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Ditch Flame Soul: An Appreciation for Janisse Ray

By Christopher Martin

PictureRemarks given by Christopher Martin on June 15, 2019 at the 55th Georgia Author of the Year Awards for Janisse Ray’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Though I fully intended to come up here and pretend otherwise, the first thing I did when Jenny Sadre-Orafai asked me to write this reflection for Janisse Ray was panic. “For me that’s about as close as it gets to writing up something for a lifetime achievement award for Jesus,” I wrote back. “But I’ll try.”

Now, Janisse would resist that comparison, as any humble, good-hearted person would. Still, contrary to what industrial Christianity would have us believe, Jesus also resisted such extraordinary labels imposed upon him by those desiring easy answers. He just wanted people to look into their own hearts and around them—in prisons and immigrant detention facilities as well as pastures and wildlands—and find God there, to realize heaven is here, waiting like a mustard seed—or, if he’d walked south Georgia rather than south Galilee, a longleaf pine seedling emerging as a tuft of grass, in which, after a century, what red-cockaded woodpeckers remain might find refuge.

So they’ve got that in common. I could go on, but I’m not up here to dig myself into a hole like a gopher tortoise. Anyway, Janisse wasn’t born on Christmas outside Bethlehem, in a manger, attended by wisemen and oxen and all that: As anybody who’s read Ecology of a Cracker Childhood knows, she was born on Candlemas outside Baxley, Georgia, found by her parents in a pile of pine needles beneath a saw palmetto at the edge of a junkyard, attended by the sheep her father kept to crop the grass and weeds around all the junked cars.

The child found under that saw palmetto below the Fall Line would go on to write five acclaimed books of literary nonfiction—from the touchstone memoir I just mentioned to the more recent Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River and The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, along with a lovely poetry collection, A House of Branches, which our friend Thomas Crowe rightly likened to the work of Basho. She’s been published all over, from little, obscure journals to places like The Georgia Review, Orion, and National Geographic Wildlife. Four years ago, she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Woven within this abundant writing career, Janisse has been a teacher, an activist, a naturalist, a small-scale farmer and gardener, a parent. A friend and mentor. For myself and so many others, none more than her family, she has been a bracing presence, like the tendril of an heirloom Seminole pumpkin holding fast the vine’s way through a garden. She has been a courage-giver.

The second time I found myself in Janisse’s company, I wasn’t aware of it. We were standing on the same highway embankment in Jackson, Georgia, across from the Diagnostic and Classification State Prison, holding vigil with hundreds of others, and thousands across the world, for Troy Davis, who the state would execute that night. Days later, while reading an article about the protests, I saw Janisse in a photo holding up a sign with a group of young people, part of the groundswell that would sow the seeds for Black Lives Matter. Shortly after Ecology was published, Anne Raver for the New York Times declared “the forests of the southeast had found their Rachel Carson.” Over a decade later, there on the slope of a ditch between truck stop and prison, that  group of young demonstrators had found someone to stand with them and help them hold their sign. The environmental demonstrators with whom she’s been arrested found something similar: Someone to join them in jail.

There on the ground—and as Rumi reminds us, with Janisse’s work as testament, there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground—awards do not matter. Janisse is in this for a just, empathetic society—one that looks out for people who’ve been overrun by the power structure—on a livable planet comprised of thriving ecosystems and communities that we can fully understand as home. “The world rages with wounds,” she writes in her essay “Pleading the First.” “Brutality of governments. Mistreatment of working people. The notion of inferiority based on skin color, race, nationality. Oppression of women, children, gay people. Torture. War. Ignorance of the fabric of wildlife that sustains us; the sacrifice of our waters, lands, creatures, forest, ozone to profit-hungry industry. Erosion of free speech, true democracy, and justice for all by corporate interests. These wounds deepen and fester with our willingness to be complacent, our turning of heads, our silence.” Though I fail and I fall, I look up to her in this regard.

The first time I met Janisse was at a writing workshop on her farm in Reidsville—incidentally also near a prison. Near the end of the day, she was a good ways into one of her impassioned talks on some element of the writing craft, making some important point—how you’ve got to care, how you’ve got to take back your voice from the corporations, how you’ve got to have hope, how you’ve got to use imagery and build moments—I don’t recall exactly what it was. What I do recall is when a bluebird alighted on a post just outside the window of the room where we were all gathered, Janisse stopped her talk midsentence and pointed it out with the joy of a child. I’d venture a guess that what someone transcribed and has been recounted over the centuries as “consider the birds of the air” was just Jesus doing the same thing—in the middle of some sermon on some Galilean hillside, suddenly stopping in gladness to point out a particular bird that had just alighted nearby.

In chronicling what we’ve lost and stand to lose, Janisse is a psalmist in whom despair and joy, sorrow and grace, rage and wonder share a home and find expression. As our late friend and dear poet Kathryn Stripling Byer has said, “Janisse Ray knows how to listen to what our world has to tell us, and she knows how to transform that listening into language.” As someone who knew such listening herself, Kay would know.

Such transformational words have come pastorally, softly, as in Janisse’s poem “Fire-Wings,” through monarch butterflies “delivering messages of wildflowers, conversing with ditch weeds, crooning over stalks of milkweed.” These words have also come as thunder in the heart of one who cares, as the mother heron of Janisse’s poem “Creation Story,” who has “constructed her driftwood nest stick upon stick in the skittish crown of cabbage palm,” which she guards “hunch-necked, growling, yellow bill agape, fierce in her charge.” Janisse’s work is a reminder that this wild  language, older than the words which are only its symbol—this tenderness and ferocity which are so often one and the same—abides also in us.  In these nests she has guarded, what herons will hatch. In the milkweed cradles of these roadside ditches, what fire.


Janisse Ray photo: / Book photo: Christopher Martin

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