Many years ago, a book showed up on bookstore shelves that, quite frankly, I ignored for a few months. It seemingly had nothing to do with the bird and wild-place titles that filled my personal library, so Ecology of a Cracker Childhood did not warrant anything more than a very quick and casual glance. Somehow the book persisted in putting itself in my eyesight until, finally, I picked it up.
I read it for the first time in the span of one cross-country flight. Janisse Ray’s treatment of her south Georgia upbringing—the good and the bad of it all—was inspiring. Beyond the glowing things the critics were saying, the book struck me deeply and personally. It was a book about “My South” and the places I knew. Hers was a voice rich with y’all and drawl. She spoke of the piney woods with love, and of the injustices of the South with hate.
I am not a person prone to celebrity stalking, but I had to meet the person whose words touched me, so I sought Janisse out. Our first meeting, at the Wildbranch Nature Writing Workshop, netted a friendship that has grown over the years and now into one of mutual support that I hope continues to grow tall and thick and strong like the old, flat-topped pines she taught me to worship.
When she recently asked me if I would consider writing a blurb for her 2021 book, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans, the first nonfiction she has released in a decade, I was thrilled. I wrote, “Janisse Ray’s lyricism winds us to a heightened attentiveness to nature and calls with the clarity of dawn song throughout. I count her words as wild blessing to the world.”
Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject is often nature. She earned an MFA from the University of Montana and has published six books of nonfiction and two volumes of poetry. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is a memoir about growing up on a junkyard in the severely diminished longleaf pine ecosystem. It was named a New York Times Notable Book. Ray has won a Pushcart Prize, an American Book Award, and a Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Award, among others. She lives on an organic farm in Georgia.
In this interview, I hope my questions capture the essence of her new work, but also her essence as a social activist, a creator, and a caring soul.
The longer a person stays in a place, studying it, the more stories are revealed to the person. Southern wildness is unique to me because of this, because I live in it.
Drew Lanham: I fell in love with your Ecology of a Cracker Childhood first and foremost because it was relatable to me as a rural Southerner. Your voice in it and in your subsequent work has been a clear call to protect home, which in this case is a Southern home. In this new work, you take us on wide-ranging journeys to far-flung places to encounter wild beings. What’s unique about Southern wildness when compared to all the other wildness you’ve experienced?
Janisse Ray: Drew, thank you so much for your many kindnesses to me. Likewise, I am moved by your work, starting with The Home Place because it embraces all the things I love, and by your life. Your friendship these many years has meant a lot to me. As you say, in the new book I do write about far-off places. My travels are not extensive, but they are illuminating. I think what’s unique about Southern wildness is the ability to access it without going to extremes. (Of course many people might consider the 100-degree heat of late summer to be extreme!) It is pretty accessible, year-round. The other word that comes to mind is “botanical.” Trees are a fundamental part of the Southern wilderness, as compared to geologic or meadow wilderness, and among all the green of trees are myriad botanics. In the subtropics and tropics of Southern wilderness, too, are a huge diversity of creatures. The Southern wilderness offers layers of complexity to the naturalist.
There is one other thing about Southern wildness that I’d like to mention, and that’s stories. Because I am native to and an inhabitant of the Southern U.S., I know its landscapes to be deeply layered with stories. When a person is passing through, only some of those stories become available. The longer a person stays in a place, studying it, the more stories are revealed to the person. Southern wildness is unique to me because of this, because I live in it.
Drew Lanham: Do you have a favorite place beyond home that calls to you?
Janisse Ray: I often wish I had been born in the Intermountain West, because I am called to that landscape. I’m not sure why. I am also called to my ancestral homeland of Great Britain—my native people are the Celts. I have never had a chance to visit that homeland, and I’m afraid if I do I won’t want to return.
Drew Lanham: Janisse, you speak and write about the importance of sacrifice in your efforts to “do something” about the climate change crisis. From reducing your carbon footprint to localizing foodways, you’ve made global warming personal. It has cost you as a celebrated author and persona in some ways, since your travel has been self-restricted, your range voluntarily reduced. In the end, I think your work will speak volumes beyond the miles you no longer travel. You and Greta Thunberg are walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Can you speak to our current conundrum of hypocrisy as nature nurturers in a hyper-capitalist consumer society and how wildness necessitates a different sort of being?
Janisse Ray: This is a very important question. The sacrifices of any one of us are not going to move the needle of the climate crisis. It is going to take comprehensive policy changes. I made my decisions because I think that the divide between the talk and the walk, as you call it, if unresolved, is a kind of mental illness, a schizophrenia. The decisions I make are personal ones, and I am not asking anyone else to make them.
I think it’s important here to talk about trauma as well. Collective trauma is made up of lots of personal trauma. If we look at racial oppression in our country, for example, racism is a collective trauma that is composed of many, many personal traumas. The same with slavery, with women’s oppression, with homophobia. The climate crisis is a collective trauma that humans are committing against the earth, against each other, and against themselves. Just as recovery from a personal trauma requires healing, recovery from a collective trauma requires collective healing. This is another benefit of policy solutions to the climate crisis. Good policy is collective healing.
Drew Lanham: Do you anticipate changing how you move about (or don’t move about) the world? What does the future look like to you given the current state of affairs concerning the environment?
Janisse Ray: I can’t imagine exactly what the future will look like, although I do know that we are already living the climate crisis—wildfires, hurricanes, drought, sea-level rise. I predict a migration from urban to rural and more people living in closer relationship to land. I think most of us will travel less.
Drew Lanham: How do you stay put?
Janisse: I live in a beautiful place. I’ve always wanted to be a farmer, so the only thing lost to me here on a farm in the wilds of southern Georgia is people. I get very lonely for people. I love staying put for every other reason, because it means I am in constant, direct relationship to a place that is very storied, very layered, very complicated, very much in need of healing, and very much a comfort.
Drew Lanham: Should nature writers have greater responsibility in walking the walk and not just writing about it? I guess I’m asking if writers should more aggressively seek activist roles?
Janisse Ray: Writing itself is an act of resistance.
The only responsibility writers have is to truth, the meanings below the surfaces of things, the meaning of everything, the “why,” the “what’s really happening.”
Drew Lanham: So the biggest nature story is the one we’re currently living in, the Covid-19 pandemic. What have you found to keep you going as a writer and creative force in this time of quarantine and social distancing? Is there something we can “leverage” out of these worst-of-times to be better on the other side of it? As before, do you think that we as writers have any responsibility to write to this crisis in any sort of activist way beyond simply telling stories?
Janisse Ray: In many ways my life has not changed. I travel even less than I traveled before, of course. All the other cycles—of seasons, weather, gardening, animal husbandry, personal growth, and scholarship—have stayed the same. The suffering and death has caused me a good deal of heartache and grief; I also very much enjoyed a quieter world and a sky free of contrails. Regarding your last question, I think the only responsibility writers have is to truth, the meanings below the surfaces of things, the meaning of everything, the “why,” the “what’s really happening.” Writing that doesn’t get at the truth simply upholds dominant paradigms, many of which have been and continue to be destructive ones.
Drew Lanham: Janisse, you’re an activist whose words and work have opened minds to Southern ecology and a sensibility for nurturing nature beyond stereotype. Can you talk about conservation and environmentalism as mission?
Janisse Ray: I say this a lot, Drew. I don’t think there’s any greater mission right now than saving life on the planet, which means figuring out how humans, with all our discoveries and technologies, are going to live on it without destroying it and everything we love.
Drew Lanham: What’s at the taproot of your caring for wild things?
Janisse Ray: Most of life is about built environments, rather than natural ones. Culture is a built environment. Last Friday night at our high school’s football game, the moon rose almost full above the scoreboard. A small child near me could not keep her eyes off the moon. As children we know a deep and abiding connection to wildness, and as we age, our built environments succeed in separating us from that. For me, that switch never got turned off. I think my life has been all the richer for it.
Drew Lanham: What’s the one wildest moment you remember, one that raised the hairs on the back of your neck or gooseflesh on your arm, that defined your place among all other living things?
Janisse Ray: Face to face with a bear on a trail in Montana.
Drew Lanham: Why is wildness important to who we are as a nation?
Janisse Ray: We are creatures of the earth and we need to be connected. We cannot, as a species, survive without natural processes. We depend on the earth.
Drew Lanham: What does hope look like to you, Janisse?
Janisse Ray: Love. It looks exactly like love.
Drew Lanham: And what’s the next thing calling you to action?
Janisse: I am very much in a period of contemplation and study. In terms of the “great work” that Rilke talks about, I am waiting on a sign. Meanwhile, the daily work goes on. As for writing, I’m at work on a book that lays out a case for Ocmulgee National Park in middle Georgia, which was the ancestral land of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Drew Lanham: Talking with you has been a pleasure, Janisse. Thank you and all the best with your new book.