Evocative observations about her return to the southern family farm in an attempt to gather fragments and make her life whole.
In 1997, after 17 years away, Ray (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, 1999) came back to “my grandmother’s heart-pine house, amid tobacco fields and cow pastures in Spring Branch, a farming section in northern Appling County, Georgia.” She had with her a son and a lot of memories, not all of them good. Those many years before she had gladly left a family “proud, fervently religious, marred by lunacy, suspicious . . . doomed to isolation,” but she felt a tug of duty and an obligation to honor the place, land, kin, and history, a desire to experience the human spirit of an agrarian community. Ray finds both community and sense of place eroded and compromised: the woods have been clear-cut, the historic buildings in town bulldozed, the crossroads turned into four-lane highways to somewhere else, the local school closed. She also finds lasting beauty on the landscape, a steady local economy, and a cast of genuine country dwellers. With a casual lyricism, the author unravels the intricate and intriguing longleaf pine ecosystem, from the wiregrass that burns to keep the trees regenerating to the Chickasaw plums and tannin-wracked rivers, red-cockaded woodpecker and peach-colored clay. She lights a little more fire under her writing when it comes to human behavior, and not just in scorning the rapaciousness of the lumber companies, but in tribute to the old system of barter and obligation that still holds, promoting mutual beneficence, trust, and balance. With a fine quilter's hand, Ray weaves new stories (of music festivals, riverkeepers, referendums, her son moving north, her whole unusual family) into the rapidly diminishing store of old ones.
Though it ends with a grace note as her mother and father sow their land with longleaf, in essence it’s an elegy for a ravaged place without a needle to its compass.