Drifting into Darien
A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River
Publication Year: 2011
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.
Published by: University of Georgia Press
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The First Day
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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...
The Second Day
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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...
The Third Day
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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...
The Fourth Day
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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...
The Fifth Day
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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...
The Sixth Day
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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...
The Seventh Day
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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...
The Eighth Day
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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...
BOOK II: Elements
Chapter 1: Endangered Landscape
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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...
Chapter 2: River Sticks
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I seek the darkest wood, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum 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 ...
Chapter 3: Stewards of the Mysteries of God
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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 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...
Chapter 4: Seeking a Mission
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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...
Chapter 5: The Malacologists
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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...
Chapter 6: Under the Franklin Tree
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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...
Chapter 7: Sandhills
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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...
Chapter 8: Blackberry Swamp
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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...
Chapter 9: Dreaming Big to Save the Red Bay
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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...
Chapter 10: Center of the Known World
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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...
Chapter 11: Night Fishing with the Senator
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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...
Chapter 12: Black Bear
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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...
Chapter 13: Tributary
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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...
Chapter 14: Sancho Panza
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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...
Chapter 15: Delta
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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 ...
Altamaha River Lands in Conservation
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Protect and Preserve Our River
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Members of the Altamaha River Partnership
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I thank Christa Frangiamore Hayes for petitioning me so many years ago to write this book. I am grateful for her wonderful ideas and lasting friendship. Many thanks to Craig and Diana Barrow of the Wormsloe Foundation for I thank the good folks of the University of Georgia Press, especially Laura Sutton and John Joerschke, who oversaw the project; Nicole Mitchell...
Acknowledgments of Nancy Marshall, Photographer
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With appreciation to Christa Frangiamore Hayes for having the idea for a project with Janisse; to Deborah Sheppard, Captain Sheryl Schooley, James Holland, and Neill Herring of Altamaha Riverkeeper for their generous hospitality and river-guiding; and to John McWilliams for advice and companionship...
Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 19 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011