Tag Archives: Janisse Ray



The language of landscape never ceases to fascinate me.

I love to look at the atlas of the Tama County, Iowa where I grew up. Waterways have mostly commonplace names as Wolf Creek, Twelve Mile Creek, Salt Creek, Otter Creek, Deer Creek, Pleasant Creek, Four Mile Creek, Coon Creek, Iowa River, Elk Run, Sugar Creek, Raven Creek and Crystal Creek to name some. It is easy to imagine how such names came to be. Wherever I go, I watch for the names of rivers and creeks.

Otter Creek

In one of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poems, “The Moose,” she names the Bass River, and Tantramar marshes with which she associates the smell of salt hay.

Tantramar Marshes

In her poem, “Life Story,” Mary Oliver tells us she lived by Little Sister Pond. Often in her writing she identifies the landscape.

As you know the language of landscape goes well-beyond place names. In her poem “Field Guide for Wildlife Clinics”, Janisse Ray reminds readers of the landscape she has roamed with such words and phrases as “Boreal forests”, “Eastern deciduous slopes”, …”The relief of waves lapping a beach.” And at greater length from the poem “Noticing”. “The bay recedes, abandoning more of its red-pebbled beach, leaving rocks blanketed with orange seaweed. Notice how, back along the cliff, white asters with gold disks bloom in pockets of loose mineral, and the strange branched milkweed hangs with frittalaries (She likely means a lily-like flower)

butter-tubs, Yorkshire, England

The place of the title of the poem quoted below is in Yorkshire England where the writer, an Iowa native who became a resident of the northeast and a well-known poet, clearly spent some time. The flyleaf of her Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt reminds us her themes are often place and displacement. “She wrote with lasting and deep feeling about all sorts of landscapes – the prairies of her Iowa childhood, the fog-wrapped coast of Maine, and places she visited in Europe.”

From “At Muker, Upper Swaledale”

As Muker Beck aswirl, hurtling
to enter the River Swale: peat-
dark in spate, hour by hour
engorged with braidings, with
sheeted seethings of rainfall

fallen yet again: the trickle
of the damp’s wrung increment
down limestone’s fluted hollows
(buttertubs is what the locals
call them) that pock the pass

along the road to Askrigg––

Authors whose work is quoted and who write lovingly of the landscape include: Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Janisse Ray and Amy Clampitt.

Novelists also use the language of landscape effectively, but since April is Poetry Month, it seems the time to focus on the poets.

I encourage you to read any of these poets as they bring to life the world around us. Some poems from these authors can usually be found on the internet by using your browser. April an appropriate month to investigate these writings. Some of these landmarks may not always be with us. This seems so here in America.

I’m especially enjoying some of Clampitt’s work this month. I hope you’ll seek her out, or any of the others that interest you. Perhaps you have another poet whose writing about landscape you want to bring to our attention. Thank you for doing so.

Note: I originally worked on this post for the writing page of this blog, but I am so revived by reading some of the poetry in preparation, most particularly Amy Clampitt, that I decided to post this on the home page. Though I can’t say I remember ever meeting Ms. Clampitt, two of her brothers and their families were friends of my Dad’s and they often met at regional fairs where they and my father both showed their prize Milking Shorthorn Cattle. While Amy Clampitt probably did not forget she was the child of pioneer Iowa farmers, much of her writing is about other places she called home, and places she visited in her extensive travels.



“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.



This week I plan to attend the writer’s conference: Festival of Faith and Writing held in Grand Rapids. For blog readers here is a peek at the some of the books I’m reading in preparation for the events of the conference.

As usual, wish I had done more prep reading …… but…..

Part of the fun of the conference is discovering and exploring new authors and their works. I confess among the authors included in this post, only Rahman is new to me. Earlier this year I read Salley Vickers novel “The Cleaner of Chartres” which I enjoyed. At the time I expected her to be at the conference. Now I do not see her listed on the schedule. I’m disappointed. That novel was my introduction to her writing. There will be new writers to discover, but as my mind runs over the schedule, I know I am also drawn to authors I have read or met before.

“More: Poems” by Barbara Crooker.
I met Barbara at the first conference I attended and somewhere along the way I purchased her poems. It’s likely I will have the opportunity to hear her again.

“Poets on the Psalms” Edited by Lynn Domina. Essays
Lynn Domina will appear in a session alongside Barbara. Attending their session may keep me in Grand Rapids an extra day.

“My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer” by Christian Wiman.
I’ll find a quiet place in the empty chapel or the library to read his work with concentration. I love the chapel at Calvin. It’s a beautiful room. I need both quiet time and concentration to process his writing.

“In the Light of What We Know: a novel by Zia Haider Rahman
I’m completely taken with this novel. It’s not an easy read, but I turn to it at every opportunity. So far (I’m not quite halfway through the story.) I see its interest as built on different views of the people with experiences in far-flung areas on our globe who participate in events that influence the lives of many people. It seems to address immigration to Europe and America from South Asia, the world financial markets, and class differences among its varied themes. Hearing this man speak is at the top of my agenda for the conference.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray. Memoir
This book is one of the best memoirs I’ve read. Her tales of growing up in South Georgia are filled with tenderness and humor. She also writes of the long leaf pine forests, capturing the beauty and the heart of those tall trees. In short, I love reading this book. Her writing is not new to me. I’m a fan. But I had never read this one. Feeling blessed that I soon hope to hear her speak.





Janisse Ray

I’m so excited. Janisse will be at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids next week. Most likely I will be able to hear her speak. I can’t wait. I look forward to picking up a copy of her memoir, “Ecology of A Cracker Childhood.”

Yes, I’ve written about this author before. I’m a big fan. I read her poems in “A House of Branches.” Her lyric poetry is beautiful and reading her poems always brightens my day.

I’ll share a line from her poem “Waiting In the Dark” because Jerry would have loved this. “Some nights when news is bad in the world/ we go out and look at the sky, which is dark even before the work day ends/save for pinpoints of stars and sometimes/ an ivory disk sailing across it/over the shoulder of *Wantastiquet.

Much of Ms. Ray’s more recent writing has been non-fiction: “The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.”, “Drifting into Darian: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River” (in Georgia), and a memoir, “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood”. All of her writing is poetic. Her voice, the ebb and flow of her sentences, all is music to the ear.

If anyone would like to borrow “The Seed Underground” or “Drifting into Darian”, I would be happy to send to you. I want everyone who is interested to know her writing. I first became interested in her writing when I read some of her essays about life and natural history in North Florida.

Perhaps you’ll hear more about her after I attend the conference.

*Wantastiquet= a mountain in New Hampshire or Vermont


Mary Oliver

I find Mary Oliver’s books the easiest poetry to buy and to read. In the last poetry book giveaway, someone won one. I still have three left, but do not yet own her newest volume, which I believe is titled “Felicity”, released last year.

She’s a special poet. She keeps writing. We keep buying.

I purchased her slim volume “A Thousand Mornings” in 2013 at Prairie Lights in Iowa City. And I wrote a notation on the front flyleaf: I want to read more poems. Flipping through the pages, I definitely want/need to read more.

In 2010 I purchased “Evidence.” Mary Oliver lives in Provincetown, MA and many of the poems in this volume seem to tell of the natural gifts she experiences in that area. This summer I hope to travel there and see some of the things Mary Oliver sees.

If I could only pay attention in the profound manner in which she engages! She observes quietly and with great appreciation, so great it allows the reader to see as she does. She writes, “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”

And the book with the warm red jacket, “The Truro Bear and Other Adventures.” I do not know how these writings came to be collected in this volume, which includes new and classic poems and several essays. I have read little here though I could not wait to purchase it. I’m moving it to the top of the stack and after I have read some of these sustaining works, I will strive to learn how they came to be collected in one place.


Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry writes fiction, poetry and essays. I believe his latest book of poetry is “This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems.” Any and all of his writings offer something of interest.

I have an old volume of his collected Poems 1957 to 1982. Here I often find sustaining comfort. I enjoy reading his early poems as much as later ones.

His Sabbath poems are not about the Sabbath, but written as he looks out a window on quiet Sunday mornings and contemplates the view and what comes to mind. I think I gave my copy of Sabbath Poems to a blog reader in a previous poetry giveaway.

I close out this post with a quote from one of my favorite of his poems from the book “Leavings.” So often he writes of gratitude, how strongly we feel it, sometimes how we forget. “We forget the land we stand on and live from.”

But then, shifting through the pages, I see a poem I love even more. Just a few lines from this untitled poem: “Mowing the hillside pasture–where the flowers of Queen Anne’s lace /float above the grass, the milkweeds/flare and bee balm, cut, spices/the air…..”

How’s the Reading Going?

place in time small


Sometimes I get bogged down with my reading. I wonder if this happens to anybody else? I start a book with enthusiasm and then somewhere in the middle it becomes much less interesting. That is happening to me this week. Though Grant and Sherman at Vicksburg are muddling around some in the middle of The Man Who Saved the Union, they are more interesting than the endless imagined dialogue of Scott and Zelda, mostly fighting. I won’t give up on Grant, but I am considering giving up on Scott and Zelda as they are imagined in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

A writer I never tire of is Wendell Berry. I probably own more books by Wendell Berry than any other author and I guess there’s good reason for that, since I claim to never tire of him. He writes essays, poems, short stories, and novels. Janisse Ray dedicated her book The Seed Underground to him. I don’t know the reason, but I do know that he has championed sustainable agriculture for decades and his writing, in every genre, is inspiring in so many ways.

Yesterday I was reading one of his short stories. In this story a character named Burley Coulter is wondering around in the hills of Northern Kentucky at night hunting with his dogs. Burley is an ordinary person, not especially known for intellect or action. And, I know nothing about hunting, I have never tramped the hills of Kentucky at night or in the daytime. I am not very interested in dogs, and certainly not hunting dogs. And yet, my interest in the story never waned. Go figure, or go read Wendell Berry.

If you have not read anything by Wendell Berry, I urge you to try a poem, an essay, a short story or a novel. Of his novels I recommend Hannah Coulter. More about Wendell Berry another time.

Those of us who write are often ask what author we would most like to meet. I’d like a round table discussion with Wendell Berry, Wallace Stegner, who I believe was Berry’s teacher at Stanford, and Louise Erdrich. Janisse Ray would like to be there too, I’ll bet.

I’ll hope my reading enthusiasm picks up. Perhaps I have too many irons in the fire, too many books on the read, I mean. One more day with Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and then I’ll make a decision. I loved Jessica Mitford’s biography of Zelda so much, I’m surprised I’m not doing better with Z. Jessica Mitford also wrote movingly about Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Enough rambling. Back to the books.