Interview Picture

To Protect and Uphold Life - 2007-01-01

Interviewer: Jeremy Jones
Interviewee: Janisse Ray

Janisse Ray grew up on the grounds of a Georgia junkyard, amid the longleaf pine and wiregrass. However, she does not focus on wreckage and waste, but on doing what she can to reverse the destruction of the natural world that she loves. There is hope, grace, and determination in each of her books, which include Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land, Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home, and Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.

Jones: Could you describe a particular southern landscape that has had a significant impact on you and your work?

Ray: I am in love with a lot of particular landscapes. The one that has haunted me this past year is the coalfields of Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, where the tops of mountains are being blasted away in order for King Coal to get to seams of coal beneath. The overburden from the coal extraction is dumped into the valleys, burying thousands of miles of streams. Not only are the forests being destroyed, but so ARE THE MOUNTAINS THEMSELVES. And so are the people, who are suffering from the loss, from poor air quality, from poverty, from heartbreak. What is happening to Appalachia (among the oldest mountains in the world) is agonizing, excruciating, sickening. The Bush Administration has condoned this outrageous abuse by relaxing mining rules. I think about this landscape daily. I can't turn on a light switch without thinking of it, and am counting the days until we can switch to solar power.

Jones: How do you manage to write so beautifully and clearly about something you love that is being threatened without being over-whelmed by fear and anger?

Ray: I am sometimes overwhelmed by fear and anger. I even get hopeless, and may in general not have much hope. Two things keep me going. One is the knowledge that the gigantic bulk of environmental destruction and disruption, like societal disintegration, has happened in very recent history. Our rampant use of chemicals, for example, only began after World War II. Sixty years ago, nobody saw a pine plantation. Gasoline-powered vehicles are barely 100 years old, and I'm talking about since invention. So, you see, at forty-four and HAVING BEEN reared in a poor area, I can almost remember a time before chemical farming, before rampant tree-cutting, before widespread plastics, before people started fleeing rural areas. I don't really remember that era, but I almost can. My mother definitely can. She remembers farming with mules and manure. So there is a part of me that thinks, if all this terrible destruction started so recently, then surely we can reverse it. Surely it's not part of a permanent DISINTEGRATION.

And the second point: the idea of service has never abandoned me. Global climate change and rampant toxicity and declining biodiversity may be inevitable, but I can't not do anything about it. I have to try to do something. I want to go to my grave (and it will be a grave, since cremation uses too much fossil fuel, and there won't be a metal casket or concrete vault) knowing that I never stopped trying, that I did everything I could to protect and uphold life.

Jones: To what do you attribute your persistence and commitment to service?

Ray: To love.

Jones: You write poetry and various modes of prose. Which do you feel most comfortable in and why?

Ray: Poetry is my first love, but I'm not very good at it. I write it for the ear, not for the page, so it's hard to publish. Plus, in this country, poetry doesn't enjoy a wide audience, so to be a poet is to accept a kind of obscurity. My journals are full of unpublished poems. When I first heard about literary nonfiction, and learned how to write it, something was turned loose inside of me. Creative nonfiction is a very freeing genre, in that it allows a writer to combine fact with personal experience, and to use literary techniques to present the material. It deals in truth -- I love truth. However, there's only so much personal narrative one can write before one begins to feel gluttonous. Or like an exhibitionist. I have, in the past few years, turned to fiction: I have finished the first draft of a novel and am now rewriting it. I'm finding that I love fiction. And one day, hopefully, I'll return to poetry with serious intent.