Milkweed Editions, 288 pp., $22
Back when she was 18, there was a longing in Janisse Ray's heart, one that afflicts the hearts of many teenagers. She longed to escape a stultifying small-town existence in southern Georgia and to get out into a world that she saw as "infinite, full of possibility, and anonymous." Once she left, she thought she'd never look back. But in the 17 years she spent away from her home in Baxley (population 4,150), she couldn't seem to escape the strong sense of home that had been instilled within her. She soon came to recognize that "even my bones were ossified from that locale, formed of it as surely as the tupelo and cypress are. My blood, its blood." That recognition made all the difference.
Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home, Ray's follow-up memoir to her widely acclaimed first effort, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (1999), explores what happened when she decided to return home to southern Georgia--the country of her teenage longing--to try to make it "the country of gratification, the country of wholeness." She now had a different sort of longing, one that yearned "to be closer to the landscape that produced" her. In this wild-card, patchwork quilt collection of stories that explore "personal, family, and community history," Ray uses her keen eye as a naturalist to describe the lush and rapidly diminishing landscape of rural upper Appling County. It is in this setting that she places the odd assortment of people who make up this community. This symbiotic relationship between nature and humans is at the heart of this somewhat uneven but largely eloquent and ultimately moving story of a woman's search for a place to settle for a lifetime.
For Ray, her desire to return home started when she arrived at the knowledge that "I no longer felt at home on the earth, riven as I was from our predominant culture--cities with hordes of strangers, a gluttony for material things, loss of nature and family farms, general disconnection to land." This vision of a materialistic wasteland drove her back home from places like Montana and Vermont, and their perfectly progressive, quaint and charming towns, with "their cafes and their cappuccino counters" filled with tourists. She realized that the "simpler, more peaceful and meaningful life" she was searching for could not be found in a place that had no sense of community.
And so it was on to Baxley, "a place people pass through going somewhere else"--not the trendy vacation spots Ray had had her fill of. With her young son, Silas, in tow, she moves into her grandmother Beulah's heart pine farmhouse, which dates from the 1920s, and becomes the central symbol of her re-establishment in the place of her birth. With her father, mother and Uncle Percy helping every step of the way, Ray rebuilds and refurbishes the home of her ancestors, and then in near ritualized fashion, re-inhabits it. As she hoped would happen, she feels the presence of her grandmother and the ghosts of her ancestors, further cementing her belief that she belongs in Baxley.
From this point on, Ray stitches together story after story to create the wild card quilt of the title. She writes of gator trappers who are tall, strapping and fearless, and of an eccentric named E.D. McCool, who lives in an old school bus and drives his car around taking strangers' pictures for a quarter. She writes about Milton Hopkins, a Georgian "naturalist, farmer, tree planter, great-grandfather, and friend" who becomes her role model, "a person who ignored social pressures to pursue a life he believed in." He clearly belongs to the landscape in ways that a long life devoted to preserving it has engendered, and Ray's desire to emulate him leaps palpably from the pages of this book.
In the end, this collection of stories of life, death, family and conservation are less about Janisse Ray and more about her desire to preserve the rapidly dying rural lifestyle, and the natural landscape in which it exists. She passionately believes that the "human spirit seems to thrive" in these agrarian communities. By the time you get to the end of Wild Card Quilt, she'll have you believing it too.