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David Rains Wallace

The Green Tunnel

The thing that struck me most about Bulow Hammock is the hardest to describe: the smell. Hammocks are woodlands (the name refers specifically to hardwood groves that punctuate the more open marshes and pine woods of Florida, and may derive from Indian words for “shady place,” “garden place,” or “floating plants”), but Bulow Hammock didn’t smell like any woodlands I knew. I was used to the brisk, humus-and-chlorophyll tang of New England woods with their associations of uplifting weekend hikes. The hammock was different.

I must have been about nine years old when I first encountered the hammock, so I didn’t articulate any of this. Yet I clearly remember my sensations on stepping out of my parents’ car into the shade of the magnolias and cabbage palmettoes. I was fascinated but daunted. The Connecticut woods I’d played in had been inviting, welcoming. The hammock was … seductive. It smelled sweet, a perfumy sweetness that reminded me of the hotel lobbies and cocktail lounges I’d occasionally been in with my parents.

Smells are hard to describe because we can’t really remember them as we do sights and sounds, only recognize them. Smells lie deeper than our remembering, thinking forebrains, in the olfactory lobe we inherited from the early vertebrates. Yet they are related to thought in profound ways because our nocturnal ancestors, the early mammals, lived by smell. The human ability to relate present to past and future may stem from this scent-tracking of food, an activity which takes place in time as well as space, unlike a hawk’s immediate striking on sight, and thus implies planning. The curious resonance smell has in memory, as when Proust conjured an epoch from a teacup, suggests that we have a great deal to learn from it.

Complex smells are the hardest to describe. Bulow Hammock smelled stranger than liquor and perfume. It smelled intricately spicy, with a sweetness not so much of flowers as of aromatic bark and leaves. There also was an air of decay in the sweetness, not the rich, sleepy, somewhat bitter decay of New England woods, more of a nervous, sour atmosphere. When I scraped my foot over fallen leaves on the ground, I didn’t uncover the soft brown dirt I was used to, but white sand and a network of fine, blackish roots like the hair of a buried animal. The sand was part of the smell too, a dusty, siliceous undertone to the spice and decay.

There was something dangerous about the smell, something inhibiting to my nine-year-old mind. I didn’t want to rush into the hammock as I’d have wanted to rush into an unfamiliar Connecticut woodland. It wasn’t that the hammock seemed ugly or repellent, on the contrary. The seductiveness was part of the inhibition. Perhaps it was just that the hammock was so unfamiliar. It’s easy to read things into childhood memories. But the smell was powerful.

Society is suspicious of wild places because it fears a turning away from human solidarity toward a spurious, sentimental freedom. It is interesting, in this regard, to recall how little of freedom there was in my first perception of Bulow Hammock, how little of the unfettered feeling I got in sand dunes, hill meadows, pine woods, or other open places that promised release from streets and classrooms. I wonder if the hammock inhibited me because there was more of humanity about it than a dune, meadow, or pine forest has; not of humanity in the sense of society and civilization, which (however irrationally, given the history of civilization) we associate with safety, but of animal humanity, of the walking primate that has spent most of its evolution in warm places like Florida, spicy, moldy, sandy places. Perhaps it wasn’t the strangeness of the hammock that made it seem dangerously seductive, but a certain familiarity. It is, after all, dangerous to be human.

We’d come to Florida to visit my father’s mother, who had a retirement cottage in Ormond-by-the-Sea, an early geriatric enclave complete with shuffleboard court (which, three decades later, has become somebody’s driveway). On the drive south, we’d passed another stretch of coastal hammock that was being burned and bulldozed during some kind of road construction involving sweaty convicts in gray twill. There’d been something very malignant-looking about that stretch of charred palmetto. Blackened fronds had thrust at the sky like fire-sharpened spears. As though to heighten the effect, someone had erected a doll’s head, also charred, on a crooked stick.

I couldn’t have looked at this scene for more than a few seconds, but it made a big impression. At nine, I had no very firm grasp of its rational implications, of the likelihood that the head had been stuck up there by some whimsically ghoulish convict who’d found it while grubbing in the brush. I must have been aware of that likelihood, but other things seemed possible: that it was a real head, a baby’s or a monkey’s; that it manifested an unknown savage world in the uncut hammock farther from the road, of which there was a lot more in Florida then. The southern landscape threw the human and wild together more than the northern. I remember a great loneliness in it, brown fields of broomsedge reaching almost to the horizon, and unpainted shacks against ragged woods over which circled vultures in numbers out of proportion to the vacancy beneath them. The blackwater swamps that the road periodically passed over seemed cheerful in comparison, albeit dangerous.

Of course, my response to the road construction-fire, sticks, head, uncut green wall in the distance-was an educated one, as was my response to Bulow Hammock’s smell. It would be banal to assert that the smell awakened atavistic race memories of life in the jungle. We’d been getting our first taste of human evolution in my fourth grade class, and I’d found that pretty spicy, all those skeletons and hairy people: Piltdown Man (we must have been the last class to get Piltdown Man, since the hoax was discovered around that year), Java man, Peking Man. A normally bloodthirsty fourth-grader, I’d thrilled to learn that Peking Man had scooped out and probably eaten the brains of other Peking men. I’d seen the “green hell” jungle movies of the early fifties: Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle, Jeff Chandler in Green Fire. I had a whole set of cultural preconceptions ready for Bulow Hammock.

Yet banality is a kind of fossilized reality, the bones of insights buried in the silt of intellectual fashion. I wouldn’t dismiss my nine-year-old perceptions just because they were culturally conditioned. Classrooms and movie theaters teach little about smell, for one thing, and, sophisticated as they are, they still share with nine-year-olds a descent from spicy, moldy, sandy places. We don’t know enough about that descent to dismiss anything. Fire, sticks, head, and green wall have been at the center of things for most of human experience, and they still are, in a sense, although the green wall may have receded.

A green wall is what Bulow Hammock seemed as my father drove down the low sand road leading into it, or rather a green arch, a tunnel. Its surfaces seemed much solider than the crumbly coquina of the nineteenth-century sugar plantation ruins we had come to the hammock to see. The mill was roofless while the hammock enclosed us completely, from its ground-hugging coonties, dog hobble, and saw palmetto to its undergrowth of feral orange, bayberry, hornbeam, and dahoon to its canopy oflive oak, redbay, magnolia and cabbage palmetto. Glimpses of the hammock interior lacked perspective: they had the wavery, spotty aspect of underwater things. The plant forms were too eccentric for geometry — palm, spike, spray, corkscrew, club, plume, lace, spiral. It was beautiful, but the intricacy was like the complexity of smell. It inhibited. Its seductiveness was also a warning because it hinted at passionate entanglement more than freedom or tranquility.

 

I followed my parents around the sugar mill ruins like a good little boy. The Seminoles had burned the plantation in 1835: that was interesting. There were displays of implements found in the ruins, and a brochure about the plantation’s history. There wasn’t any explanation of the hammock. There may have been signs identifying birds or plants, but if there were, they did little to elucidate the fearful seductiveness of the place, a seductiveness to which the adult world seemed curiously immune. But then, children are used to being surrounded by powerful, unexplained seductions.

I never did venture into the hammock as a child, although I wandered miles through the Connecticut woods. I don’t recall going more than a few yards even into the barrier island scrub that grew behind my grandmother’s cottage in the fifties, before the Ormond Mall was built. The mailman had put his hand into a pile of leaves (trusting children, we didn’t ask why) and had withdrawn it with a coral snake attached to the skin between his fingers. Coral snakes, grandmother told my sister and me, had to hold and chew their victims to inject their almost invariably fatal poison.

Grandmother wasn’t a snake-hater: her deepest antipathies were for the British Royal Family (her father was Irish), J. Edgar Hoover (her former employer), and other select humans. She was more passionate in her opinions than most grandmothers, always applauding when Harry Truman appeared in movie newsreels, whether or not anybody else did. Perhaps because of this, her dictums had considerable authority, and we weren’t about to put our hands in any dead leaves, or our feet. There were poisonous copperheads in the Connecticut woods of course, but they didn’t chew on you. We contented ourselves with watching big toads eat little toads in her backyard.

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