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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cracker Childhood

Air Date: Week of

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Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard just off Highway 1 on the southeastern coast of the United States. She never saw the forests of longleaf pine that were once so plentiful throughout the area, since logging decimated 99 percent of all natural stands just after the Civil War. She talks with host Steve Curwood about the disappearing forest, growing up in the South, and her book Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.


CURWOOD: If you were to travel throughout the southeastern United States in the time before the Civil War, you would have seen a forest of unending trees stretching from Texas to Virginia. And the dominant tree in this forest was the yellow or longleaf pine. The longleaf stood as high as 70 feet and stretched across 93 million acres of the Atlantic coastal plains. Drive down U.S. Highway One today, and you have to look pretty hard to find a single stand of longleaf.

Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard just off Highway One. She writes about the disappearing forest, and growing up in the rural south, in her book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. Janisse Ray, welcome to Living on Earth.

RAY: It’s good to be here.

CURWOOD: Now, I want you to tell me about the place where you grew up. How did you come to be raised in a junkyard?

RAY: I grew up in southern Georgia, which is very flat, piney woods. The people tend to be very poor. The towns are spaced far apart. My father, he didn’t finish high school. And so, to support himself, I think he had this idea of doing a junkyard.

We may not have had the material possessions that, as children, we desired. But the junkyard offered so many possibilities for the imagination. Instead of me being thankful for some new toy, or game, or a Barbie doll, or so forth, that I was paying attention to when the blackberries ripened, when the plums came on.

CURWOOD: From living in a junkyard, what did the things that people were throwing away tell you about their lives or world?

RAY: What mostly came to the junkyard was damaged in some way. Now what I see, that people throw away, are very functional things, and lots of them. I could not believe the things my neighbors threw away. How, every week, before the trash truck came around, I was out gathering what I wanted. We got a new tent. It’s pretty amazing.

But you know what I did with it? I’m not a hoarder at all. I just filled the back of my truck with what I thought other people could use and took it down to Goodwill.


RAY: I’m really not a junk collector. It’s just, I cannot bear waste.

CURWOOD: There’s a place in your book, Janisse, where you quote from a letter that your brother Dell wrote you, about your childhood home in a junkyard. Could you please read a little from that?

RAY: I’d be glad to. "There’s a place in the old junkyard that, when I encounter it, turns magical. I become a future savage, half naked, silently creeping through the dense canopy of trees and scrub. A feeling of dread increases with each step. But curiosity draws me on. Suddenly, I see mammoth beasts, eyes staring sightless forward. I see huge shining teeth in these monsters. As I move my hand gently among their flanks, I realize that I am in a graveyard speckled with dead prehistoric creatures. I am filled with awe. I can only speculate about their lives, imagine them roaring about, and shudder at what they fed on. I know that this is hallowed ground. And I remember that this place was spoken of in soft mutterings of the old ones, long dead, around the fires at night. As I grope the shaft to the spear and prepare to leave, I wonder if the pangs are from hunger or from a sense of loss."

CURWOOD: It’s so interesting that your brother describes this junkyard as-- well, it’s almost a wilderness. It’s very much alive. What sort of similarities do you see between the junkyard and the forest?

RAY: The similarities between a junkyard and a forest are that both are random and so full of unusual, interesting things. You never know what to expect in a forest, in a wilderness. And you never, never know what could be around a bend in the junkyard: a part of a doll, a piece of an airplane, a huge stack of bicycle parts. And the same in a forest. You know, suddenly you come upon a black bear, standing right on the trail. And yet, in the randomness of both of them, is logic, a semblance of order.

CURWOOD: What’s special about longleaf or yellow pine, which is the type of pine which used to be rather plentiful there in the South?

RAY: The wind has its own song in longleaf pine. When a wind passes through a magnolia, it clatters. It clatters the leaves. They’re thick. But because the needles of longleaf are long and wispy, it’s a brushing sound that comes through. But it’s also very loud. There are many, many needles. And, I wish I could explain it to you. It’s a very distinct sound, to be in a tall, longleaf pine forest, and hear the wind come sweeping through. It really sings.

CURWOOD: Janisse Ray, you entitled your book "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood." What does it mean to you to be a cracker?

RAY: If you ask anybody around here, they say, "Oh, it’s because we ate our corn cracked," meaning grits. Or, the settlers habit of cracking their whips over the heads of the cattle as they drove them to market. But really, it means bragger or boaster. Crackers are the boarder-landers who settled most of the southern United States.

CURWOOD: What was the cracker relationship with the land?

RAY: We used the land, Steve, as we needed it. I don’t think we would have used it up. But what happened is that, after the Civil War, our part of the country was needed for reconstruction, to rebuild the nation. And because we had been humbled by our loss and by the changes, and also by the destruction, that we became the wood basket, then, for the nation. A cutting cycle ensued. It was so fierce, we lost almost all of our old growth then, following the Civil War.

The cutting cycle lasted through the turn of the century. We built little cabins, little cracker shanties, shotgun cabins, all through the woods here and there. We cut the trees and drifted them down the Altamaha River to Darien. You know, we are the people responsible for the destruction of that landscape.

CURWOOD: Janisse Ray, could you read a little from the introduction of your book, to give us a taste of the South that was your childhood?

RAY: Sure. "In South Georgia, everything is flat and wide, not empty. My people live among the mobile homes, junked cars, pine plantations, clear cuts, and fields. They live among the lost forests. I was born from people who were born from people who were born from people who were born here. The crackers crossed the wide Altamaha into what had been creek territory, and settled the vast, fire-loving uplands of the coastal plains of southeast Georgia, surrounded by a singing forest of tall and widely spaced pines, whose history they did not know, whose stories were untold."

CURWOOD: You write that your family dates back almost 200 years in the South, and that you got a lot of wonderful characters in your family. The story of your grandfather Charlie, or as you entitle him in your book, "Iron Man," had quite a relationship with the southern woods. I’m wondering if you could tell us, briefly, the story of your grandfather, Charlie.

RAY: The tragedy of my grandfather is that, from a very young age, he inherited this tragic disease, mental illness, that’s run through the Ray men. And so, I believe what happened is that he turned to wilderness for a kind of solace, for a place where he knew he could find even our basic necessities, like food and shelter.

And also because, in so many places, he had not found love. There was a place in the woods where he didn’t need that. And he was truly a wild man. He became a folk hero in my part of the country. People still talk about him. He could dive into the Altamaha River, head and all, and feel among sunken tree roots, and come up with a catfish in each hand.

Sometimes when I’m walking in the woods, I envision my grandfather a ghost. I mean, it’s almost so real that I’ve seen that, the ghost of him emerging from the woods. You know, the South is full of ghosts. I don’t know why. I think it’s our love of stories, our love of spirit, and mystery. And I really think that there is this part of the inexplicable that flourishes in wildness in wilderness. And that, as we lose wilderness in the South, we also lose something like ghost stories.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder, "Theme to Southern Comfort," MUSIC BY…(Warner Bors. – 1995)]

CURWOOD: Janisse Ray is author of the book, "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood," and lives in her hometown of Baxley, Georgia. Thanks for speaking with me today.

RAY: Thank you so much.



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