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Spring Has Sprung in Florida/ Intimacy/ On Gypsy

So, I tried to run away from the things I love most.

Small black water river feeding into Lake Norris, near Ocala National Forest, Florida. February 2018. Photo by Luke Cannon.

In North Florida this week, quickly and all of the sudden, yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) put out visible buds of new leafy growth. Two days later these young tender growth tips are several inches long and smattering every bush with an aura of orange and lime green. I bet they’ll be long enough for tea harvest in only a few more days.

This happens fast.

A couple of days ago, in these same bushes I saw a palm warbler (yes, I have in fact become a bird freak) already starting to grow in his chestnut colored cap.

Yaupon holly Ilex vomitoria meristematic Spring growth
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) new growth, Feb 24, 2019. Crescent Beach, FL (Photo by Victoria Greba)

Last year I didn’t write about yaupon, or Western tansy mustard, or dollarweed, or the climbing wild cucumber Melothria pendula. Nor did I the Spring before that. I didn’t write or share about the many jaw dropping and mesmerizing plants of North and Central Florida that I met for the first time with the Florida botanists last February, wandering the many parks and wild places after the Florida Earthskills Gathering. Can you believe that I don’t have a photograph of the gargantuan Dioscorea alata tubers we dug with local plant man Michael Adler?! Sam Thayer was there, and he took a picture, but that doesn’t help me any. Even if my dirty feet are in the photo (still proud).

Yaupon holly Ilex vomitoria meristematic Spring growth
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) new growth, Feb 24, 2019. Crescent Beach, FL (Photo by Victoria Greba)

I didn’t draw these plants and record their bloom times and fruit times. I didn’t share with you all my favorite way of yaupon tea processing (I obsessively tried at least six ways in 2017). Even in North Carolina where I spent most of the last 18 months, I did my best not to get too close to any new plants. I even did my best not to garden too much, or forage, or make new medicines.

So what was going on in my little brain?

A boycott. I was walking around, trying to keep my grief at just a little distance from myself. If you’re not going to give me my home, Spirit, then I’m not going to invest my heart and hands in any more places. I didn’t want to get too close, to grow in deep intimacy with the land and plum tree and roses if they were not the ones I would grow with for the rest of my life. Or at least for some decades.

So that’s what I did. I spent a year and a half trying not to get too involved. I mostly tanned hides instead.

Several years ago, I thought I had it all figured out about Florida. That place is going to be underwater any day now. No way would I ever settle in a place like that, and people who do are crazy. How can you grow roots in shifting sand?

Sea rockets (Cakile spp.) grow their roots in straight sand every year. This fleshy, lovable wild mustard creates clumps of itself right on the beach, in the white, fluffy, dry sand between the high tide line and the dunes. I happily say hi to its light purple flowers and nibble on its frighteningly zesty leaves nearly every time I sunbathe in the Spring. It disappears in the Summertime, sometimes leaving a dry skeleton, then like most mustards reappears once the weather cools. It is as reliable as any other element of the beach-- washed up cannonball jellyfish and orange bullbriar rhizomes tangled up with gull feathers.

Three years later, after I had pronounced Florida the first of North America’s terminally ill landscapes soon to disappear, and one with which I certainly was not going to involve myself, I look around at these yaupon hollies, hear with fondness the nasally coo of a fish crow, think of all the young mullets, saltwater catfish, crown conches, prickly pears, muscadine grapes, and dollarweed leaves that have sustained me here, and I have to confess that I got involved with this place. With all the canoeing glides down clearwater rivers, whose giant, mystical springs belch up sapphire blue water from deep open chasms, with the many dozens of species of birds who have graced my wide eyes and heart with their chatter and splendor, with the long walks along the Atlantic surf, with the countless trespasses to gather armfuls becoming car fulls of coconuts in the tropical South, with the manatees whose huffed breath took my own breath away, with the pelicans who play with dolphins, with the ever changing palette of the dunes, with my own salty and sun glazed skin, I have to confess that this is a land I greatly love.

Coconuting, Spring 2017. Crescent Beach, FL (Photo by Judy Dolehanty)

This is a land that has woven rainbows of attention and devotion throughout myself. This is the land that brought me wild silk cocoons, that taught me again how to throw a cast net just as I did all childhood long, which sliced and diced my feet with hidden oyster shells, my bright red blood pouring across wet sand. This is the land that showed me about fire, that captured me, like mysticism, with the lowest burning lick of flames moving shiftingly through the grasses at the feet of the longest leaved of the pines. This is the land that boasted to me with every fallen palm frond and pile of debris that the tropics truly are the King of plant fibers; nearly everything on hand is prime for the weaving of a basket, a mat, a rope, a little knotted prayer. Here I was pierced by the emerald eye of a cormorant. Here I gave in to the ferocity of the heat and sun. Here I became a child, as I am woman, walking with an ever alive, burning, and falling apart heart.

Drop spindle spun wild silk
Handspun wild silk, thanks to the teaching of Doug Elliot at the Florida Earthskills Gathering 2018 (Photo by Victoria Greba)

Florida is a kingdom apart from this great landmass. It is jungle and grasslands and prairie. There are bison and boar and roseate spoonbills and alligators too big to ignore. There are mangrove labyrinths, twisting live oaks, scrub forests relentlessly flooded by hurricane water, and the hanging hair of all the great grandmothers Spanish moss. Insect sized anoles dart around pretty much everywhere. Mangoes ferment and rot on the sidewalk. Dark mosquitoes fly into the wind like little hellish hummingbirds. Here the water can be black as tea, aquamarine as the sky, salty as the ocean, fresh enough to drink, and every combination of these.

Wild silk moth cocoons
Wild silk moth cocoons collected in Florida (Photo taken in North Carolina), February 2018 (Photo by Victoria Greba)

When I neglected to love, to really love with an intimacy which risks tremendous heartbreak at the disappearance of things, I engendered a way of living which is a little bit less than being fully, sweetly, nakedly free. To be fully alive is the same as full-heartedly free.

So now, when the cold clear waters creep up into the cabbage farmlands, through the miles of orange groves--a heartbreak of poisons and sameness in themselves-- when they rise beneath the canopies of the longleaf pines and the flight of their wee, white cheeked woodpecker, when they slide into the prairies and the clearwater lakes, making all these glinting, bird-loving waters one water, when they pour through the giant, sapphire chasms of the most sacred springs, meeting the quiet coves where manatees abide and eelgrass flowers sway, I will feel it. Under my skin and in my own spirit these waters will be crashing together.

With every perceived loss, with every disappearance of a thing which once had a name, a season, a book eons long telling of its intricacy, perfection, and its place in the glory, I will feel this change and this hurt. This is the jewel and the vulnerability of being fully alive and fully in love with the creatures and creation of this astounding earth, in their infinitesimal detail. In their tiniest, most precious blossoms, and nearly weightless wing.

Tiny wild pea. Fort Myers, FL. Feb, 2019 (Photo by Victoria Greba)

I can’t know the journey as it is unfolding for each and every thing. That webwork of lineages is too vast and complex to know within my one being. Where will go the oystercatcher from now until eternity? That story belongs to them.

But I will not miss the fragrance of a tiny scarlet wild pea, or the heaps of royal palm flowers littering the quiet ground like thousands of butter colored stars. Missing these, would be like missing a whole life. Where will go the heron today after she catches her fish? Not to care is not to wonder, is not to be fresh with the life that is bursting, singing, hooting, clamoring everywhere. Alive and witnessing itself.

Black-hooded parakeets South Florida
Four Black-hooded parakeets in South Florida, Feb 2019 (Photo by Victoria Greba)

Lately, I have been hearing a call to visit the American Southwest. No! My mind cries out. It’s a desert there! How can people live without water!? I don’t want to put down roots in a place where I’ll be driven out when the water dries up! And then, farther West than that, a landscape of wildfires scares me. I don’t want to live somewhere where everything I build could be burnt up!

I am beginning to sense a little bit of a pattern in this. May my wise spirit bring me to every landscape and way of life I might try to reject? To every landscape from which I may try to shield myself from the inherent heartache of becoming close to it.

I am only on this earth for a short bit. To celebrate life. To be flooded by life--this mystery that leads me through each of my own darkest hours--I know means to be intimate with it. To be intimate with each moment, petal, blossom, call, wing. To be touching, touching, touching. To make a place for each of the one hundred thousand things within the ever expanding mystery of my own heart.

To fall in love with someone means you may witness them on their deathbed and know the world with their absence. You may witness them in the throws of giving birth. Impossible and infinite is the love that says yes. Yes to knowing and loving. Yes to great joy and the accompanying dark, dark nights.

I am going out. Whether before me or behind me if all these creatures and creations go out, then I marry them now. Knowing that not knowing isn’t worth the cost of doubting my strength.

Small black water river feeding into Lake Norris, near Ocala National Forest, Florida. With Yellow Spatterdock (Nuphar advena). February 2018. Photo by Luke Cannon.


2019- Crescent Beach, FL

Feb 17: Western tansy mustard (Descurainia pinnata), sow thistles (Sonchus sp.), and peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum) are all blooming. Early and mid February they would have been tender for eating. Some pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) shoots are knee high, others are still small. Indicating that the season is already transitioning past early Spring towards mid-Spring.

Dunes are a-bloom with red & pink Kalanchoe sp. flowers.

Feb 21: Noticed first growth buds on yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) appearing, even on heavily berry-laden females.

Feb 24: Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) meristematic growth tips are already several inches long! Saw first palm warbler showing its chestnut colored cap growing in. Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) shoots are still tender, and have been for at least two weeks now. Garden brassicas are all blooming, tired, and ready to be done.

~ Victoria, Crescent Beach, FL, March 1, 2019

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