Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

‘The culture manifests the landscape’: A Q&A with Southern writer Janisse Ray

Author and environmental activist Janisse Ray is no stranger to despair. Her 1999 memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, reckoned with the irrevocable loss of the South’s old-growth longleaf pine forest. In the two decades since, Ray has published six more books that engage deeply with the South’s culture and natural environment. She and her husband operate an organic farm in Tattnall County, Georgia, near Appling County, where she grew up.

From her farmhouse kitchen, Ray spoke with journalist Allison Braden via Zoom in mid-August. Ray spoke about building community in rural Georgia, how the pandemic has shaped her thinking, and the challenges of fighting environmental destruction in the rural South. The conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Southerly: How have you fared during the pandemic? How has this strange time shaped your thinking?

Janisse Ray: We’re in such a good place here. I have a family, we have a beautiful farm, we have lots of good food — but I’m really worried that not everybody is in this good a shape. I was a single mom of [son] Silas for so many years, and had this pandemic hit 25 years ago, I would have been in so much trouble. How could I have cared for him at home and worked? It just wouldn’t have been possible.

I have of course been deep in thought about racial injustice. I’ve been thinking about the pandemic, what it means to us, and what we’re going to do about it — and what we can’t do about it. 

On a personal level, I’ve been thinking about my role in the world. I’ve been soul-searching. I’ve always prayed to the Earth, like “lay myself facing north and do with me what you will” has always been my mantra, but it’s harder these days. Maybe the universe is telling me something, like maybe my job is something else. I’ve been meditating and taking walks and writing in my journal. It’s possible that I may have come to the end of my storytelling journey and that I’m being called to do something else. And I don’t know yet what it is.

I was raised on this junkyard with a lot of shame about being a woman. I learned after a long time that my parents both wanted boys. So there’s just a lot of layers of shame built in. When I look at some of my colleagues, like Bill McKibben or Rick Bass, I see that a lot of life colludes to put them on the front row. They’re leading organizations, and I haven’t stepped up to do that. I’ve had chances to run for public office and have decided not to do it. My whole life in so many ways has been this search for courage. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always felt great in that path, but I always struggled with “Am I writing about the things I need to write about? Am I on the right path? Am I doing the right thing?” And that seems even more important right now.

S: What are some of your observations about how the coronavirus has affected our relationship to the natural world? 

JR: I quit traveling by airplane about 13 years ago because of the climate, so if I accepted an invitation in Chicago, for example, it’s like a two-day train ride to get to Chicago, and for 12 or 13 years, I’ve been traveling solely by train or hybrid car. Now I’m able to really reevaluate my life. I think that’s what the pandemic has done for all of us. If this is going to happen to us, then we need to really take hard looks at our families, our marriages, our homes, our communities, our jobs, and think, “Is this working for me? Is this my dream for myself?” Of all the suffering and heartbreak that the pandemic has caused, that’s been one of the joys. A pause. A break. So that we can think more clearly.

Every day, I look up at the sky and I realize how much I had been avoiding the sky because the sight of contrails reminds me of airplanes, which reminds me of fossil fuel pollution, which reminds me of climate change. So I just gave up looking at the sky. Since the pandemic, I just stare and stare and stare at the sky. It’s contrail-free! This is like when I was a child.

Photo courtesy Janisse Ray

S: What’s changed, personally and environmentally, in the 20 years since you published Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

JR: The publication of Ecology has afforded me an amazing community of writers, scientists, thinkers, and activists, and a chance to get to know so many people who care about what happens to the South and to the world. I have been able to travel to places and experience events and meet people I never would have dreamed possible. I’ve had the chance in these 20 years to use my voice to offer solutions to environmental and other problems, and that has been incredible. I am so grateful that I have this amazing opportunity to help make a more just and sustainable South.

In terms of the landscape, Southern problems are usually American problems. Our forests are still under attack from logging. Industrial agriculture has worsened, now with fewer small farmers than twenty years ago and with more dangerous chemical inputs. I’m thinking especially of glyphosate. We’re still losing the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee to mountaintop removal. The populations of many species continue to decline. We are beset with the climate crisis, with major climatic events coming at us — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, big rains. All that is to say that I’m more worried about the Southern landscape than ever.

I’m worried too about rural Southerners slowly becoming more conservative and voting against the very things they support and love.

On a positive note, the South is increasingly populated with educated people who care deeply about the South’s human and wild communities and who are offering up solutions. We have amazing writers telling the particular stories of the South. We are coming to terms with a racist past, and we are being asked to create a different kind of future. I think we are responding well. We have reared wonderful Southern young people who have gotten good educations and who are helping to set things straight. I’m very heartened by the enthusiasm, the ethics and the genius of so many. 

S: You’re often asked about how you deal with despair. I can’t help but ask about that now.

JR: I’ve thought about hope and hopelessness a lot. When you’re a nature writer, you’re necessarily writing stories of grief over and over again. You’re fighting for this forest and the forest gets cut. You’re fighting for this tree and the tree gets cut. It just goes on and on and on. 

I wrote The Seed Underground to look at this movement of people who are going back to the land, looking for lives that have meaning, searching for authenticity and truth, and doing so by really grappling with the Earth and the literal things of the Earth — so, not a virtual life but a real life. A lot of women are leading that movement back to the farm, back to the land, back to the Earth. 

There’s so much of life we can’t control. We’re so controlled by corporations: what to buy, how to feel about ourselves, what to think. But the one thing we can control — one of the few things — is what we eat. We still have the opportunity not to eat McDonald’s and other fast food. We can find the farmers. We can grow food. That book was such a joy to write because I was writing about this movement, the good food movement, which is incredibly hopeful.

I’ve been asked in Q&As for years, for two or three decades now, about how I hang on to hope, and I realized it’s just the wrong question. It’s not about hope. We don’t do what we do because we have hope. I am absolutely hopeless. I have no hope that life 10 years from now is going to look as beautiful and pastoral as my life looks at the moment. I have zero hope of that. 

But I have so much love for this world, and love for people, and love for painted buntings. What gets me up in the morning to fight isn’t hope. Now, that’s a sad thing. A lot of people are paralyzed by hopelessness. I’m not one of them. So the question becomes, how can I better fill my heart with love? How can I be full of love more and more of the time? The thing that keeps all of us silent are these fears for our survival and our fears for our safety. I believe the job of a writer, the job of a thinking person, is as Camus said, not to be on the side of executioners. It’s your job to rise up in your courage until you can say what needs to be said.

S: You’re a case study of someone who’s moved back to invest in the rural South. How have you tried to build community?

JR: When [my husband] Raven and I came, we had been real activists. I’d been arrested a few times for climate change activism, and when we came here, we knew that we were going to be in a very rural place. We came back here because my parents live about 30 miles away, so we decided that all our activism was going to be for positive change, that we were not really going to be protesting much, and we were going to do it very quietly. That’s what we’ve tried to do. 

A fundamentalist society is a challenge for an artist and a freethinker. And I live in a very fundamentalist place. However, I believe that all people want the same things. We want to love and be loved, we want friends, we want to feel at home, we want to be safe, we want to be healthy, we want to have enough. Here, where I live, for now, until this more traditional culture catches up to big societal changes, I look to the land to sustain my art, my soul, my belief system, my hopes, my love.

S: How does the South’s culture manifest in its natural environment? How has that evolved over your decades of careful observation? 

JR: I came back from Montana because I felt like if every educated person left damaged places, then that spelled doom for those places. I somehow crazily thought that I, even as a single person, could make a difference in my place. I don’t know that I have. I don’t know that that’s true. 

I used to talk about cutting cycles: There was a cutting cycle after the Civil War. In the 1890s, we had this immense cutting cycle that cut most of our old growth. A few places, like Okefenokee, got saved. And we’ve had other cycles like that, but I don’t think these are really cycles. I think that it’s a vicious, continuous onslaught of whittling Dixie. Just rampant destruction of southern forests — and part of it goes back to shame. 

We became a colony of the United States. We were colonized because the wealthy landowning elite refused to quit slavery and entered in this war against its own country that we lost. What a wonderful place the South is! The landscapes! Anyone who’s traveled through Florida and seen those limestone sinks and those glades and those plains down near Orlando that Zora Neale Hurston writes about. Gorgeous, I mean glorious, landscapes! Mostly destroyed. 

When I was younger, manners were hiding a lot of violence in our culture. I was blind to that because I was taught manners and I was not taught about the violence. I’ve learned about it as a grown person, and it has just ripped my gut out to think about the violence. However, we don’t even have the manners anymore. What I see is that this place that’s a colony of the United States is becoming more and more fundamentalist, more backwards, more uneducated—and I hate to say that. But it’s what I see. There’s some kind of distillation into more and more fundamentalism, this populist fundamentalism, that’s happening in these rural places because we lose the educated people, the LGBTQ people, the artists, the musicians — they go away and what’s left are the scared people. The people who are scared that things are changing, that Black and brown people are becoming president. So it’s leaving the South in this very scary place. In some ways, I think the culture manifests the landscape. It both represents the landscape and manifests the landscape.

I support all kinds of religious beliefs and political beliefs, but what I don’t support is people’s willingness to demonize other people, people’s willing ignorance of what’s going to save humanity and what’s not. My neighbors are still buying this idea that capitalism is going to make all of us rich. The absolute exact opposite is true. Capitalism is going to destroy all of us and everything we love. 

S: You’ve called yourself a “homefront activist” working to achieve radical sustainability. What does that mean and what does that look like for you on a day-to-day basis?

JR: It looks like, for me, counting how many days I can stay put at the farm without going anywhere. Food is really big for us. We have lots of great food. We look at our plate every meal and we’re trying to get toward 100% meals. They’re never going to be 100% because we can’t produce salt here. We had breakfast not too long ago, and we had eggs, which we produced. We had sausage, which came from our own pork, and we had potatoes. Those potatoes were harvested in February. In the potatoes were Vidalia onions, and we grow our own onions, so we had a 99% meal today. 

We’re on the grid here — we’ve never been able to afford solar — but we’re always trying to lower our consumption in small ways. We’re constantly trying to think, “What can we do?” Right now we’re building a cob oven. We have a little solar oven. I can bake a Seminole pumpkin in just a couple hours in 95-degree heat in the solar oven. So we’re eating in a way that we can bring down our drag on the grid and fossil fuel usage. But mostly we’re trying to stay home.

S: What are some of the biggest challenges of talking about climate change in the rural South? What are some of the easiest ways into those conversations?

JR: The challenge is that so many voices are telling another narrative. We’re not where we need to be. Too many people are still driving F350s and huge SUVs and building huge homes and taking huge vacations, but when I talk to my neighbors, I see that they understand something is happening and they understand that the story they’ve been told may not be accurate. It’s easy to see when fires are breaking out in Okefenokee every summer, when the temperature is getting to be 100 degrees, when we’re suddenly having a frost — the seasons are all skewed here. The winter will be warm and the peach and pear trees will flower, then suddenly there will be this killing frost and you lose your entire peach crop. People see that, and they know the weather is strange. They know it’s not the weather patterns they grew up with. I believe that the dominant narrative — that climate change is not real — is crumbling around us as we speak. 

What I try to do is change the way I go about it. They’ll say something like, “My, it’s hot, isn’t it?” and I’ll say, “It is so hot. Do you realize we’ve set another record high today?” In some kind of loving, conversational way, I try to talk to them. My neighbors are the ones who are going to get it. I believe that they will not succumb to hatred and fear. They will not condone terror. They are going to overcome their fears and lead us out of racial, environmental and all other injustice. They just need time to accept the cultural changes coming at them.

I belong to the NAACP here and we meet — we’ve been Zoom meeting lately — and I just think if we could get enough people voting who should be voting, we could even turn a place like Tattnall County, Georgia, blue. I haven’t looked up the stats, but in places like this and most places in the country, the world is run by older, straight, able-bodied white men. I’m so deeply angry about that. We are the fucking majority! And we are completely governed—my county has a county commission that is all white, straight, older men, all five of them. The county manager is the same. It goes on and on. 

S: How can we better tell the story of climate change?

JR: I think it’s a struggle among environmentalists. I think we who understand the story are also destroying the earth. The pandemic has forced us to stay in place. This is something as an environmentalist I’ve been preaching all along. We’ve got to fall in love with our places. We’ve got to learn to stay put. We have to learn to be happy with what we’ve got. I think one of the worst stories we’ve told ourselves is that the more we travel and the faster you go, the more important you are. That’s why I think the pandemic has been so amazing. It has forced us, even us environmentalists, to do what nothing else could force us to do. There has not been a climate story strong enough to force us to stay home.

The tragedy right now is the pandemic, but the pandemic is going to be nothing compared to the tragedies that are coming. It’s a tiny little appetizer! Compared to mass refugees, mass migrations, massive fires. Crazy heat. People not surviving the heat. I think the story of climate change is telling itself. Our hearts are breaking over the wildfires of the West and the hurricanes and the flooding and the record temperatures. I think we writers just need to keep making sure the hard stories get heard.

S: What cultural strengths does the South have for fighting climate change?

JR: We’re closer to our agricultural traditions — we are more rural, less urban — and in the days to come, in the ages and eras to come, this is going to be huge. It’s going to be easier for us to get back on the land than it is for New Yorkers to get back onto the land. We’re definitely closer to that agricultural history.

For most Southerners as well, family is wildly important. Family is definitely an important part of anyone’s safety net. Community is another, and not to speak stereotypically, but people in the South have been very community-minded, traditionally. This is a tremendous cultural strength, probably the most important one.

The South also has such a tradition of love of place. It’s in all of our literature. It’s a literature of place. Generation after generation will remain on a piece of land and care for that piece of land. That comes to mind as a cultural trait that we have that’s going to help save us in the end. 

S: You’ve said that the land and environment renew your capacity to love—but how do you maintain love for our species, which can be incredibly unlovable?

JR: I have so much forgiveness for people when they do terrible things. I want on my grave, if I have a gravestone, “She never gave up on you.” I am to my dying day going to try to drag you forward into deeper love and deeper relationships with each other. So whenever anyone commits an act of violence, I’m always trying to look at what caused it in them, what violence was done to them. 

I’m most interested, though, in transformation. I’m interested in the people who took suffering and transformed it, who never perpetuated it, who never returned to those cycles of violence, who ejected themselves out of the cycle. I’ve studied transformation a lot. I think there are many ways to transform. It’s why I’ve been attracted to story. 

You can go to counseling and become a better version of yourself. Any kind of human relationship in which you share intimacy and the other person is upholding and respecting and supporting you is transformative. Education transforms people. But I think story is the most powerful transformative agent we have. The way story operates is with this narrative arc, and at the top of the narrative arc, at the apex, is this thing called an epiphany. The epiphany is this flash of understanding in which you see clearly something you’d been unable to see before. I’m so interested in those moments in which any person, even a bad person, is able to hear a story and transform into a better version of themselves. 

Because I know that’s possible, I can never give up on people. 

Allison Braden is a writer and Spanish translator based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Outside, Columbia Journalism Review, and The Daily Beast, among others.