Ecology of a Cracker Childhoodby Janisse Ray
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
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.
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Child of Pine
When my parents had been married five years and my sister was four, they went out searching among the pinewoods through which the junkyard had begun to spread. It was early February of 1962, and the ewes in the small herd of sheep that kept the grass cropped around the junked cars were dropping lambs.
On this day, Candlemas, with winter half undone, a tormented wind bore down from the north and brought with it a bitter wet cold that cut through my parents' sweaters and coats and sliced through thin socks, stinging their skin and penetrating to the bone. Tonight the pipes would freeze if the faucets weren't left dripping, and if the fig tree wasn't covered with quilts, it would be knocked back to the ground.
It was dark by six, for the days lengthened only by minutes, and my father had gone early to shut up the sheep. Nights he penned them in one end of his shop, a wide, tin-roofed building that smelled both acrid and sweet, a mixture of dry dung, gasoline, hay, and grease. That night when he counted them, one of the ewes was missing. He had bought the sheep to keep weeds and snakes down in the junkyard, so people could get to parts they needed; now he knew all the animals by name and knew also their personalities. Maude was close to her time.
In the hour they had been walking, the temperature had fallen steadily. It would soon be dark. Out of the grayness Mama heard a bleating cry.
"Listen," she said, touching Daddy's big arm and stopping so suddenly that shoulder-length curls of darkhair swung across her heart-shaped face. Her eyes were a deep, rich brown, and she cut a fine figure, slim and strong, easy in her body. Her husband was over six feet tall, handsome, his forehead wide and smart, his hair thick and wiry as horsetail.
Again came the cry. It sounded more human than sheep, coming from a clump of palmettos beneath a pine. The sharp-needled fronds of the palmettos stood out emerald against the gray of winter, and the pine needles, so richly brown when first dropped, had faded to dull sienna. Daddy slid his handsbig, rough handspast the bayonet-tipped palmetto fronds, their fans rattling urgently with his movements, him careful not to rake against saw-blade stems. The weird crying had not stopped. He peered in.
It was a baby. Pine needles cradled a long-limbed newborn child with a duff of dark hair, its face red and puckered. And that was me, his second-born. I came into their lives easy as finding a dark-faced merino with legs yet too wobbly to stand.
My sister had been found in a big cabbage in the garden; a year after me, my brother was discovered under the grapevine, and a year after that, my little brother appeared beside a huckleberry bush. From as early as I could question, I was told this creation story. If they'd said they'd found me in the trunk of a '52 Ford, it would have been more believable. I was raised on a junkyard on the outskirts of a town called Baxley, the county seat of Appling, in rural south Georgia.
In the 1970 census, Baxley listed 3,500 people and Appling County figured almost 13,000, and a decade later the figures had risen only slightly. Even in 1990 the county's population was not even 16,000, the town's a little over 3,800hardly more than it had been thirty years earlier when I was a girl. Projections for the year 2000 don't show much of a change. The nearest bigger town was Waycross forty miles south, population 19,000, located on the northern edge of the unvanquished Okefenokee Swamp, and anything that could be called a city lay two or three hours, a hemisphere, away: Jacksonville to the south; Macon to the north; Savannah to the east, on the Atlantic. But those places were outside my knowing, and foreign.
What I knew was a 20' x 26', white, clapboard house that sat in the middle of ten brushy acres my father had newly purchased. He'd built the house and strung a hog-wire fence around it, inside which my mother had planted sapling plums and pears and outside which junk was stacked and piled. The house had two small bedrooms opening onto a short hall that joined the living room/ kitchen. A thick white sheepskin lay in front of the gas space heater in the hallway, and a little organ that nobody could play sat in the living room. Baby pictures lined the organ. The house's back steps were concrete blocks that wobbled and grumbled underneath your feet and a screened porch hung off the front door.
Mama tried to keep flowers, beds of four-o'clocks, old maids, and daylilies around the house's drip line, and mowed the grass regularly. She arranged chairs in the yard among pretty ornamentsa ceramic frog, a tiny wrought-iron tea table. She spray-painted a cast-iron cookstove black and set it up on bricks and hung a wash-pot from a metal frame, and when the sheep got in and ate the flowers, she drove them from the yard with her broom, yelling "shoo, shoo" and "git."
As soon as I learned to walk, I would wander into the beyond, where the junk began, touching the pint-sized redbud my mother had planted or the hymn of chinaberry that dropped wrinkled and poisonous drupes into the grass. When my mother called, I would crouch in the dirt behind the water pump, perfectly still and quiet, making her search for me. It wasn't a game.
"Half wild," she'd murmur. She had to tie bells on my shoes, silver jingle bells that gave away my whereabouts and led her to me.
My hair was long and stringy, snarled at the nape like a rat's nest, so that Mama, who had brushed it out just that morning, chased me with a hairbrush and pinned it out of my eyes with barrettes. My mouth was dirty as was my dress, and my feet were perpetually dirty, and Mama would pop me in the bathtub and button me into a ruffled dress dotted with flowers she had handsewn on her Singer. But she'd need to peel potatoes for supper or slice a mess of okra, and I would stand looking out the screen door until I worried it into opening, and when she found me, I would again be dirty.
When I was bigger, I could get up into the trees, especially the chinaberry, which had grown quickly and notched after a couple of feet. I would sit in the tree and wait, listening for somethinga sound, a resonancethat came from far away, from the past and from the ground. When it came, the sun would hold its breath, the tree would shiver, and I would leap toward the sky, hoping finally for wings, for feathers to tear loose from my shoulders and catch against sweeps of air.
The ground was hard, unyielding, but it wanted me, reaching out its hard, black arms and rising in welcome. I would lift and run along it as fast as I could and think again of soaring, of flying, until I was breathless and oily with sweat, and then I would collapse to the earth.
I could unhook the chain from the nail on the post and leave the yard, but I wasn't allowed to go far. The junkyard was dangerous, strewn with broken glass and shards of rusty metal. A rusty nail could send a streak of inflammation into the bloodstream, Daddy warned, causing lockjaw that might clamp your mouth shut like a beaver trap, even in the middle of supper, with a chicken bone hanging out. There was no way to undo lockjaw.
All kinds of accidents could happen in the junkyard. A bad cut would mean stitches with a thick, curved needle. Or you could get poisoned the way Steve, my younger brother, had when he drank motor oil. He was four or five, hanging out with Mama and Daddy at the shop while they worked on a motor, the rest of us at school. Daddy had drained motor oil into an oily green Coke bottle, and left it on the oil-stained concrete floor of the shop. Since it looked like Coke, Steve reckoned it was, and so sure was he, he never tasted the virulence until it was too late. He had to have his stomach pumped out, which meant a big hose down your throat.
Besides, the junkyard was giant enough that little girls could get lost and not find their way out. Wild mongooses or orangutans with big yellow teeth would chase you and even catch you and who knows then what would happen. Bad men might have climbed the far fence to steal car parts and hit you over the head with an adjustable wrench and kidnap you.
All of it had to be true. My sister and I slept in the back bedroom, and one night I woke to hear the cement blocks of the back steps complaining as someone climbed them. I heard the latch of the screen door rattle. It held. The steps rasped again. Because I was too frightened to call out, I lay petrified, waiting for noises at my own casement, listening to the seconds tick by on the windup clock in the living room, hearing nothing more and still nothing except my father's snores in the next room, until finally sleep drowned me.
I dreamed I was sitting on the cold toilet, trying to pee. The bathroom was made of windows, glass on all sides, and beyond the windows was darkness. Then I saw somethinga monster, a mancoming for me, out of the darkness, and I peed desperately so I could rush back into the warm quilt-swaddled bed I shared with my sister before the evil arrived. When I woke it was morning, beautiful eastern sunlight casting the room to sunflowers and the bed flooded with urine.
Almost every night I wet the bed.
One night Dell, the middle brother, woke and looked out the window that was level with his bed. He said he saw two men carrying off radiators, one in each hand. They were climbing the fence, leaving, when he wakened and saw them. He never thought to shake anybody or call out, although the next morning he crossed his heart and hoped to die if what he said wasn't true. Radiators were stacked here and there, scrambled in with all the other junk, so there was no way of counting those left to see if any were missing, nor could we find footprints. No matter, I believed him. Hadn't I, not long before, heard the screen door rattle in the middle of the night?
Daddy bought a piano even though we had an organ, stuffed it in our undersized house and started sending my sister and me to piano lessons. Mrs. Mobley taught in a cold concrete building near the elementary school, and we walked there after school one day a week for a thirty-minute lesson. Kay did well, but struggle as I might, I could not learn quarter notes and "Every Good Boy Does Fine" and four-four time. I hated piano.
"Please let me quit," I begged my father.
"Playing an instrument is something you'll appreciate your whole life," he said. "I want you to stick with it." He made me practice thirty minutes a day.
The next week I would beg again. "Please. I hate piano.... I don't understand any of it." He would not let me quit.
Finally I said contentiously, trembling at my rare boldness, "You're wasting money on me. I can't learn to play piano. I want to be outside." Maybe my teacher whispered to him that I had no aptitude or perhaps having one musical daughter was enough, given the scarcity of fundsmany weeks he could barely find the money to pay Mrs. Mobleybut that week's lesson was my last.
I would rather be sitting in this certain pine tree I loved. It was within hollering distance of the house and eyeshot of the shop, and I was allowed to go to it when we weren't working, before homework, and even if I hadn't been allowed, I would've sneaked there anyway. It was a good pine, forty-feet tall, sturdy and easy to climb if you boosted up from the fender of a `59 Chevy beneath it that sat on long-flat tires, collecting straw against its wiper blades, in the trenches of its bumpers and along its flat trunk. Bluejays criticized each other in the tree and fussed at me as I rode the lowest pine limb as if on horseback, not knowing enough about anything but eager to live, listening to the wind in the needles that was sufficient music.
Almost every summer afternoon a thunderstorm would build in a corner of the sky until it burst and, in its bursting, alleviate a portion of the intense heat and humidity of southern Georgia, lightening the barometric pressure so people forgot to be irritable. Thunder would clap and rattle the sky, followed by strikes of lightning that tore clouds open like paper bags. Rain gushed down. Just before a storm hit, the wind would pick upit's not at all a windy place, hardly even a breeze usuallyand the cooling winds would be satisfyingly strong.
I would run for a tree, even the thirty-foot chinaberry in the yard, and climb halfway, straddling a stout limb and facing the wind that whipped my face and billowed out my skirt, pushing against me. The tree shook and swayed and I hung on, laughing for what I knew as joy. There is something about storms. Maybe it's that wind begs for resistance. If Mama saw me, she would yell from the doorway to get down out of that tree and lecture later that it wasn't ladylike, me climbing trees with a skirt on, skinning up my legs, and that I would tear my clothes or, even worse, fall, if the limb didn't break first or if lightning didn't strike me.
Below the Fall Line
The landscape that I was born to, that owns my body: the uplands and lowlands of southern Georgia. The region lies below what's called the fall line, a half-imaginary demarcation avouched by a slight dip in the land, above which the piedmont climbs to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, then up that mountain chain to the eastern continental divide. The fall line separates the piedmont from the Atlantic coastal plaina wide flat plateau of piney-woods that sweeps to a marble sea.
My homeland is about as ugly as a place gets. There's nothing in south Georgia, people will tell you, except straight, lonely roads, one-horse towns, sprawling farms, and tracts of planted pines. It's flat, monotonous, used-up, hotter than hell in summer and cold enough in winter that orange trees won't grow. No mountains, no canyons, no rocky streams, no waterfalls. The rivers are muddy, wide and flat, like somebody's feet. The coastal plain lacks the stark grace of the desert or the umber panache of the pampas. Unless you look close, there's little majesty.
It wasn't always this way. Even now in places, in the Red Hills near Thomasville, for example, and on Fort Stewart Military Reservation near Hinesville, you can see how south Georgia used to be, before all the old longleaf pine forests that were our sublimity and our majesty were cut. Nothing is more beautiful, nothing more mysterious, nothing more breathtaking, nothing more surreal.
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 Americafrom Virginia to the Florida peninsula, west past the Mississippi River: longleaf as far in any direction as you could see. In a longleaf forest, miles of trees forever fade into a brilliant salmon sunset and reappear the next dawn as a battalion marching out of fog. The tip of each needle carries a single drop of silver. The trees are so well spaced that their limbs seldom touch and sunlight streams between and within them. Below their flattened branches, grasses arch their tall, richly dun heads of seeds, and orchids and lilies paint the ground orange and scarlet. Purple liatris gestures across the landscape. Our eyes seek the flowers like they seek the flashes of birds and the careful crossings of forest animals.
You can still see this in places.
Forest historians estimate that longleaf covered 85 of the 156 million acres in its southeastern range. By 1930, virtually all of the virgin longleaf pine had been felled. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, about two million acres of longleaf remain. Most is first- and second-growth, hard-hit by logging, turpentining, grazing, and the suppression of fire.
Less than 10,000 acres are virginnot even 0.001 percent of what was. There's none known in Virginia, none in Louisiana, none in Texas, none in South Carolina. About 200 old-growth acres remain in Mississippi, about 300 in Alabama, and almost 500 in North Carolina, in four separate tracts. The rest survives in Georgia and Florida. An estimated 3,000 acres of old-growth in Georgia lie on private land, precariously, and the largest holding of virgin longleaf, about 5,000 acres, belongs to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
In a 1995 National Biological Service assessment of biological loss, ecologist Reed Noss classified the longleaf/wiregrass community as "critically endangered." Ninety-eight percent of the presettlement longleaf pine barrens in the southeastern coastal plains were lost by 1986, he said. Natural standsmeaning not plantedhave been reduced by about 99 percent.
This was not a loss I knew as a child. Longleaf was a word I never heard. But it is a loss that as an adult shadows every step I take. I am daily aghast at how much we have taken, since it does not belong to us, and how much as a people we have suffered in consequence.
Not long ago I dreamed of actually cradling a place, as if something so amorphous and vague as a region, existing mostly in imagination and idea, suddenly took form. I held its shrunken relief in my arms, a baby smelted from a plastic topography map, and when I gazed down into its face, as my father had gazed into mine, I saw the pine flatwoods of my homeland.
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