Cracker is the word that captures one’s attention in the title of Janisse Ray’s first book, The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (Milkweed Editions, 1999). It’s typically been used as a pejorative, in the same category as red neck and yokel and hayseed, to designate lower-class uneducated white Southerners. Some African Americans use it to designate racist whites, or whites in general. For Janisse Ray, it’s a word that encapsulates her heritage and her origins. It means poor white farmer, of Scotch-Irish origins, from the rural South. Though she recognizes the negative meanings it conjures, she sees it as a cultural and geographical marker of her identity. A second key word in her title is “ecology.” This term certainly has its standard meaning in her book: the natural ecosystems that make up the world in which we live. It means a state of balance, of elements standing in some sort of connection to one another, or a lack of balance.
Ray tells the story of her growing up with her family in the middle of a junkyard outside Baxley, a small town in Southeast Georgia. In tandem with that story she describes the fate of the longleaf forests that hundreds of years ago stretched through the southeastern United States from Virginia to eastern Texas. Logged, burned, cut down, replaced with farmlands and more manageable forests and housing developments and cities, Ray laments the loss the disappearance of the longleaf forests entailed. Only a few thousand acres of an original ninety million acres (140,000 square miles) remain.
Ecology means, therefore, not simply the circumstances of a natural environment, but also of the human environment that lives along with it.