She Paddles in Beauty
For Janisse Ray, the Altamaha River is the background music of her life. She grew up on its banks. Her grandfather swam it for miles when he escaped from a mental hospital. Her father accidentally dunked her in it as a baby when his boat sank. As a child she scouted along its edges, creeks, forests and marshes in search of the small wonderful secrets that can be found in such places. As an adult, she is still doing this, although now she uses a kayak, instead of a johnboat or a canoe. The Altamaha is a wonder to her, but the kind that is a comfort—always familiar, endlessly mysterious, forever nurturing.
To the Nature Conservancy, the Altamaha is one of the “75 Last Great Places” of the world. In Drifting Into Darien, A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River, Ray tells us why.
An idiosyncratic and passionate book, Drifting Into Darien is Ray’s own call to the river—something between a poem and a prayer, a sermon and a scientific study, a memoir and a field journal. Opening with a week-long kayak trip made with a group of people in memory of the old rafting crews that floated logs down river several generations earlier (when there was still longleaf pine forest to cut), Ray mixes memories with modern-day observations and insight, and becomes a shaman and guide to the reader. Here, she says at one point, there is a story that this trestle bridge was defended by Confederate soldiers, and the Union army couldn’t take it. And here, she says a bit further on, I was on a date when I was a teenager. The boy wasn’t worth remembering but there was a ruby throated hummingbird drinking a drop of water.
These two things—the battle for the trestle bridge and the hummingbird drinking—seem to carry equal significance in her mind.
With that trip acting as the spine of the story (or its riverbed) Ray—whose earlier memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood established her as a passionate defender of wild places, and especially long leaf pine forests—reaches outwards like flooding waters to talk about the natural history of the Altamaha River, the wildlife its ecosystem supports, the industrial threats that endanger it and the people and organizations who defend it: James Holland, a crabber who turned activist when he saw his catches drop to less than 25% of what they had been, and who very nearly invented the term “river keeper” by making a nuisance of himself knocking at the doors of folks with property along the river who weren’t taking care of their little piece of heaven. It’s one thing to dismiss some liberal do-gooder with a fancy education waiving permits in your face and wailing about the importance of some rare frog in the swamp when you are just trying to make a living on your farm and have enough on your plate without worrying about the run-off from your fields, thank you very much. But it’s another thing entirely when the guy waiving the permits and citations is a hardscrabble fisherman, pissed off because what you aren’t doing is messing with his ability to make a living. Poor people, comments Janisse Ray, who has been one, are sometimes ignorant. “We throw car tires and deer carcasses in the creeks.” But ignorant isn’t dumb. And as Ray says, “if we can understand a car engine, we can understand a river system.” James Holland, (and Janisse Ray) speak the right language and use the right metaphors with the people along the Altamaha.
If Holland has made his difference farm by farm, Malcolm Hodges has a grander notion. He is a biologist for the Georgia Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and he wants the organization to buy the landscape. Not the lands along the river’s bank, the corridor of wetlands fed by the Altamaha. Not the lands in the river's flood plain. The landscape. The entire river basin. One million acres. When Ray asks him if one million acres would give the river the protection it needs, Hodges says “It would be a good start.”
He spends the day with her, walking through parts of the watershed along what must be only one of many, many routes called “Old River Road.” Hodges yelps excitedly at the site of a small plant he identifies as an Alabama milkvine. It’s very rare. Ray observes that it looks sickly. Hodges says that it is hanging on. One needs to be a glass-half-full type to work in nature conservation, I guess.
It is The Nature Conservancy that has done the most work documenting the hundreds of rare and endangered species that can be found in the river system (the biodiversity of the Altamaha is so rich that it is sometimes called America’s Amazon), the Nature Conservatory that facilitates land surveys based on satellite photographs that could document when clear-cutting forests was occurring on private land, out of the sight of public roads and waterways. And it is The Nature Conservatory that is systematically buying up acreage and managing the tracts as part of their Altamaha Bioreserve Project. To date, they have managed to take over about 114,000 acres of their million acre goal.
But although much of Drifting Into Darien focuses on the conservation efforts of people determined to save the river basin, or lashes out against the powers that are arrayed against it (the US Forestry Service, for one), the book does not fall into the strident, preaching tones so characteristic of passionate people when they become really desperate. Not that Ray doesn’t have her moments of feeling desperate—you should hear her on the subject of “biomass” (burning trees for energy) as carbon neutral clean energy. “To call biomass ‘alternative’ is oxymoronic. To say this to my face is worse than slapping me. I’d rather you blacked my eye.”
Nevertheless, Ray’s narrative style is as unpredictable and surprising as the creeks she likes to explore, and she rarely sets off on a course without diverting to run in another, more personal direction for a little while. Her antipathy about the Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Plant interrupted for a story about how she once walked barefoot through the swamp in search of an egret rookery. (Wearing shoes to wade through the muck would have been useless, they would have been sucked off her feet. Since I am in the habit of wading barefoot through my own marsh, I could empathize.) She wanders back to talk about the nuclear plant and the acrid pollutants that are turning the formerly white sand on the river banks an alarming yellow-gray. But then she is off the path again, remembering when she and her son Silas came upon a truck stopped in the middle of the road on the way to Rock Lake. The driver was sitting behind the wheel, asleep. They let him sleep since he was probably drunk. There’s a funny culture along this section, Ray says. People like to drink out here.
And so it goes. The reader drifts along with the author as she drifts along the river, generally talking about its history, its wildlife, its important heritage (de Soto knew this river, William Bartram traveled it), its near-mythology (the Altamaha is where the Franklin Tree was first discovered—now extinct in the wild although it survives in many gardens thanks to the efforts of William Bartram), its spectacular bird species, its equally spectacular (if you are in to that sort of thing) varieties of mussels. One of which is called a rayed pink fatmucket, because apparently even scientists get drunk.
Long before you begin to feel like you are in a lecture and should be taking notes, Ray spins off into another direction. I’ve got a mind like a jumping jack, she writes, bouncing all over. And so she tells you about the first time she went out on the river at night, canoeing right into a murmuration of moths swirling under a rising full orange moon. She exhorts you to take action to defend the wild places that you love, and then in the next breadth tells you to drop everything to go watch a swallow tail kite in flight, right now.
Which may be what I find so achingly appealing about Janisse Ray’s poetically-charged brand of environmental activism. Endless statistics about the economic costs of destroying the environment she can quote. (At one point a colleague bitterly refers to “the j word” that has wrecked so many conservation efforts. Jesus?, wonders Ray. Jobs, he says.) But in the end, Janisse Ray seems to have faith that the only thing anyone needs to be convinced that this is a place worth saving, is to watch a beautiful bird in flight.
I have watched enough beautiful birds in flight to think she is right.
Books mentioned in this column:
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.