Friday, January 27, 2012

Drifting into Darien

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. 


  1. That license plate woman sounds bitter!

    The book sounds marvelous - I love that quote toward the end. She writes beautifully.

    You wrote a wealth of words while you were traveling, so I can see why you would slow down a little. Hope your weekend is wonderful!

  2. sounds like there are some interesting anecdotes...have read nothing by so will check out your fav first...

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  4. I'll try again. The Ecology book sounds more like what I would tend to pick up--memoir of childhood as a backdrop. But I am glad I stopped in here because I would not have heard of any of these books. Your reviews are thorough.

    On the other hand, if one puts any weight on that license plate there... and I HAVE had some experiences...

    But I don't. So. I have put the book you preferred on my list. This will be a wonderful spot to root around in and find some interesting books. (I write about my family and memoir. Not at all like your site, I'm afraid. How great to have such variety!)

  5. Men lie. women lie. people lie. not really news to most of us. :)

  6. Rivers seem to be the metaphor of choice for those with a philosophical bent. Reading your review reminded me of the essays of Wendell Barry.


  7. Lynn, When I saw the plate I thought about all kind of things, like would I get into the car if I was hitchhiking (something I've not done in decades, but...) or what if you discovered your girlfriend had such a license plate!

    Brain, Do check her out, I think you'll like her work. Good writing and an interesting look into family and into creation

    Jeannette, there has to be some bitterness in her choice of license plates. But we've all been there--with men and women, with lovers and business deals, liars abound

    Charles, AMEN!

    Randall, rivers are a great metaphor for life. I haven't read or reviewed a book by Berry in a while, but have read almost all his non-fiction, a considerable number of his essays and some of his poetry--truly a man who's writings cross genres!

  8. Where wild Altamaha murmurs to their woe ?.

    Panta rhei.

  9. I just loved "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood" and could so easily picture them playing amongst the junked cars. I will definitely put "Drifting into Darien" on my list.

  10. Vince, Very good! The poem by Robert Goldsmith, "The Deserted Village..." Except Goldsmith spelled it Altama. I had to google that to figure out what you were writing about. Everything flows...

    NCmountainwoman: I'm glad to know someone else who has read "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood"

  11. A lady in a sports car with a license plate that said something like "WHEEE" would probably have a more interesting story, or at least be more fun to talk to.

  12. One of these days I have to read another nature book. My first and last one was Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" many moons ago. I'm due for another one...but my Kindle's full of mystery and suspense (for now).

    As far as license plates go, we in S. Florida have the craziest ones. I'll have to remember to bring my camera on the road with me more often, so I can share them with you.

  13. Sheesh, that woman needs to lighten up! Nothing like setting your beliefs in stone like that. I'd be afraid of creating a perpetual loop of that kind of experience.

    The book sounds fascinating. I love old cypress trees, and I would have to agree that what runs into the river water dramatically impacts it's "health". I think you'd write a great book about Cape Fear, and your connection to it.

  14. Sage: I s enjoyed this quote: "We go to lay our burdens down, to refuel ourselves, to fill our eyes with beauty...We go to be transformed". You find the most interesting books! Thanks for sharing this message. That is sad about the woman with the custom license plate. I trust she was hurt very badly. I hope she can heal and love again.

  15. have a happy monday man...and try not to live up to the license plate...smiles.

  16. That license plate is really weird!

  17. Going to be renewed - that's what happens to me when I go hiking. :)

    That license plate fascinating - one has to wonder what the story behind it is.

    And the book sounds fascinating.