It was on a mountain road in the Colombian Andes, one Sunday afternoon a few decades ago, that Janisse Ray decided to write about the forests of her home in South Georgia. More than a couple thousand miles separate the two places: While the Andes is generally regarded as one of the great natural wonders of the world, the same is less often observed of the vicinity of Baxley, Georgia, where Ray is from, and which sits smack in the middle of the vast, flat coastal plain that extends from Macon and Augusta to the salt marshes and barrier islands of the Atlantic coast. In the book that made her a success, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Ray acknowledged as much about the difficulty of loving this landscape: “My homeland is about as ugly as a place gets,” she wrote. “There’s nothing in South Georgia, people will tell you, except straight, lonely roads, one-horse towns, sprawling farms, and tracts of planted pines.”
Ray grew up poor outside Baxley on a junkyard operated by her father, Franklin Delano Ray, a tender-hearted, religious eccentric who forbade his family from celebrating holidays or birthdays and put them on 40-day fasts in the summer. The Cracker of the title refers to the poor whites of Scotch-Irish descent who supplanted the indigenous people in Georgia’s piney woods and lowland swamps, importing to the continent a reputation for wildness that was especially true of the Clan McRae, from whom Janisse Ray is descended and for whom the town of McRae, Georgia, takes its name. (Ray’s own name is pronounced juh-NEES; the discrepancy between the way it looks and the way it’s said owes to a transcription error at the hospital—the intended spelling was “Janneice.”) Her family had been in the same place for nearly two centuries, but Ray, after graduating high school, picked up and took off for college, following a well-worn path of those raised in strict religious households: She became kind of a hippie.
She lived for a while in Florida, off the grid and freely. “I really just wanted to write poetry and travel,” she told me. “I had fallen in with the hippies and world-change people, and I just wanted to homestead out in the country somewhere.” One day, her father drove down to see how Ray was living and there discovered, to his displeasure, a man gardening naked in her yard. She went to South America to teach English, and it was the prospect of returning to this country that was causing her, that day in the mountains, to think hard about what she was going to do once she got back there. “I was just desperately trying to figure out how I wanted my life to go,” she said. “I had had these two great themes, these two narratives. One was a love of writing, and one was a love of nature.”
Since childhood she’d been praised for the way she wrote, but her love of nature grew from more tangled roots. In raising Ray and her three siblings, maybe her father had taken the wrong lesson from his own father, Charlie, who hid out for weeks at a time in the bottomland swamps surrounding the Altamaha River, before eventually abandoning his wife and children altogether. Ray has frankly described the mental illness that seems to run patrilineally through her family’s blood. Her own father spent time at the state hospital in Milledgeville after an episode in which he locked his family in a room and kept them from eating. She came to see her father’s junkyard as the manifestation of his internal chaos, a way to push back against the wildness Charlie had taught him to fear. She lamented that the thread that might’ve connected her to her grandfather, and more closely to the land, had broken in the interceding generation. And Ray came to learn that the way her homeland looked, that ugliness she’d grown up around, represented not a permanent condition but a forced separation: represented, particularly, more than a century of relentless timbering and other human intervention that had rid the coastal plain of the thing that most made it beautiful, which was its ancient forests. She realized it was a landscape she missed, without really ever having known it.
These forests, whose ghosts Ray grew up beneath, were of longleaf pine, which used to cover some 90 million acres of the Southeast. By the end of the 20th century, that acreage had been reduced to just about two million, and much of that replanted; only around 10,000 virgin acres of longleaf remain, most of it in Georgia and Florida. “The forest went from southern Virginia all the way to East Texas,” Ray told me. “You’re talking about a huge ecosystem that was 99 percent gone, and nobody had written about it.”
That was her initial idea—a panegyric about the pines. Longleaf lends itself to storytelling as well as any highly evolved ecosystem, in the way that all of its little parts fit together to prove the ingenuity of the overall machine. The gopher tortoise, for instance, lets hundreds of species shelter in the burrows it digs in the sandy soil, where they’re able to escape the occasional cleansing wildfires that keep the forest healthy. The Southeastern longleaf-grassland forest might be the most biodiverse ecosystem in North America above the tropics. Now the gopher tortoise is near endangered, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund—a project of the European Union, the World Bank, and other international bodies—has declared the Southeastern coastal plain a global biodiversity hotspot, a designation connoting two things: richness of species and a high level of vulnerability. Even in the 1990s, when Ray began writing her first book, this seemed like a crisis, if one that had been going on for decades. The reason it hadn’t been treated as such, Ray thought, was where the forest was located.
“Nobody had written about it because it was in the South, a part of the country with a huge stigma of having, almost to its death, supported this impossibly horrific institution of slavery,” she told me. “We had set ourselves up as a region to be—let’s just say less than. The South lost out on national parks, for example. All the grand national parks are out west. That’s hardly forgivable, that of all the glorious—goddamn glorious—places that we’ve had in the South, we didn’t get to protect them.”
The twinned exploitation of the land and the people who labored on it was in the region’s blood. Unlike in the West, where conservationists had secured the preservation of vast, pristine tracts of wilderness, the South had been treated as a piece of soil to be worked ever since the arrival of Europeans. The Crackers were typically too poor to be slaveholders, but they still used the land however they could—a heritage Ray found inescapable while writing Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which wove together stories of her childhood with her pleas for the pines. “The land itself has been the victim of social dilemmas—racial injustice, lack of education, and dire poverty,” she wrote. “More than anything else, what happened to the longleaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.”
Published in 2000, Ecology was swiftly successful and is still celebrated as both a personal memoir—a feminist portrait of a moment in time in the rural South—and a galvanizing piece of Southern nature writing. Introducing Ray at a talk she gave in Savannah earlier this year, the environmental historian Paul Sutter called the book “a stunning example of how natural history and family history are coequal in creating a sense of place.” When he first came across Ecology, Sutter said, “it solidified for me a then-growing sense that the American South deserved more attention from environmental historians.”
The book went into a third printing in its first year; a perhaps even more impressive metric is that, of the 10,000 copies sold that year, fully one-tenth were vended in rural Georgia by the junkyard proprietor Franklin Ray, who—after some initial misgivings—became a proud salesman of his daughter’s influential work. The New York Times sent a reporter down, yielding an article on the cover of the House & Home section declaring that the “Southeast forests find their Rachel Carson.” For Ray, the book launched a literary career that, in 2015, got her inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
“What happened to the longleaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.”
The pines themselves have not been as fortunate, and while Ray and groups like the Longleaf Alliance have led efforts to revive the longleaf ecosystem, the health of Southern forests writ large remains tenuous. After they were initially harvested, many virgin longleaf tracts were replaced by faster-growing planted pine species, the staple crops of a robust timber industry in Georgia. Ray and other environmental activists have long seen some of these planted forests as sterile, almost-industrial spaces, which don’t support near the amount of biodiversity as the virgin woods they stand in place of—lacking not just the beauty that Ray lamented but the ecological benefits as well. The tension between timberers and environmentalists is an old story. But right now, the environmentalists are especially concerned about a use for Southern timber that’s expanded rapidly in the 21st century—its growth fueled, ironically, by concerns over global warming.
In an attempt to cut back on their own fossil fuel emissions, countries in the European Union have become increasingly fond of getting energy from burning wood pellets, the product of wood that’s been harvested, ground up, and compressed. Because Europe has relatively stringent forest protections, the pellets are largely imported from the American Southeast. If the good news is that wood isn’t a fossil fuel, the bad news is that, by certain measures, it’s worse: Burning wood releases more carbon per unit of energy than burning coal or oil. And downed trees, of course, are no longer able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Because trees grow back and return to capturing carbon on a much faster cycle than coal or oil, proponents of this type of fuel—called biomass energy—argue it should be considered a renewable source. But that regeneration happens on an order of decades. Last year, the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change produced a jarring estimate of how long the world has to forestall the worst effects of climate change: just 12 years, it said, to dramatically restructure the world economy and cut carbon emissions by nearly half, on the way to a later goal of net zero emissions by 2050. In 2017, a group of scientists—including a number of IPCC lead authors—published a letter naming a “critical flaw” in the EU’s goal to double the continent’s renewable energy by 2030. Counting wood biomass as a renewable energy source, they wrote, “amounts to selling the world’s limited time to combat climate change under mistaken claims of improvement.”
The American Southeast is the world’s top exporter of wood biomass, with the bulk produced in Georgia. Initially, biomass producers made pellets out of timber residue or sawmill shavings, but increasing demand has led them to harvest whole trees. (In addition to forest cutting and carbon emissions, conservationists and community groups object to the particulate matter emitted by wood pellet–producing U.S. factories, which tend to be located in low-income, nonwhite communities.) Naturally regenerating forests in the Southeast are expected to decline between 25 and 58 percent by 2060, while the amount of forestland taken up by pine plantations could rise to as much as 34 percent. Georgia, which has been called the “Amazon of the South” for its once highly biodiverse forest ecosystems, has also been called the “Saudi Arabia of pine trees” for the potential of its wood energy.
It was in Georgia in April 2018 that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced the Trump administration would consider wood biofuel a “carbon-neutral” energy source. The impact of this decision is, admittedly, somewhat hypothetical: It presupposes a future in which the U.S. actually gets serious about controlling carbon emissions. Pruitt’s decision makes an eventual honest accounting of those emissions less likely if—as in Europe—energy producers are able to claim wood pellets as renewable, says Danna Smith, the executive director of the Dogwood Alliance, a regional forest-preservation nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina: “This could play out in a way that is absolutely taking us backwards, not forwards, on climate change.” Smith also says carbon neutrality isn’t enough: People need to be pulling carbon from the atmosphere, not just putting less into it. That’s where trees come in.
One sunny January morning, I drove out to a tree farm in Wheeler County belonging to Reese Thompson, a sixth-generation Georgian of Scottish descent whose family has been in the tree business for four generations; his ancestors were turpentiners. In the 1980s, Thompson worked for a couple years as a commodities trader in Chicago before returning home to take up the family trade. He and his brother, who owns an adjoining tract, have spent the last few decades restoring portions of their land to longleaf pine. The longleaf ecosystem evolved to rely on occasional wildfire, sparked by lightning, to keep competing species at bay; the day I visited, Thompson’s brother was the lightning, using a drip torch to burn tracts of his land, which accounted for the smoke in the air. And Thompson had burned the day before, which accounted for the scorched earth between rows of three-year-old trees he pointed to as we walked through a field. Longleaf pines are aptly named, with needles that can grow 18 inches and longer. To me, these upstarts, just a few feet high, looked like Muppets, just clusters of wild hair emerging startled from the ground.
“There are basically two avenues that you can take being a tree farmer,” said Thompson, who’s 65. He owns several thousand acres of longleaf mixed with slash and loblolly, and most years, he’s able to harvest and sell some timber. “You can be a commodity-based tree farmer—you just plant trees in rows, and you have a monoculture. For lack of a better term, you’ve got a green desert.” Or “you can be community-based,” he said, working to promote an abundant community of species in your forest. Thompson drove his truck up a slight rise and into a patch of mature forest he called his “slice of heaven.” Some of the trees were a century old or more. Longleaf pine grow tall and thin and sprout few branches beneath their canopy, and they stretch starkly skyward. The understory was so open that, Thompson pointed out, we could see probably a quarter mile through the sporadic trees. There’s something lonely-looking about a healthy longleaf forest, or maybe just solemn. I thought of Janisse Ray’s description of walking into an ancient forest stand: “It is as if a round table springs up in the cathedral of pines, and God graciously pulls out a chair for me, and I no longer have to worry about what happens to souls.”
As we trudged through the winter brush, Thompson pointed out various plants that grow especially well with longleaf, like pitcher plants and toothache grass. “We’re blessed with indigos,” he said. He told me two things about the eastern indigo snake, whose geographical range has contracted along with the longleaf’s and who cohabitates with the gopher tortoise in its welcoming burrow. One thing Thompson said was that the eastern indigo is “extremely docile.” The other thing—which would seem to give the lie to Thing No. 1, but nature is complicated, I guess—is that the eastern indigo eats rattlesnakes. Eats them. It’s immune to rattlesnake venom. “He has tremendous jaw pressure, and he just comes up to a rattlesnake and just bites him and crushes him and then swallows him” was how Thompson put it. His voice got lost on the wind for a minute, but, when I could catch him again, he was talking about how the rattlesnake, too, is an important part of the system here, because it eats rats.
Thompson is the creator of a cartoon character named Burner Bob, a kind of Smokey Bear doppelganger that he licenses for $1 to the Longleaf Alliance, which promotes restoration. But whereas Smokey, a rigid ideologue, discourages fire, Burner Bob realizes that, under controlled conditions, it’s actually necessary for the health of certain forests. Burner Bob is a bobwhite quail, another species that prefers the unique environs of the longleaf forest: “He walks almost everywhere he goes,” Thompson said, and so prefers some ground-level vegetation to munch along the way. When the understory doesn’t burn, taller shrubs and small trees block sunlight from ground-level plant life. Thompson, who was on his way to a meeting of conservationists in Atlanta, urged me to mention Burner Bob in this article and, separately, gave me a basket of very good cookies his wife had made; I didn’t consider this to be in the manner of a quid pro quo, but there you have it: full disclosure.
At the same time that humans of European descent were mass-harvesting the timbers, they were suppressing the fires the forest depended on—fires that had been spread for millennia by lightning but also by Native Americans, who used burning to clear fields for agriculture. Later, the Crackers used the longleaf’s sturdy boards to build houses and its resinous stumps to light fires. It wasn’t until after the Civil War—when timbering became more economically feasible in the Southeast than industries such as rice and sugar, which had relied on slave labor—that the forest came to exist in a state of almost pure exploitation.
Longleaf is especially good wood: Because of its lack of lower branches it creates straight, firm, and knotless timber. Industrialists stampeded toward the South, shipping the wood worldwide; Darien, Georgia, now a tiny tidewater town halfway down the coast, was once a booming international timber port. It was longleaf, for instance, that was driven into the bottom of the East River of New York to anchor the Brooklyn Bridge, writes the environmental historian Albert G. Way: “Much like its more celebrated peers, steel and oil, longleaf pine was a foundational material of the industrial age.”
“This could play out in a way that is absolutely taking us backwards, not forwards, on climate change.”
The speed at which the Southern forests were timbered remains breathtaking: By the turn of the 20th century, over the course of just a few decades, much of the original forest of Georgia’s coastal plain had been timbered, replaced later by pine plantations, where faster-maturing species than longleaf grow in straight rows. Because they sustain little life beneath their canopies, the trees thereby came to more closely resemble a crop like corn, as Thompson puts it. He drove me to the edge of his property, where an open field abuts a wall of trees in straight rows, at the same height, planted by his neighbor. “Those are slash pine,” he said. “As far as a wildlife habitat, which would you rather look at: that, or what we just left down there?” He gestured back toward his slice of heaven. “There’s a real beauty out here, and every day, we’re losing it,” he said. “And once it’s lost, it’s never coming back.”
One of those few precious pieces of untouched forest sits a ways down the road from Thompson’s farm on the south bank of the Altamaha River, north of Baxley, and near a nuclear power plant. Moody Forest was bought at auction by the Nature Conservancy in 2001 following the death of Elizabeth Moody, the nonagenarian final heir to the property; she’d lived in a modest, wooden cabin on it all her life, only toward the very end acceding—at the insistence of her executor—to having indoor plumbing installed. Janisse Ray befriended Miss Elizabeth, as people still refer to her, and helped facilitate Moody Forest’s preservation. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood was originally to be called Where the Cutting Ends, after an event which, for Ray, dramatized the stakes of the land passing out of Moody hands, an occasion hungrily awaited by timberers coveting the virgin pine: A Moody relative took Ray through a bunch of land that had already been clearcut on the way to the edge of Miss Elizabeth’s property, which was still intact, awaiting her death. “Here’s where the cutting ends,” he told her. Christi Lambert, the Nature Conservancy’s director of marine and freshwater conservation in Georgia and a friend of Ray’s, said Ray acted as a kind of conduit between the Moody family, the environmentalists, and the people of Appling County whom she knew from growing up. As part of the effort, she edited a 2007 book of local testimonials about the land called Moody Forest.
“There’s a real beauty out here, and every day, we’re losing it. And once it’s lost, it’s never coming back.”
I met Lambert at the Nature Conservancy’s coastal offices near Darien, deep into the Altama Plantation Wildlife Management Area in a house built by the DuPont family in 1914. Somewhere behind the office, past floodplain swamps where enslaved people used to grow rice, was the Altamaha River, one of the biggest undammed rivers east of the Mississippi. Thanks in large part to the Nature Conservancy’s efforts, the last 42 miles of the lower river form one long corridor of protected land, with nothing on either bank. Lambert and Ray worked together, too, when Ray was a founding board member of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which came together over concerns about pollution and degradation of the river.
Ray described its founding in Wild Card Quilt, her second book. After getting an MFA from the University of Montana, where she studied under the western nature writer William Kittredge, she’d moved back to Georgia to finish Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. It had been 17 years since she’d left. She returned with a young son from a short-lived marriage, an ambition to keep writing, and some deep misgivings about how she’d be able to make it back home. In Wild Card Quilt, she describes moving into her grandmother’s old farmhouse and finding her feet as an adult in a place that had been so defined, when she was a child, by her father. She found a writers group in Baxley, helped save a public schoolhouse from closing, made connections with Moody, and found a crew of like-minded souls worried about the Altamaha River. She and her son drove to Savannah, an hour and a half away, just to go to the natural foods store and a museum. Ray was home again but far from settled, lonely but committed to staying on, both an observer of and a participant in efforts to save the place she loved.
On New Year’s Day this year, Ray had a few friends over for a big afternoon dinner. She now lives with her husband, Raven Waters, in another farmhouse, north of Baxley near Reidsville, which she moved into 10 years ago. Their daughter, Skye, gave me a tour of the grounds: There were several horses, four dogs, many chickens, a few ducks, pigs, cows, sheep, and rabbits, and guinea hens that clustered underneath the kitchen windows during dinner and made a noise like squeaky wheels. The farmhouse was built in 1850, with the kitchen and dining area in a separate building across a walkway from the main house, reflecting the architecture of an era when kitchens tended to catch fire and take the rest of the building with them.
Ray is 57 now, with dark eyes and long, graying hair; she’s reinhabited the soft drawl she wrote about trying to rid herself of when she went off to college. In the years since Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt, she’s written a series of searching personal and environmental books that includes Drifting Into Darien, which narrates a trip down the Altamaha. Her great theme has been the love of the natural world she came from, but she’s not particularly romantic about it: Loneliness and the difficulty of living a rural life grow beneath her work like an understory, and she sometimes wonders if she’s made the right choices, for herself and for her children and for her parents, who are still alive and who, she said, “look at me and don’t know where I came from.”
When she showed her father the final draft of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a rift opened between them that nearly turned into a gulf. He was particularly upset at a vivid scene in which Ray describes her father whipping his children, enraged that they hadn’t stopped another child from stomping a tortoise to death. The day after a fierce fight, Ray called back to her parents’ house and insisted she wouldn’t allow an estrangement—an act to which she attributes their lasting if somewhat tenuous relationship. “He was telling me to leave,” she told me, “and I said, ‘You are my father, and I love you, and I’m not going anywhere.’” Ray’s publisher asked her parents to sign liability releases when the book came out: “My dad had me write at the bottom of his affidavit, ‘This is not my truth. This is my daughter’s truth, but I honor her telling it.’” Eventually, he became sufficiently tickled by the notoriety to help sell the book; the visit from the Times reporter, who wanted to see Franklin’s junkyard, helped.
When we talked, Ray said, “the arc of my childhood was one, in some ways, of diminishment. And it paralleled in some ways the arc of the diminishment of the forest.” I asked her what she meant by diminishment. She said, “It’s just that this vision that my dad had of his life”—the constricting religious vision, which her father adhered to and her mother, long-suffering Lee Ada, followed. “I’ve been able to really kind of spin some straw into gold with it. And I wrote about it with a lot of honor. I tried not to cause more woundedness in the world. But the reality of it is, it was a pretty rough childhood for a person to have to overcome.”
The loss of the native landscape of the rural South isn’t, in Ray’s opinion, extricable from the fact that many people leave here as soon as they get the chance. On New Year’s, she had assembled an eclectic constellation of guests: a master gardener, a poet, a mushroom forager, an AmeriCorps Vista worker who’s spending a year in Moody Forest. They talked a lot about how they wished there was more in this area to nourish people, to persuade them to stay—better education, more opportunities. Later in the month, Ray traveled to Savannah to speak at a release party for the book Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast, to which she contributed the final chapter. Her piece was a kind of survey of the literature of the coast, from the early explorer-naturalist William Bartram to the 19th-century British actress–turned–plantation-dwelling abolitionist Fanny Kemble, that tried particularly to tease out whatever “sense of place” the works convey. If that sounds high-minded, know that the talk—and the chapter—ended with a rather rousing exhortation that indicted American expansionism, which Ray still sees at work in the rootlessness of capitalist society, and the call for an ethic of staying put: “It is time we settled down,” she said. “It is time to be domestic, to pay attention to our home places. It is time as a country and as a region to grow up.”
Natural forests act as anchors; they make a place more livable—in Ray’s writing this notion is canonical—but, as the world warms, the stakes are only becoming clearer: Trees, and particularly old trees, also store a tremendous amount of carbon. An emerging movement of activists is insisting that the forests of the South can act as a bulwark against rising oceans, widespread drought and wildfires, and increasing heat waves by taking carbon out of the atmosphere. A 2017 study estimated that “natural climate solutions,” including forests, grasslands, and wetlands, could provide more than a third of the “cost-effective climate mitigation” needed to keep global temperature rise beneath 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. “The only solution we have available that we know that works at a global scale—a highly evolved, complex technology, if you want to call it that—is forests,” said the Dogwood Alliance’s Danna Smith.
When I talked to Smith earlier this year, she was just back from Washington, D.C., where her organization had pressed its case with members of the newly installed 116th Congress. Smith, who’s white, had traveled there with the Rev. Leo Woodberry, a black pastor and longtime leader in the Southern environmental-justice movement who leads a community-development corporation in Florence, South Carolina. Last year, the pair launched the Justice First tour, a round of engagements throughout the South, including Savannah, to highlight the links between environmental degradation and racism and poverty, and to call for 100 percent clean energy and forest protection. Along with politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and activist groups like the Sunrise Movement, they’re agitating for a “just transition” in the American economy, one that eschews carbon energy while promoting racial and economic justice. “If you look at the rural communities of the South, they have among the highest logging rates on the planet,” Smith said. “These communities also have some of the highest poverty rates of anywhere in the nation. The degradation of the land and the degradation of the community go hand in hand.”
Likewise, in this view, the restoration of the land and the restoration of the communities it supports are inextricable—not a new idea, certainly, but one that echoes the hope that Janisse Ray expressed in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and that’s guided her writing career ever since: By living more responsibly on the land, we can live more justly among one another, and that the roots of all this degradation are long and tangled indeed. Thinking about her homeplace in Ecology, Ray wrote, “Sometimes I dream of restoring the junkyard to the ecosystem it was when Hernando de Soto sauntered into Georgia, looking for wealth but unable to recognize it.”
A recent study offered a macabre illustration of the interplay between forests and people and climate. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the world experienced a “Little Ice Age”—a slight dip in global temperatures. The study provided evidence that the cooling could be attributed in part to the European genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas. In a hundred years, the estimated 60 million people living in this hemisphere were reduced to around six million. The fields they’d cultivated for agriculture rapidly converted to forests, which took in carbon from the atmosphere, cooling the climate.
The rest is history: The new people spread into the new world and reclaimed the land, razed forests, dammed rivers, toppled mountains, and built the edifice of a society that wrote the prophecy of its doom on land and water. We’re still living this history, but we might not always. “If we knew the future,” Janisse Ray wrote, in Wild Card Quilt, “hope would become extinct in this world.”
This article appears in our August 2019 issue.