On Janisse Ray, Environment, and History’s Knack for Repeating Itself

I have recently revisited Georgia-born author Janisse Ray’s work of nonfiction titled Ecology of a Cracker ChildhoodThe book’s innards are in the title as Ray alternates chapters where she recounts her  childhood memories with contrasting subject matter of the unique ecology of southern Georgia’s coastal plain otherwise known as the longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem. Janisse Ray focuses her narrative on the connection she’s had with nature since she was a child growing up on her father’s junkyard in the small town of Baxley, Georgia. Janisse Ray’s childhood respect and love for the flatlands and rivers of south Georgia is what propelled her to become an environmental activist later in her life. She fought to save the Altamaha River as well as Moody Swamp of the Moody Forest Preserve. All of her works, poetry and nonfiction, deal with the ecological reality that is facing, has faced, or will face Georgia.

Ray’s understanding of humans, nature, and their effects on each other is well-present and striking in her childhood memories as well as in her accounts of the natural and human history of Georgia. She explains the detrimental consequences that followed after the industrial logging boom following the Civil War. The longleaf pines of the wiregrass ecosystem were logged nearly to extinction. To date, there is only a fraction of a percent of old-growth longleaf pine forests left in Georgia. Janisse Ray grew up right in the middle of the Southern Coastal Plain of Georgia in a mostly rural Appling County. She sometimes calls it ugly–because it is. It always has been, in a way. Georgia’s ugliness is attributed to its past: slavery, racism, environmental degradation, poverty, etc. Janisse Ray’s Georgia is a far cry from tall columns and extravagant plantations and gatherings–her Georgia is dilapidated, rusty, worn, cluttered, but still wild, beautiful, vast, and full of possibility.

Areas of Georgia, much like Ray’s hometown of Baxley, have time and time again acted as battlegrounds where people in power with interest in land and resources clash with resisting landowners and citizens. This situation played out when Europeans and members of the Creek nation were in contact with each other. The Creek people participated in the trade economy that began in Georgia when the James Oglethorpe and his colonists began to move in. Whitetail deerskin was one of the main commodities traded by the Creek. Toward the beginning of the 19th century, the whitetail deer population had been vastly over-hunted, the United States were pushing for the Creek to adopt a rancher/planter lifestyle to which many of them resisted, and ultimately, a civil war broke out that ended with a treaty signed over to Andrew Jackson (and also his namesake) that ended in the Creek ceding 22 million acres–much of which was in southern Georgia. Ultimately, the dispossessed Creek were rounded up and forcibly removed to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi.

The ghosts of Georgia will never forget the dark legacy that has plagued Georgia since before it was Georgia. When I was a student at Valdosta State University, a new battle was coming to fruition in the form of coal and biomass plants–projects that many were opposed to, many were open to, and many were utterly unaware. A land ripe with resources, possessing a significant number of people living below the poverty line and minorities, is the first place that is considered for energy projects that pose a risk to the drinking water, delicate ecosystems, and many other socio-economical aspects. Why? It’s called environmental racism. Environmental racism is a term that refers to the type of discrimination that occurs when low-income or minority communities are targeted for energy projects that pose a risk to their health and environment. This is playing out thousands of miles away over the Dakota Access Pipeline. The proposed pipeline is meeting resistance because it will go through sacred land, disrupt and destroy cultural resources, pollute drinking water, and more.

The Colonial Pipeline is yet another pipeline that has made the headlines recently when there was a massive leak in Alabama–causing gas shortages and water and land contamination. The Colonial Pipeline snakes through states like Alabama, Georgia, and other southeastern states and all the way up to the northeast. The state of Georgia has also made headlines for fighting off yet another pipeline called the Palmetto Pipeline that would go all the way down the Georgia coast. Community members of Savannah, Brunswick, Augusta, and other surrounding communities successfully but temporarily were able to halt construction on this project because of their environmental concerns. A judge ruled in favor of a temporary moratorium on petroleum corporations using eminent domain as a means to take land for pipeline projects. But this is not where is ends. There is yet another pipeline going through Georgia.

This time it is through south Georgia.

The very same south Georgia that was ceded by the Creeks. The very same south Georgia that was purged of most of its majestic longleaf pines and many of the creatures that were dependent upon it. The Sabal pipeline construction has begun on the land adjacent to the land my family has owned and tended since around the Revolutionary war. The family who owns the property adjacent to ours was given thousands of dollars to allow the pipeline to go through their land that is cow pasture, forest, ponds and streams, and more. If they were to resist the offer from the contractors, the land would be eventually taken as eminent domain. The Sierra Club has recently filed a lawsuit against the Sabal pipeline as it will go through several state parks, wetlands and watersheds, and act as a major threat to the quality of drinking water–most of which is in an aquifer beneath a layer of very porous limestone. As if a pipeline’s risk to water isn’t enough–limestone is a very absorbent material that will allow any leakages to readily seep into the water table.

It’s times like this that I turn to figures like Janisse Ray. In her writing, she laments the bygone days when huge, majestic longleaf pines stood like “batallions coming out of the mist,” and the many species that dwindled alongside their giant pines–their keepers. She does not, however, leave the reader with a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. She stresses the importance of family–no matter how dysfunctional. She focuses on the importance of activism and education when environmental and social issues arise. She does not ignore the fact that many conservation efforts are alive and well in all corners of this earth, and there is always a reason to hope and dream and fight for what is dear. She reminds us that nature and her creatures, including humans, are resilient and ever-changing.

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