Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Zora Neale Hurston and the Trifecta of 20th Century Florida Women Writers on the Environment

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Today is Zora Neale Hurston's 123rd birthday (thanks for the reminder Google).  If you are not familiar with her, she is the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a true classic from the 20th century.  Hurston was a Florida writer, often associated with the Harlem renaissance of art and literature.  She is part of my trifecta of important 20th century Florida women writers who wrote about the environment in important ways.  Hurston is important for the use of natural imagery in her writing and for the use of nature as a key element of plot.  Take a notice of this text from Their Eyes Were Watching God:

So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things. What things? She didn't know exactly. Her breath was gusty and short. She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to falling seeds and said, 'Ah hope you fall on soft ground,' because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed. She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. 

The aftermath of the 1928 hurricane as recounted by
Hurston.  Click for photo credit.
Hurston also recounts in some detail the horrifying 1928 hurricane that killed hundreds of people south of Lake Okeechobee.  She provides a fictional, but compelling, description of the storm and the impact it had in the lives of others.  If you haven't read the book, stop what you are doing and get it.  It's worth a read.

Just so you know who the other two 19th century women writers on the environment are in my trifecta, they are Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who wrote the important River of Grass, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who wrote the moving book, The Yearling.  The River of Grass was important because it was the first popular book about the significance of The Everglades to the broader Florida and U.S. environment.  It tied together the water, plants, animals, and the hand of man in maintaining and changing this spectacular environment.  The Yearling is important for other reasons.  It provides a nuanced look at the connections of man and nature.  It demonstrates that our actions have distinct impacts on nature in ways that we may not imagine or want.  The main character, Jody, represents the transition of our world from a pastoral agricultural one into a more difficult complicated future.

The natural world of Florida inspires many writers.
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It is interesting that my trifecta of writers all have three names.  They were all born within 6 years of each other in the 1890's.  Hurston and Rawlings published their books within one year of each other in the 1930's.  Douglas published hers a decade later.  Each women spent considerable time in Florida.  None of the women were born in Florida, but all of them died there.

What was it about that time that inspired these three women to write such classic books?  Was it the times?  Or, was it their relationship with nature and their understanding of it?

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