Loving the Longleaf Pine: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood

By Elizabeth McCulloch

It’s been twenty years since Janisse Ray published “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood.” This classic of environmental literature is set in rural southern Georgia. It tells us of Ray’s family, with deep roots in this land for many generations, and of what we all lost when the vast forests of longleaf pine were replaced by plantations of slash and loblolly.

Though the family was quite poor, and for a few years the father had frightening spells of mental illness, this is a memoir of an idyllic childhood. Ray grew up in a small house in the middle of her family’s junkyard on Route 1. The whole family worked together – cleaning, hauling, dismantling. The parents were deeply in love with each other and devoted to their children.

Ray alternates chapters about members of her family with chapters about the longleaf pine forests. Of the plants and creatures those forests supported, many are now endangered or extinct. Her accounts of the evolution of the longleaf pine, of the life course of many creatures – red cockaded woodpecker, flatland salamander, Bachmann’s sparrow, indigo snake – are written as fascinating stories. 

She imagines the physical experience of each creature but avoids the folly of humanizing them. In minute detail she describes the salamanders crawling back to breed in the lowland puddles where they were hatched, the red-cockaded woodpeckers drilling cavities for their nests, then pecking away at the surrounding bark to send the sap trickling down, “forming a scabby quagmire that helps protect the woodpecker nest from rat snakes…”  

Ray’s adult life, as well as her book, have focused on efforts to restore this rich environment. Her writing combines the deep knowledge of a naturalist with the gift of clear, precise, often poetic description. 

Ray’s book, published in 1999, helped inspire many people to bring back the longleaf pine. 

America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI) is a coalition of groups who support the protection of existing forests and development of new one. Once there were over 75 million acres of longleaf forest in the nine “longleaf states” from Texas to Virginia, including about 20 million acres in Florida stretching across the panhandle and two thirds of the peninsula. In their 2019 report ALRI tells us that the coalition’s efforts have increased longleaf pine ecosystems from a historic low of about 3 million to almost 5 million acres. The goal is 8 million acres of longleaf pine by 2025.

The Alachua Conservation Trust leads the local implementation team for longleaf pine restoration in North Florida. They have funding to help private landowners buy longleaf seedlings, and they provide training for prescribed burns. They are also helping with restoration projects in the Ocala National Forest and at Camp Blanding. If you are a private forest landowner interested in longleaf restoration or managing with prescribed fire, you can contact ACT. Or you can help with ACT’s mission by volunteering to table at events, move exotic vegetation and plant native species, maintain trails, or help in the office. Write info@alachuaconservationtrust.org or call 352 373 1078. 

Note: Whitney, Means and Ludlow’s Priceless Florida: Natural Ecosystems and Native Species, Pineapple Press, 2004, explores in detail all of Florida’s natural ecosystems, including the pine uplands. It is beautifully illustrated, with text boxes of definitions and explanations to make the information accessible even to a scientific ignoramus like me.

Elizabeth McCulloch’s magic realist eco-fiction novel, Dreaming the Marsh, is available for pre-order from twistedroadpublications.com, and will be published September 10.

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