"Ecology of a Cracker Childhood" by Janisse Ray

“Ecology of a Cracker Childhood” by Janisse Ray

Janisse Ray grew up in a junkyard along U.S. Highway 1, hidden from Florida-bound travelers by the hedge at the edge of the road and by hulks of old cars, stacks of blown-out tires, and primeval jumbles of rusted metal. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, published by Milkweed Editions, The World as Home, tells how a childhood spent in rural isolation grew into a passion to save the almost vanished longleaf pine ecosystem that once covered the South.

This book categorized as a nature memoir includes photos from Ray’s life, each with their own caption.

Janisse Ray was born in 1962 and is a native of the coastal plains of southern Georgia. Naming the Unseen, her chapbook of poetry about biology and place, won the 1996 Merriam-Frontier Award from the University of Montana, where Ray earned an MFA in creative writing in 1997. A naturalist and environmental activist, Janisse has published essays and poems in such newspapers and magazines as Wild Earth, Hope, Tallahassee Democrat, Missoula Independent, Orion, Florida Wildlife, and Georgia Wildlife, among others. She lives on a family farm in Baxley with her son.

The World As Home, the nonfiction publishing program of Milkweed Editions, is dedicated to exploring our relationship to the natural world. Not espousing any particular environmentalist or political agenda, these books are a forum for distinctive literary writing that not only alerts the reader to vital issues but offers personal testimonies to living harmoniously with other species in urban, rural, and wilderness communities.

Milkweed Editions publishes with the intention of making a humane impact on society, in the belief that literature is a transformative art uniquely able to convey the essential experiences of the human heart and spirit. To that end, Milkweed publishes distinctive voices of literary merit in handsomely designed, visually dynamic books, exploring the ethical, cultural, and esthetic issues that free societies need continually to address. Milkweed Editions is a not-for-profit press.

“We have to set to the task of repairing the damage done by and to us.” 103


  • Introduction
  • Child of Pine
  • Below the Fall Line
  • Shame
  • Built by Fire
  • Iron Man
  • Forest Beloved
  • Junkyard
  • Crackers
  • Native Genius
  • Timber
  • Heaven on Earth
  • Clearcut
  • How the Heart Opens
  • Longleaf Clan
  • Clyo
  • Hallowed Ground
  • Poverty
  • The Keystone
  • Beulahland
  • Indigo Snake
  • Mama
  • Bachman’s Sparrow
  • Light
  • Flatwoods Salamander
  • Altamaha River
  • Pine Savanna
  • Driving and Singing
  • The Kindest Cut
  • Leaving
  • Second Coming
  • Afterword: Promised Land
  • There Is a Miracle for You If You Keep Holding On
  • Appendixes
  • Acknowledgments

“By day the sun, close in a paper sky, laps moisture from the land, the gives it back, always an exchange.” 3

Outside Resources

“Words rise out of the country.”
-Iain Crichton Smith

“There’s just as many fish swimming in the ocean today
luscious and beautiful in every way
than have ever sputtered and spewed in the saucepans of yesterday.

“Don’t take more on your heart than you can shake off on your heels.”
-Walter Lynn Woodard “Pun”

“Through the acres of wrecks she came
With a wrench in her hand,

“Through dust where the blacksnake dies
Of boredom, and the beetle knows
The compost has no more life.”
-James Dickey, “Cherrylog Road”

“The landscape that I was born to, that owns my body: the uplands and lowlands of southern Georgia.” 13

Thought-Provoking Questions

Of what use to humanity, is a man who cannot see beyond his own hurt? 64
What is entity? 109
Where are the eastern bluebirds, winter chickadees, yellow-rumped warblers, white-eyed vireos? 268
Where are tree swallows and savanna sparrows? 268
Where is yellow colic root and swamp coreopsis? 268
Where is bird’s-foot-violet and blue-eyed grass? 268
Where are meadowlarks? 268
What happened to the cougar and the red wolf? 268
Eighty to 95 percent of the metals of vehicles of that era are recyclable, but what do you do with the gas tanks? 268
What about heavy metal accumulations in the soil, lead contamination, battery acid leaks, the veins of spilled oil and gasoline? 268
The topsoil would have to be scraped away: where would it go? 268
What about the rubber, plastic, and broken glass? 268
Would we haul it all to the county dump? 268
Where would we find all the replacement parts for this piece of wasted earth? 268
Might they not come, slowly, very slowly? 268


  • Winner of the American Book Award
  • Winner of the Southeastern Booksellers Association Book Award for Nonfiction


“The forests of the Southeast find their Rachel Carson.”
New York Times

“Janisse Ray knows that her region’s story and her own story are inseparable; in many ways they are the same story. To tell that story as well as she tells it here is at once to show what has gone wrong and to light the way ahead. This book, clearly, is only a beginning. It is well done and very moving.”
Wendell Berry

“Janisse Ray is a strong and imaginative writer.”
Peter Matthiessen

“[Ray’s] tale of growing up poor and white in backwoods Georgia is 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 it’s title….Heartfelt and refreshing”
-Tony Horowitz, New York Times Book Review

“In this time of unparalleled cynicism, any writer capable of imagining Paradise rebuilt on the ruins of a junkyard ought to command our attention, if not our humble gratitude.”
Phillip Connors, Newsday

“Ray has given us a gift with Ecology of a Cracker Childhood….This is like the best of Annie Dillard and Dorothy Allison combined.”
Boulder Weekly (Great Books of 1999)

“A child grows up poor in a junkyard in Baxley, Ga., and writes a terrific book about her life, her family, and the ecology of the longleaf pines.”
Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville)

“The South’s Rachel Carson….Her voice needs to be heard.”
Greensboro News & Record

“This is no ordinary book that fits into an easily defined category….Ecology of a Cracker Childhood deserves to be out on the main shelves of any bookstore.”
Winston-Salem Journal

“A tellingly honest tale of a girl who has grown up, against all odds, to become not only a lover of nature, but a spokeswoman for her place of origin and her ‘Craker’ kin.”
-Thomas Rain Crowe, Rain Taxi

“Every page of her book is equally vivid, whether she’s describing the South Georgia junkyard where she grew up or the longleaf pine forests of today.”
-Sharon Rauch, Tallahassee Democrat

“A hauntingly beautiful work that explores the themes of loss and the redemption to be had through connection to family, culture, and nature. Seamlessly weaving memories of her poverty-stricken childhood with musings about the destruction of the longleaf pine forests that once blanketed Georgia, Ray creates a tapestry of the landscape she carries ‘inside like an ache.’ She deftly spins the connections, offering what she’s learned: That her personal story is inseparable from the story of her land.”
Charleston Post and Courier

“In Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, you can open any page and out will fall words like pressed flowers and autumn leaves, vivid souvenirs of joy and loss.”
-Glenda Burnside, Bloomsbury Review

“She writes poignantly and movingly about herself and her colorful kin, and equally so about the red cockaded woodpecker, the gopher tortoise, the indigo snake and the flatwoods salamander. In the over-tilled fields of memoir and nature writing, Ray has conjured a joyous green shoot of a book.”
-Michael Swindle, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Ray’s descriptions of the idyllic forests capture their beauty….The stories are enthralling.”
Durham Herald-Sun

“More than her passion for the wilderness, her activism or her outrage, it is her capacity for wonder that wins us to her fervent environmentalism-a capacity born and bred, ironically, not in the college biology lab or the naturalist’s notebook but in the brier patch of a junkyard adrift with car guts, old lawn mowers, broken glass.”
-Amy Godine, Orion

“Ray’s redemptive story of an impoverished childhood brings to mind the novels of Dorothy Allison and the nature writing of Amy Blackmarr, but the stunning voice and vision are hers alone.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Every endangered ecosystem should have such an eloquent spokesman.”
-Bailey White

“One theme of this smart book hit me particularly hard: there are no wastelands on this planet, only places that could regain some of the balance and beauty that lies not so far in their past.”
-Bill McKibben

“What impresses me most about this astonishing book is the seamless interweaving of personal memoir and natural history-an interweaving the more remarkable in view of the jolting differences between the junkyard of the author’s childhood and what is left of the natural landscape of her beloved south Georgia.”
-Jim Kilgo, author of Deep Enough for Ivorybills

“Janisse Ray is a role model for countless future rural writers to come.”
-Wes Jackson

“Vivid….In Janisse Ray, the region has found a worthy and eloquent advocate.”
-E: The Environmental Magazine

You can find several videos of Janisse Ray speaking in formal settings on YouTube, but I enjoy the casual setting as she reads from her book in the forest from this video:

More Books on Nature:

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