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LAce Posted Monday, February 16th, 2004
Book Review: Wild Card Quilt, Taking a Chance on Home
Fawn Pattison

Book Review: Janisse Ray.
Wild Card Quilt, Taking a Chance on Home
Milkweed Editions, 2003 (due out soon in paperback!)

The word “community” gets a lot of use these days, and with an ever-fainter connection to any tangible cultural setting. You hear people talking about the African-American community, the environmental community, as if all these folks lived in the same place and dreamed the same dreams. I once heard a government bureaucrat talking about the “chemical manufacturing community” (referring to the lobbyists and executives who act as ambassadors for de-regulation). If you have ever marched in a Martin Luther King Day parade, hammered carefully-lettered campaign signs into the ground, participated in stream clean-ups or given people a ride to local polling places on election day, you have a good strong sense of what ‘community’ is, and you’re probably pretty concerned about yours. In Wild Card Quilt, her second novel, Georgia naturalist Janisse Ray explores the concept of community, its symbiotic relationship with nature, and the irreparable damage to human communities that accompanies the destruction of natural ecosystems. She also tells some great stories about working to make her community better.

Wild Card Quilt is the chronicle of an intentional community of the best possible variety. Ray’s values reflect an abiding emotional connection to the natural world, and to the actual clay, wiregrass and cedar swamps of her south Georgia home. This strong woman in dirty jeans runs five miles on dirt roads every morning, luxuriates in the solitude of camping alone in the state forest, and makes time to sit for hours in appreciative silence with the venerable elders and great-grandmothers of her region. Seventeen years after fleeing fundamentalist oppression and perceived cultural poverty as a young woman, she returns to her grandmother’s decrepit farmhouse seven miles outside Baxley, Georgia (population 4,150) with her young son to make a life there. They return also to an extended family, and to a rural way of life that far more people have been wont to abandon for the last half-century.

Late in the book, Ray’s husband asks her what she would do today, if she knew beyond a doubt that she would not fail. Her husband’s wish was to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, step off into it, and fly. After some thought, Ray answers, “I would return the earth to the way it was.” This is not the statement of a naïve back-to-the-lander. She is an ecologist and a dreamer, but Ray is also a leader. She is a co-founder of Altamaha Riverkeeper, a group that sued and won against polluters dumping arsenic, cyanide, and copper into their river. She worked tirelessly for years to protect Moody Swamp, a 3,500-acre property that includes a huge tract of virgin longleaf pine forest, now a rare ecosystem, and bald cypress trees 600 years old, from timber companies with millions to spend on destruction. She organized with other parents in her community to prevent the closing of her county’s small, rural elementary school, and the resulting absorption of their children into crowded suburban schools over an hour away.

Janisse Ray grew up in south Georgia, one of four children raised up on the junkyard her father ran, squirming under the double-confinement of her father’s strict fundamentalist dogma and his unpredictable mental illness. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Ray’s acclaimed first book, illuminates the shift in values in the southeast that has helped decimate both rural communities and native forests. Longleaf pine was once a dominant ecosystem in the southeast, 93 million acres stretching from southern Virginia to east Texas; today only 3 million acres remain, comprised by a smattering of state forests, military bases and a few private holdings. Ecology ends with Ray’s leaving home; Wild Card Quilt is the story of her return seventeen years later, and of the values that have driven the struggle to revive, preserve, and sustain a rural way of life and the natural systems on which that life depends.

Ray’s style is charming, slow and easy, channeling an emotional connection to herself and her surroundings so intense that you feel it with her. Even if you’ve never seen a clearcut (though if you live in the southeast, you’ve probably seen plenty), you may find yourself consumed with despair at the failure of a ballot initiative that would have taxed new developments in order to create a Land, Water and Heritage Fund in Georgia. After long months of campaigning, the ballot initiative is defeated nearly 2 to 1. Here Ray really does fall into despair, after two years trying to make life work on a tumbledown old farm, two years of working to reinvigorate a self-sustaining rural community, she declares the experiment a failure, along with the ballot initiative. Her despair is rooted in her belief that if we don’t value the place we come from, the dirt and the water, then we cannot build communities of any value. “How are we going to keep America from vanishing before our eyes – as it is fast doing,” she asks, “– not just wildlands but our history and our culture?”

But she shows you how. Hers isn’t the only way – we can’t all live in old houses down dirt roads, and we don’t all find a neighborhood syrup-boiling to be enough entertainment for the week. But her way is good, and she is guided by a deep commitment to her values. Janisse Ray has not ever had to ask herself what’s really important, so far as I can tell. She is lucky to be born to knowing, somehow. South Georgia is the better for it. The Altamaha River shows it in parts-per-million, and the Nature Conservancy of Georgia can count her influence in acres protected. Two books in, her wisdom ripples outward further with Wild Card Quilt.

You can read this book as a novelty, the way you might read the Foxfire Book or listen to the Southern Folkways Collection. There is quilting, heirloom seed-swapping, syrup-boiling and even alligator trapping, and you can just drift through it taking in the colorful scenery and enjoying the clear, illuminated writing of a naturalist poet. But I think you might be really inspired by this book. You might find yourself willing to take some chances on the people and places you love – and your community would be the better off for it.

Related Links:

  • Altamaha Riverkeeper
  • The Foxfire Book
  • Community Toolbox

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