“I carry the landscape inside me like an ache. The story of who I am cannot be severed from the story of the flatwoods.” This declaration of solidarity with the longleaf pine forests in the South sets the tone for Janisse Ray’s two-part memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt. Ray grew up in intertwined worlds: home in a small Georgia town where her days were marked by experiences of poverty, mental illness, and family conflict and the surrounding forests that brought peace and solace. These forests were the core of a diverse ecosystem that Ray saw disappearing around her as she aged, as the land was pillaged for its resources and razed to give way to modern structures. Ray alternates between discussions of her family life and explorations of the ecology of the forests, the world that was quietly being lost around her.
Wild Card Quilt ushers in a second act, as Ray imparts an unlikely story: returning to her home in Georgia as an adult, to a place she thought she had escaped. As she takes up residence with her son in her grandmother’s old farmhouse, Ray seeks to find what is salvageable in her hometown. She dances in the field when she finds a small clump of wiregrass, a promise that some of the forest that has been lost might still remain. From this brief euphoric jig begins a complex dance to connect to the immediate world surrounding her, both the land and the community. Ray struggles to repair family relationships, to repair her house and grow food in the garden, to take up her grandmother’s legacy described in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood: working hard to keep a full table and nourish those she loved.
Ray reminds her readers that who we are is inextricably bound to where we are from—a place of origin that is equal parts people and land. “Not long ago I dreamed of actually cradling a place,” she writes, as if one’s home is something that can be coddled and protected. The implicit question in Ray’s books is, What will we have left to cradle if we destroy the ecosystems that comprise our homes? To what will we whisper affectionate words? Will the whispers only dissipate into the air above an earth bereft of even the last clump of wiregrass?
Janisse Ray’s writing is full of a quiet poetry. Even as she confronts the tragedy and ugliness of Southern poverty and destruction of an ecosystem, she reveals what is beautiful and worth saving, and works, throughout Wild Card Quilt, to unbury these treasures and stand strong on the land. She dreams of replanting the trees, just as she dreams of sitting alongside her mother and adding squares onto a family quilt. As Wild Card Quilt closes, Ray is taking action. If the landscape must be carried like an ache, Ray’s return to her homeland is a pledge to build up her strength and carry the ache with a sore kind of pride as long as she can. She contributes to a unique niche in memoir writing, also taken up by writers like Terry Tempest Williams and Barry Lopez, that address the particulars of an individual experience alongside narratives of place and nature, showing that as humans increasingly try to define and shape the natural world, the natural world shapes and defines us with a power less boastful but assertively—and beautifully—unrelenting.