Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had a special affinity toward southern magnolias, exulting in the beauty of the magnolia tree that grew in the orange grove next to her one-story wooden cottage in North Florida. “There is no such thing in the world as an ugly tree, but the magnolia grandiflora has a unique perfection,” Rawlings wrote in “Cross Creek.”
Author and professor Leslie Kemp Poole shares how Rawlings reminds us that we need to find our own moments and places of enchantment, however small they are or however brief the experience—especially a flowering tree—and let them enrich our days.
Editor’s Note: This is the first piece in The Marjorie’s new series Lessons from the Marjories, where Florida women explore connections between the three Marjories and their own lives.
I’ve been thinking a lot about magnolias. My frequent quarantine walks take me through my neighborhood where their lush white blooms have exploded, sending a sweet, lemony scent into the air. I never realized how many magnolias are in my Central Florida community until now; it seems every other yard displays the beauty of the dark, shiny-leaved evergreens.
They are a sign, my mother used to say, of hospitality. She planted one in the yard of my Tampa childhood home, and we watched it grow for years until it was taller than our two-story house. Sure, it could be a mess, regularly dropping large leaves on our manicured lawn. But my mother adored the tree and I, feeling her passion, loved it, too. Revisiting the home after we were forced out by divorce, I was deeply saddened to see that the next occupant had cut it down.
Writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings shared my mother’s affinity for the species, exulting in the beauty of the magnolia tree that grew in the orange grove next to her one-story wooden cottage in North Florida.
“There is no such thing in the world as an ugly tree, but the magnolia grandiflora has a unique perfection,” she wrote in “Cross Creek,” her 1942 collection of essays about her rural home. “The tree is beautiful the year around.”
Earlier Florida visitors agreed with her view. William Bartram, a Quaker naturalist from Pennsylvania who wandered through the area in 1774, described the trees as “the glorious pyramidal magnolia grandiflora” and noted their “large, beautiful and expansive white fragrant blossoms, and great heavy cones on slender procumbent branches.”
Bartram, on a plant-collecting trip for a wealthy British benefactor, saw many other varieties of magnolia along a path that ultimately would wind through the entire southeast.
John Muir, who as a young man mostly walked from Indiana to Florida in 1867 collecting botanical specimens, also admired the tree. By the time he reached southern Georgia, he noted the “Magnolia grandiflora becoming common. A magnificent tree in fruit and foliage as well in flower,” he wrote in his journal.
In the coming months, Muir would find his way to California where he delighted in the Sierra Nevada mountains and became a noted writer and environmental activist.
My environmental literature students at Rollins College enjoy Muir’s tale of climbing to the top of a 100-foot Douglas Spruce where he spent hours looking at the scenery as a storm hit. In his 1894 essay “A Wind-Storm in the Forests,” Muir wrote:
“We all travel the milky way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.”
The United States has eight native magnolia species that range up to 80 feet in height. Two are evergreen, including the Magnolia grandiflora, commonly known as the southern magnolia.
Anne Balogh of the “Garden Design” website reports some interesting magnolia facts: that the trees are among the earliest known flowering plants, their fossils date back more than 100 million years, they are pollinated by beetles, and that the “oldest trees on the grounds of the White House are two southern magnolias planted between 1829 and 1837 by Andrew Jackson…in memory of his wife, Rachel, who died shortly after he won the election.”
When her southern magnolia bloomed in April and May, the flowers were “sometimes eight or ten inches across, and the perfume is a delirious thing on the spring air, I would not trade one tree for a conservatory filled with orchids,” she wrote.
Rawlings carefully cut blooms and placed them in water to adorn her wooden Cracker-style farmhouse.
When the flowering was done, she missed them so much that she had her artist friend Robert Camp, of Ocala, paint them on a metal tray kept in her living room. He didn’t want to paint the tray, fearing that it might rust, but she persisted.
“Now I have them, imperishable at least for my lifetime, with the inexplicable added loveliness that true art gives to reality.”
Rawlings was a transplant to Florida, coming in 1928 from Rochester, New York. She and her husband Charles planned to become full-time writers in this exotic setting, living off the bounty of their orange grove. It was a strange, new world for her but one she immediately embraced; Charles only lasted a few years.
“When I came to the Creek, and knew the old grove and farmhouse at once as home, there was some terror, such as one feels in the first recognition of a human love, for the joining of person to place, as of person to person, is a commitment to shared sorrow, even as to shared joy.”
And in her first days in her new home, Rawlings found the magnolia to be her joy, her spiritual nourishment, capable of sustaining her through the darkest of times.
“I do not know the irreducible minimum of happiness for any other spirit than my own. It is impossible to be certain even of mine,” she wrote. “Yet I believe that I know my tangible desideratum. It is a tree-top against a patch of sky. If I should lie crippled or long ill, or should have the quite conceivable misfortune to be clapped in jail, I could survive, I think, given this one token of the physical world. I know that I lived on one in my first days at the Creek.”
A view of a tree as the last tonic of hope, of beauty. Others have felt the same way.
In his harrowing account of life in Nazi concentration camps, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” survivor Viktor E. Frankl recalled the story of a young woman facing death whose comfort was a small token from the natural world:
“Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations?” “Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.”
Rawlings viewed her magnolia from the west window of her kitchen, often watching the sun set behind it. A man once tried to convince her to cut it down, claiming that it sapped the nourishment from nearby citrus trees, but he was talking to the wrong person.
She had toiled many long hours in that hot kitchen and the “magnolia never failed of its beauty and comfort.” Rawlings was determined to save it, writing,
“The tree that nourished me in a lean time is still here and will be as long as I can protect it from everything short of lightning.”
She once was horrified, during a walk along a rural area road, to find magnolia trees stripped of their branches. The boughs had been cut by “paid thieves” so the leaves could be used for funeral wreaths, she learned.
“The destruction seemed to me a symbol of private intrusion on the right of all mankind to enjoy a universal beauty. Surely the loveliness of the long miles of magnolia bloom was more important to the living than the selling of the bronze, waxy leaves for funerals of the dead.”
It has been 78 years since Rawlings wrote about her beautiful magnolia and much has changed. Her farmhouse is now a much-visited state park but the original tree, memorialized in an Edward Shenton black-and-white illustration in her book, is gone.
The tray is on display in the lovingly preserved living room, which includes an oil painting of magnolias in a vase above the mantle. Camp also painted those magnolias; it was restored in 1988 and Camp signed it in Magic Marker during a celebration of what would have been Rawlings’ 92nd birthday (she died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953).
But Rawlings’ writings remain and when I take students to visit the house, we look through a different kitchen window to view another magnolia and ponder her words:
“I do not understand how any one can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.”
I ponder her words these days as I escape the bounds of my house for yet another ramble, furtively putting my face in a neighbor’s magnolia bloom to inhale its scent. We need to find our own moments and places of enchantment, however small they are or however brief the experience—especially a flowering tree—and let them enrich our days.
The author thanks Scott Spaulding, park manager at the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park for his photographs and assistance with this essay.
Leslie Kemp Poole, PhD, is assistant professor of environmental studies at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. She is author of “Saving Florida: Women’s Fight for the Environment in the Twentieth Century” and former executive director of the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society. Poole is working on two books for the University Press of Florida centered on Florida nature and history.
Photos courtesy Leslie Kemp Poole, Scott Spaulding, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region, Library of Congress, Pcgn7 / CC BY-SA & State Archives of Florida