Ecology Of A Cracker Childhood Summary

Janisse Ray

Ecology Of A Cracker Childhood

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Ecology Of A Cracker Childhood Summary

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The memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (2000) by Janisse Ray follows a tough childhood marked by zealous religious beliefs, mental illness, and dire poverty. It won an American Book Award in 2001. While predominately a memoir, the work also introduces environmental research and analyzes humans’ relationship to the land. While always in the first person, the text alternates between chapters devoted to Ray’s peculiar upbringing, and chapters cataloging the diminishing landscape in southern Georgia.

The themes of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood include honoring a diminishing social and environmental landscape and persevering through poverty.

Ray describes growing up near a junkyard operated by her parents on US Highway 1, in southern Georgia. Their small house is in Appling County, outside of a small town called Baxley. She details the longleaf pine forest, tantalizing orchids, and other flora unique to rural, southern Georgia. Overtime, the landscape Ray knew changes with more suburban housing divisions and a litany of golf courses. Because of global warming, southern Georgia has never been hotter, making it nearly impossible for certain plants to continue to grow in Georgia. Ray is especially concerned that the longleaf pine forests will one day be scorched out of existence. There are also animals and insects she lists in the appendix as endangered. This includes the scarab beetle and the blue-tailed mole skink.

Some typical images of Georgia include mansions, cotton plantations, and regal Southern dances, but Ray’s childhood had none of that. The nearby rivers are murky and the flat land is tangled with weeds. If people know about this side of Georgia, it is only because they have to drive through it on the way to vacationing in Florida.

Ray’s father, Franklin, is a very handy man. He can make guns from car parts and playground equipment from discarded pipes. He makes a livelihood through salvaging old parts. The children are embarrassed by Franklin’s profession, and tell other children at school that he is simply a salesman. They are also annoyed how often their home is littered with “junk.”

Franklin does possess a sensitive side, however. One day, he sews up a hurt toad for Ray. He is a self-taught man; though he dropped out of high school, he can talk to anyone about the theory of relativity because he is willing to spend long nights reading various encyclopedias.

Ray’s mother, Lee, is a loving mother and loyal wife. She encourages Ray’s love of nature and is delighted when she joins 4-H.

Ray’s grandfather, Charlie, is also a self-sufficient man. He is a great hunter of unusual animals and excels at catching catfish with his own hands. As soon as Franklin turned eighteen, Charlie persuaded him to join the salvage business.

Ray’s father and Charlie both endure bouts with mental illness. Ray is frequently anxious about what mental illness she may have inherited. Fortunately, she has not inherited any mental illness. She spends her days wandering through nature. She does not spend much time around the junkyard as her parents have expressly forbidden her from being around there as she might hurt herself.

Ray describes how the forests in Georgia were endangered long before her lifetime. When President Andrew Jackson forced the Creek Indians out of the area, the incoming residents, mostly Irish and Scottish farmers, tilled the land aggressively. They tended to catch and destroy animals that threatened their new crops; they cut down the forests without much thought of how those trees would be replenished. While a useful source of wood and oil for the region, Ray writes that the pine trees were also susceptible to catching on fire, especially after a lightning storm; this potential danger encouraged more people to chop the pine trees down.

Later, Ray writes about the Christian restrictions she was raised within: she could not watch TV, play sports, play with dolls, or wear sandals. In the summer, the family went withhold food for forty full days, as Jesus had in the Bible. She was raised in an Apostolic church. The family was the congregation’s only white members; almost everyone else was African–American. On Christmas, Ray and her siblings secretly decorated a tree with popcorn and exchanged morsels of candy. Christmas in her household was regarded as a heathen holiday, and her parents forbade her and her siblings to celebrate it. They almost never had people visit them at home.

Ray details the work of several conservationists in southern Georgia, including Leon Neel, John Audubon, and Todd Engstrom.

Ray eventually escapes for college. Very quickly, she makes up for lost time. She dates; she drinks alcohol; she lives the life of adventure she had always dreamed of.

Toward the end of the memoir, Ray considers how her fight to save the trees of Georgia is similar to her fight for self-respect. By honoring the place that she came from, Ray hopes to make peace with herself.