Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard along U.S. Highway 1, hidden from Florida-bound vacationers by the hedge at the edge of the road and by hulks of old cars and stacks of blown-out 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 covered the South. In language at once colloquial, elegiac, and informative, Ray redeems two Souths. "Suffused with the same history-haunted 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 title. . . . Heartfelt and refreshing." - The New York Times Book Review.
The scrubby forests of southern Georgia, dotting a landscape of low hills and swampy bottoms, are not what many people would consider to be exalted country, the sort of place to inspire lyrical considerations of nature and culture. Yet that is just what essayist Janisse Ray delivers in her memorable debut, a memoir of life in a part of America that roads and towns have passed by, a land settled by hardscrabble Scots herders who wanted nothing more than to be left alone, and who bear the derogatory epithet "cracker" with quiet pride.
Ray grew up in a junkyard outside what had been longleaf pine forest, an ecosystem that has nearly disappeared in the American South through excessive logging. Her family had little money, but that was not important; they more than made up for material want through unabashed love and a passion for learning, values that underlie every turn of Ray's narrative. She finds beauty in weeds and puddles, celebrates the ways of tortoises and woodpeckers, and argues powerfully for the virtues of establishing a connection with one's native ground.
"I carry the landscape inside like an ache," Ray writes. Her evocations of fog-enshrouded woods and old ways of living are not without pain for all that has been lost--but full of hope as well for what can be saved. --Gregory McNamee