“Ecology of A Cracker Childhood”
Author: Janisse Ray
Publisher: Milkweed Editions 1999
Genre: Memoir/Forest Ecology
Paperback Edition: 273 pages plus Appendixes
Source: Library Copy
Continues in print and found in most libraries.
In this book, Janisse Ray found her voice as a writer and an imaginative champion of our environment. She calls us to care about the natural world, and since this book she has written others: “Seed Underground”, “Drifting Into Darien”, and “House of Branches” to name three that have a home on my bookshelves. So on Thursday when I sat in the front row of a crowded room at the Festival of Faith and Writing and heard her speak, it was long awaited. I finished this book the next day.
She began her talk by reading one of her poems “Kingfisher.” “Kingfishers: I know their chants/by heart. I’ve watched/hundreds dive,/rise,/fly off.” She continues to call us to pay attention to the natural world. With mounting fervor she urges us to believe we can learn the courage we need to make a difference as we consider the stewardship of our natural resources. We can find courage to stop the loss of our mountains, our flora and fauna, all the creatures who live in a longleaf pine forest or along the banks of rivers and in other natural places they call home.
When Ray writes of the longleaf clan, I see them in my mind’s eye: the red-cockaded woodpecker, the diamondback rattlesnake, the great horned owls, the gopher tortoise, the flatwoods salamander and so many more. When you read her work, you will see them too.
In “Ecology of A Cracker Childhood”, she sets the scenes of her childhood and those of the people she loves. And she writes the scenes of life in southern Georgia near the small town of Baxter along Highway 1 in the land of the Altamaha River. This is the place of pine forest beauty and the junkyard that provided the family’s livelihood. She and her siblings had some fun times. The book causes the reader to remember simple things, and to remember that simple things can be quite complicated. Though danger lurked along the edges for the family and for the land, it was a place of deep love.
This is not a sentimental book, but it is love-filled. If you’ve ever lived among southern pines, you may understand the importance of the pines and the beauty they provide. Those of you who have driven through the Ocala National Forest, The Apalachicola National Forest and other such places can feel in your heart the towering power of the pines.
Ray’s writing is just as powerful. And her power began with this early book. Whether your interest lies in well-written memoir or the best of ecology writing, you will love this book. Never a wasted nor unnecessary word. Yet, the reader is always transported to the place, as well as challenged to pay attention to our landscapes, our native ecosystems and all their inhabitants. And readers will feel the deep emotions of family and homeplace.
You may be interested in Janisse Ray’s latest piece of writing. Check out an on-line magazine “The Bitter Southerner” at www.bittersoutherner.com. She authored the lead article. Ecology writing and activism is her calling. Still, I’m hoping she will write more poems. Her website is janisseray.weebly.com and you can follow her on Facebook.
Pictures to accompany this book comment were taken by Jerry Lein in the Florida Panhandle on St. George Island and on the mainland near Apalachicola, Florida.