making its acquisition problematic. I’m not sure what happened to Smiley’s land; perhaps he owns it still. I do know that Mrs. Smiley Lee passed on a few years later, and her obituary included this wonderful tribute to her skill as a cook: “Her specialities, fried shrimp, banana pudding with meringue, and cornbread dressing were served on holiday tables in three states.”)

I wonder if Charles Waterton, who traveled all over the world to observe birds and nature, ever visited Amelia Island. The cover of Julia Blackburn’s biography of Waterton features a painting in which he’s riding an alligator, so I like to think that he did. Anyway, I’m sure he would have approved of the idea of saving the oak hammock for the egrets, painted buntings, owls, ospreys, and mockingbirds that lived in and around it.  Not that he was always wise:  He once went so far as to climb up to a crow’s nest while the crow was away and place two rooks’ eggs in it. The crow tended to the eggs very lovingly and raised the young rooks as her own. Waterton then (meanly, in my opinion) stole the two rooks back to tame them and keep them as pets. This did not go well. They were so tame, Deakin writes, that “they met untimely ends, including one that was drowned by an aggressive chicken.”

But birds survive contact with humans because they are amazingly adaptable. We visited a Lowe’s Garden Center two weeks ago, and the birds have taken it over as a sort of urban forest. The roofed section of the Garden Center is open at the front, where the plants and flowers are able to get sun and rain. Under the roof, the tall rows of metal shelving that hold peat moss, composters, planters, and hoses have become roosts for birds. I saw high nests tucked between boxes, and the birds fly in and out without regard for the people shopping below. The birdsong is constant and cheerful. They have learned to live with us and in spite of us. But surely they would prefer to journey through trees, like I do.

[Updated 5/2/12 at 12:24 p.m. to format Deakins block quote.]

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