Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray
Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2007)
According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ecology is defined as the relationship of organisms and their environment, and cracker refers to a poor white person of the southeastern United States. The author, Janisse Ray, is a Georgia cracker who grew up in a junkyard separated from US 1 by a hedge, not far from the Florida border. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is her memoir of life among rusting car bodies and other detritus of the industrialized world and how she discovered beauty, nature, and the value of one’s own history.
Driving in rural sections of the southeast, one comes across countless junkyards surrounding shacks and mobile homes where people live and raise children. It is easy to feel a comfortable sense of superiority to these unfortunate souls and wonder how anyone can live like that. And yet, they do. Indeed, as in the case of Ms. Ray, some even thrive. Unlike so many American success stories, Ms. Ray did not engage in an heroic journey. She was instead sensitive to her surroundings and extremely observant, continually adding information to her understanding of the world within and outside of her family’s junkyard. This book tells the story of how the crackers shaped and were shaped by the land. “…I carry the landscape inside like an ache. The story of who I am cannot be severed from the story of the flatwoods.”
In her Introduction, Ms. Ray writes: “In south Georgia, everything is flat and wide. Not empty. My people live among the mobile homes, junked cars, pine plantations, clearcuts, and fields. They live among the lost forests.” By lost forests, the author means the old-growth long-leaf pine forests which were cleared to make room for cultivation. As the South succumbed to poverty following the Great Depression, junkyards sprang up like weeds. Surrounded by such blight, it is hard to imagine that anyone could see the beauty of the natural world. But that is the magic of nature: even in the most degraded environments, plants take root and animals make homes.
As a child, Ms. Ray played with her siblings among the junk that her father collected, reused, repaired, and recycled. On occasion, they would venture beyond the limits of the junk and discover the remnants of the natural world. “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.” Climbing trees and splashing in muddy creeks was as much fun as getting lost in the junk and jumping from car hood to car hood. The ability to enjoy without judging is one of the great gifts of childhood.
According to Ms. Ray, long-leaf pine forests once covered the eastern seaboard from Virginia to the Florida peninsula and as far west as the Mississippi River. Of that, only one percent of the virgin forest remains. “Apocalyptic” is the word she uses. Bachman’s sparrows make their homes the open pine savannahs characteristic of long-leaf pine forests. They are disappearing as fast as the virgin trees. Likewise the flatwoods salamanders, which retrace their steps to the place of their hatching when it comes time to breed, and each year produce fewer and fewer offspring. While these two creatures may seem inconsequential, they are indicators of the environmental degradation which will eventually take a toll on humans if we continue to develop every acre of empty land.
Woven into the lamentations of this book are autobiographical pieces which reveal a most unusual family. Ms. Ray’s father, Franklin Delano Ray, Sr., was a creative packrat, her mother, Lee Ada Branch, was a devoted wife and mother who created a home in the midst of rotting and rusting piles of junk. Between the two of them, there wasn’t anything they couldn’t make out of everyone else’s cast offs. Franklin Ray was a religious fanatic who took his family on a variety of spiritual pilgrimages. At one point this family of six crackers joined a black church in Brunswick, Georgia, because Mr. Ray had heard the preacher on the radio and felt called. For a time, he required the family to fast for long periods to honor those that Jesus endured. The children were isolated from their peers and had no television and thus grew up not knowing how to be “normal”. And then, Mr. Ray suffered a nervous breakdown and spent many months in a mental hospital. Ms. Ray’s telling of this time is tragic and harrowing.
Janisse Ray’s cracker ancestors are fascinating characters themselves: her grandfather, Charlie Joe Ray was legendary for being a wild ne’er-do-well descendent of Scottish immigrants. Charlie’s wife, Clyo, married him for love but lived to regret it. She bootlegged whiskey to make ends meet and hid the jars when the treasury agents were making a raid. Ms. Ray uses this book to paint a colorful portrait of her people – the crackers – which reveals a sort of pride and appreciation without a hint of defensiveness. She writes “I was a Southerner, a slow, dumb, redneck hick, a hayseed, inbred and racist, come from poverty, condemned to poverty: descendant of Oglethorpe’s debtor prisoners. Descendant of people who pulled from the Union, fought their patria, and lost.” But in spite of this, Ms. Ray went to college on scholarship to study literature and botany and became an extraordinary writer.
This book compresses time so we can observe the way the long-leaf pine ecosystem once was and how clearcutting destroyed it. Janisse Ray asks if it would be possible to restore her family’s junkyard to it’s pristine state and answers that it would probably take two lifetimes, but that is not the purpose of her book. Ms. Ray is writing a letter to the world asking us all to take a good look at how we live on the earth and what we can do to save some room for the animals and plants who also call it home, and in so doing, save ourselves.