Posted by: floridanature | February 8, 2009

Puzzle Lake Removed: Of Faulkner & Gumption

I am in a trailer park near Sorrento, somewhere between Sanford and Mt. Dora. It is Tree’s birthday, and he’s set up shop for it in the carport of the double-wide he shares with his lady friend.

And so we go there, because sometimes you just do stuff that you feel is righteous. By the time we arrive, a small party is underway.

I’d written about “Tree” before, months ago when my friend Michelle Thatcher and I had visited his camp on a low shore in the labyrinthic maze of marsh and water that is Puzzle Lake. We kayaked there, set up our tents nearby, and had joined him for a remarkable night on the marsh, just us and his friend April, and the great bowl of stars above. Tree is an old Vietnam vet, and socialization is not one of the ideas important to him. That night, he cleaned softshell turtle and catfish, and fried up a bunch of hush puppies. The sun melted into the majestic horizon of marsh and southern blackwater, and we melted into the night with it.

But now Tree is in a trailer park off a country lane; he is still frying up catfish, except this time in a little FryBoy sort of device, and not atop a Coleman camp stove. The pieces of the fileted catfish are uniform, brown strips, variations, but none any larger than another. These are not the chunks of catfish Tree cooked back at his river camp; they are tasty, but also are just a bit too perfect. We are surrounded by trailers, the American dream extruded into neat and rectangular boxes of thin metal. Lots of rules to be followed.

And I have changed since the visit to Tree’s old Puzzle Lake camp, as have the emotional dynamics of my life. The water that was here six months ago has gone on, moved away downstream through the St. Johns river valley and out to sea. As Hericlitus once reminded us: One can never step twice in the same river. The water of one day, one hour, one minute is as gone as yesterday, all past tense, never to be again. There are consequences to this flow, to be sure, but they are not as easy to figure as the science of water movement.

I think a lot today about socialization and the powerful influence it has on us all. I’m convinced a great part of the quandry Florida is in today has to do with this. Lawyers and builders and developers and their shill politicians follow a lifestyle driven not by a higher aim but by greed. And they more often than not do so because they rationalize it all out, pretending to be essential clogs in the food chain, somehow more righteous and deserving than you or I. They go to churches and hang with clubby, cold-hearted folks, and spin their wrong-doings as part of a pretentious Trickle-Down Scheme to make us all prosperous and happily complacent. It doesn’t work.

And so here, now, we are in our carport. The last time I saw Tree he was cranking up the volume on his cassette recorder—playing that great old rock ‘n roll from his time in Vietnam. He was darting about in the half light of the wild and remote Florida marsh, slicing up turtle and catfish, and then, tossing it all into boiling oil on the camp stove. He was half-mad, but also saner than most left brained lawyers I have met. And he was having fun, a big ol’ kid just being himself without the ruse of phony social protocol and other terrestrial delusions.

It was a moment that snapshot its way into my mind, one of those experiences I will never forget, ever. The pure raw energy of person and place were so strong that I could barely process it emotionally. I just ate catfish and turtle, drank a few beers, and when it got fully dark, I simply watched the grand theater of the stars overhead in this remote place, giving myself over to the primal wildness of it all.

And so, Tree is now land-bound and for so many reasons I can’t describe, I am both glad to see him and, deep in my heart, nostalgic for the wonderously feral man and the wondrously feral Florida landscape where he lived.

The point ? Well, I think you get it.

The great nature writer Ed Abbey—so in your face, so reveling in his iconoclastic spirit—would have appreciated Tree, just as we did, and still do. Sentiment without action, Abbey once wrote, is the ruin of the soul.

While Tree had never read Abbey, he surely embodied every bit of that. In this case, the action wasn’t the politically correct, buttoned-down behaviors so often passed off as normalcy. Instead, it was a simple matter of forging a conduit between emotion and thought and deed—and then, having a great time in doing so. It was laughing in the face of the gods who would wish us to live petty, vengeful lives, directed perhaps by Old Testament constraints. The days and nights on the wilderness of the river and marsh were good ones, if only because it proved there are authentic ways a human can fully live his or her life in this post-industrial world. It was be-here-now, and that alone is enough.

I think now of those sad tiny souls who won’t ever have the guts—what my dad used to describe as “gumption”—to go beyond their careful and controlled lives, who can’t allow themselves the full use of this way-too-short human experience. More often than not, their actions only mimic reality, dancing about it with great cleverness. These are the folks who can hurt you the most, because they have embedded themselves into our society; they wear the mantle of it to justify all that they do. Some hide inside the fancy cloak of culture that embraces art; these are often the most spineless of them all. And, this is the failure of “art for art’s sake.” A gifted musician may be a courageous emotional person; but then again, they may simply be a gifted technician out of touch with the rich rewards and consequences of life’s grit.

Despite the moral tone of this little missive, I do firmly believe that those who are brave—or who are not— are driven not by moral imperatives. I believe it either comes out of a strong spirit and great emotional depth, or it doesn’t. A skilled writer or painter or musician is a thing to behold. But they simply may not have the gumption to take their caring beyond the words, the notes, the brush stroke—the technical skills. Perhaps, that lack of strength is genetically encoded, a recessive gene passed down through the generations, just waiting for the right moment to inform a life with its predispositions.

Whenever I stumble across an artist—or anyone— who embodies great spirit and great tenacity, I stand back in awe and admire it all, not unlike a patron might admire a great work of art.

In his novel “The Light in August”, Faulkner wrote that a man running towards—or away from—a cannon does so not from an intellectual conceit of morality. He does not think of himself as a hero, or as a coward. He simply does it.

Sometimes, if he cares deeply in his heart, he rises up when he can for the good fight, takes a punch to the chin—metaphoric and otherwise. And then gets up, dusts himself off, and keeps right on going. In doing so, he does not think this is a particularly courageous thing to do.

He does it because that is all he knows.

Happy Birthday, Tree. And thanks for hanging in there.



  1. A very touching essay! Thanks for letting us read it!

    I’ve known some people who remind me of Tree.

  2. Thanks much, Larry. There’s so much more here to describe, and maybe I will someday.

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