by Janisse Ray
Milkweed Editions, 1999
$19.95, cloth; $14.95 paper. (available in September)
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When your home ground is ugly, you still call it home. You call it home because that's where the taproot of your soul has wedged itself into the dark earth.
"My homeland is about as ugly as a place gets," proclaims Janisse Ray in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Ray is haunted by the flat land of southeast Georgia, scraped bare of native longleaf pine and wiregrass, planted in cornrow monocultures of commercially viable pine.
Georgia's first Crackers (poor whites, from a word that means boaster, braggart) walked into open forests of old-growth longleaf pine. Ray wants to understand both that forest and those people. "The memory of what they entered," she says, "is scrawled on my bones, so that I carry the landscape inside like an ache."
Writers like Janisse Ray take the Earth's hurt upon their own aching hearts. Her empathy could easily lead to despair, but her gift is to guide us beyond despair.
Janisse Ray's father owns a junkyard in Baxley, Georgia, and he is the quintessential transformer of what others throw away, repairing, reusing, saving for another day. He can fix any machine, from a pocket watch to a tractor. Now and then he applies his skill to nursing injured animals, including Clyde, the pondscoggin (a green backed heron) with a broken leg and wing. He's no typical nature lover, neither hiker nor camper, but his ethic of salvaging becomes one of several powerful undercurrents in Ray's book.
One day, "Mr. Frank" what folks called her father stepped on a toad, its belly exploding under his boot. Angry to be taken from his work, but with his heart beating for the toad, he called to his wife for needle and thread. "On the gray-painted porch floor," reports Ray, "my father sewed up the fat toad. I watched the operation from behind the living-room curtains because of my father's thunderous mood and because if I were any closer I'd vomit. Daddy stood in my little flower bed ... poking the toad's guts back inside the crepe of its stomach like you'd do the popped seam of an upholstered chair."
The book is a series of inter-linked essays, alternating between pieces focused on the natural historyof southeast Georgia and subtle portraits of family members that invoke Ray's 180-year lineage in the area, her ancestors among the first Crackers.
Ray weaves in themes fire, salvage, competition, and love like strands of Georgia wiregrass, tying together in unexpected ways her Cracker heritage and her love of the land. In the chapter "Built by Fire," she gives a marvelous explanation of how the indigenous, longleaf pine forest was shaped by naturally occurring fires.
The next chapter, "Iron Man," describes her grandfather, Charlie Joe Ray, "a wild man" and "ne'er-do-well" whose days, punctuated by brawls and hard drinking, suggest that he, too, was built by fire.
Ray refuses to serve up a saccharine rendition of family or ecological history. She seeks hope through honestly engaging things as they are and then imagining how they might be better. While she stares straight into the apocalyptic loss of longleaf pine and lets nobody escape responsibility, she also pursues an empathic understanding of the people who have lived in those woods and humbly takes responsibility with them:
"Passing through my homeland, it was easy to see that Crackers. Although fiercely rooted in the land and willing to defend it to death, hadn't had the means, the education, or the ease to care particularly about its natural communities.
Our relationship with the land wasn't one of give and return. The land itself has been the victim of social dilemmas racial injustice, lack of education, and dire poverty. ... and when getting by meant using the land, we used it. When getting by meant ignoring the land, we ignored it."
But Ray does not give in to resignation. Instead she guides us along three paths toward resolution, entwined channels of a braided stream.
One path leads to old values that we, the culpable, can reapply in sound ways: commitment to salvaging, and the kind of ecological pride that sparks a fierce defense of our local place from would-be exploiters.
Another path is seeking better ways of using the land. In a chapter called "The Kindest Cut," Ray describes how conservationist and businessman Leon Neel cultivates a diverse forest ecosystem, preserving essential habitat for indigenous species like the red-cockaded woodpecker and the gopher tortoise and harvesting timber selectively.
The third path, followed so admirably by people like Janisse Ray, is learning from the natural world. Ray writes:
"The pitcher plant taught me to love rain, welcoming days of drizzle and sudden thundering downpours, drops trailing down its hoods and leaves, soaking the ground. In my fascination with the pitcher plant, I learned to detest artificial bouquets of plastic and silk. Its carnivory taught me the sinlessness of predation and its columns of dead insects the glory of purpose no matter how small. In that plant I was looking for a manera de ser, a way of being no, not a way of being but of being able to be. I was looking for a patch of ground that supported the survival of rare, precious, and endangered biota within my own heart."
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood bristles with a younger writer's passion for an old place, the flat land of southeast Georgia. With her soul rooted deep in that ruined land, Janisse Ray understands loss and the Earth's peril. Yet she insists on hope.
Daniel J. Martin teaches English at Rockhurst University. His recently completed collection of essays about being a stay-at-home dad is called A Father's Work.