Monthly Archives: April 2019

Neighbors

Neighbors were few and far between at Ziba Khaya and that was perfectly OK by us. We relished the peace and quiet of living the rural life and, with often hectic days and weeks spent running Slideworks and the time spent commuting back and forth to Ocala, well, it was just nice to sit sometimes and read or hang out in the back yard, or perform the myriad of chores and projects it took to keep the homestead running.

We did enjoy getting to know our closest neighbors, which numbered exactly three households. Diane and Andy and their girls lived next door to Andy’s parents, both homesteads situated just to the north and across Yellow Bluff Road from the lake house. South of us, about a 10 minute walk down the road, was Captain Jack’s compact place, where Lucky the dog and Tu and Lu, his Tulouse Geese, made their home.JackGeese

There was also Carl, the ex-Vietnam chopper pilot-turned-lobbyist-cum-bass-guide, who kept a weekend retreat down the road a bit from Jack.

When we first moved into the lake house, K introduced us to the neighbors, kind and generous folks that we would, time and again, call upon for guidance and help. Our first few months were simply full of learning the ins and outs of living in the cabin: Jack knew a lot about the well, the pump, the quirks of the house, where in the barn one could find coal for the wood stove, and where the hole was in the fence that the dogs and deer used to access the property– the list went on and on!

Andy and Diane and their pre-teen girls were a lot of fun to hang out with- we spent more than a few freezing nights under a full moon, hanging out under the oak trees in front of their house until the wee hours,  warming ourselves in front of a blazing fire in the outdoor bar-b-que area Andy built.

Over the years what started as Andy’s outdoor patio grew into “the Cracker Shack”, a rambling outdoor entertainment complex that could rival many an “old style” Florida restaurant cobbled together with native pecky cypress and pine under a tin roof.

Central to the affair was Andy’s massive brick cooking fireplace, augmented by a commercial kitchen area for food prep. The place appeared to have organically grown from this hub; the tin roof supported by massive posts festooned with all manner of Florida bric-a-brac like deer antlers draped with old caps and straw hats, rusted car tags, and wooden duck decoys. Under the roof hung fishing poles, crab pots, nets and floats, mounted bass and salt water fish trophies, deer and ‘coon heads, boar tusks and a range of old wooden farming and fishing implements.  Wooden picnic tables, a few couches and an assortment of plastic and lawn chairs and I think even the bench seat torn out of a min-van provided ample sitting areas. The whole thing was electrified, with lights and ceiling fans, audio system speakers, TV sets and neon beer signs sprinkled throughout.

Then there was the retired and grumpy Georgia farmer Mr. Rush and his wife, who lived down the road a bit from Jack’s place, but on the lake side of the road. I never did spend much time with Mr. Rush, but Anni made friends with him after some event that I don’t recall. Pretty soon he somehow had inveigled her into stashing a bottle of whisky in the woods across from his house so that he could slip out and grab a nip or two under the nose of his apparently severely disapproving wife. This went on for maybe a couple of months, much to Jack’s high amusement, until Mrs. Rush got wind of the goings-on or maybe Mr. Rush passed on, whichever came first.

Of interest to our urban friends was the accepted way to quickly call on your neighbors in an emergency: three quick rounds from a firearm, was sure to get the attention of anyone within earshot, without having to scramble for a phone or look for a telephone number. Not that we ever had to pull that trigger, but it was good to know a reliable way to get somebody’s attention in an area where there was a significant distance between homesteads.

Jack was retired, Andy was a traveling construction manager gone for weeks at a time, Diane raised the girls and ran the homestead, Andy’s parents both worked at a hospital some 50 minutes drive down highway 19 through the forest and Carl infrequently visited his cabin during the year. Even with divergent interests and different schedules, it was amazing how often we’d get together with Jack, or Jack and Carl, or Diane and Andy and Jack, or some mix of all the above, with our friends or family sometimes mixed in. It wasn’t long before we were made to feel very much a part of this little back-woods community, and some of the more poignant and frightening events that happened in our lives at Ziba Khaya invariably involved our friends and neighbors.

Many of the tales in this blog were told and retold over a blazing fire pit in our back yard, or under a full moon while sitting on a bench at the end of the dock, or around a fire in Jack’s back yard while his hunting pals camped out, or around Andy and Diane’s precursor to their Cracker Shack. Writing about them is my way of sharing, and the memories evoked send me back to that time, those places, and among those people once again. It is true, you can never “go home”, but you can relive and revisit and in some small way, pay homage to the people and places that have woven sections of the tapestry of your life.

AnniCartoon

Feathered Friends

Any birder would find this spot on the western shore of Lake George to be a birder’s paradise. The variety was simply endless, and at first we counted on a large “Birds of Florida” poster to help guide us in identifying the bewildering varieties on the wing, floating on the lake, flitting about and flapping and squawking overhead. It didn’t take us long to get a really BIG bird book and pull out the binocs so that we could really get down to business understanding all of the fowl that surrounded us.

At some point in the year, depending on the season, we could spot and study many water fowl, including herons, egrets, coots, Red-winged Blackbirds, ibis, cormorants, ducks, kingfishers, and kites. Besides the waterfowl, there were the woods and uplands birds, ranging from Southern Bald Eagles, Ospreys,  hawks, vultures, turkeys, Wood Storks and Sandhill Cranes, to Cardinals, Grackles and all manner of woodpeckers, including the Red-bellied, Downy and amazing Pileated varieties. Of course there were the owls, and the wrens and other song birds. And then there were the juvenile and gender coloration and behaviors to learn to identify, as well as a plethora of calls and vocalizations.

A whole new world opened to us– of bird behavior, migration patterns, of learning to recognize the difference between the hammering cadence of a Pileated Woodpecker versus, say, a Red-Bellied woodpecker. (Hint: they both call out during tree-drilling sessions, so once you have their call down, it’s pretty easy to make a good guess as to who’s doing what over on that tree, even without spotting the bird.)

We also became rather adept at recognizing birds by their silhouette and how they flew (rapid wing beats, soaring, slower wing beats and so forth). As the seasons progressed, we came to recognize where the nearest mated pair of eagles had their fishing grounds. We often watched lengthy aerial displays and fights when an interloper Osprey or an eagle that wasn’t a member of the family came into the fishing ground. Mostly the dust-up would end quickly but sometimes the battle would last for hours.

Our growing knowledge of our feathered friends and their habits came into amusing play one winter’s evening, when we were sitting around the campfire that Jack’s two buds had blazing out in Jack’s back yard. Every deer hunting season his chums, who, like Jack, were retired DEA agents, would come up to the forest from Miami. They’d unload their truck, set up a tent in Jack’s back yard, and hang out for a week or so, sometimes actually hunting, but mostly just sitting around, drinking beer into the wee hours, and swapping remembrances with Jack.

One evening we were hanging out with Jack and his pals, exchanging tales of drug interdiction in the Caribbean with stories of living on the lake. I think Jack was riffing on one of his tales of the momma black bear that often moved through the area in the early winter, and his friends were rethinking sleeping in the tent versus squeezing into Jack’s compact home. About that time there came an awful, ungodly growling-kind of screeching cacophony, very loud, and it sounded like it was all around us.

For older guys kinda relaxed on a few beers, it was amazing how quickly Jack’s pals jumped up, snatched at their rifles and, bug-eyed, went on the defensive.  Jack, Anni and I remained seated in our camp chairs, laughing our butts off as we explained that the din (which was still going on) was from the colony of nesting Great Blue Herons that surrounded Jack’s cabin.

The guys weren’t convinced that birds could cause such a racket, so Jack went into his cabin and came out with a powerful hand-held spotlight. Motioning to his friends he said “OK you two pussies, come with me and I’ll show you the Boogie Man!”

We all went out to the road and from that vantage point, Jack’s big light illuminated the canopy formed by massive loblolly pines, long leaf pines and old oaks trees just abutting the southern edge of his property. The light clearly outlined the big clumps of twigs that formed the birds’ nests among the leaves and pine needles overhead. We could readily distinguish the bird shapes as they stirred in their nests, some flapping wings, some balancing precariously on the edge of their nests.

“Well, I’ll be damned!”, one of the guys snorted. “Man, I haven’t been that scared in I-don’t-know-when!”

The howls of laughter and the teasing went on for some time, even after we all settled down near the fire again. Jack wasn’t going to let his pals get away easy for being so spooked by “a bunch of birds!”

Later, as Anni and I walked down the graded road back to the cabin, we remarked that it was ironic that two tough DEA agents could have been so frightened by the event. I mean, earlier they had told us tales of some pretty hairy stalks and arrests they had made to catch some serious drug cartel types. I was certainly convinced that these two were pretty macho fellas. Still– we concluded that the fear of the night and wild animals was just too compelling for these urban dwellers who only visited “the outdoors” once a year.

In subsequent years, that tale would be re-told and embellished, and Jack would never fail to bring it up when his friends came to hunt and camp in the wilds of the Ocala National Forest.

Great Blue Heron nesting colony.

The Adventure Begins

Living on a large lake in north central Florida in the Ocala National Forest, in an early 20th century log cabin, no heat, no AC, lotsa wildlife for neighbors. What could be more bucolic?

My friend Anni and I were working for the same audio-visual and video production company in Miami, Florida when the recession of the early 1980s resulted in both of us being laid off from our respective gigs as graphic designers. Try as we may, a full-time graphic design job simply wasn’t to be had, so after several months of fruitlessly shopping our talent around, we started to seriously plan to open a boutique design and corporate events firm, Slideworks, up-state in the north central Florida town of Ocala.

After a couple of months of planning and preparation, we were ready to parlay our “big city” expertise in my home town, where my family connections might provide an intro to business leaders. It also helped that at the time central Florida was experiencing exponential growth; the tourist trade was brisk and banks, planned unit communities, medical centers, schools, malls and manufacturing and distribution businesses were popping up like mushrooms. It seemed the recession had hardly touched this area of the state.

Ocala was a small city of about 35,000 souls, floating in one of the larger counties in the state, with less than 150,000 humans and half as many horses. The city was bordered to the west by expansive, expensive thoroughbred horse farms (“Horse Country!” touted the Chamber of Commerce billboards) and to the east by the Ocala National Forest, some 338,000 acres of scrub, dense woods, deer, turkeys, wild pigs, snakes, gators, bears, millions of board feet of pine lumber and dotted with fresh water springs, rivers and spring-fed lakes. (“Nature’s Playground!” trumpeted the visitor center brochures.)

Soon after hanging out our shingle in the up-and-coming downtown historic district, we managed to lure several corporate clients into our clutches. As newly-minted business owners, we were easy prey for being tapped for membership to all manner of business organizations, and before long were serving on boards and committees from the Chamber of Commerce to the local AdFed and public relations councils. This raised our profile, and before long folks knew about “the Slideworks girls”, even as they tended to mix up our names.

The call

Ocala’s small community of creative professionals welcomed us with open arms. One day a photographer friend of ours, “K”, phoned, explaining that a career opportunity prompted moving his family to a South American country for a couple of years. His property on the shore of Lake George in the Ocala National Forest needed caretakers. Previous caretaker arrangements had fallen through, and knowing we were nature lovers, K had thought of us as potential candidates.

All it took was one visit to this magical spot in the forest and we were hooked! Next thing you know, we were moving from our little rental house in town to our new digs, which we dubbed “Ziba Khaya”, which Anni said was Zulu for “lake house.”

A cabin in the forest

Although a “mere” 45-55 mins drive from Ocala, Ziba Khaya was worlds away from the hustle and bustle of modern suburbia, freeways, and Walmarts. The cabin was reached by driving through the national forest on old 2-lane macadam roads, past scattered farmsteads and hunting camps, skirting the berg of Salt Springs, and eventually coming to a canopied, graded dirt road lazing along the little-developed portion of the western shore of Lake George.

Six miles wide and 11 miles long, Lake George is Florida’s second largest lake, full of huge gators, trophy bass, bream, bluegills and crappie, mullet, blue crabs, stingrays, cottonmouth and water snakes of every hue. In addition, the lake is a birder’s paradise, with one of the largest concentrations of southern bald eagles in the state, ospreys, herons, egrets, owls and, in the case of K’s property, a flock of free-range Bantam chickens.

The cabin was situated on several acres of heavily wooded property that were surrounded by a tall hurricane fence topped with barbed wire. Originally built after WWII, the primary log cabin structure was built from old-growth pecky cypress trees logged from the property and milled nearby.

ZK CabinFrontK’s family initially used the property as a hunting and fishing retreat and later as a place to keep pregnant thoroughbred mares during the winter, where temps at the family’s thoroughbred farm west of Ocala routinely reached well below freezing. The micro-climate of the lake moderated Winter’s chill and Summer’s sweltering temps, which did help one become acclimatized but still, living sans air-conditioning in an old log cabin on a lake is very much like living in a permanent camp, as we were to discover.

“Wow,” we agreed, “living in this cabin on a lake, rent free, is a dream!” All we had to do was pay the property tax, keep the place from being overgrown by the surrounding forest, and protect a dozen or so Bantam chickens left behind from predators like hawks, owls, coons, possums, snakes and, well, just about everything.

To stand under the massive magnolia tree right outside the screen porch and look down that wide expanse of lawn sloping to the lake shore half a football field away–well, it just felt like a magical space. Smelling that sweet, loamy-wet-ground forest smell, hearing the waves lapping along the shore, feeling the breeze in your face and watching and hearing all the bird life: it really was like something out of a Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings novel.

The character of the cabin certainly reflected its age and unique status. Items like deer racks, bullwhips, bits and bridles, horse halters, old plows and hand tools were displayed on the walls of the cabin, inside and out.

The cabin’s character was also reflected in challenges such as the electrical “panel”, an old fuse box with screw-in glass fuses. Which explained why the small electric heaters mounted on the wall of each bedroom didn’t work. The electrical system probably would not take much more load than the 1950s era rounded, 5 ft high, single-door refrigerator with the iffy seal, the giant old rusted chest freezer and a coffee pot would demand. Some upgrading of the electrical was in store before we could install ceiling fans with light fixtures and a modest track lighting rack in front of the fireplace. And maybe connect up the heaters to the waterbeds we each owned– thank goodness, those heated beds turned out to be lifesavers in the winter!

But these inconveniences were small potatoes compared to the visceral sense of wonder that enveloped you each and every time you lifted the heavy latch to open up that massive, solid dutch front door and stepped into the soaring, open interior of the main cabin.

The inside story

CabinInterior2A huge log (a tree trunk really) spanned the width of the great-room, the vault of the roof soaring beyond and into the gloom, where a full-sized wagon wheel hung suspended, sporting decorative “candle” lights.CabinInterior2

InteriorCabin

To the left of the front door, a long, curved wooden bar, ringed by eight simple wooden bar stools, framed the open kitchen space, which looked out directly onto the great-room, providing a vista of the lake through double sliding glass doors, which led directly onto the screen porch that ran the length of the cabin.
CabinInterior1Across from the kitchen, the opposite wall of the great-room featured an impressive fireplace. The brickwork frame, the huge solid pecky cypress mantle, and the stone base spoke of careful craftsmanship. It took up almost the entire south wall of the great-room and served as the centerpiece of the cabin. A wood burning stove with a heatilator was built into the fireplace, which K explained to us would really make a difference once winter arrived. Luckily there was at least 3 cords of seasoned wood out in the barn, which was a good thing for us because we ended up burning nearly all of it in the few months of that first winter at Ziba Khaya.

Behind the kitchen, a short hallway led to a full bath and a bedroom. Across the hall, on the lakeside of the cabin, a roomy bedroom looked out to the lawn and the lake beyond.  To the right of the fireplace was the entrance to a third bedroom, behind which was another full bath. Connecting the full bath was another large bedroom, the fourth, again looking down the lawn to the lake. The doorway of that bedroom led back into the great-room, making for a layout of 4 bedrooms around a central space.

Finally, a screened porch joined the great-room, accessed either through the glass sliders or the other heavy dutch door.

The interior walls of the great-room were only eight feet in height, so there was no ceiling above either bedroom behind the kitchen. Between the top of the walls and the vault of the roof were more cross-beams connecting the outside walls.

The bathroom did feature a ceiling, useful for holding in the heat after taking a shower on cold winter nights!

The old refrigerator guarded the entry to the utility room, just off the kitchen, where cabinets served as pantry space and the large chest freezer, a washer and dryer and an industrial sink lined the walls.

Built-in shelves, cedar closets, a large hand-carved wooden hutch, a  hand-crafted trundle bed, and little touches like two lamps crafted from turkey legs added a rustic functionalism.

All in all, it was a comfortable living space, one that only wanted a bit of elbow grease and creative decorating to burnish a fundamental elegance. But. It was gonna take some work.

Labors of love

I readily recall the labor involved in getting the cabin ready for moving in what little furniture and items we owned. Months later we would still be working on the property, weed-wacking (with a hand sickle, no gas-powered string trimmer!), beating back the line of brush that kept creeping over the fences, raking off years of accumulated detritus piled up on the shingle and tin roof, repairing a screen here , a door hinge or recalcitrant window there.

We removed a nest of mice from a hutch drawer to an new home outside, organized and cleaned out the old barn (paint, broken tools, 80-odd garden gloves stiff with dirt and age, broken ax handles, plastic and metal containers)- hauling all to the green boxes miles away. We burned leaves and started a compost pile.

We learned quickly how to care for baby chicks, and built a couple of snake-proof cages for the biddies to live in at night, safe from predators. We figured out where the cheapest cracked corn could be bought and which feed store was closest. We also learned to buy a LOT of stuff every grocery store visit and put it all in the chest freezer (it was a 1.5 hour round trip to the nearest tiny grocery in Salt Springs, counting shopping.) And, most important, we learned to stock up on (cheap, canned) beer, buying by the case rather than the 6-pack.

While all this settling-in was going on, we were still very much new business owners, with an office 45 minutes by car, minimum, from Ziba Khaya. This was B.I. (Before the Internet), so much of our work had to be done in the office rather than at home. Not to mention client meetings, meetings of those business associations and boards and general schmoozing that is so much a part of running a successful, rather high-profile small business. Even so, we knew that the trade-offs of the lengthy commute were more than compensated by coming home to our idyllic lakeside retreat.

Before long, it was time to meet our neighbors; the human and the wildlife.

Our adventure had begun.

View cabin interior and porch video snippet

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Viewed from lakeside

Why Critters

So many of our experiences living at Lake George that are worth retelling revolve around critters. I guess that’s because it didn’t take us long to realize that we were living in their spaces, and we’d better pay attention! Too, it seems that as the world gets ever more crowded with humans, there’s simply less room and resources for the animals that remain in the places we are so bent upon owning, managing, changing, and perhaps ultimately destroying.

I’m no Rachael Carson or John Muir, but I hope that after reading some of these stories, the reader will come away with a sense of the awe and wonder of the place and time when we lived on the shores of Lake George, in the Ocala National Forest, in an old log cabin- with lots of critters around.

Doorstop Alligator & the Lawman

Our neighbor Jack was a retired DEA agent and Secret Service man. His stories, and the stories his buddies told, were legendary, from being detailed to watch over President JFK as he boated offshore in Florida, to interdicting drugs and bad guys on various Caribbean islands.

Jack was an Irishman from New York and a former policeman. Built like a fireplug, his appearance and character were straight out of Central Casting. He was our Go To guy when we needed a bit of extra firepower (he had an awesome shotgun), an extra pair of hands, or someone to spend an evening with, drinking beer out on the end of our dock under a full moon.

Anyway, perhaps you get the picture of this stocky, kinda gruff, buzz-cut, red-faced Irish guy as he laughed and told us his tale when he showed up at our cabin one weekend morning.

Seems the day before, he’d had a call from his neighbor Mrs. Rush, who lived in a little cinder block house down by the lake, across Yellow Bluff road from Jack’s  place.

Her call had come early in the morning, before Jack had brewed his tea. Without preamble, Mrs. Rush insisted that he come right over to her place and bring his shotgun. He asked why he needed the shotgun, and she explained, huffily, that a ‘gator was parked right outside her front door, sunning itself on the concrete pad, and blocking her access to the clothes line outside.

“I need to get my wash hung up before it rains later, so bring your shotgun over here and shoot this ‘gator, Jack!” she insisted.

Well, the thing is, ol’ Mr. and Mrs. Rush were retired farmers form south Georgia, known to be intolerant of anyone fooling around their property, and determined to get on with their daily lives, in spite of the locals or the local wildlife. Mr. Rush had passed on a couple of years earlier, and while Mrs. Rush was quite independent, thank you, she wouldn’t hesitate to call Jack if she felt that a firearm was needed to quell a situation. This, apparently, was such a situation.

Jack said he’d come along but wouldn’t bring his shotgun, there was no need to go shooting a ‘gator and besides, they were protected unless you had a hunting permit during ‘gator season. Which he didn’t, and it wasn’t.

Jack told us that he cautiously came around to the front of Mrs. Rush’s place, which faced the lake to the east, and of course the nice warm sun. Sure enough, there was an 8-foot  ‘gator lying peacefully in the sun on the concrete pad in front of Mrs. Rush’s front door. Jack backtracked to the rear door of the place and was met by Mrs. Rush, who asked him where was his shotgun?

Jack repeated his reasoning about not shooting the ‘gator, even as Mrs. Rush led him to her front screen door and pointed at the ‘gator snoozing just outside.

“Why can’t you just use the back door to take your laundry out?” Jack asked, patiently. Mrs. Rush explained that her clothesline was just too close to that ‘gator and she wanted it gone, and right now, so she could get her laundry hung out to dry.

Retelling the story, Jack shook his head while we both grinned. Yeah, Mrs. Rush sure was a stubborn old thing, and cranky to boot. We knew what he meant when he said she just wouldn’t listen to reason, insisting he go back home and fetch his shotgun.

Turned out Jack went back home, Mrs. Rush called him a few more times, the ‘gator moved right up against that screen door and stayed there until the sun came off the concrete pad, then it moved on down the lawn and into the lake. By that time, the afternoon showers were threatening and Mrs. Rush never did get her laundry out on the line that day.