Where There’s Hope—Land&People

This past election day, nine states had land acquisition initiatives on their ballots, some leaning more to conservation than others. All passed but one: my own state of Georgia. Even Alabama's and New Jersey's passed. Florida's extension of Preservation 2000, which has protected a million acres, sailed through with 72 percent of the vote.

In Georgia, many of us had worked hard and had been so hopeful for our amendment, which was an innocuous, apple-pie kind of proposal. Clean air, clean water. I went to bed Tuesday night hoping Atlanta would pull us through, but woke up the next morning to terrible news.

There is an awful plunging after a loss like that. All morning I wept. I could not speak. "What now?" I kept thinking. "How are we going to keep Georgia from vanishing before our eyes–as it is fast doing–not just our wildlands but also our history and our culture?"

"If you have any hope to offer," I wrote my friend Rex Boner in Atlanta, a man who has saved thousands of acres, "I need to hear it this morning."

Finally, I burst outside and ran two miles until I entered a thin wood, maybe 18 acres of it, that follows Ten Mile Creek below the farm. I crashed through the underbrush, touching poplar and magnolia trees and apologizing to them. Absorbing their strength. Touching galls and scars left from turpentining and also old stumps of trees. Listening to the steady silence of ones much older and more wounded–but faithful, ever-faithful to the blue sky above and to the running of the creek–than me.

A couple of hours later I was back home, scratched, soaking, and muddy, but not healed.

That evening, I walked the dirt road alongside the cotton field, waiting to see the full moon rise, because I needed to be reminded of that kind of faith, that certainty. I waited a long time out in the cold–a front was passing–and the moon never came up. It got to be six-thirty, seven, way past time.

"My God," I thought, remembering cultures who believed the sun would not rise unless they danced and sang to it, reciting poetry that was good enough to cause the sun to desire to shine for another day. I climbed the red maple that my uncle planted when he was a boy, to the top, and even from that vantage saw no light on the horizon. It seemed certain the moon refused to rise because the state of Georgia had failed to approve the land acquisition fund.

The sky was overcast all night.

The only path to hope I can find is the woods themselves. Fresh air and old trees, some birds singing, a creek running to a river–this is the medicine that restores. But here is the undeniable dilemma: my hope comes from the land, and every day the land is more diminished, so that hope itself becomes imperiled. Surely, if the moon is to rise and the sun to shine, we must dance harder than ever.

Land & People, Spring, 1999

Janisse Ray's chapbook of poems, Naming the Unseen, won the 1996 Merriam-Frontier Award. Her book of prose, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, will be published by Milkweed Editions.

This essay originally appeared in Orion magazine, Winter 1999. 195 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230. Subscribe now and $10 of your $30 subscription is donated to the Trust for Public Land. (888-909-6568)