Jessie sent out an APB text this morning asking if anyone wanted to go to the Jr.
The Jr. is what we call the Tallahassee Museum because it used to be called The Jr. and change is hard. I've written about this place many times because I've been there many times. I used to go with my own kids and with their classes, too, as a chaperone. I have no idea how many times I've been there. And yet, it never fails to make me happy to go.
I was the only one available to meet with Jessie and so it was just the four of us but that was okay although it would have been a lot of fun to have Maggie and Lily there too. And well, Hank and Rachel and May and Michael but you work with what you have.
I took the interstate to get there and I have to say that the interstate is the way to go if you're looking for speed. The Jr. is way, way on the west side of town and Lloyd is to the east of Tallahassee and if you don't get on the interstate you're going to have to drive straight through FSU and all that crap unless you go another back way which despite my tens of millions of years living here I'm never quite sure about. I have absolutely no sense of direction and navigate almost entirely by landmarks and the landmarks on this other back way have changed so much over the years that I'll be driving along, wondering if I've somehow shifted universes and WHERE THE HELL AM I?
But the interstate is fine if you don't get anxiety driving on it which I sometimes do and actually did today, a little bit, but not too bad. And like I said, it was fast.
I met Jessie and the boys at the old caboose and August was so excited to drive me and his mother to St. Augustine which is where I said I'd like to go when he asked. I think the caboose may be almost every kid's favorite part of the museum and I can totally understand why.
After the train ride we meandered over to the snakes and our timing was good because we got to listen to an educational talk about them. One of the employees or volunteers, I'm not sure which, brought out a lovely oak snake and she told us things I'd never known about snakes, one of which is that they have no breast bone. This makes sense, especially knowing that a snake a quarter of the width of an egg can swallow the egg. I knew about the jaw-dislocating abilities but not that they don't have a breast bone. That allows their ribs to expand.
August had several questions, mostly about how they climb. They were good questions, too.
After the talk everyone who wanted to could touch the snake and August and I did. We had to use only two fingers and stroke it in the correct direction, very gently, so as not to harm it.
After the snakes we went on to see the animals who live in enclosures which are quite large and a part of the natural landscape of the museum while the humans are separated with fences, sometimes on wooden walkways that rise above the ground and sometimes dirt paths. This mostly depends on the animals. It's one thing to walk on the same level as the rehabilitating birds of prey, but it would be another to walk right next to the bears.
This guy (or gal) had his own bed and was actually surrounded by trees and shallow parts of the lake which the museum borders. They make sure that all of the animals have plenty of places to hide from the humans if they are not in the mood to be observed. The bears don't seem to care. Jessie and I agreed that we would love to snuggle with that bear if his claws just weren't quite as daunting.
Every time I'm at The Jr. I think so much of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling because so much of what she writes about in that book can be found there. From the bears and panthers to the old farm with its pig and cow and chickens and cabins and out-buildings. I look at those claws and think about the bear in her book that came onto the property at night and killed their milk cow. This was one particular bear who was old and wise in the way of humans and knew how to break into pens and shelters and who had terrorized the settlers for years, depriving them of the meat they so desperately needed and had so diligently raised. Yes, this is fiction but it represented the real lives of real people who for some insane reason thought it would be a good idea to try and live and raise families in the scrubs of Florida with little more than the sweat of their brow. They spent their lives trying just to keep the grits and grease on their tables with maybe a little pork and venison and chicken here and there, some sweet potatoes, cane to boil down and make syrup of, corn for the beasts and themselves, maybe some fish now and then. The nearest settlements might be a day's wagon-ride away, at least, and that is where they would buy what they could not raise or butcher, the coffee if times were good, the sugar if times were really good, cloth for their clothing, the hardware that they had to have to hold their cabins and plows and wagons together.
So being at The Jr. makes all of that so real to me. It's sweet to see the pretty foxes, the shy deer, the silly white squirrels as they run and chase each other through the trees but the reality of the size of a panther's paws, the bear's claws, the wolf's slow, steady stare as he walks soundlessly across his enclosure, the triangular head of the rattler, of the cotton-mouthed moccasin, are true proof of how scrappy and strong and probably desperate the early settlers of Florida were and when I say "early settlers" I include the original people who lived here, the different tribes of indigenous people who knew the forests and waterways and plants and animals and seasons and storms like we know the names of fast food restaurants and the dates of when the fair comes to town.
I respect all of those people.
But besides all of that, it's just a joy to be there with children. There are rituals that must be observed such as measuring themselves against the sizes of the wolves and coyotes.
There was this.
And then there was this.
August came up with the idea of measuring himself on all fours and Levon joined in.
After we looked at all of the animals we went to the playground and then we had some lunch in their little cafe which was blessedly air-conditioned. It wasn't quite as hot today but it was hot enough. And humid, too.
And then we walked to the little farm which is probably, for reasons stated above, my very favorite part. There's a blacksmith set-up and a place where they grind cane for the juice and then boil it down to make the syrup which was the pioneers' most reliable form of sweetening. There are barns and pens and then, there are the cabins that have been moved to the museum and which stand as displays. They sort of represent my dream house.
I know that sounds crazy but there is something just so pure about such a basic dwelling. There's another cabin that houses the kitchen and I am sure that cooking in there over an open fire in the summer was a sort of hell that I could never do. The funny thing is is that these buildings are not as old as my own house is but my house was obviously built by rich folks and these were not. And yet- we have a little detached kitchen here too. That was very common because of the heat and the risk of fire. We do not use it as a kitchen, but it is there.
Here are my boys, hanging out on the porch.
When Hank was a baby, my then-husband and I lived in an old cabin that did have very basic and funky electricity but no running water. There was an iron pump in the backyard and that's where we got our water. We had an outhouse. And so in a small way, I have lived that life and I am so very grateful that I do not have to live that way out of necessity now. I am also so very grateful that I have done it and know what it's like and I will never take running water or air conditioning for granted in my life.
And of course we could still get in our car and drive to Publix. I may have pumped my water but I didn't have to grow and grind my corn.
Well, all of this is probably part of the reason I do love this old house I live in so much. Even if it's a rich-folks' house, it holds the history of times before when wood was used for heating and cooking, when the hallway was the source of a life-saving breeze, when going to the bathroom in the middle of the night (without a flashlight!) was not actually going to a bathroom but trekking across a yard to a stinky little shack with a wooden seat with a hole in it and hopefully, no snakes.
And probably the reason I keep chickens, too. I am not and never will be a true Florida pioneer woman but I know the value of a flock.
And if I WERE an old Florida pioneer woman, those two young roosters in the back would be on the menu and I wouldn't think twice about it. Meat for the pot and feathers for the pillows.
It was a good day at The Jr.
It always is.