Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
- by Carole McKellar
One of my favorite books is unknown to most readers. Ecology Of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray is part memoir and part history of the almost vanished longleaf pine forests that once thrived across the American South. Chapters alternate between the Ray family history and the settling and eventual destruction of the forest.
Janisse Ray grew up in rural Georgia in a junkyard run by her father. She never wore pants or learned to swim because her strict evangelical parents forbid their children to wear swimsuits. Her family was poor, but loving. The four children were closer than typical siblings because of their unusual home and religious convictions.. Stories of playing among the junked cars, climbing trees, and searching for lost treasures seemed like an ideal environment for an imaginative child.
Ms. Ray is forthcoming about her family history and doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat their hardscrabble lives. Charlie Joe Ray, Janisse’s grandfather, was a ne’er-do-well who knew the southern forests like the back of his hand. He was unpredictable and beset by mental illness, but he taught his grandchildren how to fish and find the most succulent wild berries in the woods. Her father possessed an “amazing triad of traits—frugality, creativity, and mechanical ingenuity.”
This book as memoir alone would be worth the read. It’s funny and filled with insights into rural southern life. The best of the book, however, lies in the natural history of south Georgia. The longleaf pine forests once covered 85 million acres in the southern United States: from Virginia to Florida, and west past the Mississippi River. Today less than 10,000 acres of virgin longleaf remain, about 200 of which still exist in Mississippi. The longleaf pine trees are spaced far apart and allow sunlight to nurture a wide variety of plant and animal life, most of which are threatened or endangered. Ms. Ray vividly describes what we have, as well as what we have lost.
The history of the people is as interesting as the landscape. Due to the remoteness of south Georgia, it was an ideal environment for settlers from the borderlands of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They were clannish herders and farmers accustomed to remote environs. The term ‘Cracker’ refers to poor Southern whites and is possibly derived from words meaning boaster, braggart, liar. Shakespeare wrote, “What cracker is this same that deafes our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?” Some think the term “cracker” refers to the crack of the whip over oxen or mules. Cracker speech is called Southern highland or Southern midland. Patterns of pronunciation which would be recognizable to any native southerner include ‘young-uns’ for children, ‘Toosdy' for Tuesday, ‘fixin to’ for getting ready to, and ‘honey’ as a term of endearment.
Ms. Ray accepts the cracker as kin when she describes her ancestors.
My kin lumbered across the landscape like tortoises. Like raccoons we fought and with equal fervor we frolicked. Because we needed room, our towns sat far apart, often thirty miles. Accustomed to poverty, we made use of assets at hand, and we did not think much of prosperity. Like our lives, our speech was slow. We remained a people apart. More than anything else, what happened to the longleaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.
Janisse Ray returned home to rural Georgia after college. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana. She lives on a family farm in Baxley near where she grew up. She has published five books of literary nonfiction and a collection of nature poetry. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood was her first book. She has contributed to a long list of periodicals, as well as to public radio. I watched a speech she delivered at the 2014 Forum on Ethics & Nature and welled up with emotion when she said:
We’re desperate for thinkers, not consumers. We’re desperate for people
of courage, people willing to take responsibility for their own actions, willing to
live in service to something bigger than their own desires. It seems fitting
that creatures of privilege, gifted beings able to use language to pass messages
across geographies and generations should speak and act on behalf of those
who cannot. Life is unendingly fascinating, unbearably beautiful, and utterly fragile.