Dawn Klug loves Spanish moss more than anyone in Florida, if not the world. She lives in rural Citrus County, where Spanish moss hangs from every oak tree like Pa Kettle's beard. On moonlit nights, Spanish moss gives any stretch of oak-lined highway a Gothic feel. • Spanish moss — and we'll talk more about this a little later — saved Dawn's life during her darkest night of the soul. • She lives alone in a humble mobile home surrounded by the inevitable moss-draped oaks. Her driveway, yard, deck, barn and living room are graced by piles of moss, small and large. • She lacks many material possessions, but she feels rich when surrounded by moss. She would roll around in it like a rambunctious child if she could, but she is paralyzed from the waist down, the result of an auto accident decades ago. • She has no trouble gathering moss in her lap. She has no trouble working the moss with her gnarled fingers and spinning it into yarn. She weaves the Spanish moss yarn into beautiful blankets and saddle pads that are collector's items. • In centuries past, Florida had dozens of people like her, Spanish moss weavers. Now Florida is unpleasantly complicated, and she is the last of her kind.
Dawn is 52. She wears a purple bandanna, a long-sleeve shirt and black trousers over her robust frame. She looks you in the eye, talks at a dizzying clip, keeps a shotgun near the front door. Spanish moss tendrils lie upon her shoulders like little worms.
She is a visitor from another time. In Dawn's opinion, and she is seldom quiet about hers, Florida has too many cars on the roads, too few critters dwelling in our shrinking forests, and — pay attention — too many citified, fancy-pants people who know nothing about Spanish moss.
"They ask if Spanish moss is going to kill the trees,'' she says with a sniff.
She likes to gauge the ignorance of the rest of humanity early in a conversation.
"Okay. You do know that Spanish moss is not Spanish and it's not a moss, don't you?"
Uh . . .
"Spanish moss is an air plant, an epiphyte, you know that, right? It takes nourishment from the air and from the rain. Right? It isn't a parasite! Okay, sometimes in a storm, a clump of moss will get very wet and very heavy, and the weight will break off a branch. That happens, okay. But I hate to hear somebody say'' — here she speaks in a high-pitched whine — "Spanish moss is a parasite!''
Unlike the rest of us, she has made understanding Spanish moss her life's work. When she wants to impress, she might mention the genus and species, Tillandsia usneoides. And she can tell you how Spanish moss became associated with Spaniards: In a Southern folktale from the 16th century, a pioneer couple was waylaid by Cherokees unhappy to see white people on their land. Before releasing the couple, Dawn can tell you, the warriors cut the hair of the Spanish bride and threw it high into the branches of an old oak. Within a week the black hair was gray. That was the beginning of Spanish moss.
"Spanish moss was very important in the South and in Florida,'' Dawn goes on. "It was used for everything. It stuffed mattresses and pillows and furniture. It was used for insulation. If you boil Spanish moss — let me warn you, it really stinks — you'll have this brew that makes this amazing fertilizer. And this is where I come in: In the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers all had Spanish moss blankets. And that's what I still make.''
As Dawn talks, chaos breaks out in her yard. Inches from her wheelchair, pet cats hiss while a bewildered dog listens. Chickens cluck and run amok. A thoughtful neighbor borrows her pitchfork — Dawn always has several around — and tosses Spanish moss from his truck onto her driveway.
Dawn says, "My motto is 'Chaos — it's not a theory, it's my life.' ''
• • •
She was born in South Carolina but considers herself a Floridian because her great-granddaddy fought for the Confederacy out of Jacksonville and her dad served in the state during his Navy career.
Dawn joined the Navy out of high school and served in Hawaii. At first she washed planes. Then she refueled jets. Her favorite job was aviation storekeeper. If you wanted a part, you came to see her. If she didn't have it, she'd find it for you, even if she had to barter for it with another aviation storekeeper. Strange, but the bartering prepared her for the next chapter of a life that was about to turn sad.
She got married in 1976 at age 20. He was an Army guy, but the mixed marriage seemed to work. They had a son, Jason, and many good times. When their military careers ended, they moved to Floral City to be near relatives.
The accident happened on Nov. 16, 1980.
Dawn's husband was driving. She was riding shotgun. They backed out of the driveway onto the highway. Dawn looked out the window and saw a car bearing down. Later, she learned the other car was clocked at 70 mph. She had time for a curse word before impact.
She was blown through the windshield just in time for the car to tumble and land on her. Her husband was roughed up; her spine was crushed.
She spent seven months in the hospital.
Imagine: You are 24 years old. You have a good life, a husband, a son you enjoy chasing through the woods. You can climb a fence. You can stand on a chair to get a box of cornflakes off the top shelf. You can dance.
Then it's all over.
"Terrible depression. Awful suicidal thoughts. But of course I never acted on them, but they were there. It was bad.''
She and her husband and child tried to adjust to their new life, but after four years he told her he wanted a divorce. He was everything to her, her arms and legs. Now he was moving on.
Rage. Grief. Depression. Self pity.
She went to rehab, learned how to crawl in and out of a new van by herself. She learned how to drive using only her hands, how to sit herself on the toilet, how to get back into the wheelchair.
She found a new hobby: weaving. She bought a loom and had it customized for a person who can't use feet to press pedals. One night, reading, she discovered an article about the lost art of Spanish moss weaving.
She became consumed by the idea of learning a lost art.
Friends brought her moss, and she started weaving. It made her feel good about herself.
"Isn't that strange?" she says. "I had never had, what do you call it, good self-esteem.''
These days she wears a special T-shirt.
"Face It,'' it says in big letters across the front. "You know I'm right.''
• • •
"I was born too late,'' she tells people. "I should have been born in the 19th century.''
It doesn't sound like a cliche coming from her, though most likely she would have died from her injuries during Civil War time.
"What I mean is I live simply.''
She grows vegetables and fruits in pots, fertilizing them with Spanish moss brew. She cans the vegetables and fruit and trades for manual labor. She hates to pay for anything if she can barter.
She reads no newspaper, owns no television. Sometimes a visitor brings her up to date. She has no furniture other than a bed, a lonely chair, and a desk for her only luxury, a computer. She recently got rid of her telephone, but kept a cell phone for emergencies.
She survives on $800 a month from Social Security and her modest earnings from weaving. She has no problem selling wool or cotton tapestries, but the demand for Spanish moss weavings is limited to collectors and Civil War re-enactors. They pay $600 for a saddle blanket. It takes a year to do three. She has 17 on order.
• • •
Spanish moss, piled in her yard, takes half a year to decay in the Florida heat and humidity. A 6-foot pile in January is 2 inches high in July and dark and wiry like a Brillo pad.
Inside her living room, where the floor is plywood, she painstakingly removes debris from the Spanish moss Brillo.
Next she works the tendrils into something resembling thread. On a small spinning wheel she feeds the thread a little at a time. Within minutes she has a few feet of something that looks like yarn.
It takes a week or so to position hundreds of strands of yarn properly onto her loom, a contraption as large as an upright piano.
Alone in her mobile home, as she sits in her wheelchair, she slowly weaves her Spanish moss into something beautiful and utilitarian.
When she has company, it's often a neighbor who has looked in on her, or someone who has heard about the eccentric woman who collects Spanish moss and has dropped by with a truckload to dump in her driveway.
Often her only company is Lonesome George, a favorite chicken that has the run of her mobile home. Outside the open door, always trying to sneak in, is her prized hen, Scarlett.
Scarlett's mate, Rhett Butler, was killed not long ago by a stray dog. Dawn heard the barking and the squawking, rolled her chair over to her shotgun and came up firing.
She missed, but the dog stays away from her surviving chickens.
"I can take care of myself,'' she says, and returns to the spinning wheel. You can see the dirt under her fingernails in the afternoon sun pouring through the open door. She is not afraid of dirt, or, for that matter, much else.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or email@example.com.