by Tim Gilmore, 11/23/2014
The light turns to gloaming before I take the right road off the road, seeking the seasonal bacchanal celebration of poetry called Verse Versus.
I know the area, I think. I did an archaeological field school on Black Hammock Island and I’ve wandered the little Pumpkin Hill Cemetery to find the cenotaphs for Mylette and Lillian Annette Anderson, two little girls serial killer Paul John Knowles confessed to kidnapping and murdering nearby in 1974 but whose bodies were never found.
But when night falls on these woods, you’re as lost as Amelia Earhart, so if you find the art farm, as Junah later tells me, “You’re meant to be here.”
I’m too postmodern a romantic to believe much in the cosmos intending things personally for us, or maybe my Southern Baptist childhood just ruined me for notions of a personal relationship with the universe, but to finally ease over the two-tire-track road between the tall darkening pines toward the art farm does bring me a sense of homecoming.
And Junah’s assumed last name, “Nostos,” means just that in Greek.
I’ve always loved that odd sense of coming home to a place I’ve never been. I’ve felt it in some anonymous late-night restaurant in New York, at the Gandhi statue in Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, and on foot walking the dark-red brick environs of Portland, Maine.
Maybe I feel homecoming here because several poets and writers have told me about Five Acre Spread, or because, although I love cities, I’ve also thought I’d love to live at Terk’s Acres Goat Farm or Maggie’s Herb Farm in St. Johns County.
Invitees are welcomed to bring poetry, music, whiskey, and debauchery, to carry tents and hula hoops and “fire to spin and breathe,” and the falling leaves, and the dusk.
But the privacy of the woods also puts me on edge. I’m a Southerner after all, and I’ve always known what kinds of things were done to people in Southern forests. Any tree old enough, though the probabilities are against it, just might have found itself sturdy enough once for a lynching.
Yet the wild of the woods always fills me with wonder. The wild is the alien most earthly. The wild is what we cannot be, no matter how the most violent of us might like to think ourselves lions. A Florida panther can’t stand beside herself and examine her behavior and try to reinvent herself. Wildlife is immediate, and you and I are always self-imagined.
Then I see Keri Foster, smart and lyric poet and gracious host of literary events back in the Park and King District of my city neighborhood of Riverside. Soon I see Stephanie Worley, tiny and tattooed with her short dark hair cropped so to make her head a lovely nettled Irish hillock. Then I see Rachel Lindsey, who recites poetry at Silver Cow Watering Hole in Riverside and belts out bluesy tunes and is disappointed that Silver’s Cow’s “LadyBoy” is just a cocktail.
There are hippies in the little wooden kitchen building. There are bottles of wine and six-packs from local breweries Intuition and Bold City. Masks and paintings hang on wooden supports and a worn rattan armchair sinks into a corner. On one wooden building support are the words, “Anima Mundi,” the Platonic name for the World Soul, which always reminds me of the Spiritus Mundi in Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”
By the entrance into the “Poetry Lounge” in the old white school bus, a wooden house door inscribed with “Freak Show 7:30 Tonight” invites us in. The back of the bus is covered by a large fiery yellow yin-yang symbol with dragons facing each other ouroborically.
Inside the bus is Alex Rodriguez strumming his guitar and a baby crawling across a blanket. Junah’s wife Elby stands over their baby Oliver, a bandana holding back her long hair.
Seven of us walk out across the wooden dock into the swamp, broken pencils of yesterday’s trees stick straight up though cool muck. Several planks from the walkway that runs sharply through the marsh dropped long ago into the watery land, having left gaps beneath our steps.
There’s a fire going. Faces on canvases hang in the trees. There’s a treehouse covered in outsider art. There are tenants staying here at Five Acre Spread’s art farm residencies. They’re quiet. They keep to themselves. They quietly wish us a good time at tonight’s festivities. One of them is a “channel,” which is something like the new word for “medium.”
Keri and Stephanie and I walk to the treehouse. Junah lived here last winter, and he and his 11 year-old son slept through cold nights before he moved into the surprisingly homey corrugated shed the other side of the kitchen house.
Other artists stayed in the treehouse before Junah. Sculptures of warped sunrays stand in copses behind it.
Blackberries and star-flowered beggar’s tick weed grow up over and around a driftwood sculpture of a lost armored sauropod. Truly everything imaginable has climbed up from the mucky ancient earth here to be pulled back into the muck in consummation.
Bramble arabesques and driftwood cover the stairs and deck of the treehouse, bikes reclining beneath the upper deck. A long ungulate double skull glows white off a corner joist. Some large taxidermically stuffed waterbird hangs by a string from a tree, its wings spread as if its corpse is ready to take flight.
Junah keeps meeting us beneath the trees. He grew up in Seattle and the guru vibe resonates off him.
I’ve wondered numerous times how much of a hippie I am. I’ve got the beard and long hair and think of the earth itself as my entire spirituality. But I’m not as easy-going as I hope everyone thinks I am. I’m pretty tightly wound behind a veneer of being “laid back,” whatever that means. I love Walt Whitman and Mary Oliver, but I’m bored if I don’t read a hundred pages a day and write at least five. I like wine, but I drink to work, not to unwind. Pot does nothing for me. I’m always looking for the next ghost, but I can’t surrender myself without producing something of my surrender.
The deck before the shed, with flames painted against a backdrop of yellow around the door, holds Tiki torches and Adirondack chairs. Inside, Junah and Keri and Stephanie and I talk about the spaces in which we live our lives.
Junah has a photo of Walt Whitman on the wall. He talks about living mindfully and intentionally. He’s taught locally at a private school and says a steady job always makes him feel less secure. When the school threw out bleachers, he rescued them for wall-use in his forest bedroom.
We talk about the importance of trying, as much as possible, to define your life for yourself. We don’t talk about the limits of those definitions. Junah and I hit one note in common after another, but I’ve had three glasses of wine and Junah has a bottle of Merlot tucked in his armpit. Elby stands beside us breastfeeding Oliver. Behind the kitchen house, a campfire blows its flames toward the treetops and strong herbal aromas drift occasionally toward that apex.
The night’s come through the trees, and Junah and my friends have been kind to me, and I’m glad to find one more instance of the diversity of human living in Northeast Florida.
Walking down the double-tire-track road beneath the pines, I find a sheet of plywood painted with branches and a pitchfork standing in the ground before it.
I remember when the poet Mary Oliver found that stillborn one-eyed kitten “and buried it in a field / behind the house.” She could have called a museum, or at least the local small-town newspaper,
But instead I took it out into the field
and opened the earth
and put it back
saying, it was real,
saying, life is infinitely inventive,
saying, what other amazements
lie in the dark seed of the earth, yes.
Mary Oliver failed to mention taxidermy and portraits of nudes hanging in trees. She failed to mention plasma-screen-TVs in corrugated metal sheds by the swamp. She failed to mention locally brewed beer and homegrown herbal emanations. She failed to mention that three small cars with Jax Psycho Geo bumper stickers would be parked at the art farm tonight.
But you can’t mention everything. You just have to mention the right particular that represents everything else, and celebrate the whole in any one specific each. This morning I buried a rat my all-white blue-eyed half-feral cat had killed and left dead in my tarragon and basil. I buried the stiffened rat with its hardened tail beneath the Mulberry covered in the Bleeding Heart Vine.
I hope to pull down its berries to my mouth in the spring and support and fill myself with what the ground offers to grow for me.