Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Longleaf and Palmettos

Speaking of indy bookstores, another of my local favorites, Left Bank Books (www.leftbankbookshop.com) is moving to Belfast. Hooray! That brings to four the number of independent bookstores located in downtown Belfast—not bad for a city of 6,692.

Marsha, Lindsay, and Barb at Left Bank have been my go-to folks for ordering special books for my writing project. The latest is Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray (Milkweed Editions, 1999). Ray grew up in a junkyard owned by her family in southern Georgia in longleaf pine country. (The term “cracker” has lots of stories attached to its genealogy and has come to mean poor white country folk in Georgia and interior Florida.)

Longleaf pine, or Georgia pine, ecosystems stretch into northern Florida. Like so many ecosystems, this one has been destroyed so that today its remaining 10,000 acres of virgin forest are less than 0.001 of what was once there. Ray is an ecologist who writes like a poet. Although the pine-y woods of north Florida are much different than palmettos—the dominant ecosystem where I grew up—I can relate to her love of the flat, open land with lots of sky. As she writes of an approaching thunderstorm: “Everything that comes you see coming. That’s because the land is so wide . . . flat as a book, vulnerable as a child.”

Although they don’t seem vulnerable, palmettos are.  I can’t imagine how many hundreds of thousands of acres of that landscape have been bulldozed over the past fifty years to make way for the Florida of the tourist brochure. Ubiquitous as memory from the Everglades to South Carolina, palmettos are commonly viewed as trash plants, but they function to stitch and hold the thin sandy soil in place. I write:
Like an open palm of remembrance with many thin waving fingers, the palmetto’s fan-shaped leaves spread three feet across. Its leathery fronds rustle and smack each other in any little breeze, quick to bend and move. The serrated edges and massing habit make a walk through a stand without a trail a painful experience. Impenetrable for humans except by machete, palmettos’  dominance in the natural landscape is what makes an area wild, whether it’s an empty lot or the Canaveral National Seashore.” 

(Italicized excerpt from “Prologue: Palmettos” in Hullabaloo on the Space Coast: A Memoir of Place by Linda S. Buckmaster, copyright 2012.)

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