Yesterday, I was in a nearby city and a sporty black car driven by a woman passed me. I didn’t pay much attention till I saw her personalized license plate. It read, “MEN LIE.” There’s got to be a story behind that! I know I haven't been writing as much lately as in the past. I just haven't felt like it. I suppose I could complain about the weather and how the skiing stinks this winter or make fun of the Republican primary debates that are about to replace the NBA playsoffs as a metaphor for eternal, but everyone is joking about that. (Maybe that's what her license plate was about, the debates, but I doubt that.) So instead, I'll post another book review...
Janisse Ray, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 237 pages, a map and a few photos
The Altamaha River is one of the most unspoiled rivers in America, and Janisse Ray has lived most of her life near its banks. As an infant she was baptized (accidentally) on her first river trip when her father’s homemade boat sunk. In this book, she sets out to explore the river with her husband and a group dedicated to preserving it. In the first half of the book tells the story of their trip down the river as she recalls its history and explaining its natural setting. The group feels a kinship with river men who built log rafts out of longleaf pines and floated them down the river in ages past. Along the way they pass Ragpoint, where raft men used to tie a rag onto a tree for good luck, a tradition that continues to this day. They float past some of the largest cypress left standing, trees that have been spared the logger’s saw. In addition to the narrative, the first part of the book contains a numbers of lists that include one of what they are carrying along with lists of birds seen and trees observed.
The second half of the book consists of a series of personal essays in which the author explores various aspects of the river. These essays include a night fishing trip with a politician and a guide, a trip to the Bartram Botanical Gardens in Philadelphia where she investigates a “lost” species that had been found along the river. And then there is a humorous story about a trip with botanist to an area within the river’s watershed and the language gap that existed. She produces a rant directed at the United States Forest Service for their “liberal” definition as to what constitutes a forest. She tells of threats to the river from the discharge of a paper mill, the nitrogen that runs from farmer’s fields, and the problems with clear-cutting. She makes a case that a river is only as healthy as the forest through which it flows.
These quotes come from the final chapter of her book:
What I needed was to watch the amber water sliding past the ivory sandbars under a high blue sky. I needed the peace of wildness.
We go to lay our burdens down, to refuel ourselves, to fill our eyes with beauty, to enter the unchanging, to experience metaphorical time. We go to be transformed. (211)
This is the third book I’ve read by Janisse Ray. My favorite is still the Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, in which she tells about growing up with the longleaf pines and issues a call for their protection. I, too, grew up under longleafs, a few hundred miles to the north and share her concern for these majestic trees. Check out this other review of mine on a book about longleaf pines. I also liked Ray's second book, Wild Card Quilt. This is a good book, but in my opinion it doesn't rise to the level of the other two books of hers I've read. I like her narrative along the river as I have always wanted to do a similar trip down the Cape Fear and write a narrative that links its history (including that of my ancestors) with its natural history.