I went for a walk today down a secluded trail lined with towering Oaks and Magnolia trees dripping Spanish Moss. It was early in the morning and the sun was still partially nestled beneath the horizon. Its golden rays seemed to be stretching awake, gently punching through the canopy of waxy green leaves.
I had driven by the sign to Eden State Park hundreds of times since moving to Florida, but I had never ventured inside the park. With a full day of writing and cleaning ahead of me, I decided to explore. I decided the mound of laundry and pages of edits could wait.
As often happens when I am alone in nature, my thoughts drifted to other times and other places. I thought of the home I had once owned in Charleston, South Carolina. An old, jagged magnolia tree had stood in my backyard. It never bloomed, but copious amounts of Spanish Moss hung from its weathered branches in a way that reminded me of a skeleton draped in tattered bandages. I probably should have had that tree removed, but I was too entranced with its haunting beauty. I remembered how my home had been located a short distance from Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and how much I had enjoyed driving down the long, winding, tree-lined road that ran in front of the historic site. Many times, I would drive down that road in the gloaming just so I could look out my sunroof at the Spanish Moss hanging like bodies from the trees.
A grizzled Gullah woman once told me that one of the trees outside Magnolia Plantation had been used to hang run-away slaves. She had smiled sadly as she called it The Hanging Tree, her ebony face split as her lips parted to reveal a mouth full of missing and yellowing teeth. I don't know if that old Gullah woman had told me the truth. I reckon she had just decided to entertain herself on that sultry day by telling tales to a gullible woman with a camera. Truth or tale, from that point on, every time I drove by that tree, I imagined the limp, battered bodies of run-away slaves swinging from the lowest branches. I saw their ripped clothes flapping in the breeze, heard the low keening of their loved ones. One's imagination is a fertile ground, isn't it?
As I've moved around the South, I have heard many stories about Spanish Moss.
In Georgia, I was told the moss was the hoary beard of a thieving Spanish pirate, who wrecked his ship near a craggy part of the coast. Although he survived the wreck and was able to drag his water-logged body to shore, a group of angry merchants were waiting for him. They took him to a Live Oak and hung him by the neck.
In Alabama, I heard a local historian tell the following story: A Spanish soldier fell in love with an Indian chief's favorite daughter. Although the chieftain forbade the couple to see each other, they continued to meet in secret. When the father discovered them locked in a tender embrace, he ordered his men to tie the Spaniard high up in the top of an ancient tree. The chieftan was a fair man. He told the Spaniard he could go free if he promised to leave and never return. The Spaniard refused. Shortly before his death, the Spaniard vowed that his love would continue to grow even after death. When at last the Spaniard died, the chief kept the body tied up in the tree as a warning to any other would-be suitors. Before long, the Indians began to notice that the Spaniard's beard continued to grow. As the years went by, the beard grew stronger and longer and covered all the trees of the forest.
I lost myself in the maze of moss and memories, until I came to a wide lawn with emerald green grass. At the center of the knoll stood a grand Live Oak, its branches stretched out like arms in a welcoming embrace. A breeze blew a clump of moss onto my feet and I bent to pick it up. I held the gray mass in my hand, noticing the intricate way the strands intersected, and I realized how much nature mimics human life. We are all Magnolia Trees and our most powerful memories cling tenaciously to our branches, giving us dimension and a unique beauty. Like that Magnolia Tree in my backyard, even when we have grown old and withered by time, even when we have lost our ability to bloom, we still have our memories, our Spanish Moss.