20 women writing about the outdoors

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2. Janisse Ray

Swamps are tricky things to write about. On the one hand, they have plenty of natural beauty and lots of fraught connections with the human species. On the other hand, they are often hot, humid and unpleasantly fragrant. It can be distressingly easy to see why developers are so often eager to drain swamps in favor of building developments and water diversion. But, look a little closer, and you’ll see just why swamplands are vital.

Writer Janisse Ray may be the first one to admit that swamps are not aesthetically pleasing. “My homeland is about as ugly as a place gets,” she writes at the beginning of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood (2000). That’s both in terms of visuals and economics. Ray was born into a poor family with strong fundamentalist Christian values. They also lived in a junkyard — hardly a shining palace, Ray says.

Longleaf pine

But Ray’s book isn’t just about the human actors. It also focuses in on the quickly vanishing longleaf pine ecosystem, the vast majority of which has disappeared. Longleaf pine was useful to businesspeople and the U.S. Navy, to the point where they rather blithely caused its near-extinction. Nowadays, it’s been replaced by faster growing commercial pine.

Later books by Ray include Pinhook (2005), which relates the history of the Pinhook Swamp that connects wildlands in Georgia and northern Florida. Drifting into Darien (2011) uses the Altamaha River as its central image, running from the middle of Georgia into the Atlantic Ocean at its outlet. All of Ray’s work is deeply poetic and uncompromising, making for a moving portrait of Southern American ecosystems and people.