Writer and environmental activist Janisse Ray remembers the first time she saw the sprawling Georgia marshes when she was a child. Her father was driving her to Brunswick from their home near rural Baxley in the state’s interior.
“I saw it as scenery,” she says of the landscape, described so beautifully in Sydney Lanier’s well-known poem The Marshes of Glynn. “But over the years of my life, I have learned, it’s full of secrets.”
Ray has written about these secrets many times over the course of an award-winning literary career that has celebrated the intersection of people and places. The author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, she talked this year about the role that writers have played in shaping a “sense of place” on the Georgia coast from its very beginnings.
I present that 40-minute talk for you here today in this podcast. This particular lecture from the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium, presented by the Ossabaw Island Foundation back in February, strikes moving chords that go beyond mere historical facts.
“I believe that we lose part of our humanness when we lose our engagement to place,” she says. “I believe that it’s essential to know and understand the cycles of seasons, moons, weather, tides and all the things that connect us to the 10,000 generations that were here before there were cell phones.”
In that vein, Ray laments how much geographical vocabulary we’ve lost as English speakers over the centuries. Once ordinary words like dell, swale, freshet, bow, vale, tarn, zephyr and shingle become Scrabble novelties as we live, work and play indoors.
“This language implies accuracy and connection,” she says, drawing a line from the English of Shakespeare to the English of today. “It’s the common language of rural topography [that has] fallen into disuse so that we are speechless before the landscape.”
Ray says writers are the people who make sure that we aren’t so speechless. She quotes from the Western author Wallace Stegner who said, “A place is not a place until it has a poet.” In doing so, she expands on her belief that a “sense of place” depends on humans.
“I interpret sense of place as the experience of the human body in a landscape, the parallel lines between geography and a life, the effect of the real environment on one’s emotional terrain, the intersection of the human heart and the natural world,” she says. “[It] depends on a host of sensory responses, through what is seen, felt, tasted, smelt.”
And among those writers who have experienced the Georgia coast and put their senses into words, the aforementioned Sydney Lanier, of course, ranks as perhaps as one of the most well-known. But many more have shaped our view of this place:
- Eugenia Price (“St. Simons Island Trilogy”)
- Mary Granger (“Drums and Shadows”)
- John Berendt (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”)
- Francis Goulding (“Young Marooners”)
- Tina McElroy Ansa (“Baby of the Family”)
- Francis Moore (“A Voyage to Georgia”)
- Flannery O’Connor (“Wise Blood”)
And that’s just a start. I risk leaving your favorite writers. But Ray’s talk is much more than a suggested reading list. It’s really a manifesto for everyone here to become more connected with the land around us. She encourages us to settle into coastal Georgia.
“Perhaps it’s time to be domestic, to pay attention to our home,” she concludes. “Perhaps it’s time to let the love in our hearts guide our actions.”
This is the eighth of ten lectures that I’ll be presenting from the “Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture” symposium, a remarkable gathering of minds. If you’d like to listen to the rest of them (so far), please click on this link. Thanks to the Ossabaw Island Foundation.