- Historic Sites
"The Woods Were Tossing With Jewels”
A Childhood in the Florida Wilderness
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
I’ll never forget the morning I looked out my bedroom window and saw Uncle John walking up from the landing. The night before, I had overheard papa and the boys talking about a manatee they had seen that day. I had asked what a manatee looked like, and from their description of it I got the idea it was a man covered with hair. Seeing Uncle John for the first time with a full beard, I yelled to my father, “Oh, papa, here comes the manatee!’ All in all he got an excited welcome. With the two brothers reunited, the family felt the need for some real celebration. Thus we took picnic trips.
One of these special excursions for Uncle John was, of course, to the outside beaches, the islands that fronted on the gulf. They afforded beautiful swimming all year, and once a year yielded sea turtle eggs in the hundreds. We usually took no more than half a cache, a practice, which if it had been continued through all these years, would not have depleted the turtle population. For fun we sometimes would sail out on calm moonlit nights and anchor just to watch the hundreds of female turtles coming and going about their business. They were monstrous creatures but cumbersome and harmless as long as you didn’t get near that traplike mouth. We children hopped up on their rough backs for short, bumpy rides into the water, where we were dumped. Often we found as many as five hundred eggs buried in the sand; a tenth of that number made enough soup for our big family, and how delicious it was!
Once, as a special treat, papa took us all miles and miles up our creek into the heart of the Everglades. The creek opened out into sunlit bi.ys dotted with white sand bars and edged with green islands. On one we found a deserted Indian house made of palmettos. Everywhere there were alligators and other wild creatures, untroubled by our presence. This trip took us through some dark, sluggish swamps where the water scarcely moved and we were forced to pole the boat. The orchids here were the largest and most flamboyant we had seen. As we came out into a bay, we saw thousands and thousands of white herons, snowy egrets, pink ibis, curlews, blue Johns, and flamingos. They constantly rose, circled, and landed in arcs of color and long lines of sweeping movement. We put the boat in the shade and watched for an hour.
It was here that we came upon a pelican colony. There were hundreds of young ones, as it was the nesting season. We caught one of these babies, fully grown in size, and took it home for a pet. It became an awful nuisance, chasing us to be fed every time it saw any of us.
Our new home was indeed a haven of pleasure. But there was work, too, as always. Early in the mornings and late in the afternoons, Orr and I would go with mama to the garden. How lovely the fresh vegetables did taste. We cared for them with loving hands, pulling weeds by the hour and watering the young plants with buckets of water we pumped and carried. Our reward was to gather armloads of beets, radishes, turnips, et cetera, to take to the house for lunch and supper. The meals were made more memorable with the wild food. Wild butter beans grew on the edge of our hammock. The vines climbed so high up into the trees that we would have to pull them down to get the beans (knowing they’d be back up the next week). For dessert we had ladyfingers, wild bananas that grew in our back yard.
Suddenly, sometime that summer, a day came when all work ceased. My oldest brother, Bubba, always too busy for me, took me outside and made stilts and taught me how to use them. The hard-packed shell was like pavement. It had rained, and water stood in little basins where the shell soil held it. We made a game of walking across these pools, with me as tall as Bubba on my stilts. Hal came out, and soon both big boys were on stilts of their own. Orr was too small to walk on them but he followed us around admiringly. The mosquitoes were bad everywhere except in the sunshine, so we four children spent the entire day out in the summer sun walking on stilts. Despite the unrelenting heat, we were happy to be let off from our hours of school indoors, sessions which our mother kept every day, rain or shine.
Late in the afternoon our grandmother called us in. She told us we had a new baby sister. When papa brought the tiny mite into the kitchen where we were, I thought it was a doll lying there on the pillow, a doll with a curly wig. I touched its cheek to see if it was a doll, and it moved!
“Oh, papa, I want it, I’ve got to have it, please, can I have it, papa?” Then and there he gave me that baby for my very own. We have lived a long time, this sister and I, and there has always been a precious bond between us. I have never been more proud than at the moment I took that tiny, beautiful baby into my arms. My father and grandmother had delivered her without mishap. We named her Janey.