Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. By Janisse Ray. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1999. ISBN: 978-1571312471
Growing up during the summer months as a child, I had the opportunity to spend time on a farm in Adel, Georgia, that my uncle and grandparents owned. We spent many days working in the fields rounding up cattle, followed by my granddaddy and I taking a stroll down to the pond to fish. Despite our catch, the activity was pleasing, because we were enjoying nature and what my granddaddy called, “God’s country.” Every night after we had dinner, we spent time talking about God and his miracles. He was a very religious man who told me that the earth and the land we inhabited were gifts given to us by God, and should therefore be respected and adored. Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood brings me back to the lessons granddaddy preached during my childhood. Chapters eleven and twelve capture my attention most, because the message resonates deep in my roots.
Like Ray, religion was a big part of my childhood, although mine was not as strict as hers because we celebrated all of the holidays, and for the most part my brother, sister, and I were allowed to wear whatever we liked. However, we were required to memorize Bible verses, as well as say a prayer every night before dinner. Ray’s father is what I would call a “fire-throwing man of God,” meaning that God and the church were his favorite topics of discussion. He loved to argue with people who had different opinions on these matters, and he did not care what they thought of him, primarily because he felt that he was doing the Lord’s work. Her father enraged people with his outspoken opinions about how people should lead their lives, and it seems as though he felt that if the person did not like what he had to say, it made no difference, because he was only answerable to God. Ray explains how “moment by moment he traded the world for God” (116).
Another defining element to chapter eleven is the description of how her father made them fast twice during the week, as well as the forty days of fasting they endured in the summer months. This is something that I did not know was done in Christian practices except during Lent. Ray describes how during this forty-day period, dinner was never late. The way her family came together during the afternoon to begin preparing the meal mirrored holidays and special occasions. I think the Christian religion influenced how tightly knit her family was and played a vital role in how she viewed those around her, as well as her love for nature. In the next chapter, “Clear-cut,” Ray displays the intimate relationship between God and nature.
The first sentence of chapter twelve, “If you clear a forest, you’d better pray continuously” (123), highlights God and nature’s relationship. Her way of describing the forest as God’s creation, and how we as humans have no right to destroy it, reflects some of the thoughts my granddaddy used to share with me when I was a child. God created the land and the inhabitants should cherish it, not abuse it by cutting down trees flippantly. “God doesn’t like a clear-cut. It makes his heart turn cold, makes him wince and wonder what went wrong with his creation, and sets him to thinking about what spoils the child” (123). This is my favorite part in this chapter, because while reading this section, I can experience the hurt she says God feels. Ray’s view that God expects us to cut down only what we need is one that I share, though my view is not as extreme as hers. Here, the intimacy between God and nature becomes tangible: “God likes to prop himself against a tree in the forest and study the plants and animals. They all please him” (125-6). This poetic statement creates imagery of God admiring His creation and gift to us, and displays His disappointment for clear-cuts as well.
Cutting down trees or burning for necessity is one thing, but corporations who abuse the land for a profit upset not only me, but Janisse Ray as well. If fifty trees must be cut down, that’s fine, but the least that should be done is to plant one hundred new trees somewhere else to help replenish the land and keep the ecosystem going. Reading Ray’s intriguing story about her “cracker childhood” and the events that molded her views causes me to reminisce about my own family and childhood. Ray does an excellent job of raising important questions in simple terms that anyone can understand. Ray’s view on the cracker culture of South Georgia is unique, as it presents people who had little, but who loved God’s blessings. Ray says it best when she says, “What I come from has made me who I am” (33), and that is why nature is so crucial.
Armstrong Atlantic State University
About the author
A junior student, Jordan Shiver transferred from Gainsville State College to Armstrong in the fall of 2009 to pursue a history degree. At Gainsville State, he studied for a business degree.
Jordan Shiver, review of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray, Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no.1 (March 2011).