Characters in and around the swamps and rivers of north central Florida were as plentiful as paw-paws in a paw-paw patch. On Sundays I would often ride my bicycle out to a swamp and explore. One Sunday I came across an old farmhouse and followed the trail back to the swamp where I found a thatched hut and garden. I came back often to visit and eventually moved onto the land bordering the swamp with Crawford Solomon, the fellow who had built the hut and tended the garden there.
Crawford was a strong rugged individualist with leather skin, a contemplative disposition, and an intense distaste for money and all of the accouterments of modern society. He had a masters degree in philosophy from the University but he was shoveling his Ph.D. in the orchard he’d planted. Crawford had bought the land he lived on and the only money he had to come up with was the property taxes each year. That was because he was completely self sufficient. He’d dug his own well, grew his own food, built his own shelter, didn’t wear much in terms of clothing, and had learned how to survive off of the land.
The hut that I had discovered was called a Chickee. Crawford had constructed it himself from thatched cabbage palm fronds, bamboo, skinned cypress poles, rough cut pine boards, and canvas drop cloths. The Chickee was what the Seminole and Miccosukee had used for their shelter. It was perfectly suited for the hot humid environment. The thatched roof could withstand hurricane force wind and the raised floor provided protection from insects, snakes, animals, and flood. Later, watching Crawford build another Chickee, I was fascinated as he “worked” slowly and methodically in such a relaxed way – always reverent and alive with a pure love of nature. He eventually got to where he could build a Chickee in about a week. For pretty close to free.
The process is pretty simple. Cut a big pile of cabbage palm fronds. Walk barefoot in the swamp feeling with your feet for downed cypress hearts and use these as your poles. Cut some bamboo. Cut and soak tall bear grass which will be used to lash the palm fronds onto the bamboo and the bamboo to the cypress. The only materials that cost any money were the pine boards for the raised floor and a few nails to secure the floor tightly to the cypress hearts. These expenditures could be avoided by cutting the pine yourself and using bear grass and notching the boards so they fit securely. Soaked bear grass, when used for lashing, is really secure. The grass shrinks tightly around the bamboo or cypress as it dries and not even a hurricane will blow that roof off.
Crawford taught me quite a bit about living in and with nature. One day he told me to grab a frying pan and follow him. He stomped off across the fields just above the swamp. I followed wondering why I was lugging a frying pan on a hot dry day. Crawford pulled up at a big red ant den. In Florida these red ants are really big and they build these large two feet tall mounds where they live. Inside the mounds are thousands of ants. Crawford said something like “If you’re ever hungry all you need is a frying pan and some matches.” Then he proceeded to build a small fire next to the ant den. After it was going he set the frying pan on it. When the frying pan was nice and hot he went over to the ant den, bent over, and stuck his arm all the way down in that ant hill shaking it around. When Crawford pulled his arm out of that ant hill it was completely covered with red ants. He walked over to the fire, bent over again, and scraped the ants off into the frying pan. After sizzling for about 30 seconds he scooped some out of the pan and gave them to me. Yum! Of course, Crawford’s skin was tough as leather so no red ant bite was going to do much to him.
Crawford used to do anything to avoid having to get a job or make money. Some mornings he’d get up at dawn and walk up to the highway to search for roadkill. He liked to eat possum and raccoon and deer that had been freshly killed the night before. He also liked to make his own cane sorghum. He had learned the process from an old black fella that lived nearby. He stashed jars and jars of sorghum under the Chickee and that stuff was so good I couldn’t help but sneak a few sips in every day.
In order to pay his property taxes every year Crawford would usually teach a course in “Living Off The Land” at the local community college or through the city sponsored programs. He held the class out on his land so he didn’t have to go into the city and smell the smells and hear the noisy clamor. One day as we were sitting there the van of students arrived up at the front gate where the road ended. Crawford said “Watch this” and pointed up above the van. As the students got out and started up the half mile path we could see a dark cloud form over their heads. The cloud descended and eventually engulfed the students. They were all ducking and waving their hands and arms and slapping themselves. It was like they had all gone insane or something. Then Crawford also pointed out the “mosquito hawks“, as he called them, dive bombing the cloud of mosquitos. These were dragonflies picking off the mosquitos. It was Crawford’s theory that the city smells attracted the mosquitos and as long as you smelled like the swamp or a tree you were ok. I guess we smelled like the swamp cause no skeeters were getting us.
One night I was alone in the Chickee. Crawford had left for a couple of weeks saying he was going into town to get a new woman. That was about the only thing that would get Crawford into town. Anyway, I was alone and sitting in the Chickee eating my dinner by candlelight. My dinner consisted of a few piles of seeds and sprouts. As I was eating these two giant cockroaches sidled right up to my pile of sunflower seeds and started nibbling. I pushed a few aside for them and, being sorta lonely, struck up a conversation. I would say something and they would waggle their antennae at me. I was pretty sure we were communicating. Then I sent on and on about how the cockroach was so well designed and how it could mutate within only a generation and how probably only cockroaches and bats and maybe rats would survive a nuclear holocaust. All the time they’re wagging their antennae in agreement. Then I said that about the only thing they couldn’t do was fly. Well, right then one of them took off into the air right over my head and landed on the cypress pole behind me! I just went ecstatic and thought for sure I really was talking to cockroaches and they could understand me. What I didn’t know was that in Florida those giant cockroaches are palmetto bugs and that they can fly.
Yep, I used to talk to insects. When I was living at Ginnie Spring on the Santa Fe River I would sunbathe every day after swimming in the spring. Every day the same two dragonflies would come perch on my shoulders as I lay there. We’d converse as I’d bask in the sun and they’d zip off my shoulders every once in a while to grab a mosquito or two. This went on for weeks and I really felt I got to know them well. They even confided in my their names which, I was told, dragonflies do not usually share. The male was called Jeet and the female Jetril. So, my best friends one summer were two dragonflies who used me as bait to catch mosquitos.
While living at the spring I lived off of the abundance of paw-paws and berries as well as corn and watermelon I’d take from the neighboring fields. One day the farmer sent his son down to ask if I’d help put in the new crop. Well, sure, I said so we hiked up to the fields and dug furrows and planted for the next few weeks. I guess he knew all along I was stealing from his fields but didn’t care. That farm family got to be my friends and they invited me up for Thanksgiving one year. As a matter of fact, I’ve never seen a friendlier place than the backwoods of north central Florida in 1975. I’d be walking down a dusty old dirt road in the heat of Summer and the poorest black family you’ll ever see would invite me up on their porch for watermelon or tea. I was never treated nicer.
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