Here to return to
A FROSTY MORNING
THERE is nothing like weather. It is man’s comfort and his misery; more important still, perhaps, it is his prosperity and his ruin. Indeed, it has almost divine prerogatives. It wounds and it heals; it kills and it makes alive. And this, which in good degree is true everywhere, is especially true in a country like southern Florida, the Mecca at once of pleasure-seeking winter vacationers, health-seeking tourists, and livelihood-seeking settlers. For all these, Florida is what it is because of its climate, that is to say, its weather. Speak with whom you will, weather is the topic that naturally comes uppermost.
Yesterday (January 22) was one of the most delightful days imaginable; for a pedestrian, I mean to say. I know an insect collector, a gentle soul, little used to complaining against the order of the world, who pronounced it “horrid.” For the successful prosecution of her industry there lacked a few degrees of warmth. Florida insects, it appears, are much less hardy than their Northern cousins, keeping indoors, and so out of the net, in temperature such as a Yankee butterfly or beetle, thicker-skinned or thicker-blooded, would scorn to be afraid of. But if yesterday was perfect, to-day, by my reckoning, at least, has been finer still — perfection heaped upon perfection. Yet every one hereabout is more or less unhappy, and with more or less reason. In the night between these two perfect days an air from the North descended suddenly upon us, and the temperature took an alarming drop, some say to 38°, some to 31° — a drop which meant discomfort to all, and disaster to many. When I put my head out of doors at seven o’clock this morning, on my way to the post office, I was startled. My first thought was to run back for an overcoat. Instead of that I put on steam.
Breakfast over, I betook myself to the pine lands, my rule being to improve cool days in that sunny region, leaving the shady hammock woods for hotter weather. It was cold enough for overcoat and mittens. In Massachusetts, with anything like the same temperature, I should certainly have worn them. Here, however, it was not so plain a case. I was to be on foot till noon, and I felt sure that long before that time the lightest outer garment would become intolerable. So I buttoned my one coat tightly about me, stuffed my hands into my pockets, and hastened my steps. For a mile, perhaps, I kept up the pace. By that time the sun had begun to make itself felt. At the end of the second mile the temperature was nothing less than summer-like, and before the third mile was finished my coat was on my arm; and as I came down one of the city streets, on my return at noon, and met two Seminole Indians walking abroad dressed, after their airy fashion, in nothing but waistcoat and shirt, the sight of their comfortable uncivilized legs was calculated to make a perspiring man envious.
By nine o’clock, indeed, the weather was superb; but presently I came to an opening in the woods. Here was a field of tomato plants in front of a new, unpainted house. Some recent settler had cleared a piece of ground and established a home in this land of perpetual summer. And to support himself and his family he had “gone into early tomatoes.” So much was to be seen at a glance. And yes, there stood the man himself in the midst of his plantation. I went near and accosted him, expressing my hope that the frost (for by this time it was plain there had been one) had not damaged his crop. He had been badly frightened in the night, he confessed, but thought he had mostly escaped harm. “I was glad,” he said, dwelling upon the verb with a pleasant foreign accent, “when I saw the thermometer” (pronounced etymologically, with the accent on the penult). I fear he was worse hit than he knew. At all events there were many acres of wilting tomato plants only a mile away on the same road. One man, whom I saw looking over his field, was calling the attention of a solicitous neighbor to the fact that a certain part of the plantation had, fared better than the rest. A few burning stumps had happened to be left smouldering on one edge of the field overnight, and the wind had drifted a light blanket of smoke across that corner.
But even in unprotected gardens the different parts had not fared alike. Here the tender plants were wilting as the sun shone on them, and yonder, only five or ten yards away, there was no symptom of blight. So true is it of tomato vines, as of nobler creations, that one shall be taken and the other left. The frost is like the wind, it striketh where it listeth, and thou seest the effect thereof; and the poor man suffereth with the rich.
Such are the cruel uncertainties of truck farming in this sub-tropical region, far down toward the very tip of Florida. Like the speculator in copper or in oil, the farmer goes to bed rich and gets up poor. But, like the dabbler in “shares,” the farmer is not easily discouraged. Though he has moved from one point to another, farther and farther down the peninsula, the frost pursuing him, he will still try again. There is one thing to be depended upon (let us be thankful to say it) — a sanguine man’s hope.
So much for tillers of the soil. For the rest of us, mere idlers and wayfarers, concerned only with questions of sight-seeing and momentary comfort, a day like the present needs no bettering. My own course, as I have said, lay through the pine woods — sunny, spacious, not in the least like anything that a New Englander would call a forest. At short intervals the road, white and hard, ran past a small clearing, generally with a house upon it. Here would be orange trees, mango trees (just now in bloom), splendid hibiscus shrubs, pineapples, perhaps, with other novelties pleasant for Northern eyes to look upon, or, quite as likely, a field of tomatoes (the fruit nearly grown), or a sweet-potato patch.
Near one of the houses the loud cries of some strange bird troubled my curiosity. The opera-glass showed me nothing, and I was none the wiser till beside a second house I heard the same voice again. This time I put aside my scruples and made a set attempt to solve the mystery. A woman before the door was inquisitive about the stranger, but the stranger was still more inquisitive about the bird; and by and by, on a lower perch than I had thought, there the fellow stood at the top of a shrub, directly before my eyes, a Florida jay. It was nine years since I had seen a bird of his kind, and the sight was welcome accordingly. Perhaps he knew it. At any rate, whether for my pleasure or his own, he held his ground and kept up his harsh, shrikely vociferations.
The Florida jay (a crestless bird, not at all the same as the Florida blue jay, which abounds everywhere and is everywhere noisy, especially in the villages) is strictly a bird of the peninsula, being found nowhere else — a remarkable instance of extreme localization. I ran upon still another individual before reaching the end of my jaunt, — on the outskirts of Lemon City, — and all three were in dooryards. Oak scrub (where you may look out for rattlesnakes) and human neighborhood, these, as I read the signs, are the Florida jay’s desiderata.
In general, as compared with the hammock woods, the pine lands are nearly birdless. An occasional sparrow hawk (another strangely trustful creature, very common in this country1), an occasional mockingbird (more than once in splendid song), a shrike now and then, a flock of myrtle-birds, and another of palm warblers, a good many white-breasted swallows and turkey buzzards overhead, with a bunch of silent sparrows skulking beneath the dwarf palmettoes, — these are what I now remember.
Birds or no birds, flowers or no flowers, I should have enjoyed the eight miles. The bright sunshine, the temperate, genial warmth, the endless, widely spaced woods, the blue sky, and on one side the blue expanse of Biscayne Bay, — summer in winter, — I am not so long from snowy Massachusetts but that these things are enough to make for me a kind of perpetual fiesta. As I said to begin with (and it is as true of thoughts and feelings as of the tenderest of garden crops), there is nothing like weather.___________________
1 One was living in the greenhouse connected with the big hotel. The gardener told me that it had come in of itself, and persisted in staying. He had tried in vain to get rid of it. Tossed out of doors, it would at once return and make itself at home.