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Drifting into Darien

Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River

Janisse Ray
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Drifting into Darien
    Book Description:

    Janisse Ray was a babe in arms when a boat of her father's construction cracked open and went down in the mighty Altamaha River. Tucked in a life preserver, she washed onto a sandbar as the craft sank from view. That first baptism began a lifelong relationship with a stunning and powerful river that almost nobody knows. The Altamaha rises dark and mysterious in southeast Georgia. It is deep and wide bordered by swamps. Its corridor contains an extraordinary biodi­versity, including many rare and endangered species, which led the Nature Conservancy to designate it as one of the world's last great places. The Altamaha is Ray's river, and from childhood she dreamed of paddling its entire length to where it empties into the sea. Drifting into Darien begins with an account of finally making that journey, turning to medita­tions on the many ways we accept a world that contains both good and evil. With praise, biting satire, and hope, Ray contemplates transformation and attempts with every page to settle peacefully into the now. Though commemorating a history that includes logging, Ray celebrates "a culture that sprang from the flatwoods, which required a judicious use of nature." She looks in vain for an ivorybill woodpecker but is equally eager to see any of the imperiled species found in the river basin: spiny mussel, American oystercatcher, Radford's mint, Alabama milkvine. The book explores both the need and the possibilities for conservation of the river and the surrounding forests and wetlands. As in her groundbreaking Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Ray writes an account of her beloved river that is both social history and natural history, understanding the two as inseparable, particularly in the rural corner of Georgia that she knows best. Ray goes looking for wisdom and finds a river.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4186-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. [Map]
    (pp. xii-xvi)
  5. BOOK I Total Immersion:: A Week on the Altamaha River

    • Invitation (poem)
      (pp. 2-2)
    • The First Day
      (pp. 3-29)

      McRae’s Landing is a cleared patch of underbrush in the floodplain of the Ocmulgee River, deep south Georgia, rural and abandoned. The landing is approached by a dirt road that is littered, weedy, and eroded.

      My husband and I arrive early on a Saturday morning in May, having traveled through the remote poverty of Telfair County, trying not to dwell on the events of the previous week. Fog lifts slowly off the wide, fat body of the river. The water is the color of Confederate coats. Out on the gray-blueness, a log goes floating away.

      We have come bearing crosses,...

    • The Second Day
      (pp. 30-47)

      On Sunday morning everybody is up earlier than I expect. Sixteen people continue, although later today the employed will disembark to return to work and eight of us will push on. An hour after I hear the first hiss of a stove and clank of cups, I’m still in the tent. Troubled by dreams, I wake sad, as if in the big world anything could be happening that we should know about. Our fourteen-year-old son, Silas, is still in school in Vermont—is he OK? Are our parents hale? Was the little lost boy found?

      I feel grooves in my...

    • The Third Day
      (pp. 48-59)

      Early morning we slip past Cobb Creek on the “white” side, then Morris Landing, Davis Landing, and Eason’s on the “Indian.” All these landings were named for families of early settlers with land holdings in these spots. Clifton, Stripling, Sharp, Kennedy, Hughes.

      Morris is undeveloped, sans the pavement that Deen’s has, and is the spot where I usually swim with Silas. This is where I come sit on a sandbar and write. If I have three hours to be in a boat, I come here and paddle down to an oxbow, go in, and explore it. Morris Landing has a...

    • The Fourth Day
      (pp. 60-65)

      Sometimes I dream I am eating wild plants. Usually they are growing at the edge of water. I snap off a piece of duck potato to prove to my father that it is edible. I chomp down on it, masticating the leaves, rolling the strange taste around in my mouth. Suddenly I am beset with worry that maybe I was wrong. Maybe it is the white flowers and not the green leaves that are edible. Maybe it is the root.

      Sometimes in the dreams I am eating flag iris. Sometimes violets.

      The dream, I think, speaks to my hunger for...

    • The Fifth Day
      (pp. 66-74)

      In the morning we determine that what looked like fog the night before is smoke. As the morning comes on, the smoke thickens. With the heat and humidity, smoke makes the river look primeval, as if we are floating in a world before recorded time. We come upon a fisherman checking his trot lines, hooked cords that get baited and tied to tree limbs at water’s edge and then checked periodically. The man is amazed by our flotilla.

      “How many of y’all is there?” he asks.

      “Eight,” Dr. Presley says.

      “A small army.”

      We laugh.

      “Say, where is the smoke...

    • The Sixth Day
      (pp. 75-79)

      At sunrise strings of ibis fly over, just as a sliver of golden moon ascends in the east above Hannah’s Island. We eat our breakfasts without stoking the fire, and by 9:00 a.m. we are on the water again. Around Mile 84, we enter the Narrows, a stretch where the river shrinks and the curves are tight, as if the waterway is kinked. This is said to be the most scenic portion of the river. The current is faster, so we don’t have to work hard, simply keep our bows in the current. Most of the day we are shaded...

    • The Seventh Day
      (pp. 80-87)

      We leave the sandbar beach near Lower Sansavilla Bluff at 8:55 a.m., early for us, because we want to hit the tide. High tide will be at 9:30 a.m. in Darien. We paddle for an hour against the tide, then through the calm turgidity of high tide, until the waters turn and bear us coastward. The paddling is effortless. We arrive at Everett City about noon. Everett City is a small encampment of trailers and campsites centered on a store and a landing. At the pay phone I leave messages for Silas. Raven and I share a pint of butter...

    • The Eighth Day
      (pp. 88-92)

      Saturday morning. Now we are close to the end. We solemnly eat our last breakfast together and break camp one final time. We drift quietly, separate, introspective, beneath Interstate 95. The roar of traffic, car after car, interspersed with eighteen-wheel trucks, is tremendous, and the bridge is a painful reminder of the uncivilization we are about to reenter. We are hanging on to a different life, a history, in the middle of an industrial age that will blindly erase the past.

      This is my second time drifting into Darien. My friend Augustus and I had almost reached the town on...

  6. BOOK II Elements

    • Conversion (poem)
      (pp. 94-94)
    • Irwin Corbitt Tells Me How to Catch Catfish (poem)
      (pp. 95-96)
    • CHAPTER 1 Endangered Landscape
      (pp. 97-108)

      Malcolm Hodges wants to buy the whole river, all 137 miles of it.

      “We’re talking about a million acres,” he says. He is eating a big, oval, glazed bun as we drive riverward, although his mind is not on the treat.

      “Where?” I ask. “You could buy a million acres of headwaters.”

      “I mean the whole river, the length of it,” he says. “Land contiguous. But not simply a corridor.”

      “Wider than a corridor?”

      “A landscape,” he says.

      “What would you do with it?” I ask.

      “We’d protect it,” he says, between bites of the sweet, which he’s just purchased...

    • CHAPTER 2 River Sticks
      (pp. 109-124)

      Folks, we have us a problem. Scientists have spent a long time studying and deduced a fact that any of my neighbors could have told them already—a river is only as healthy as the forests along it. That means the Altamaha is in trouble. Because we’re cutting its forests to death.

      You know by now how attached I am to this watershed. It created me. Its water flows in my bones, which are composed of minerals the river bore down from the Appalachians. My history is here, as is my present, and likely my future, so when Malcolm Hodges...

    • CHAPTER 3 Stewards of the Mysteries of God
      (pp. 125-132)

      I have a story about a crab that started a movement. It is about a river that is stunning in its magnitude and in its biodiversity. It is about a man who turned his tenacious mind and undistracted gaze upon that body of water and decided that he would clean it up, and who, in the process, became somebody he never dreamed of being. The story is about the creation of a group of advocates in a part of the United States that had not known environmental advocacy, and a litany of successes that built an environmental ethic and caused...

    • CHAPTER 4 Seeking a Mission
      (pp. 133-140)

      Nothing here says de Soto.

      Everything here says clear-cut. It says logging trucks. Pine plantation. The scrubby coinage of first growth.

      Except to Dennis Blanton.

      Dennis can see Spaniards across the river, which used to be right there, where the slough is now, dropping ten or twelve feet from the bedded rows of slash pine. That is the old run of the river, no doubt, but the river has fled, and in its place is a depression that sometimes fills with black water swirling beneath the feet of water striders.

      The river, now, is a mile away.

      But there was...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Malacologists
      (pp. 141-154)

      Today I am looking for mussels.

      Looking involves crawling around in shallow water on hands and knees, feeling in the obscurity for hard, clamlike shells protruding from mud.

      It is July 2000 and I am spending a day on the river with Dr. Eugene Keferl, a tall, lanky professor at Coastal Georgia Community College in Brunswick (now retired) and an expert in freshwater mussels. He calls the creatures unionids, also fluviatile mollusks. We are near Lane’s Bridge, at a mussel bed that Dr. Keferl has studied for a long time. Intermittently one of us pulls a mussel to light. He...

    • CHAPTER 6 Under the Franklin Tree
      (pp. 155-160)

      Another thing about the Altamaha makes it a very special river. That thing is a tree.

      I would like to tell you that I took a walk in the woods and saw the Franklin tree.

      But the tree no longer lives in the woods. In fact, over half a century ago a granite monument to it was erected off Highway 84 near Doctortown.

      I had to go all the way to Philadelphia to see Franklinia—820 miles to see a tree native to the river that runs two miles from my home, a tree last seen in the wild in...

    • CHAPTER 7 Sandhills
      (pp. 161-168)

      I am standing on a sandhill at Big Hammock Natural Area (closest town Glennville) with ecologist Lisa Crews, a redhead with nice glasses who manages to look stylish even in her dnr uniform. Today she is leading a cluster of botanists as well as botanist wannabes (Raven and me) on a walkabout of the sandhills.

      We’re standing at the bottom of Big Hammock, a sandhill forty-five to fifty feet high, a small mountain in the endless flatness of the coastal plain, where the ocean used to lap. But this is like no mountain you’ve seen. Here deep sand is carpeted...

    • CHAPTER 8 Blackberry Swamp
      (pp. 169-172)

      Late May, blackberries were ripe in Moody Forest. I knew they were there. I was salivating at the thought of them.

      Of all the public and accessible land along the Altamaha, the place I go most often is Moody Forest. It’s the tract geographically closest and the one with which I’m most familiar.

      Raven and I had noticed the Moody blackberries in early May, when we hiked with friends to see five-hundred-year-old cypress and tupelo. The blackberries were huge, big as blackberries of the Northwest. For two weeks we tried to go back, but you know how life is. There’s...

    • CHAPTER 9 Dreaming Big to Save the Red Bay
      (pp. 173-176)

      Every time I go to the woods, I expect amazement—crashing black bear, glimpse of a panther—and a kayak trip on Cathead Creek was no exception.

      At the canoe outpost in Darien, guide Danny Grisette had papered the walls with topo maps floor to ceiling. When I arrived, he traced where we’d be exploring, through the canals of a historic rice field in McIntosh County, into Buffalo Swamp, drained by Cathead Creek, a tributary of the Altamaha River.

      As we paddled through banks of southern wild rice and red-stemmed amaranth drooping with seed, I grooved on how gorgeous fall...

    • CHAPTER 10 Center of the Known World
      (pp. 177-186)

      The Altamaha is irrepressibly and exotically beautiful. Mississippi kites swoop low over the fields and clearings and come to rest in snags on the bars, and the pinckneya looks spangled with lipstick kisses when it blooms. I cannot talk about the beauty, however, without telling you the bad. The very bad. Nuke-plant bad.

      There are three things nobody, nobody, wants to live near, and they are mountaintop removal, a coal plant, and a nuclear plant. All three of them will kill you. They may take a while, but they will murder you dead as a doornail. Your sweet life with...

    • CHAPTER 11 Night Fishing with the Senator
      (pp. 187-200)

      Any place can be deep and far away, but few are deeper and farther than the wild country of the lower Altamaha. Everything here was created on a grand scale.

      At its mouth, the Altamaha’s flood plain is five miles wide. It cleaves into four distributaries—called rivers too, each voluminous, startling in capacity—that empty from the continent one-third of Georgia’s water. The four channels (Darien, Butler, Champney, and Altamaha) wash through salt marsh and old cypress, unbraiding into creeks that swell with eight-foot tides and when they drain become long limbs of black mud. The mud seems alive....

    • CHAPTER 12 Black Bear
      (pp. 201-204)

      When I wander through the Altamaha swamps, something is missing and I want it back. It was here before. It was here before my people ever got here. It was even here before the Creeks arrived. It was an original inhabitant, but we killed it off, every one, and now none are left. I want it back.

      Okefenokee Swamp has them. The north Georgia mountains still have them. The Chattahoochee National Forest still has them. The Great Smoky Mountains have them. Even central Florida still has them.

      In some of those places they are so numerous that they are still...

    • CHAPTER 13 Tributary
      (pp. 205-212)

      We come to a river with a burden in our heart, and for a time the burden is lifted.

      It is Independence Day and I come to the river thinking of my husband, whom I have delivered to the Savannah airport with a sheaf of funeral programs in his luggage. I come thinking of his sister, Margaret, three days gone.

      I come to the river with bloodstain on my car. It happened when I was returning from the airport, where I dropped Raven for the flight to Rochester and his sister’s memorial mass. I was in a hurry to get...

    • CHAPTER 14 Sancho Panza
      (pp. 213-216)

      I am sitting alone at the mouth of Sancho Panza Creek, looking across at Sancho Panza beach and the mouth of the Altamaha River. Farther beyond are Egg Island, Egg Island bar, and Wolf Island. On the bars behind me are all kinds of shorebirds—armadas of brown pelicans, willet, sandpipers, seagulls, terns, oystercatchers. Vast sandflats all around are rippled with the waves of the most recent tide.

      Here in the spring horseshoe crabs lay their eggs. Red knots pause in their long migrations. Bald eagles nest nearby.

      Now, the tide is going out, but the creekbed will never be...

    • CHAPTER 15 Delta
      (pp. 217-222)

      I am a speck in the life of this river. I am a blink in the long eye of history that stares us down. Before long I too will be gone, into the ground, with only a book left behind as proof that I loved the place where I existed, the place in which I was born and for most of my life chose to live. I will die and be buried, hopefully, a mile or two from the river that was as if my own backbone, and my grave will grow thick with grass. The swamp chestnut oak will...

  7. Altamaha River Lands in Conservation
    (pp. 224-225)
  8. Protect and Preserve Our River
    (pp. 226-227)
  9. Resources
    (pp. 228-229)
  10. Members of the Altamaha River Partnership
    (pp. 230-232)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 233-234)
  12. Gratitude
    (pp. 235-238)
  13. Acknowledgments of Nancy Marshall, Photographer
    (pp. 239-239)