Posted by: floridanature | October 23, 2008

What the House Remembers: Zona & Me

I stopped by to see Zona yesterday. I had given her an orchid a couple weeks ago, and it was about bloomed out. I don’t know much about orchids, but do know you can cut them back and fertilize them, and they’ll send out more blossoms. Orchid or not, a visit with Zona is always full of deep and pleasant nostalgia for me.

Zona’s father built the Cracker style house where I lived for 15 years before moving into downtown Sanford just over two years ago. It was outside of town, off one of those little dirt roads that used to define what the farming of the area was all about, back when celery was still big here. Her dad tenaciously assembled the house with a hand saw and a hammer, no electricity, and certainly no power tools. It was 1928.

Zona's house, when it was being built


Zona was a tottler when the house was completed, and she and her sister Evelyn lived in that finely-constructed heart cypress home with the durable steel roof for about l4 or l5 years, until she was ready to start high school, and her parents wanted her to be closer to town so she’d have more social advantages, without a long commute. Downtown was only four miles away, but then, that was a haul. Sanford was a real town, whereas the farm homes of the celery “delta” were rural, isolated.

The house was built on what early photos show to be a pine flatwoods, a habitat underlain with non-porous clay so that rains would seasonally flood it if the lots weren’t properly incised at the perimeters with ditches. The ditches would drain the water away to the St. Johns River nearby. They were still used for that purpose when I moved there in 1991, and sometimes they held so much water that small fish lived in them.

After Zona’s family moved, the Duraks lived there, and owned it right up to when I bought it. Afterwards, a mall was built near the home and the old Cracker communities nearby begin to fall like dominoes. I wrote a book about that process, about what it was like when poorly planned growth washed over a landscape. There had been some very good books written about sprawl, accounting for the empirical impacts of it. But few fully measured the impacts of sprawl on the community, and on the human heart.

After the book was published, I received a touching outpouring of letters and emails from around the country from people lamenting their own losses, because of out-of-control growth. True emotional loss can be painful, and the book clearly touched a chord.

And I heard, second hand, of a few people locally who really didn’t like the book, insensitive sorts with little feeling for the full nuances of such things.  One was a smug attorney who was planning to build a development out in Lake country, using his family’s land he inherited. Despite the so-called green nature of that scheme, his fancy new development was simply sprawl, dressed up in new clothes. Like other types of outlying “tract neighborhoods”, it would have been built far outside the urban service boundaries, would have required the squandering of fossil fuel to commute, and would have used up valuable resources—even covering recharge for our underground aquifer. Other developments continued to be allowed, via “exemptions” of local comp plans, but the slick, glib lawyer couldn’t quite pull this one off and I found that refreshing.

And so today, here are Zona and her husband Art, and myself, living randomly in two other homes beyond the original one, only four blocks away—a distance of pure chance. When I go over to visit, we talk about different things: How Zona’s son is doing with his new restaurant in Tennessee; how their condos over at the beach are faring, and so on. Today, Art goes out and picks a bag of fine little sweet Key limes and gives them to me. I tell Zona and Art of a recent hike I made through a thick hammock down to an old ghost town on the river; she wondered if I had seen any snakes. (I didn’t).

We usually mention the Sewell Road house at some point, because both of us had lived there at different times, and it was a connection that spans the decades, transcending family dynamics and geography and time. Art talked some about the artesian wells that used to be around Sanford, including one at Palmetto and Second Street, and how most of them had been paved over after they dried up. It was the abundance of artesian groundwater that allowed Sanford to prosper with its row crops, since pumps were not needed to bring the water up to the fields. But, with poor crop rotation, the incorrect use of chemicals, and the decline of groundwater pressure, Sanford’s reputation as the “Celery Capital of the World” waned by the 1960’s.

Zona, right before she moved

Zona, right before she moved

Zona is in her early eighties now, and I am a couple generations younger. But I think that linear time is an illusion over the long haul. And all that really matters is that Zona was a little girl and then a pretty young woman when she lived in the house, and I was a middleaged man. Barry Lopez has written that we exude our energy so fully in a place that the place itself remembers us as having been there. And so, the house will always remember us as we once were. And somewhere in the cosmos where clocks keeps a score that really matters, Zona will always be 12 and 13, happy and steadfast in her verve, joyous to be young and alive in the rural country of northeast Florida. And I will always be in my forties and early fifties, reasonably strong of body, and in my heart, always wanting to learn about why the world works as it does. Always trying to record in some way how the delicate transect between art and nature left its mark on me, a mark that with the years, becomes more indelible.

Near the river, right before I moved

Near the river, right before I moved

Before I leave, the phone rings and Zona’s granddaughter on the other end tells her a scan just showed her unborn baby to be a girl, and that the baby would be named “Zona” in her honor. “I always liked that name,” Zona once told me , a few years ago. “It was different, no one could confuse me with someone else.” She is still like that now, clear eyed, spirit-rich, and I can understand why the house remembers her as a young woman.

I take the bloomed-out orchid and promise I’ll trim it back and try to make it flower. Zona and Art walk with me just outside the back door. I admire the giant variegated pothos up on their oak tree, and we all express gratitude for the grand Fall weather around us. And then I shake Art’s hand and kiss Zona goodbye, and go on my way down the street under a canopy of oaks to my own home, just four blocks away, a distance of pure chance and righteous symmetry of the sort that only a good universe can ever imagine.



  1. Hi there, your blog popped up in a Google alert for Florida orchids. Considering your interest in Florida nature and orchids, I would like to invite you to visit my website, devoted to Florida’s native orchids:

  2. Hey Bill.
    As the fourth family to occupy this wonderful house, we enjoy the stories of Zona’s life here….before the mall and the condos and still, we love our little hidden corner of the world…hoping that the Carters of the world will not find us, but as the vacant patch of land at the corner reminds us…..we need to be afraid…..very afraid….keep in touch…and again Thank You…

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