Janisse Ray, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

"Culture springs from the actions of people in a landscape."--Janisse Ray
I've spent the last few evenings reading Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, doing so tonight in the intimate company of a dying cat. Her kidneys are basically gone, she stopped eating some days ago, and this afternoon her legs quit. If she shows some pain, then we'll head for the animal hospital, but so far she's resting comfortably beside me on the floor, and I'd rather she be at home for the end. Which likely won't be long.

And my father's been seriously ill, and his father passed away just before Christmas, so I'm maybe in a susceptible frame of mind.

Janisse Ray, though: I've been staggered by the beauty and the artistry of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Just staggered by it. I've spent such a long time digging into the regional culture surrounding my own home that I've deliberately, if sometimes reluctantly, avoided writers whose places are far enough from my own to make the connections seem mostly ideological rather than material, or even genuinely cultural. Nature writing's increasing sophistication, however, has meant I've been getting more and more anxious to get into the last 15 years of it, and Ray's memoir is pushing me even harder toward catching up than did Rick Bass's excellent Book of Yaak. I've felt more impressed by this book than I can recall being in a very long time.

It's not just Chloe's inevitable fate, tonight, that has me so moved by Janisse Ray, just as it wasn't only my grandmother's slow death that had me so affected by Theresa Kishkan's Phantom Limb and Red Laredo Boots. Few things tempt me toward dropping my stern atheism long enough to use words like "fate," but sometimes we're lucky to find books at the right time. And Theresa Kishkan and Janisse Ray have fallen into my lap at the right times.

What's it about, you ask? Well, this book's written in alternating chapters, one about the ecology of the longleaf pine forests (of which only about 1% remains in older growth form), and then one about her upbringing in a junkyard (yes, an actual junkyard). It's a complicated family, with mental illness and potent religiosity and poverty, and Ray only came to an ecological perspective later on in her life, so we get to see competing Edens, so to speak, and to watch her wonder whether these Edens, if that's what they are, are mutually exclusive. Not really much to summarize, perhaps, but Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is stuffed with beauty, so very much beauty, if you're able to look with her through her multiple perspectives on it all.

And if you're as lucky as I've felt this evening, helping my cat through her dwindling, you'll find yourself seeing with something a little bit like Janisse Ray's eyes once you put the book down.


jo(e) said…
I'm sorry to hear about the death of your grandfather. And it's difficult to lose a cat you've known for years as well.

I did love Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. I read it because Ann F-W kept raving about it on the ASLE list, and I thought it couldn't possibly live up to the hype, and yet it did. Your post makes me think it's time for me to reread it, and maybe even think about teaching it one of these days.
richard said…
Thanks, jo(e).

I'm teaching Ecology in March myself. A bad habit, I know, but sometimes I choose to teach books before I've even read them, as a way to make sure I read them! It doesn't always work out, but I've heard so many interesting comments about this book over the years that I was pretty comfortable this time.
Anonymous said…
I'm sorry to hear about your cat, Richard, but it does seem right to be with them at the end if possible. Our lovely old retriever X died summer before last and in a way it was a privilege to hold her as she died. (Like you, we'd decided to let it happen at home unless she was in obvious pain. She'd spent her entire life here and she hated going to the vet so we hoped we could let her go in the place she'd known as home.) I listened to the Bach cello suites during that period and they rang the right chord, that's for sure. And the Ecology of a Cracker Childhood sounds like a terrific book. I'll look for it.
Theresa K.
Anonymous said…
And I'm sorry too about your grandfather. Best wishes for your father's speedy recovery.
richard said…
Thank you, Theresa. My father's coming along, and my cat's still here (inexplicably, but good for her, I suppose: hard to say, at times like this, what counts as good).

I suspect you'll love Ecology of a Cracker Childhood; I've heard so many ALECC and ASLE people praise it in the last few years that I had to check the hype, but I wasn't prepared for this.

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