Who Owns Cross Creek?


FOR learning a new territory and people as quickly as possible, I recommend taking the census on horseback. In 1930 my friend Zelma from the village was commissioned to take the census in the back-country sections of Alachua County, for she knew all the inhabitants, black and white, and every road and trail leading to their houses. None of the places could be reached by a main road, and traveling by automobile would leave most of the noses uncounted. She borrowed two horses from the manager of the Maxcey packing house, and on a bright fall morning we set out together.

I had not ridden since childhood. Even then, my mounts had been the weary work horses on the Maryland farm, and my brother and I had been able to ride safely, without saddles, on their broad backs. I was uneasy at first on my lively mare. Then the beauty of the country took me over, and I was aware only that this high vantage point was perfection for the traveler in strange places. Zelma planned a wide circle for the first day. We set out to the northwest and came to the hammock lands, across the Creek, that bordered Orange Lake. The population was sparse. I could not understand how folk could settle in the bare piney-woods, when here were uninhabited hammock acres, rich of soil, magnificent of vegetation. But the work of clearing hammock is heavy, and land easily cleared and already open is tempting to migrants who are often not aware of the differences in fertility.

The sun streamed through the interstices and glinted on the shining magnolia leaves and sparkleberry bushes. Redbirds darted down the narrow trail before us and among the palms twined with trumpet vines, the blossoms the same bright orange-red color as the birds. Coveys of quail whirred away from us.

‘It’s a blessing for us not many Yankees have seen country like this, or they’d move in on us worse than Sherman,’ Zelma said, and reined in her horse to dismount in front of the first cabin.

We finished the scanty counting along Orange Lake and cut west toward the river Styx. The name chilled me. My mare was obstreperous, and as we moved into a wet narrow road, I thought that all that was needed to make her bolt under me was the sight of a moccasin. As though I had conjured him up, he was there. We were approaching a wooden footbridge, and the mare, who had balked at all previous bridges, was taking this one of her own accord. The snake lay on a mound of earth to the right of the bridge. He was solidly coiled, an ancestral cottonmouth, taking up as much space as a dishpan. His triangular and venomous head rested flatly on the outer edge of his coils. The mare failed to see him because he lay so still. She was intent on her footing, on the welcome sight of the road ahead. Her careful, dainty hoofs passed three inches from the dark, sleek head. I loosened my feet from the stirrups, ready to jump free. The patriarch eyed me and did not stir. I decided that such a liveand-let-live philosophy was admirable, and I touched one finger to my hat, saluting a gentleman.

We entered the river Styx gently. Surely, death itself must come as quietly. The open fields, bright in the reality of sunlight, gave way easily to pinelands. The pines grew thicker, the sweet scent of their needles rising. The sunlight was spotty, the shadows of the tall trees wider. Here and there a live oak told of changing soil. Then, imperceptibly, we were in deep hammock. Coolness came in on us. The leaves of magnolia and bay trees shut out the sun, as all dark everlasting foliage must shut it out from the silent places of the dead. The hammock merged into cypress swamp. A trumpet vine dropped flamboyant flowers from a lone palm. The blossoms seemed gaudy and funereal. There were no birds singing from the cypresses. No squirrels swung in and out of the sepulchral arches of the trees. Out of the dimly defined road a great white bird rose, flapping noiseless wings. It was huge, snow-white as an angel of death, with a wide black mourning band around the edge of the wings. I became aware that the soft dampness of the road had turned into a soft rippling. The whole floor of the forest was carpeted with amber-colored water, alive, moving with a slow, insidious current. We had entered the river Styx.

Some English youth, fresh from his Oxford Greek and Latin, some unhappy, outlawed scapegrace, must have named this silent stream. Long ago, before the Big Freeze, Florida was a tropic land of exile. Numbers of younger sons or ne’erdo-wells were sent here from England, subsidized to stay away. Some were given funds with which to establish orange groves — funds they often squandered. One of these, morose, ironic, must have come on this unknown, unsailed waterway. Bitter perhaps, certainly homesick, he was struck by the deathly peace and the dark beauty; stirred by the pale water hyacinths, diaphanous and unearthly; and it was truly to him the River of Death, over which, once traversed, there is no crossing back again. Because this country had become as dear as life to me, the river held for me no horror. I wondered if the greater Styx might not be as darkly beautiful. The leaf-brown overflow of water deepened to the horses’ knees. The white ibis flapped away slowly and came to rest high in a cypress. Then we were on the rickety bridge over the main body of the stream, and on the other side, and counting children again.

I thought, ‘It is not given to many to cross the Styx and live to tell it.’

We circled back from Orange Lake and across Lochloosa Prairie. We use the word ‘prairie’ in a special sense. We have no open plains, but around most of the larger lakes are wet flat areas thick with water grasses, and these we call our prairies. They are more nearly marshes, yet we save the word ‘marsh’ for the deep mucky edges of lake and river, dense with coontail and lily pads, and for the true salt marshes of the tidal rivers. We found no living soul across this tract. There were trails used by half-wild, gaunt cattle, and dim, deeprutted roads traveled only by the lurching turpentine wagons that came with mule and Negro driver to scrape resin from the clay cups on the tapped turpentine trees.

We came out at last on a turpentine still and here the population was black and dense. So many little pickaninnies ran away from the cabins as the strange horses approached that it was a long job gathering them all in so that they could be counted and their fancy names and vaguely estimated ages written down on the papers. Zelma knew all the older Negroes and many of the younger ones. She joked with some and sympathized with others, recommended cures for this and that, and promised to send medicine to one, quilt scraps to another, and a pound of little conch pea seed to yet another. She chided one lean brown girl for her immense brood, fathers unknown.

‘I know it’s too many, Miss Zelma,’ the girl agreed. ‘I sho’ got to git me a remedy.’

By the time we had finished the Quarters, dusk was falling. Zelma knew a short cut back to the Creek. It took us by Burnt Island, and she told me fabulous tales of it in the growing darkness. There was believed to be the grandfather of all rattlesnakes living there. Only glimpses had been had of him, but several reported they had seen his shed skin, and all agreed that it was nine feet long. The ‘shed’ stretches, and the snake could reasonably and conceivably have been seven feet in length. There were wild boars on Burnt Island, savage, long-tusked, and dangerous. The place was also a hideout for criminals who preferred the great rattler and the wild boars to the arm of the law. I was not happy when Zelma announced profanely that high water had covered the old road she meant to take, and we were lost.

Darkness and our own uncertainty and the long hours away from the stable made the horses restless. My mare shied at every stick and reared when a hoot owl cried over our heads from a pine tree. Then the full moon rose blessedly and road and woods and prairie and water were again as plain as by day. We skirted ponds and continued in a general west-by-south direction. We came out on the Creek road, but three miles away from the Creek. We had been in the saddle from seven in the morning until eleven at night. I ached through the night, and in the morning was obliged to move with some caution. Yet my own country had been revealed to me and a twinge of pain was a small price to pay.

The second day we made a wider circle. We found a cabin here and a shack there, where even Zelma did not know folk were living — silent people who gave their statistics reluctantly. We rode down a piney-woods road in the late morning, and where the trees broke at the edge of a clearing we heard a piano. It was a good piano, not quite in tune, and it was being played with the touch of an artist. I thought my senses were playing tricks on me. Surely I heard only the wind in the pines.

Zelma said, ‘I forgot that woman was buried back here.’

The woman left the piano and came to the door. She was in immaculate rags and she had once been lovely. The house was gaping with holes and was stripped bare of all but the most fundamental pieces of furniture. Several thin, clean children came to stare at us. The woman was starved for talk with her own kind and, long after the family had been itemized, detained us. Zelma told me her story as we rode away. She had come some twenty years before on a tourist’s visit to Florida, a young and beautiful girl of high breeding. Taking in a local square dance as a spectator, she had met a young Cracker and fallen absurdly in love with him, for the mating instinct knows no classes. She had married him, and her outraged and prosperous family had left her to her own devices. Her piano was the only salvage from her early life. There are hundreds of handsome and sturdy backwoodsmen who would make good husbands even for such a girl, if her tastes in living were simple. She had chosen a hopeless and worthless fellow who sat idly in the sun as her life fell to pieces about her. The children held her to him. There was something more, too: a pride that would not admit defeat. I came to know her well, and I have never known a woman to make a gayer thing of life with only empty hands to work with. The family was halfstarved most of the time. Yet she made a game of hunger, and a meal of fish and cornpone was a festival. I went once to visit with her, when the girls were grown, and found them all strange spectres with their faces smeared with something wet and brown.

The woman said, ‘We have no place to go and no way of going. So we think up our own ways of having fun. We’re at the beauty parlor today. We read about beauty masks, so we made a trip to the edge of the lake and dug mud to make our packs.’

Martha had served her without pay when her children were born.

She said to me, ‘She shames most women, don’t she? I does all I can for her, ‘cause me and the Lord is all she’s got to look out for her, and the Lord ain’t exactly put Hisself out.’

Martha fixed lunch for Zelma and me that day. We reached her house in the afternoon and were famished. She made us biscuits, and fried white bacon, and served her best preserves. She had baked sweet potatoes still hot in the wood range and when we left she gave us a paper sack of them to carry with us. Our next stop was at a small Negro cabin and we were thirsty from the salty bacon. Zelma asked for water, and a small black boy handed us up cool well water in clean gourds. When he reached up to me, he spilled the cold water on my mare’s flank and she bolted like a rabbit. The woods were full of gopher holes and I dared not try to rein her in too sharply, for fear she should stumble. I gave her her head and we tore away madly, and as we went I scattered hot baked sweet potatoes all over the piney-woods. The mare and I were both trembling when she came to a voluntary stop. I was proud of myself for having kept my seat, but all I had from Zelma was her special brand of profanity for having lost the sweet potatoes.

I was sorry when the census was over and done with. The region around me was plainly mapped now in my mind; I knew everyone, black and white, and could never again be a stranger. We allowed ourselves to be interrupted for one day toward the end. The day was mild and cloudy. Our friend Fred rounded up Zelma and me to go fishing with him. The bream were on the bed and the weather was exactly right. We protested that we should be finishing the census.

‘Now you just as good to come go fishing with me,’ Fred said. ‘You’d ought to know, nobody ain’t going to give you their census on a good fishing day like this.’


When I first came to the Creek, I had for facilities one water faucet in the kitchen, a tin shower adjoining the Kohler shed, and an outhouse. For the water faucet in the kitchen I was always grateful, for water pumps at the Creek are all placed in relation to the well and with little or no concern with distance from the house. When Martha lived in the Mackay house she had even no well, but must carry water from the Creek itself. My outside shower was acceptable enough in summer, though it meant going damply over the sand to the house afterward. In cold weather —and you may believe the Chamber of Commerce that we have none, or you may believe me that on occasion birdbaths have been frozen solid — in cold weather the outside shower was a fit device for masochistic monks. The icy spray that attacked the shoulders like splinters of fine glass was in the nature of a cross. I shall not forget one early Christmas afternoon, with six men gathered for dinner, the turkey savory in the oven, the pies cooling, the vegetables ready, the necessity if not the desire for the bath borne in on me, and the temperature at thirty-eight and dropping. I emerged shivering and snarled at the indifferent heavens, ‘The first time I get my hands on cash money, so help me, I shall have a bathroom.’

Because of the cold shower, open at the front to a wandering world, an unfriendly shower, I took to watching for rain like a tree-toad. For when the soft sluiceways of the skies opened and the lichened shingle roof shed the waters in a surge down the northwest sheltered corner of the house, I could strip and accept the benediction. When the day was hot the rain was cool. When the day was cool the rain was many degrees warmer, and as bland as perfumed bath powder. The water faucet and the shower, then, could be endured. It seemed to me that I had done nothing in all my life to deserve the outhouse.

It had been years since I had come any closer to one than James Whitcomb Riley’s verses on the subject. But I could look back on them almost with nostalgia, for those I had known had a certain coziness and a definite privacy. The outhouse on Grandfather’s farm was papered with perfectly beautiful colored pictures of reigning queens. Alexandra was magnificent. Wilhelmina was demure and very pretty in pale pink with a pearl and diamond crown. I cannot look today at the news pictures of the stout housewife in tweeds on a bicycle and believe that it is the same woman. The Queen of Norway I recall as rather austere, the Queen of Italy as blackly horselike. The building had a door with crescent windows and it stood discreetly behind a hickory tree and was reached by a high, trim boardwalk bordered with marigolds.

The outhouse that I inherited at the Creek had no boardwalk, it had no queens; it had, amazingly, no door. It stood on a direct line with the diningroom windows. One fortunate diner might sit with his back to it. The others could not lift their eyes from their plates without meeting the wooden stare of the unhappy and misplaced edifice. They were fortunate if they did not meet as well the eye of a belated occupant, assuring himself stonily that he could not be seen. For there was indeed a wire screen, and this screen had been, or so the instigator fatuously pretended, modernized with camouflage. Streaks of gray paint zigzagged across the screening. The effect was to make of a human being seated behind it a monster. The monster had gray bolts of lightning for arms and moss-gray tree trunks for legs.

The camouflage, cruelly, worked perfectly when approached from the path. The result was that it was impossible to tell, until too late, whether a living thing was trapped behind it. It seemed for a time that Uncle Fred had solved this problem. Two days after his arrival on a visit he asked in a low, strained voice, ‘Do you have an old piece of bright flannel I could cut up?’ His manner prohibited questioning. I had been here too short a time to have acquired scraps of cloth, but I brought out a ragged quilt, flaming red in color. His face brightened. He went solemnly away and a little later a two-foot-square red flag stood in the middle of the path just outside the outhouse. The technique was obvious and simple. When one went in, one placed the flag in the path. When one came out, one put the flag back inside the outhouse. One went in and put the flag in the path. One returned to the house, forgetting to put the flag back again. The flag stood like a red light against traffic, for hours and hours and hours.

These were only the day hazards. Only a pillar of fire by night would have seemed sufficient comfort and guidance, and this was never provided except by the dubious assistance of lightning. There were provided instead, none the less appalling because harmless, spiders, lizards, toads, and thin squeaking noises made by bats. Over all the dark hours hung the fear of snakes. I had arrived in Florida with the usual ignorant terror. If time proved that the sight of a snake was a rarity, there was no help then for the conviction that the next footstep would fall on a coiled rattler. An imaginary snake is so much more fearful than a real one, that I had rather handle a rattlesnake, as I have done since, than dream about one. I dreaded the sunset, thinking of the dark box of the outhouse, praying, as one does in an upper berth, that the night will, simply, pass. And once there, even on the blessed nights of moonlight, the small ominous thuds against floor and wall that by day were the attractive little green tree-toads, by night were the advance of nameless reptiles. I would not yield to the temptation of installing in the house the old-fashioned ‘conveniences,’ for that was an admission of defeat. I would stick it out and the first cash money would go into a bathroom.

The first cash money from the first orange crop, a good one, disappeared into mortgage and note payments, fertilizer and a Ford, for the shabby sevenpassenger Cadillac, a behemoth from affluent Northern days, had literally torn its heavy heart out on the deep sand road to the Creek, and was sold for sixty dollars to a Negro undertaker. He must have towed it with the hearse, for it was past repairing. There was a year of low citrus prices and a year of freeze. Then my first Florida story, ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ brought in the fantastic sum of seven hundred dollars.

The instant that I saw this wealth begin to dissolve as usual, I worked rapidly. I would not do anything so reckless as ordering a complete new bathroom outfit, but would shop around and pick up something secondhand. The boom was over, and in abandoned houses in unsold ‘scrub divisions’ bathroom fittings were gathering rust and discoloration.

My good friend carpenter Moe went to work on the building of the bathroom. The farmhouse had been built casually in three separate eras, and while the gap between the front and the back was now filled in with a porch, there was nothing but space between the main part of the house and the two large bedrooms, with fireplaces, that made up a wing. One stepped into the air from what, we decided, was not a French door but an Irish door. That vacuum was providential for a bathroom. It would link the two bedrooms to the house as cozily as though an architect had planned it; a careless architect, perhaps, for a difference in floor levels meant a step down from the first bedroom, which has proved no friend to the aged, the absent-minded, and the inebriated. The oldest four of Moe’s boys were big enough by this time to give a hand with the carpentering, and the small new room was filled with male Sykeses when we reached the point of measuring for the height of the shower.

Moe was a realist.

‘Git in the tub,’ he ordered me. ‘Stand up straight. We’ll git this right the sure way.’

I stepped in the tub and stood up straight.

‘Now whereabouts you want this here stream o’ water to hit you? ‘Bout there?’

Four pairs of bright Sykes eyes helped us gauge the proper play of water on the bathing form, and I have never felt so undressed in my life. But the Sykeses rejoiced with me in the completed bathroom, and although the linoleum buckled for nearly a year, we all felt that we had achieved unparalleled elegance. If I now give an impression of nouveau riche when I inform guests pointedly, ‘The other bathroom is beyond my room,’ I am not bragging, but only grateful. I go happily from one bathroom to the other, and when a flying squirrel thumps on the roof at night, the sound is pleasing, for I am safe inside, and I remember the old Scotch prayer: —

From ghillies and ghosties,
And long-legged beasties,
And all things that go boomp in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us.


Here in Florida the seasons move in and out like nuns in soft clothing, making no rustle in their passing. It is common, for me at least, to fall on a certain kind of sunny day into a sort of amnesia. I think with a start, ‘What is the time of year? Where was I yesterday? And is this May or October?’

Yesterday when I stood under the large pecan tree by the barn gate, the amnesia came over me. I had not expected a crop this year, for the trees bore heavily last season, and are almost completely biennial in their bearing. But as I reached absently to pull down a bough, I saw that slender green nuts were forming at the growth ends of all the branches. The sight was unexpected, and I was suddenly lost in a wave of timelessness. I thought for an instant that I was back in the May of a year ago. Then it seemed to me that I had skipped this present season and had been precipitated into the coming year. The pecan tree was bearing again, and where was I in time and space? And the old comfort came, in the recurrence; and on the heels of the comfort, the despair that there was no end to seasons, but an end to me.

I wonder what spring would mean to one who was encountering it, if such a thing were conceivable, for the first time. My notion is that it would mean nothing. Spring is beautiful because it is familiar. Its implications are stirring because we understand them. We know the cold that precedes it and the hot sun that will follow it. It is generally believed that the northern spring is more portentous than the tropical or subtropical spring, because the contrast between cold and warmth, between frozen sterility and hot fertility, is more apparent. This is not true when, as in the subtropics at Cross Creek, spring is so well known that its coming is as important as a smile across a beloved face. A very clever poet, Wallace Stevens, ended a poem with saying, ‘But there is no Spring in Florida.’ He did not know Florida. He came as a stranger, a traveler, to Florida, and the lushness of spring was to him only lushness. He could not differentiate among the shades of green, which at Cross Creek tell us when to plant and when to fertilize and when to cultivate. He did not know when the redbird begins to sing again, and when the cypresses burst from gray bareness into a dress of soft needles and the swamp maple puts out young passionate red leaves.

At the Creek, spring is as definite and as exciting as in Greenland. We have not had snow behind us, but we have had an ungrowing period, as have they, and life now stirs and sap rises and the creatures mate and the snakes come out of their winter’s lethargy. Because it is familiar and beloved, we watch every gradation. It is dear to us because knowledge of it is necessary to recognize its variations. There is no one sign of spring, but several spontaneous burstings. At the moment of the cypresses’ needled sprouting and the swamp maples’ glory of color, there bloom the yellow jessamine and the redbud. If anything comes first, it is the jessamine. Along the fence rows, through the hammocks, slim dry vines are suddenly a mass of golden bloom, so fragrant that the initiate all but swoons with it. Like many tropical flowers, the jessamine is most potent in the night time. I have been on Orange Lake by night and had the scent of the jessamine come so strongly from the far shores that it seemed an immense perfume flask had been spilled from the stars. There is a cousin of the yellow jessamine, the nightblooming jasmine, whose odor is so sweet and strong that invalids cannot endure it in their rooms or outside their windows.

Martha says, ‘It really tears loose after nightfall.’

The jessamine is at its height, spilling waterfalls of gold from high in the tallest trees, when the major miracle occurs. One evening there is the jessamine in the sunset alone in a world of arrested color. The next morning there is a tinge of green across the gray Spanish moss, and infinitesimal rosy blossoms may be discovered along its strands; the distant hammock is emerald, and on the soft air floats a fragrance for which we have hungered the whole year through. The first orange blossoms have opened. For a month or six weeks we shall be giddy by day with them and at night drown in a sea of perfume. When the orange blossoms are almost done, the grapefruit blooms and then the tangerines, and these have a sharp spiciness of odor, so that after having lived with them for a few years, one knows blindfolded which citrus fruit is flowering and what month it is. For the seasons at the Creek arc marked, not by the calendar, but by fruits and flowers and birds.

When the oranges bloom, it is time for the spring fertilizing and the first spring cultivating. After a warm winter, the jessamine blooms in late January and the orange trees in early February. After an average winter, the jessamine blooms in early February and the oranges in the middle of the month. After a long winter with protracted cold, the jessamine waits wisely until the frost is over. While the orange trees are more injudicious and come into bud at what should be the proper time, regardless of temperature, they too understand that they have thrust their small white noses into an unfriendly world, and hold up the full blossoming until the atmosphere is propitious.

The wild iris is as stubborn as the orange bloom is impatient. Norton and I make useless trips every spring to the river Styx, to find the buds ready but tight-shut week after week. The iris knows what it wants in the way of April weather and waits for precisely the acceptable conjunction of rain and warmth. Then acre on acre bursts open on the same sunny morning, and the swamp bordering the Styx is blue from the edge of the narrow sand road to the farthest rim of cypresses. We must wade kneedeep to gather the flowers, going cautiously through the leaf-brown water for fear of roots or sharp cypress knees or moccasins. The egrets are nesting when the iris blooms, and fly up from their feeding like bursts of white spray when our splashing disturbs them. They light close by their nests in the cypresses and wait, preening the lacy tail feathers of the mating and nesting season, for us to finish our swamp business. The wild iris does not have the fragrance of the fleur-de-lis of cultivated gardens, but its color is a more exquisite and a lighter blue. And where the gardener’s iris may be only politely looked at, the wild iris grows in such a wanton profusion that our armfuls, taken home to the house, leave no break in the blue sheet beside the Styx.

We say at the Creek, ‘When the first whippoorwill calls, it’s time for the corn to be in the ground.’

The first whippoorwill may call in late February or in March. I cannot guarantee his accuracy as a weather prophet, but I have never known frost to come after that first plaintive, hearttearing cry. If the corn is not already planted, we hurry to get it in. Our Florida whippoorwill is not the same bird that stirred me as a child on my father’s Maryland farm. The bird here is the chuck-will’s-widow and the call is not so melodious as that of the more northern bird. It is as though the northern call were harshened and syncopated, like the modern swing versions of Mozart and Bach. Martha told me that the bird is crying, ‘Chip hell out of the red oak! Chip hell out of the red oak!’ The phonetics are accurate. Martha spoiled the romance of the whippoorwill’s call for me, for now I cannot hear it without repeating her belligerent and unbeautiful words.

But there was a spring night, before I knew that the whippoorwill was actually the chuck-will’s-widow and that it was inciting, ‘Chip hell out of the red oak!’ when the spell of the cry brought me from my bed. There was a full moon and the scent of orange blossoms was shed across the night, and a whippoorwill was calling, only a little distance away. I went out into the grove and my dog went with me, and we played and danced in the moonlight under the flowering orange trees. Old Jib came wobbling to join us, and the dog and cat and I romped together until nearly dawn, and the whippoorwill came closer and closer until he was sitting within sight of us on the fence, as though he were pleased to have dancers for his music. It is as well that no late frog-hunter passed by while we were at our frolic, or it would surely have been told as proved fact that those who live at the Creek are fey.


My own cattle have given me quite as much trouble as those of the neighbors.

I have had a varying succession of cows, calves, and heifers and all have been troublesome. I did not help the situation when I accepted a male Jersey calf from a friend who owns a dairy. The calf was charming when young, like all young things. His first solid food after he was weaned was a mouthful of allamanda bloom, so of course I named him Ferdinand. He came daily to the kitchen door for a bit of brown sugar. He was great friends with Old Jib the cat, and washed the cat’s enraptured face with his rough tongue. Then overnight, it seemed, the calf had disappeared and Ferdinand was a very large bull of ferocious tendencies. He came of breeding age and I told Little Will that I wished the two cows, Dora and Lady, to be bred at intervals, so that I should have milk and cream and butter through the year, and not all at once in a useless superfluity. Will saw the wisdom of the arrangement. When Dora and Lady came in season simultaneously, and it was time for one to be bred and the other shut up, Little Will was beyond wisdom.

Will and Dora and Lady had all chosen Saturday afternoon for their respective flings. Little Will was gone and out of reach. Ferdinand and his amours were at my doorstep. The first I knew of it, Dora had coyly leaped the pasture fence and was eating asparagus fern from in front of the veranda. I went on with my work, meaning to drive her back a little later. I looked up from the typewriter to see Ferdinand charging into the yard. I was appalled by his size. I had not been close to him since he was a yearling. He had at that time taken grass as usual from my fingers, chewed it a moment, rolled his eye, then pawed the earth, given a low bellow, and made for me.

‘He don’t like womens no more,’ Little Will said. ‘Jes’ cow-womens.’

I had left Ferdinand strictly alone, keeping up what I had hoped were superficially friendly relations by speaking to him cordially whenever I walked past his gate. He had not reciprocated. Now he was a mammoth thing, peering at me from the veranda steps a foot away. I recalled that a sportsman’s magazine had taken a poll on the most dangerous animals in the country, and the Jersey bull was at the head of the list. I saw a cluster of Creek children coming down the road with their buckets for the milk I give away. I called to them that Ferdinand was loose in the yard and to go home. Martha came from the back of the house to tell me that she was afraid we need not look for Little Will back before morning. I warned her to return to the tenant house through the back of the grove. Ferdinand crashed through the blue plumbago along the front of the house and chased Dora around the birdbath.

‘Ferdinand so mannish,’ Martha said proudly.

He seemed only to be doing his duty by Dora. He was much more interested in the coral honeysuckle and the orange blossoms. He fed greedily. The honeysuckle vines would have no more bloom this spring. Suddenly he took care of Dora and marched away, bored both with domesticity and the honeysuckle, toward the barn. It occurred to me that he was remembering his young days of being fed there. It occurred to me too that if ever a bull was likely to be in a quiet mood it would be at this moment. It was necessary that the cows be milked. Their calves were only two months old, and the cows were in full milk, their bags bursting. Lady saved me time by coming through the gap Ferdinand had made in the fence, and joining the family. The two calves, Chrissy and Cissy, galloped after her from the grove where they were allowed to run free. I was tempted to let the calves do the milking, but there were gallons more than they could drain. I opened the gate of the milking lot and Ferdinand filed in haughtily, his harem trailing behind him.

I dashed to the feed barrels in the barn and brought out two brimming bucketfuls. Ferdinand took one as his mannish right and I divided the other between Dora and Lady. I tried to drive Chrissy and Cissy into their own stall, but they were excited by the family gathering and would not be driven. I was working against time and I dragged their trough into the lot and filled it. They fed happily side by side, their small tails twitching. By the time I had them settled, Ferdinand had finished his bucket and was pawing a warning cloud of earth. I brought him another. Dora and Lady had now finished theirs.

Martha came cautiously outside the lot and I commissioned her to bring feed in relays and hand it over the fence to me. I milked literally in circles. We milled about together in the small lot, Ferdinand, Dora, Lady, the two calves, the feed, and I. I milked first on one cow and then the other, according to the convenience and practicability of their positions, especially in relation to Ferdinand. A quart was as much as I could get at a time, when it was necessary to rush to the fence for a bucket of feed. I made no pretense of stripping them. I decided that if my getaway proved embarrassing, I should fling the milk bucket over the fence and follow it. I heard a groan behind me. Ferdinand, his great belly bulging, had dropped to his knees to rest. I was able to make a dignified exit through the gate. I looked back to see Dora and Lady licking Ferdinand’s face, consoling him for the head-of-thehousehold efforts that had so exhausted him.

Martha made fierce African threats against the missing Will. If only, I said, we did not have to go through the same thing again in the morning. The next morning the red birds sang, the game cock crew, and the Mallards quacked cheerfully in the bright spring sunshine. There was no song in my heart and Martha muttered direly. We walked cautiously toward the lot. It was plain that Ferdinand was now past female handling.

Martha said, ‘Praise the Lord!’

I looked where she pointed.

Down the road came a figure. Little Will was coming home.

‘Sugar,’ Martha said, ‘if that was our President comin’ down the Creek road, he couldn’t look no better.’


All life is a balance, when it is not a battle, between the forces of creation and the forces of destruction, between love and hate, between life and death. Perhaps it is impossible ever to say where one ends and the other begins, for even creation and destruction are relative. This morning I crushed a fuzzy black caterpillar. It was fulfilling its own destiny, trying to complete its own life cycle. Its only sin was that it was feeding on certain green leaves that I wished to look at. In the brief instant after the crushing and before its death, did its minute mind wonder why an unnamable catastrophe had overtaken it?

When a human life is snuffed out untimely, can there be invisible forces whose wishes we offend? Can it be that one has eaten green leaves? We should be so happy to coöperate with the unvoiced demands if we were aware of them. The caterpillar would be quite willing to nibble in an adjacent field if the completion of his life span could be so accomplished.

But in crushing the caterpillar, I have fed the ants. They are hustling to the feast, already tunneling the body. The ants would applaud the treading of caterpillars. The death of a human being feeds, apparently, nothing. Or are there psychic things that are nourished by our annihilation?

We know only that we are impelled to fight on the side of the creative forces. We know only that a sense of well-being sweeps over us when we have assisted life rather than destroyed it. There is often an evil satisfaction in hate, satisfaction in revenge, and satisfaction in killing. Yet when a wave of love takes over a human being, love of another human being, love of nature, love of all mankind, love of the universe, such an exaltation takes him that he knows he has put his finger on the pulse of the great secret and the great answer.

Here at Cross Creek we sense this, sometimes dimly, sometimes strongly. Because we have adapted ourselves, with affection, to a natural background that is congenial to us, we know that the struggle is better done in love than in hate. We feel a great pity for the industrial laborer who toils only for what it will bring him in pay, and will not do his work unless his pay pleases him. If we tillers of the soil sat down in a pet and refused to turn our furrows because our crops had failed us, the world would starve, for all its riches. We feel as great a pity for the industrial capitalist who reckons living in terms of profit and loss. Profit and loss are incidental to life, and surely there is enough for us all. We know that work must be an intimate thing, the thing one would choose to do if one had, as Tom said, ‘gold buried in Georgia.’ We know, above all, that work must be beloved.

We know that in our relations with one another the disagreements are unimportant and the union vital.


The question once arose, ‘Who owns Cross Creek?' It came to expression when Mr. Marsh Turner was turning his hogs and cattle loose on us and riding drunkenly across the Creek bridge to drive them home. Tom Morrison, who does not own a blade of corn at the Creek, but is yet part and parcel of it, became outraged by Mr. Marsh Turner’s arrogance. Tom stood with uplifted walking stick at the bridge, a Creek Horatio, and turned Mr. Marsh Turner back.

‘Who do you think you are?’ he demanded. ‘How come you figure you can turn your stock loose on us, and then ride up and down, whoopin’ and hollerin’? You act like you own Cross Creek. You don’t. Old Boss owns Cross Creek, and Young Miss owns it, and old Joe Mackay. Why, you don’t own six feet of Cross Creek to be buried in.’

Soon after this noble gesture was reported to me by Martha, I went across the Creek in April to gather early blackberries. I had not crossed the bridge for some weeks and I looked forward to seeing the magnolias in full bloom. The road is lined with magnolia trees and is like a road passing through a superb park. There were no magnolia blossoms. It seemed at first sight that there were no magnolia trees. There were only tall, gray, rose-lichened trunks, from which the branches had been cut. The pickers of magnolia leaves had passed through. These paid thieves come and go mysteriously every second or third year. One week the trees stand with broad outstretched branches, glossy of leaf, the creamy buds ready for opening. The next, the boughs have been cut close to the trunks, and it will be three years before there are magnolia blossoms again. After long inquiry, I discovered the use for the stripped leaves. They are used for making funeral wreaths. The destruction seemed to me a symbol of private intrusion on the right of all mankind to enjoy a universal beauty. Surely the loveliness of the long miles of magnolia bloom was more important to the living than the taking of the bronze, waxy leaves for funerals of the dead.

I had a letter from a friend at this time, saying, ’I am a firm believer in property rights.'

The statement disturbed me. What is ‘property’ and who are the legitimate owners? I looked out from my veranda, across the acres of grove from which I had only recently been able to remove the mortgage. The land was legally mine, and short of long tax delinquency nothing and nobody could take it from me. Yet if I did not take care of the land lovingly, did not nourish and cultivate it, it would revert to jungle. Was this land mine to abuse or to neglect? I did not think so.

I thought of the countless generations that had ‘owned’ land. Of what did that ownership consist? I thought of the great earth, whirling in space. It was here ahead of men and could conceivably be here after them. How should one man say that he ‘owned’ any piece or parcel of it? If he worked with it, labored to bring it to fruition, it seemed to me that at most he held it in fief. The individual man is transitory, but the pulse of life and of growth goes on after he is gone, buried under a wreath of magnolia leaves. No man should have proprietary rights over land who does not use that land wisely and lovingly. Steinbeck raised the same question in The Grapes of Wrath. Men who had cultivated their land for generations were dispossessed because banks and industrialists believed they could make a greater profit by turning over the soil to mass, mechanized production. But what will happen to that land when the industrialists themselves are gone? The earth will survive bankers and any system of government, capitalistic, fascist, or bolshevist. The earth will even survive anarchy.

I looked across my grove, hard fought for, hard maintained, and I thought of other residents there. There are other inhabitants who stir about with the same sense of possession as my own. A covey of quail has lived for as long as I have owned the place in a bramble thicket near the hammock. A pair of bluejays has raised its young, raucous-voiced and handsome, year after year in the hickory trees. The same pair of redbirds mates and nests in an orange tree behind my house and brings its progeny twice a year to the feed basket in the crepe myrtle in the front yard. The male sings with a joie de vivre no greater than my own, but in a voice lovelier than mine, and the female drops bits of corn into the mouths of her fledglings with as much assurance as though she paid the taxes. A black snake has lived under my bedroom as long as I have slept in it.

Who owns Cross Creek? The redbirds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages. And after I am dead, who am childless, the human ownership of grove and field and hammock is hypothetical. But a long line of redbirds and whippoorwills and bluejays and ground doves will descend from the present owners of nests in the orange trees, and their claim will be less subject to dispute than that of any human heirs. Houses are individual and can be owned, like nests, and fought for. But what of the land? It seems to me that the earth can be borrowed but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rainm, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed — and beyond all, to time.