Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), among her many literary talents, could write with remarkable sensitivity about plants. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning children’s book, The Yearling, her twelve-year-old hero notices everything about the Florida backwoods where his family subsists, studying the vegetation to understand more deeply his surroundings:
The tar-flower was in bloom, and the fetter-bush and sparkleberry. He slowed to a walk, so that he might pass the changing vegetation tree by tree, bush by bush, each one unique and familiar. He reached the magnolia tree where he had carved the wild-cat’s face. The growth was a sign that there was water nearby. It seemed a strange thing to him, when earth was earth and rain was rain, that scrawny pines should grow in the scrub, while by every branch and lake and river there grew magnolias. Dogs were the same everywhere, and oxen and mules and horses. But trees were different in different places.
Rawlings’ close observations of plants also contribute to the enduring charm of her memoir Cross Creek. In her chapter, “The Magnolia Tree”, she rhapsodizes:
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. Yet I believe that I know my tangible desiratum. 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. “ And the tree that she would need would have leaves “shining like dark polished jade” and “great white waxy blossoms” “delicate as orchids,” for in the same way that Aldo Leopold loved all trees but was in love with pines, Rawlings was passionate about magnolias.
Now, I hadn’t read any of these passages of Rawlings' until this week. My mother loved her writing, but I’d resisted picking up her books during childhood from stubbornness and more recently from distaste for the racist aspects of Rawlings’ depictions of some Cross Creek neighbors. What made me pick up two of her books at last? On Thursday, February 21st, the U.S. postal service issued a 41 cent stamp in her honor. Old friends and admirers gathered for the first day of issue ceremony at her preserved Cross Creek farm, where a postal service spokesperson announced the stamp's specific goal: to honor her writings about Florida’s natural environment and people. At least for this reader, the stamp did its job of generating fresh interest in a sometimes-neglected writer and, as a result, in the place she loved.
That’s exciting to me, since I’m always trying to think of ways to get people to read more nature books. I checked to see what other nature writers might be depicted on stamps and found Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, Henry Thoreau, and Rachel Carson so far. The Rawlings stamp took years of work by the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society to convince the government that she deserved commemoration. I can think of other nature writers at least as deserving—Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, John Wesley Powell, Henry Beston, William Warner. Of course No. 1 on my list is Aldo Leopold. Maybe after a few years of satisfying effort, we could all gather at Leopold’s Sand County farm to celebrate his work and welcome thousands of new readers to the Almanac, courtesy of the U.S. postal service. I'm not sure how to get the task started, but if it's a letter writing campaign, I'll affix a Rawlings stamp to my first missive.