"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Sunday, September 25, 2011


I have been at this nature writing thing for a relatively short time.  By my count it's now at eight years and I am ever the student of words-written and spoken.  If you've read my blogs or know me even marginally, you know that Aldo Leopold is someone I hold in a different light.  His writings and philosophies have shaped my conservation sensibility like almost no other person--almost.

A few years ago a book showed up on the bookstore shelves that quite frankly I ignored for a few months.  Thin, drably colored and with seemingly nothing to do with the birds and wild place titles I typically filled my personal library with, the curious titled book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood ,did not immediately warrant anything more than a very quick and casual glace.  But somehow, the book with the curious title persisted in putting itself in my eyesight until finally, one day  I picked it up. A picture of an attractive, dark-haired woman was on the inside cover of the dust jacket.  Her name, Janisse Ray, did not strike any familiar chord .  She was not among the flock of nature writers I usually migrated towards. And so by the oddity of her sudden appearance on the shelves alongside the luminaries like Carson, Muir, Wilson, Lopez and my hero, Leopold, I was drawn to the "strange bird named "Janisse".

In the moment that I finally picked up the book now famously known simply as "Ecology", I was changed.  In fact I fell in a sort of eco-love with the book and the author. Janisse's treatment of  long leaf pine ecology was nothing short of poetic. In exposing the rest of the world to the wonders of the flatwoods- red-cockaded woodpeckers and wiregrass, the endangered ecosystem suddenly gained footing and enough ecological cause celeb to be considered in the conservation conversation along with tropical rainforests and western mountain ranges. I read it for the first time in the span of one cross country flight. My eyes didn't leave the chapters of intertwining autobiography and biology.  Janisse's  treatment of her South Georgia, junkyard upbringing-- the good and the bad of all,  was inspiring.  The book I once ignored suddenly became the work best suited to sit next to Sand County. Beyond  the glowing things that the New York Times said about it and the growing heaps of glowing reports, the book struck me deeply and personally beyond what any critic had to say about it.  It was a book about My South and the places I know. Hers was (is) a voice rich with y'all and drawl.  More than the nature lover, she speaks  of the piney woods with love and to the prejudice and injustices in the South with hate. Her love for natural conservation and human justice reside like commensals in her spirit.  I read "Ecology" now like I read "Sand County", frequently picking it up to thumb chapter and verse for inspiration. 

As my eco-love affair with the book and its author grew I sought Janisse out, tracking her like some author- hungry- hound to the Wild Branch Nature Writing Workshop a few years back. I am not a person prone to celebrity stalking but I had to meet the woman whose words touched me like Leopold's. The stalking/meeting netted a friendship that has grown over the years and now to one of mutual support that I hope continues to grow tall and thick and strong like the old, flat-topped pines she has taught me to worship.

And so on last Friday night, my botanist friend, Dr. Harry Shealy invited me and my wife Janice, back home to Aiken to the 3rd "Festival of the Woods". It is a celebration of  Hitchcock Woods and the amazing conservation of a long leaf pine ecosystem that has persisted in the midst of the sprawl that is occurring in a rapidly sprawling city. I'd been honored to speak there last year and returned to hear an author who has become mentor-muse in many ways. It was Janisse. Back in the piney woods--under a big white tent  surrounded by pines burning in the evening's setting sun, hundreds gathered to hear the author-poetess opine about her beloved wild South. The evening was heavy with the humidity of much needed rain and the sudden flush of moisture had apparently awakened the mosquitoes and biting midges. The pain of the "no-see-ums" was soothed by the poetry.  Janisse, read from 'Ecology" and the very pines she spoke of seemed to sway in listening. Beyond The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse has sprouted other works ; Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home  and Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land. She read from her newest growth, Drifting into Darien, a book about her beloved Altamaha watershed. Hearing Janisse sing the four-syllables of the river with her sandy drawl while the kaydids kept time in the background was a deeply satisfying thing and worth the price of admission alone. I and the hundreds of others in attendance were mesmerized. I requested Janisse read a poem from her first book of poetry, A House of Branches, and I was in eco-love all over again. I think that Janice was smitten too! For years I've wondered how I would ever respond if I had the chance to sit in the company of Leopold, maybe to sit around a campfire, him reading and reciting the words that flow more like verse than prose. I know the same feelings would flow. I will never get that chance, though. But on that Friday evening, Leopold's lines were complemented by words just as fine as those in A Sand County Almanac. JanisseJanisse for sharing your heart.


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