Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood[PDF / Epub] ★ Ecology of a Cracker Childhood By Janisse Ray – Jobs-in-kingston.co.uk Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard along US Highway , hidden from Floridabound vacationers by the hedge at the edge of the road and by hulks of old cars and stacks of blownout tires Ecology of a Cracke Janisse Ray grew up in a Cracker eBook ↠ a junkyard along US Highway , hidden from Floridabound vacationers by the hedge at the edge of the road and by hulks of old cars and stacks of Ecology of PDF \ blownout tires Ecology of a Cracker Childhood tells how a childhood spent in rural isolation and steeped in religious fundamentalism grew into a passion to save the almost vanished longleaf pine ecosystem that once of a Cracker MOBI ☆ covered the South In language at once colloquial, elegiac, and informative, Ray redeems two Souths Suffused with the same historyhaunted sense of loss that imprints so much of the South and its literature What sets Ecology of a Cracker Childhood apart is the ambitious and arresting mission implied in its titleHeartfelt and refreshingThe New York Times Book Review. Perhaps this book received five stars from me out of a certain bias. I did, after all, attend Janisse Ray's reading at SUNY Oneonta in March 2010. I was entranced by a passion I had never witnessed before. Her Southern drawl, her soft voice that spoke so boldly was with me while I read through her book. I could hear every word come out of her mouth and I knew that every thing she said she meant. Maybe had I not experienced Ray's unrelenting passion, I'd afford this text one less star. I spoke with her after the reading, too. A more genuine, honest, and passionate person may very well not exist.

Her objective here is not to facilitate or perpetuate a loathing of nature's enemies. Her objective is a call to bear arms (metaphorically speaking, of course) - a call to reinstate in humanity a love and respect for the natural world that nourishes us. Her voice is soothing, her words poetic. Referring to a teacher, Her eyes were black as little universes. This book is one that makes you wake up the next morning and plan a hike through whatever wilderness you have available to you - it will make you stop on the trail and look around and actually count the different trees, maybe commit some of them to memory and learn about their history, and maybe you'll be surprised to even learn that something inanimate like a tree actually has such an intimate history. Her book is one that will force you to stop quietly on the trail and observe the passing snake, to see its beauty and not to be frightened. What makes her so much more lovely than, say, Edward Abbey is that she has hope. She believes firmly that there is a miracle for you if you keep holding on and she imagines one day rising from her grave to see her granddaughter's granddaughter roaming the second coming of the forests we are losing today. Abbey, while enjoyable and rather humorous, believes anyone not appreciative of nature is a deadbeat earthling. Abbey is a cynic. Ray believes that we can restore an appreciation - believes that those who underestimate the value of nature simply haven't been shown its wonders. And what she aims to do (and indeed succeeds beautifully) is to show the reader these wonders and drives the reader out of doors to experience them first hand.

Ray's book, though, is more than a eulogy to nature. It is also a memoir that tells of her life growing up in a strictly fundamentalist and dogmatic religious household. She writes this book as a series of vignettes, writing one chapter about a family member, another about a species of bird, and another about growing up in a junkyard. Her book transcends any sort of chronology. But the lack of a fluid narrative (that is, this happened then this happened then this happened) does not detract from the telling of her life story. Life, after all, is not recollected from childhood up to this morning. As you experience your day to day life simple memories are conjured or at once you have this sudden urge to remember everything you can about a family member since deceased. This is Janisse Ray's book - a telling of a story worth telling, a telling of a love worth having, and a plea to save a relationship (man and nature) worth saving.      What's a cracker?

     I dunno.

     Then why are you reading that book?

     A professor recommended it.

     Is it good?

     I just started.

     The bits you've read aloud to me don't sound very interesting.

     You're missing all of the context.



     So the conversation went.  After reading Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I can elaborate.  The word cracker is used as a pejorative to describe poor whites in the American South, but like many pejoratives, it has been embraced by the people it is used to insult.  (A similar thing happened with the word Yankee back in the day.)  Despite Ray's repeated protestations that her family was not poor, she did grow up in the midst of poverty, and her family's source of income was not respectable enough for her to feel proud of it after leaving for college.  She has since mined her memories and experiences of coming of age in a junkyard and constructed meaning and beauty out of them, but she blames the junkyard for driving away her first college boyfriend.

     I find the title of this book to be an interesting choice because the heart of Ray's adult interests (if not her childhood ones) was the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris).  This book is perhaps less of an exploration of the ecology of a cracker childhood than it is of the ecology of the longleaf forests that used to cover the southeastern United States and of the interior landscape that Ray fostered throughout her childhood as a consequence of growing up her father's daughter, grandfathers' grandchild, and the product of her other familial relationships.  Ray is no cracker, but she is most definitely firmly rooted in a sense of place--and that place is the increasingly threatened remnant of a forest Ray never actually got to see.

     The longleaf pines were almost all cut down between 1890 and 1920, back when ships were still made of timber and resin, and when the tall pines made attractive and sturdy masts for the merchant navy that stripped the eastern seaboard of its tradable goods.  Ray never saw the forest because it was gone long before her birth, her father's birth, and probably even her grandfather's time.  And yet--and yet--the forest was important to her, a way of connecting the fragments of herself and her own story, of closing the distance between her story and that of her grandfather, and between her story and that of the people who settled, destroyed, and continue to inhabit the land of her childhood.  The longleaf pines give Ray a lost place in which to find herself.

     I'm pretty sure this book was recommended to me because I write about trees a lot, too--and the trees I grew up under are scattered even wider than the home range of Pinus palustris.  Still, I kind of understand Ray, and perhaps even feel a kinship to her need for belonging--and the tight connection between something that can be living, and lost, and location-specific all at the same time.  Trees do not automatically manufacture a spiritual (or sublime) experience for me, but they do provide a convenient place for me to connect the dots between my body, my mind, and my soul.  The green spaces that sheltered me--in Lubbock, Laguna Niguel, Sydney, Wray, Lethbridge, Orlando, Siloam Springs, Denver, and now Tucson--are the places where I felt safe.  There is a particular fallen tree in Risinghurst, Oxford, and a stretch of Lake Barkley somewhere in the misty zone of the Land Between the Lakes, that I will call home for the rest of my life.  I doubt I'll be able to visit either spot again, much less inhabit any of the houses in which I hung over atlases and adventure books as a child.  Like Ray, I am an exile from these places.  Unlike Ray, I have great hope for finding more.

     I am also drawn to Ecology of a Cracker Childhood because Ray is an elliptical writer.  She leaves a certain amount of storytelling work to the reader, and leaves a lot up to the reader's imagination.  I am not, for example, sure if Ray considers herself a Christian, even though faith--specifically, her father's conservative faith--occupies a large space in her narrative arc.  I'm not sure, from reading this book, whether Ray is at peace with herself.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Does it matter?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  

     I am left curious about Ray's transformation into adulthood, which seems to have taken place outside of her home range.  Such a story might operate independently of her childhood memories and her adult fascination with longleaf pines--or it might say something important about her maturation process.  Did distance from home, from refuge among the trees, inform her understanding of loss and faith?  As excellent as Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is, I do not feel like it is complete. If you ever do pick up this book, I suggest you search for videos on YouTube of Janisse Ray and watch a couple of them - ones of her speaking. Her Southern accent is so rich and beautiful; I heard her voice as I read the book.

Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard, and at first I found her writing to be chaotic like a junkyard. A memory here, a story there. The regularity of the book is that she alternates chapters about her childhood with chapters about local ecology. After a while, though, I grew accustomed to her writing and enjoyed it. What she wrote about in this book - the loss of the majestic longleaf pine forests of the South - is so important, the message transcends the packaging and hits you straight in the heart. This book brought tears to my eyes many 'a time.

One of my favorite passages (you may want to stop here if you might read the book):

Something happens to you in an old-growth forest. At first you are curious to see the tremendous girth and height of the trees, and you sally forth, eager. You start to saunter, then amble, slower and slower, first like a fox and then an armadillo and then a tortoise, until you are trudging at the pace of an earthworm, and then even slower, the pace of a sassafras leaf's turning. The blood begins to languish in your veins, until you think it has turned to sap. You hanker to touch the trees and embrace them and lean your face against their bark, and you do. You smell them. You look up at leaves so high their shapes are beyond focus, into far branches with circumferences as thick as most trees.

Every limb of your body becomes weighted, and you have to prop yourself up. There's this strange current of energy running skyward, like a thousand tiny bells tied to your capillaries, ringing with your heartbeat. You sit and lean against one trunk - it's like leaning against a house or a mountain. The trunk is your spine, the nerve centers reaching into other worlds, below ground and above. You stand and press your body into the ancestral and enduring, arms wide, and your fingers do not touch. You wonder how big the unseen gap.

If you stay in one place too long, you know you'll root.

I drink old-growth forest in like water. This is the homeland that built us. Here I walk shoulder to shoulder with history - my history. I am in the presence of something ancient and venerable, perhaps of time itself, its unhurried passing marked by immensity and stolidity, each year purged by fire, cinched by a ring. Here mortality's roving hands grapple with air. I can see my place as human in a natural order more grand, whole, and functional than I've ever witnessed, and I am humbled, not frightened, by it. Comforted. It is as if a round table springs up in the cathedral of pines and God graciously pulls out a chair for me, and I no longer have to worry about what happens to souls.
Although I definitely don't share the book's environmentalism views myself, there's not necessarily anything wrong with them, but my problem with this book was that much of the content was the author saying that rural areas, industrial areas and small towns are bad. I really didn't like the pretentious attitude throughout the writing either, it was very grating and annoying. Y’ALL. This is one of my favorite books, bar none. It is a memoir, both of Janisse Ray’s childhood and of a crucial ecosystem on the brink of extinction.

“The landscape that I was born to, that owns my body: the uplands and lowlands of southern Georgia,” she begins. “Nothing is more beautiful, nothing more mysterious, nothing more breathtaking, nothing more surreal” than longleaf pine forests. These forests used to cover at least 85 million acres across the South. Today, fewer than two million acres remain in varying states of integrity. Only about 10,000 acres — less than 0.001 percent of the original forests — are untouched. All told, about 99 percent of all natural stands are gone.

I grew up in the same land, not far east of Ray. The forests and wildlife she writes of with such intimate knowledge and grace are my home, too. Her profound love and fear for the future for longleaf pine forests felt familiar, and deepened my own feelings. This book is truly exquisite, highlighting the relationship between her rural “Cracker” cultural upbringing and the land in the southern pine forests, and also driving home the responsibility we have to the ecosystem that nurtured us. I will be forever hung up on this passage:

“Sometimes there is no leaving, no looking westward for another promised land. We have to nail our shoes to the kitchen floor and unload the burden of our heart. We have to set to the task of repairing the damage done by and to us.”

I learned so much about the world of my home from this book. It may have niche appeal since the works Ray describes felt like home to me, but I think it would probably hold up as a great read for people outside of southern pine forests. This book is a treasure, and I’m gonna be returning to it — and fighting for the forests — forever. I recommend this book for those interested in biology, ecology, the scrutiny of small environments and the interrelatedness of their living things. The main geographic area discussed is the longleaf pine woods of South Georgia but the savannas and bogs get some time as well. Longleaf pine is the tree that grows in the upland flatwoods of the coastal plains. Miles and miles of longleaf and wiregrass, the ground cover that coevolved with the pine, once covered the left hip of North America from Virginia to the Florida peninsula, west past the Mississippi River . . .

Of course this environment is almost completely gone now. Its demise followed the end of the Civil War. In 1883, a writer in the New York Times warned the South that they should protect their forests against the lumberers who had destroyed Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I was surprised that those states were exploited before the Southern ones. I know from personal history that after the South, the big companies expanded to the west coast. From another source I found that In 1920 Robert A. Long (1850-1934), president of the Long-Bell Lumber Company chose the site across from Kelso at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers, to build “the largest lumber mill in the world” and a new industrial city named Longview. My grandfather was one of the people sent out by Long-Bell to set this up and my mother was born in Washington State. My grandmother said they were miserable there and they soon moved back to the South.

Approximately every other chapter is a sketch of some family member or of the author. These are interesting but the best writing is in the chapters on the a particular bird, animal, or plant. The family described lived a hard-scrabble life. I did not find the story especially Southern other than the food they ate. The food that typifies a region is a strong binding force. It is one of the main reasons my grandmother gave for finding Washington state too foreign.

Crackers are looked down on by the more elite classes of Southerners and this family was on the lowest rung of the cracker class as they lived in and made their living from a junkyard. The author said at some point she realized she was a Southerner, a slow, dumb, rednedk hick, a hayseed, inbred and racist, come from povery, condemned to poverty: descendant of Oglethorpe's debtor prisioners. I think if you read this story you will see a warm, intelligent person dealing admirably with the situation in which she was born; no different than someone brought up in similar circumstances anywhere in the country. This book may not make you love or want to be part of the South but it should bring it back to the realm of ordinary human experience rather than some foreign and inferior 'other'. I did not like this book. It had a spanking scene and I can't overcome a spanking scene. Tooooo much for me to handle.


There were, however, two incidences of AMAZING WONDERFULNESS in this book.

A. The chapter in which she describes her father's depression, institutionalization, and love for his wife. Leafing through the pages, I can't find the passage. I am sad to not be able to re-experience it today.

B. The two chapters near the very end, entitled The Kindest Cut and Leaving. She writes of scenes that make me want to walk again in the world, find awe in what's new, and learn who I am myself.


I have now come away from the end of this book (after so many months apart). It feels good to finish and to look at the sunshine and sky, thinking and reflecting. A beautiful intertwining of the author's personal story and the story of the longleaf pine forests. They used to cover the south and east of Georgia for mile after mile, and were decimated for profit and to build the cities of the Northeast. When they went, all the interdependent flora and fauna were decimated, too. A story of loss of those forests that parallels the loss of cypress forests and, I understand, mahogany forests as well.

Date I read this (guestimated) -- 2001 This was not at all what I thought it would be. Not a funny, tongue-in-cheek memoir; this woman is serious about being a Cracker. But good for her.
I wanted more childhood & less ecology. She does a wonderful job describing the disappearing Georgia longleaf pine forests, but I was more interested in stories about Charlie Ray, Clyo, Mutt, and Dell. This book was intended for research for my 5th novel, but it was the best, most fun, and interesting research I've done in a while! I think I'd have read it anyway - even if it didn't deal with south Georgia where a good chunk of my next book is set simply because her story seemed very interesting. Ray's book reminded me a little bit of Educated (Westover), just a deep south version of it. But in addition, I found Ray's story more plausible. There were some areas of Educated that made me wonder about the truth of it.

Ray's father was something of a mechanical genius (reminded me of my own dad) and he ran a junkyard, and could find anything in it - even though it was this vast expanse of land filled with . . . junk. I thoroughly enjoyed how she wrote about all of her family, from her father, her mother, her grandmothers, her grandfather, her brothers, and so on. I loved reading the parts where she and her brothers would play in junkyard cars, how their imaginations were in overdrive. They played a lot like my brother and I did. The Rays didn't have TV, she couldn't wear pants, and she couldn't show skin above her elbows or above her knees. (fundamentalist upbringing)

I think what I loved about CRACKER most was Ray's conversational way of writing the chapters that were from her naturalist/environmentalist background. It was interesting to find out about pitcher plants, the savanna, salamanders, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and the myriad of other fascinating species that live there. I learned about fire keeping down hardwood growth that destroys this delicate environment. How many long leaf pines there used to be, and how many there are now. (not much) I learned how it's not right to simply plant trees in a row, crowding out the sunlight that's needed to sustain plants and animals alike, and many other ways we impact nature without a clue. It was truly eye-opening.

I'm glad she wrote this book, and I'm glad I read it.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood eBook È Ecology of
    Ecology of a Cracker Childhood eBook È Ecology of sets Ecology of a Cracker Childhood apart is the ambitious and arresting mission implied in its titleHeartfelt and refreshingThe New York Times Book Review. Perhaps this book received five stars from me out of a certain bias. I did, after all, attend Janisse Ray's reading at SUNY Oneonta in March 2010. I was entranced by a passion I had never witnessed before. Her Southern drawl, her soft voice that spoke so boldly was with me while I read through her book. I could hear every word come out of her mouth and I knew that every thing she said she meant. Maybe had I not experienced Ray's unrelenting passion, I'd afford this text one less star. I spoke with her after the reading, too. A more genuine, honest, and passionate person may very well not exist.

    Her objective here is not to facilitate or perpetuate a loathing of nature's enemies. Her objective is a call to bear arms (metaphorically speaking, of course) - a call to reinstate in humanity a love and respect for the natural world that nourishes us. Her voice is soothing, her words poetic. Referring to a teacher, Her eyes were black as little universes. This book is one that makes you wake up the next morning and plan a hike through whatever wilderness you have available to you - it will make you stop on the trail and look around and actually count the different trees, maybe commit some of them to memory and learn about their history, and maybe you'll be surprised to even learn that something inanimate like a tree actually has such an intimate history. Her book is one that will force you to stop quietly on the trail and observe the passing snake, to see its beauty and not to be frightened. What makes her so much more lovely than, say, Edward Abbey is that she has hope. She believes firmly that there is a miracle for you if you keep holding on and she imagines one day rising from her grave to see her granddaughter's granddaughter roaming the second coming of the forests we are losing today. Abbey, while enjoyable and rather humorous, believes anyone not appreciative of nature is a deadbeat earthling. Abbey is a cynic. Ray believes that we can restore an appreciation - believes that those who underestimate the value of nature simply haven't been shown its wonders. And what she aims to do (and indeed succeeds beautifully) is to show the reader these wonders and drives the reader out of doors to experience them first hand.

    Ray's book, though, is more than a eulogy to nature. It is also a memoir that tells of her life growing up in a strictly fundamentalist and dogmatic religious household. She writes this book as a series of vignettes, writing one chapter about a family member, another about a species of bird, and another about growing up in a junkyard. Her book transcends any sort of chronology. But the lack of a fluid narrative (that is, this happened then this happened then this happened) does not detract from the telling of her life story. Life, after all, is not recollected from childhood up to this morning. As you experience your day to day life simple memories are conjured or at once you have this sudden urge to remember everything you can about a family member since deceased. This is Janisse Ray's book - a telling of a story worth telling, a telling of a love worth having, and a plea to save a relationship (man and nature) worth saving.      What's a cracker?

         I dunno.

         Then why are you reading that book?

         A professor recommended it.

         Is it good?

         I just started.

         The bits you've read aloud to me don't sound very interesting.

         You're missing all of the context.



         So the conversation went.  After reading Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I can elaborate.  The word cracker is used as a pejorative to describe poor whites in the American South, but like many pejoratives, it has been embraced by the people it is used to insult.  (A similar thing happened with the word Yankee back in the day.)  Despite Ray's repeated protestations that her family was not poor, she did grow up in the midst of poverty, and her family's source of income was not respectable enough for her to feel proud of it after leaving for college.  She has since mined her memories and experiences of coming of age in a junkyard and constructed meaning and beauty out of them, but she blames the junkyard for driving away her first college boyfriend.

         I find the title of this book to be an interesting choice because the heart of Ray's adult interests (if not her childhood ones) was the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris).  This book is perhaps less of an exploration of the ecology of a cracker childhood than it is of the ecology of the longleaf forests that used to cover the southeastern United States and of the interior landscape that Ray fostered throughout her childhood as a consequence of growing up her father's daughter, grandfathers' grandchild, and the product of her other familial relationships.  Ray is no cracker, but she is most definitely firmly rooted in a sense of place--and that place is the increasingly threatened remnant of a forest Ray never actually got to see.

         The longleaf pines were almost all cut down between 1890 and 1920, back when ships were still made of timber and resin, and when the tall pines made attractive and sturdy masts for the merchant navy that stripped the eastern seaboard of its tradable goods.  Ray never saw the forest because it was gone long before her birth, her father's birth, and probably even her grandfather's time.  And yet--and yet--the forest was important to her, a way of connecting the fragments of herself and her own story, of closing the distance between her story and that of her grandfather, and between her story and that of the people who settled, destroyed, and continue to inhabit the land of her childhood.  The longleaf pines give Ray a lost place in which to find herself.

         I'm pretty sure this book was recommended to me because I write about trees a lot, too--and the trees I grew up under are scattered even wider than the home range of Pinus palustris.  Still, I kind of understand Ray, and perhaps even feel a kinship to her need for belonging--and the tight connection between something that can be living, and lost, and location-specific all at the same time.  Trees do not automatically manufacture a spiritual (or sublime) experience for me, but they do provide a convenient place for me to connect the dots between my body, my mind, and my soul.  The green spaces that sheltered me--in Lubbock, Laguna Niguel, Sydney, Wray, Lethbridge, Orlando, Siloam Springs, Denver, and now Tucson--are the places where I felt safe.  There is a particular fallen tree in Risinghurst, Oxford, and a stretch of Lake Barkley somewhere in the misty zone of the Land Between the Lakes, that I will call home for the rest of my life.  I doubt I'll be able to visit either spot again, much less inhabit any of the houses in which I hung over atlases and adventure books as a child.  Like Ray, I am an exile from these places.  Unlike Ray, I have great hope for finding more.

         I am also drawn to Ecology of a Cracker Childhood because Ray is an elliptical writer.  She leaves a certain amount of storytelling work to the reader, and leaves a lot up to the reader's imagination.  I am not, for example, sure if Ray considers herself a Christian, even though faith--specifically, her father's conservative faith--occupies a large space in her narrative arc.  I'm not sure, from reading this book, whether Ray is at peace with herself.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Does it matter?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  

         I am left curious about Ray's transformation into adulthood, which seems to have taken place outside of her home range.  Such a story might operate independently of her childhood memories and her adult fascination with longleaf pines--or it might say something important about her maturation process.  Did distance from home, from refuge among the trees, inform her understanding of loss and faith?  As excellent as Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is, I do not feel like it is complete. If you ever do pick up this book, I suggest you search for videos on YouTube of Janisse Ray and watch a couple of them - ones of her speaking. Her Southern accent is so rich and beautiful; I heard her voice as I read the book.

    Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard, and at first I found her writing to be chaotic like a junkyard. A memory here, a story there. The regularity of the book is that she alternates chapters about her childhood with chapters about local ecology. After a while, though, I grew accustomed to her writing and enjoyed it. What she wrote about in this book - the loss of the majestic longleaf pine forests of the South - is so important, the message transcends the packaging and hits you straight in the heart. This book brought tears to my eyes many 'a time.

    One of my favorite passages (you may want to stop here if you might read the book):

    Something happens to you in an old-growth forest. At first you are curious to see the tremendous girth and height of the trees, and you sally forth, eager. You start to saunter, then amble, slower and slower, first like a fox and then an armadillo and then a tortoise, until you are trudging at the pace of an earthworm, and then even slower, the pace of a sassafras leaf's turning. The blood begins to languish in your veins, until you think it has turned to sap. You hanker to touch the trees and embrace them and lean your face against their bark, and you do. You smell them. You look up at leaves so high their shapes are beyond focus, into far branches with circumferences as thick as most trees.

    Every limb of your body becomes weighted, and you have to prop yourself up. There's this strange current of energy running skyward, like a thousand tiny bells tied to your capillaries, ringing with your heartbeat. You sit and lean against one trunk - it's like leaning against a house or a mountain. The trunk is your spine, the nerve centers reaching into other worlds, below ground and above. You stand and press your body into the ancestral and enduring, arms wide, and your fingers do not touch. You wonder how big the unseen gap.

    If you stay in one place too long, you know you'll root.

    I drink old-growth forest in like water. This is the homeland that built us. Here I walk shoulder to shoulder with history - my history. I am in the presence of something ancient and venerable, perhaps of time itself, its unhurried passing marked by immensity and stolidity, each year purged by fire, cinched by a ring. Here mortality's roving hands grapple with air. I can see my place as human in a natural order more grand, whole, and functional than I've ever witnessed, and I am humbled, not frightened, by it. Comforted. It is as if a round table springs up in the cathedral of pines and God graciously pulls out a chair for me, and I no longer have to worry about what happens to souls.
    Although I definitely don't share the book's environmentalism views myself, there's not necessarily anything wrong with them, but my problem with this book was that much of the content was the author saying that rural areas, industrial areas and small towns are bad. I really didn't like the pretentious attitude throughout the writing either, it was very grating and annoying. Y’ALL. This is one of my favorite books, bar none. It is a memoir, both of Janisse Ray’s childhood and of a crucial ecosystem on the brink of extinction.

    “The landscape that I was born to, that owns my body: the uplands and lowlands of southern Georgia,” she begins. “Nothing is more beautiful, nothing more mysterious, nothing more breathtaking, nothing more surreal” than longleaf pine forests. These forests used to cover at least 85 million acres across the South. Today, fewer than two million acres remain in varying states of integrity. Only about 10,000 acres — less than 0.001 percent of the original forests — are untouched. All told, about 99 percent of all natural stands are gone.

    I grew up in the same land, not far east of Ray. The forests and wildlife she writes of with such intimate knowledge and grace are my home, too. Her profound love and fear for the future for longleaf pine forests felt familiar, and deepened my own feelings. This book is truly exquisite, highlighting the relationship between her rural “Cracker” cultural upbringing and the land in the southern pine forests, and also driving home the responsibility we have to the ecosystem that nurtured us. I will be forever hung up on this passage:

    “Sometimes there is no leaving, no looking westward for another promised land. We have to nail our shoes to the kitchen floor and unload the burden of our heart. We have to set to the task of repairing the damage done by and to us.”

    I learned so much about the world of my home from this book. It may have niche appeal since the works Ray describes felt like home to me, but I think it would probably hold up as a great read for people outside of southern pine forests. This book is a treasure, and I’m gonna be returning to it — and fighting for the forests — forever. I recommend this book for those interested in biology, ecology, the scrutiny of small environments and the interrelatedness of their living things. The main geographic area discussed is the longleaf pine woods of South Georgia but the savannas and bogs get some time as well. Longleaf pine is the tree that grows in the upland flatwoods of the coastal plains. Miles and miles of longleaf and wiregrass, the ground cover that coevolved with the pine, once covered the left hip of North America from Virginia to the Florida peninsula, west past the Mississippi River . . .

    Of course this environment is almost completely gone now. Its demise followed the end of the Civil War. In 1883, a writer in the New York Times warned the South that they should protect their forests against the lumberers who had destroyed Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. I was surprised that those states were exploited before the Southern ones. I know from personal history that after the South, the big companies expanded to the west coast. From another source I found that In 1920 Robert A. Long (1850-1934), president of the Long-Bell Lumber Company chose the site across from Kelso at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers, to build “the largest lumber mill in the world” and a new industrial city named Longview. My grandfather was one of the people sent out by Long-Bell to set this up and my mother was born in Washington State. My grandmother said they were miserable there and they soon moved back to the South.

    Approximately every other chapter is a sketch of some family member or of the author. These are interesting but the best writing is in the chapters on the a particular bird, animal, or plant. The family described lived a hard-scrabble life. I did not find the story especially Southern other than the food they ate. The food that typifies a region is a strong binding force. It is one of the main reasons my grandmother gave for finding Washington state too foreign.

    Crackers are looked down on by the more elite classes of Southerners and this family was on the lowest rung of the cracker class as they lived in and made their living from a junkyard. The author said at some point she realized she was a Southerner, a slow, dumb, rednedk hick, a hayseed, inbred and racist, come from povery, condemned to poverty: descendant of Oglethorpe's debtor prisioners. I think if you read this story you will see a warm, intelligent person dealing admirably with the situation in which she was born; no different than someone brought up in similar circumstances anywhere in the country. This book may not make you love or want to be part of the South but it should bring it back to the realm of ordinary human experience rather than some foreign and inferior 'other'. I did not like this book. It had a spanking scene and I can't overcome a spanking scene. Tooooo much for me to handle.


    There were, however, two incidences of AMAZING WONDERFULNESS in this book.

    A. The chapter in which she describes her father's depression, institutionalization, and love for his wife. Leafing through the pages, I can't find the passage. I am sad to not be able to re-experience it today.

    B. The two chapters near the very end, entitled The Kindest Cut and Leaving. She writes of scenes that make me want to walk again in the world, find awe in what's new, and learn who I am myself.


    I have now come away from the end of this book (after so many months apart). It feels good to finish and to look at the sunshine and sky, thinking and reflecting. A beautiful intertwining of the author's personal story and the story of the longleaf pine forests. They used to cover the south and east of Georgia for mile after mile, and were decimated for profit and to build the cities of the Northeast. When they went, all the interdependent flora and fauna were decimated, too. A story of loss of those forests that parallels the loss of cypress forests and, I understand, mahogany forests as well.

    Date I read this (guestimated) -- 2001 This was not at all what I thought it would be. Not a funny, tongue-in-cheek memoir; this woman is serious about being a Cracker. But good for her.
    I wanted more childhood & less ecology. She does a wonderful job describing the disappearing Georgia longleaf pine forests, but I was more interested in stories about Charlie Ray, Clyo, Mutt, and Dell. This book was intended for research for my 5th novel, but it was the best, most fun, and interesting research I've done in a while! I think I'd have read it anyway - even if it didn't deal with south Georgia where a good chunk of my next book is set simply because her story seemed very interesting. Ray's book reminded me a little bit of Educated (Westover), just a deep south version of it. But in addition, I found Ray's story more plausible. There were some areas of Educated that made me wonder about the truth of it.

    Ray's father was something of a mechanical genius (reminded me of my own dad) and he ran a junkyard, and could find anything in it - even though it was this vast expanse of land filled with . . . junk. I thoroughly enjoyed how she wrote about all of her family, from her father, her mother, her grandmothers, her grandfather, her brothers, and so on. I loved reading the parts where she and her brothers would play in junkyard cars, how their imaginations were in overdrive. They played a lot like my brother and I did. The Rays didn't have TV, she couldn't wear pants, and she couldn't show skin above her elbows or above her knees. (fundamentalist upbringing)

    I think what I loved about CRACKER most was Ray's conversational way of writing the chapters that were from her naturalist/environmentalist background. It was interesting to find out about pitcher plants, the savanna, salamanders, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and the myriad of other fascinating species that live there. I learned about fire keeping down hardwood growth that destroys this delicate environment. How many long leaf pines there used to be, and how many there are now. (not much) I learned how it's not right to simply plant trees in a row, crowding out the sunlight that's needed to sustain plants and animals alike, and many other ways we impact nature without a clue. It was truly eye-opening.

    I'm glad she wrote this book, and I'm glad I read it.

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  • Paperback
  • 224 pages
  • Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
  • Janisse Ray
  • English
  • 25 September 2019
  • 9781571312471