Clifton: Strawberry Mills

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

She remembers the fragrance of orange blooms and the bright sunlight through the dark green citrus leaves, but she also remembers the succulent almost sinful bright red burst of the berries from which the place first took its name. She remembers.

Hers is one of the oldest graves in an immense county. 1841. She was six years old. Julia.

She remembers when the world was full, but the world was these few houses and the river. The world was the big white house with the porches and the columns. Far away at the edge of the world was another world that was slaves in their cabins and in the fields.

The whole world was one small peninsula that kept her safe. Pottsburgh Creek. The Arlington River. The St. Johns River. White blooms on the orange trees. Red berries down under dark green leaves. No need to think of any world that might live outside the world. The world was one small peninsula.

Sometimes the sunlight came down through the groves in rays. Through weeping dark branches of citrus, sometimes she could see dust and dirt and the small bright muslin wings of whiteflies all scintillating in the diagonal beams.

At first the berries were white and pitted with pores and pointed towards their ends. She watched them. She watched them over the days and the weeks, down there, down in the dark green of the leaves that sheltered the berries. She watched the berries begin to redden. They reddened first at the bulbous ends closest to the corollas, and then the red moved down the berries. The red moved toward the pointed tips. She watched them for days. She saw the red spread. The red spread like blood. It moved from the opening of leaves from bloom into berry and it moved down the berry from its rounded fullness down into the concentrated tip.

The whole world was a small world and the whole world was full and complete, enormous unto itself, and all.

But she did not know what she saw in the eyes of black faces from the cabins at the end of the world.

The world, at first, had a name. It was Strawberry Mills. It thundered in the world, and when the rain came, oh did it rain!

So much of the world was sunlight and water. Sometimes everything was water for weeks, sometimes the sun burnt her brutally, and sometimes the sun burnt through the rain, making her feel strange and mysterious sensations she could not express, could hardly even acknowledge.

She remembered watching the waterwheel turning in the river in the rain. She watched the sawmill waterwheel turning in the river. It had a way of hypnotizing her. The wheel in the rain came to her as some feeling languid but threatening to overpower her with spirits and ideas only half suggested that she could not understand.

The old house came sometime then. It was built in the 1830s. Or it was built in the 1850s. What was time 180 or 160 years in the past, when you were only six years old when you died?

She remembers the old house well. Has remembered it for 175 years and 150 years and 100 years and for 50. She remembers well and long the two-story columns, the tall windows, the two-story porches receding along the side, the great immemorial oak trees that encased the house like a timeless and universal mythology.

She remembers the firebombings of boats in the river and she remembers looking across the St. Johns River at the city of Jacksonville, whose downtown erupted in flames and gunpowder. She could not understand the convoluted politics of owning slaves but supporting the Union army, of fleeing every time the Confederates made headway and returning every time the Union troops occupied Jacksonville.

Versions of lives differ. John Sammis either moved from New York to marry one of Zephaniah Kingsley’s daughters by his African slave wife, Anna Jai, or he migrated to Florida to work for Kingsley in his shipyard. By 1860, Sammis was offering the plantation for sale.

Strawberry Mills then covered 8,000 acres. Mentioned in the offering are sawmill, cotton gin, sugar mill, brickyard that germinated much of downtown Jacksonville, multiple houses, dams and dikes, large gardens, figs and grapes, a mineral spring.

She remembers the religious group that bought the plantation just after the Civil War. Some kind of splinter group of the Chautauqua religious camp movement. The Ocean Grove Association, religious foundation, owned the plantation for less than a year at the same time they founded a more permanent place at Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

But she knew then, even as she knew nothing, even as she knew everything, that the group could not hold onto Strawberry Mills. The peninsula was bound by rivers and creeks, but not by time. Because it wasn’t bound by time, the peninsula was not bound by ideological groups or political groups or religious groups, because all such groups were bound by time. The strawberries—they were not bound by time. Yes, they ripened in season, but the seasons followed seasons and were not bound by this century or that. The oranges—they were not bound by time. Yes, they bore tiny fruit in the early spring, developed them across the summer, brought them to fullness through the fall, sweetened their fruits in the cold, as long as the winter did not freeze to death the trees themselves, but the seasons followed seasons and were not bound by this religious revival or that political movement. The strawberries and the oranges were not bound like people were bound. They didn’t know what injustices people wrought upon each other. They didn’t know when slavery was legal and when slaves were emancipated. The strawberries were never enslaved. Only the people who cultivated them could be subject to such an evil.

Then someone bought the plantation from the religious group and declared it a place where anyone who called himself a Christian could live. The whole world was still a peninsula. “Christians of all denominations” were invited to the new community planned here, a community named after the steamer that transported people back and forth from Jacksonville across the St. Johns River. The boat was called the Clifton and it landed at Clifton Landing.

She remembers. She remembers the whole world in a peninsula. She remembers when everything from the beginning of time, the whole world over, was contained in a diagonal beam of sunlight. She remembers the clear light of the moon in the groves. She remembers how the red spread across the berry.

The red spread across the berry from the fanning out of the leaves to the pointed tip of the fruit, and if no slave or white man picked this fruit, some furred thing ate it, some rodent, some squirrel, some raccoon, some rat.

She never knew what she saw in the faces of the slaves. She picked the grapes from the stems from the vines. Something picked her likewise.

The house was like a boat. It contained all the lives she and her family lived within it. It contained all the energies they produced inside it as well as their dreams. It bore them through the land and across the waters and the rains.

The house was like a human body. It was a human body that was also the shell that contained all the living of the human body. It was the human body that was more than the human body. It was the voiding of bodily wastes, but also the heartbreak and all the things she always mystically misunderstood. The darkness was dear. The morning was maternal. She was always afraid of them both. She always sought each against the other. The house was her, but was also all of her she barely grasped and did not understand.

And the house stood and the house stood and the house stood and the house stood and the house stood.

One night she was thinking of the orange blossoms and the night was so, so hot, it was the middle of July, and she was trying to sleep and she was five years old, and she was crawling with bacteria and viruses, and she pulled at her long hair, and she pulled at her long hair. She sunk into her white bed and her white bed sunk into the wooden floor and the house sunk into the white blossoms of the groves and the white blooms that soon yielded to the berries that spread all the red across their bodies. Mommy. Bacteria. And she pulled at her long sweaty hair. She was filthy and sick. The house encased her and creaked. The orange groves grew and arced and wept heavy with dark green fruit, and the peninsula thundered, and it rained and it rained. The night was unbearably hot and she pulled at her long wet hair.

She remembers the freeze that killed the whole world. She had. By then. Yes. Been dead. For 54 years. But death. Never stopped her from. Remembering.

All the trees died.

All the trees died in 1895.

Every orange bid its weeping branch goodbye.

The orange groves died.

All the orange trees died in 1895.


Oh god how they missed you.

She remembers the whole world. She remembers the whole world was the sunlight and the dark green oranges and the strawberries.

Then they tore her stomach out in 1953.

She doesn’t know that she can finish this history. Goodbye, she says, but when she pays attention to her own history, she can’t pick herself up for months. Goodbye, my sweetest friends. My dear, my dear, my dearest friends. But the metempsychosis always billows forward.

The peninsula, which she had once known as the whole world, they had called Arlington Bluff, and then they built the Arlington Expressway, and they cut her peninsula off from everything. Her world had always existed cut away from the world. She had not known that at first. She hadn’t known it for a very long time. In 1953, an expressway cut her world apart from a place called Arlington that was becoming a place apart from but part of a place called Jacksonville that had once been only a place across the river.

The tangerines that burgeoned out from blossoms in the 1960s and the 1980s and at the turn of the 21st century near the old Clifton family graveyard at the corner of Noble Circle South and Magnolia Bluff Avenue bore ghosts. She pulls a tangerine from the constellation of orange globes hovering in the wind in the dark green leaves. It peels easily. It has a tang, but it’s sweet. The rain is coming, just as it has always come. If there is a calm before storms, she knows that the calm also surrounds and contains the storm. The dark is coming, just as it always has.

She walks through the trees, just as she always has. She remembers when she was new to this world. She remembers when to focus on a single strawberry was to make the whole world that one reddening fruit. She walks across the pond between the cypress trees. The beauty of her peninsula breaks her heart, but the pain is sweet, like the smell of decay. She walks between the houses in the rain and the calm contains her.

She walks through the rain and the trees, just as she always has. 1841. She was six years old. Julia.