The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 28 August 2014

Drifting into Darien

A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River

by Janisse Ray

The meandering Altamaha river in Georgia is the largest river in the American east that flows free, without dam or impoundment, for its entire length to its delta on the Atlantic coast near Darien. The river and its tributaries drain a vast territory from the foothills of the Appalachians through the broad coastal plain, to the marshy islands on the coast. Like all grand geographic features, it has a long history of its relationship to man, and a much longer history of its evolution with its forests, birds and wildlife. It is a place, an ecosystem, and a home to Janisse Ray, a devoted and passionate guide to the wonders of the Altamaha, as well as to the threats against it. Her connection to this place is palpable throughout the book, a kind of connection we come to only after years of attentive living in one spot. Not everyone attains that, and it seems a rarer thing in this constantly moving world in which we live now. Ray lives in that world, but also advocates for a strong connection to nature, the ground, to a more conscious pace and awareness of the environment. About the first half of this book is her recounting of a kayak journey down the Altamaha from its origin at the confluence of two other rivers, down to the town of Darien. Along the way, she observes the beauty of the water, the vibrancy of the wildlife, and the sometimes dramatic affects man has wrought on the river, from siting a nuclear power plant on its shores, to a century and more of brutal clearcutting of its long-leaf pine and cypress forests. She loves the river, and makes a convincing case that we should, too. This reader has spent time in that corner of the country. Ray's evocation of the place is compelling, bringing up rare details about it. But, the reader doesn't have to know the place to feel Ray's passion. In the latter half of the book, she gives us several short essays about the failures and successes of conservation efforts on the river, among a rural southern population that one might not exepct to be as deeply concerned about the environment as this. She goes fishing with a conservative state senator, she rants against the nuclear power plant, she relates the efforts of the Nature Conservancy to preserve a natural corridor in the watershed, and she tells us of the work of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, an organization set upon preserving the remnant wildness of this landscape. Along the way, Ray spices the story with personal tales of the river and her family's life upon it. There are Civil War battles, Native American ghosts, river rafters, foresters, explorers and other colorful characters. Her own life intercedes, as well, and the river serves to help heal her. In the end, the river is a powerful healing force, but not an invulnerable one. As much as it heals the people who come to love the river, the river itself desperately needs the care of the people who can destroy it, or preserve it.

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Also by Janisse Ray: [Ecology of a Cracker Childhood]

[Other books by Women Authors]

[Other books in or about the American South]