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Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray

Early in my reading, I was ambivalent about this book, although I cannot now remember why. Did her writing get stronger as the book progressed? Did her vision & thesis take shape and grow on me? Was I just in a mood? By the end, I felt friendly towards the narrator and the book.

Janisse Ray grew up on a junkyard in south Georgia, one of four children. Her family was strictly religious, rural, somewhat isolated, and their lives were simply furnished for both religious and financial reasons, although they were not painfully poor: “We never ever lacked food, but we had few treats.” This book is an essay collection that is two things at once: a memoir; and a naturalist’s description of a nearly-vanished landscape–an elegy. The chapter/essays alternate between Ray’s personal and family story, and the ecological side. In reading this was a little less obvious to me, because I would argue that the ecology bits include some personal, and vice versa; but the table of contents makes this structure clear and intentional: the naturalist chapter titles are italicized, like Latin names of species would be. This is what the title is telling us, that it is both ecology and cracker childhood, and also the ecology of that childhood, and of the cracker people (one of the ecology essays is titled “Crackers,” as they are themselves one of the species at work in the system).

Ray’s homeland was once a longleaf pine forest, and that diverse ecosystem (and the pine savanna that wanders through it) is endangered and precious to her, now, but her upbringing did not emphasize it. The discovery of her homeland as a natural ecosystem, and its loss almost before she knew it, came later. As interesting as her childhood is, and the ecological part too, that young-adult awakening was perhaps the most compelling part of this story for me; maybe that’s part of why it became most appealing to me late in the book, when the awakening is told.

I learned a lot about a place and an ecosystem, and I enjoyed the personal memoir. I was especially fascinated by the strict religion that did not allow girls to wear pants, jewelry or makeup; had them cover their hair to pray; forbade holidays, ball games, parties, television, newspapers, dating, sports, on and on. This stuff is so far from my personal experience as to feel exotic, or weird, so I read it with that added curiosity we feel when we encounter the foreign. And it made Ray’s experience at college so compelling: alcohol, rappelling, skydiving, and simply swimming (something her family’s dress code never allowed), oh my! The parallel discovery, as I’ve said, is of nature as a subject for study, admiration or even just notice. She observes that she had a grandfather who loved the woods, but that her father couldn’t take the time; and a culture of people working to just get by didn’t have the energy to hug trees. It’s a sad story.

Ray does some lovely writing. I love the parallel of restoring a junkyard to a natural ecosystem, and restoring a ’58 Studebaker (with parts, presumably, to be found in the junkyard). I love this grandmother: “Her skin was soft and loose, and her face wrinkled in a beautiful way that showed she had always liked to smile. Her eyes, behind silver glasses that matched the soft halo of her hair, had life in them.” There are several noteworthy characteristics to this book. Its subjects were new to me, at least: that is, the place, the ecosystem, and the upbringing or culture. Its structure is interesting. I’m not sure why it grew on me so slowly, but grow on me it did.


Rating: 7 gopher tortoises.

The Pine Island Paradox: Making Connections in a Disconnected World by Kathleen Dean Moore

pine-island-paradoxThis is a complexly put together collection. These are essays, both personal/memoir and nature writing, based on islands, organized by disconnections (see the subtitle): human/nature, near/far, sacred/mundane. Back-of-book blurbs variously characterize these essays as being about nature; ecology; family; and philosophy. But I think they are about connections/disconnections and most of all about boundaries. Where does island end and sea begin, for example, if the tides change? Moore uses lovely, musical language; precise, apt images; and communicates emotion and intellectual difficulties nicely. From a craft perspective, this is a dense book; but it is easy to read for the simple experience.

It is Moore’s thesis, stated in her prologue, that our Western understanding of the world is based on divisions, on separating things and experiences out into categories. (She is a philosophy professor.) She sets out to take apart three of those separations: human/nature, near/far, and sacred/mundane. These are the three sections of the book; but also, each is set or at least organized around a specific island. After beginning and ending her prologue with the concept of geography, or mapmaking, she begins each main section with a page-and-a-half titled “Geography,” in which she describes these islands: Pine Island well off the Pacific coast of Alaska; a gravel island in the Willamette River in Oregon (near Moore’s home); and a volcanic sea stack off the Oregon coast. All of these organizational tools, taken in with her title, subtitle and explicit plans laid out in the prologue, combine to form complex but clear structure, focus and themes. Connections and disconnections; islands; boundaries; and the paradoxes implied. An important sub-theme involves Moore’s close relationship with her family: husband, two children, and eventually a daughter-in-law, who is called her third child in her acknowledgements. This is just another form of connection, so a sub-theme rather than an additional or secondary one.

Some of you will recall that less than a year ago I lived in the Pacific Northwest, too. I recognized much of what Moore described: the wet drippingness of the world for so many months, relief at seeing the sun, the importance of salmon. Some of this was hard for me to read: that pervasive wet really got under my skin (maybe even a little literally). I had some strong reactions to some of what I read here, which is a good thing: Robin Hemley wrote, “You should always be prepared to argue with a good book.”

This is not my new favorite piece of writing: there are a few places where I’d have enjoyed seeing things done a little differently. But it was very moving many times over; many individual essays were fantastic; I think (as a personal preference) I’d rather there had been a little more subtlety to the overall message. This was a bit too much explicit “I am writing this to make you care more about the natural world,” especially in the prologue. But again, that’s a personal reaction, and there’s no arguing Moore’s skill with words (musical language), images, her expertise and her use of emotion (nor do I doubt her sincerity). And if she inspired me to some argument, that’s useful, too.


Rating: 8 wet words.

The Pine Barrens by John McPhee

the-pine-barrensThe Pine Barrens came to my MFA reading list from my advisor Katie Fallon, and I can’t recall her justification, I just took it. It was a good tip. I’m a fan of McPhee now. I knew his name but don’t believe I’d read any of his work before.

I would call this a collection of related essays about the region of New Jersey called the Pine Barrens. I don’t known a ton about New Jersey, and had not heard of this place before. It’s a vast region in the southern part of the state that is thickly forested and very thinly populated; it is distinctive in climate, flora and fauna, and human culture, not very well known and subject to unfair stereotypes.* In these ways, it reminded me a little of the Driftless region I read about in this book, which is a less artful piece of literature than McPhee’s, but a similarly fascinating profile, I think. I am trying to say that peculiar places, especially when they come with peculiar peoples, are very interesting to me. (As much as I love nature, and nature writing, I admit to a weakness for people.) So, I enjoyed the subject of this book very much.

And also the writing. McPhee has certain qualities in common with Joseph Mitchell (see Up in the Old Hotel): neutral, journalistic, mostly absent from his own story. His descriptions are matter-of-fact and seemingly unadorned, although they are also often lovely images: they only seem straightforward. As a classmate of mine once said, easy-to-read writing that flows effortlessly is deceptively hard to write. He has an eye for just the right characterizing line of dialog:

“Horace’s mother and mine used to make their own yeast, too–out of potato water and hops. Modern women aren’t up to that.”

“They give you cold beans,” Horace Adams said.

Something about those cold beans really tickled me. Or this line:

He is about fifty, and he has a manner that suggests that he is not afraid to work and not afraid not to work.

The backwoods, simpler-times feel of the Pine Barrens and the pineys struck me somehow as… not bucolic, but pleasantly green and calm and quiet. McPhee felt for me like Mitchell but a little more foreign, because my personal experiences are a little closer to Mitchell’s urban setting than to this one. Both writers use language and sentences that feel simple rather than poetic or flowery, although both their language and their sentences are more complicated than they first appear. McPhee ties in research and outside sources with the immediate scenes he describes (visiting a piney cabin to ask for water, talking with its inhabitants) neatly; one flows into the other without much transition needed. It’s a smoothly flowing piece of narrative even though it covers a lot of ground.

I fear it is the work of some close reading indeed to figure out how to make such lovely work seem so effortless, but I’ll try.

In related news, thanks, Tassava, for sending me the link to this inteview with McPhee by The Paris Review. He sent it (unknowing) mere hours after I finished reading this, my first McPhee. It’s a great read – long, but juicy with gems, both funny lines and helpful thoughts for writers. What a joy.


Rating: 8 jugs.

*This book was first published in 1967, and my impression of the Pine Barrens is mostly based on this dated account. How remote and untouched is the region still today? I am not the one to say. Wikipedia calls it “largely undisturbed.” But there is also a website, www.njpinebarrens.com, which begs the question…

Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Full disclosure: Katie Fallon is my faculty advisor this semester, meaning we’ll be working closely together. I read this book just before meeting her.


Mid-April in our southern mountains is a gentle time; blooming forsythia lights up yards like bursts of yellow fireworks, magnolia trees sport gaudy white and pink blossoms, and median strips swell with lilacs and tulips.

cerulean-bluesCerulean Blues is a book about the cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird in danger but not listed as endangered (yet); it is also a book about the author’s becoming a fan and ally of the little bird, a year in her life.

It is organized by seasons: spring, summer and fall. In spring, Fallon discovers the bird and its possibilities for her, and the danger it’s in. This just happens to be as well the spring of 2007, and she is teaching at Virginia Tech when a school shooting takes place there that kills 33. The trauma of these events will shadow everything that follows for her. But she continues on through summer, when she travels to visit the cerulean in its northern habitats near her own Appalachian home, and fall, when she goes further afield to its migratory home in Colombia.

While Fallon is reflective and personal throughout, and the reader gets to know her husband and their rescue dog Mr. Bones as well as the narrator’s own insecurities and grief, this is very much a book about a bird species and its plight. While also showcasing some lovely language (see quotation above), she teaches us a great deal about cerulean warblers and the research (and personalities) that have taught her about them. It’s ultimately a work of science reporting by a non-scientist, as well as a memoir. I found her emotions and minor human flaws easily accessible, and the bird facts equally so. I felt that I got to know her by reading this–which turns out to be particularly applicable to my own studies, but will be rewarding for any reader. The Katie Fallon of these pages is an easy-to-like, easy-to-read instructor, and I think the cerulean warbler will gain more than a few more allies in its readers. (Quick hint: be sure to buy shade-grown and/or bird-friendly coffee!) Nice to meet you, Katie.


Rating: 7 colored bands.

Keep your eyes out for Katie’s next work of nonfiction, available in March of this year. I am especially looking forward to this one, titled Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird. Vultures are among my favorite birds, as they were Ed Abbey’s.

Teaser Tuesdays: Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

Again for school, I am reading Katie Fallon’s first memoir (she has Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird forthcoming from University Press of New England in March 2017). I look forward to meeting her in just ten days or so! This is not an assigned book; I’m reading it by choice to get to know her a little better.

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Her opening lines read,

I stepped onto the tarmac in Bucaramanga, a city of more than five hundred thousand people in northeastern Colombia, and blinked in the fierce October sun. Black vultures lazily circled in the clear blue sky overhead, and swallows chittered to each other as they cut and dove above the Avianca jets idling on the runway.

I like that birds appear in the first two lines, since it is a bird that brings Fallon to these pages. The cerulean warbler does not appear so quickly; that’s a large part of the point of the book. I also enjoy the very full picture she paints in these few lines. Glad to be here with her.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees by Mike Shanahan

A joyful, celebratory world history of the fig tree and its ecological impact.

gods-wasps-and-stranglers

Mike Shanahan’s Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees is a deceptively brief account of the Ficus genus of trees in history, emphasizing but not limited to their relationship with humans. Shanahan brings the expertise of decades of ecological fieldwork and a bubbling enthusiasm to a topic clearly close to his heart. He makes a strong argument that his readers should be attuned to and excited about fig trees, too.

The plant figures into the origin stories of cultures all over the world. Fig trees have provided food, shelter, medicine and materials to humans for as long as humans have existed: figs predate us by nearly 80 million years. Because of their contributions as keystone species in ecosystems around the world, figs offer distinctive services in reforestation efforts and the mitigation of climate change. They have contributed to the theory of evolution, the birth of agriculture and possibly humans’ development of opposable thumbs. The story of the fig is inseparable from that of fig wasps, numerous tiny insect species that have evolved to pair respectively in symbiosis with individual species of fig. Shanahan relates all this and more in a joyous voice with occasional lyricism, as when “the Buddhist monk’s robe sang out loud saffron over the rainforest’s muffled tones of brown and green and grey.”

Mythology, biology and hope for the future combine in this highly accessible story of the family of fig trees, with its profound ecological relevance.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 rhinoceros hornbills.

Teaser Tuesdays, in praise of words: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers by Mike Shanahan

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

If you’ll excuse me for reprising the book from last Friday’s book beginning, I couldn’t resist these lines about how the name of the Ficus benjamina came to be.

gods-wasps-and-stranglers

Linnaeus gave the name Ficus carica to the common domesticated fig species after Caria – a region of ancient Anatolia in what is now Turkey. The scientific name he gave the other fig of my childhood, Ficus benjamina, has a more convoluted origin. Cut the tree and white latex will bleed out. Various other species also produce this particular kind of sticky fluid, which people have used for centuries to make perfumes, incense, medicines and other products. This substance is known as gum benzoin, from an Italian interpretation of a Javan word that is Arabic in origin. English tongues mangled the word some more to form ‘gum benjamin.’ So over time, the benzoin trees ended up being called benjamin trees, hence the benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina). I prefer its better-known name – the weeping fig – which it got because, when it sheds its leaves, they fall like green tears to the ground.

Whew! and, isn’t it extraordinary, the journey that term has made through languages and geography to bring a standard “ficus” tree to us? I love language.

The rest of the book is excellent, too.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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