“Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans: Wild Spectacle,” by Janisse Ray

Cover by Derek Thornton, Notch Design

I let my eyes fill with the innocence of green. I hear our right to speak in tupelo leaves and I hear dignity in water dripping off my paddle. I see freedom in the sandy-bottomed water. I hear justice in dragonflies as they clack and buzz. I feel on my own bare arms the forgiveness of the yellow sun.

What better nature could one have?

“What better nature could one have?” seems like such a simple question, asked by author, poet, naturalist, activist, Janisse Ray, in her latest collection of essays, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans (Trinity University Press/2021). It’s a question I think she lives by. Asking herself daily, how can I help? What can I do to ameliorate the destruction caused by others? How can I lessen my own impact? Wild Spectacle answers those questions. By sharing her lifetime experiences, adventures, and knowledge actively living in the wilderness Ray has contributed something invaluable. I travelled to the Yaak or gone birding in Belize, but Ray’s shared experience made me feel as if I had. And though while Ray’s essays equally honor and exalt in nature, she points out, quite poignantly, what we have already lost, and cautions the reader about losing even more.

Sometimes, Wild Spectacle feels as if you are reading an ode. Other times, especially times when Ray writes about friends she’s lost, the tone sounds like an elegy, a tribute, though her grieving isn’t just reserved for humans. In “Snapshots of a Dark Angel,” she laments a teenager’s cruel treatment of a lizard: “I cry if a single tree falls. I feel the tree speaking through my body. I feel actual pain. The image of a crucified lizard, its tiny eye winking in the brokenness of its body sticks in my mind. I cry as if tears are all I have to speak with. How can we be so careless of life?” Expecting to witness the splendor of the Monarch butterflies during their migration to Central Mexico, Ray and her husband, Raven Waters, visit a Monarch sanctuary. An epic snowstorm hits and an estimated eighty percent of the Monarch butterflies freeze to death at the El Rosario Butterfly Biosphere Reserve they visit: “The butterflies were deep enough to wade through, deep enough to drown in.” Ray and Waters did get to witness the Monarch’s spring flight, though much diminished. Later in “Las Monarcas,” Ray describes their flight and the opening of their wings to the sunlight as a “Halloween party.” And quite poetically observes their flight—”the live butterflies dance and dabble, now thousands of them filling the atmosphere like confetti, like tiny balloons.” Wild Spectacle is an emotional teeter-totter and the juxtaposition of nature’s grandest moments coupled with reckless human waste and behavior—oil spills, clear-cuts, pollution, extinction, the effects of climate change—is heart wrenching, but needs to be said.

Devil’s Tower

I love when poets write fiction or non-fiction, something other than poetry, because poets pay attention to diction, or word choices, how words sound together, the order. At the heart of Ray is poetry and out in her essays; she hypnotizes her readers simply by naming the birds, flowers, trees, and the places she’s visited. In “I Have Seen the Warrior,” Ray layers the names of flora and fauna like a list poem:

The day was feverishly gorgeous. Carter Prairie was popping with water lily, spatterdock sticking up its yellow bonnets, swamp iris in amethyst and plum, golden club like birthday candles. In shallower places carnivorous plants were going crazy: yellow bladderwort, purple bladderwort, and both the hooded pitcher plant and the golden trumpet, blooming their happy flowers. Hatpins were everywhere, like tiny marshmallows on sticks or white balloon on strings or little flags on delicate poles. All the metaphors I can think of for hatpins are happy.

I initially thought Ray was someone who viewed the world through different lenses, but after reading Wild Spectacle I find the opposite is true. It’s us who wear the lenses, lenses separating us from the natural world, the indoors verses outdoors. I recently read that prison inmates in the U.S. get more outdoor time than school children and that the average child spends four to seven minutes per day outside. I wonder if we knew the flowers—spatterdock, swamp iris, hatpins—by name, like Ray does, if we would respect, honor, and nurture the planet more.

Though there’s a fervent lyrical romanticism throughout Wild Spectacle, Ray reminds us that there’s danger in wildness. Ray recognizes the fragility of life while encountering a group of elk in Montana (to listen, click title “Exaltation of Elk”), while boating in freezing waters in a cave in Sitka, Alaska (“Dinner Party”), or nearly drowning in Cabo Blanco, Costa Rica (“The Denude of Cabo Blanco”). Probably the closest she gets to death was when her friend’s son, Zack, mistakes lamp oil for Gatorade in “I Have Seen the Warrior.” This happens to be one of my favorite essays. They’re miles deep in the Okefenokee Swamp when the poison hits, miles from help, from a hospital, and Ray must become something other than her human self, rowing back through the “primordial gunk” for help. Ray describes this scene, moving from first person to third person, articulating an out-of-body experience with mythic allusions:

The woman was becoming bigger and bigger until she was archetypal. She was a warrior, teeth and claws and strings around her neck, bangles rattling on her wrists. She was transforming into one of the matriarchs pictured on a tarot card. Her torso grew into a lioness’s, horns sprang from her head, and in her hands she wielded a lightning bolt…I birthed Zack and I birthed myself. I birthed too the power of any woman to not be afraid, to not let the fear of death stop her from doing what was needed.

There’s something utterly Pagan about Ray’s work. I hunted this goddess down, even asked my friend who knows all the gods and goddesses, all the mythical figures, to help me identity this deity, but we never could quite put “Her” together. The deity Ray describes is part Astrape, part Sekhmet, part Kali and the rest is a deity Ray surely created within herself. Whatever Ray invoked that day gave her the strength to paddle her ass off out of Okefenokee Swamp. I was practically yelling for her to paddle faster. I couldn’t read fast enough! But I was also struck by the power of motherhood and Ray’s call to women to recognize where to draw inner strength.

Okefenokee Swamp

Good writers can time travel—flashforward, flashback, move in and out of time and land in the past, present, or future with ease, without jarring transitions, without the reader noticing these narrative leaps. I poured over “The Duende of Cabo Blanco,” “In the Elkhorn,” and “The Dinner Party,” hoping to absorb Ray’s method. In “The Duende of Cabo Blanco,” Ray moves in between the actual place she visited—what she did, what she learned, who she met—grounding the essay with information about Cabo Blanco itself, along with her understanding and the poet, Federico García Lorca’s, interpretation of duende. There’s an element of stream of consciousness at play as well. I often thought of her essays as a musical score. The narrative breaks create a rhythm, a tempo, much like a chorus, and is a space for the writer and reader alike to reflect or meditate. Sometimes the narrative voice is piano, sometimes forte, but always building, building to the crescendo of her message.

I love Ray’s fearless honesty, lush poetic language, amazing adventures, the people she remembers, how she glorifies nature. What I found most remarkable was how she articulated these elements so fluidly, organically. The book is an intimate account of Ray’s life living and writing around activists, artists, teachers, biologists, botanists, nature writers, farmers, and even arachnologists (or spiderwomen as Ray refers to them); the list is exhaustive. Wild Spectacle is prayer to Mother Earth, and like prayers Ray both exalts and grieves Her. This book will surely mark your soul.

 Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

TO PURCHASE Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans: Wild Spectacle and support Indie Bookstores, visit Eagle Eye Book Shop. Eagle Eye is also hosting a reading with Janisse Ray and the non-profit, Trees Atlanta, on Saturday, November 6th from 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM. For more information about this free event & to register go to: EagleEyeJRTreesATL. There will be signed hardcover copies available as well. OR, PURCHASE directly via the publisher at Trinity University Press.

For a complete list of Janisse Ray events, visit JRBookTour.

MORE ABOUT JANISSE RAY: Janisse Ray is a naturalist and activist, and the author of seven books of nonfiction and poetry, including including Red Lanterns, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Drifting into Darien: A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River, and Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which won the American Book Award. Her work has appeared widely in magazines and journals, and she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Nautilus Book Award, and numerous other honors. Ray lives on an organic farm near Savannah, Georgia.

Next week look for my interview with Janisse Ray!

Remembering William Gay with Michael White, Rick Bragg, Ron Rash, Sonny Brewer, Suzanne Kingsbury, and Tom Franklin

Southern Festival of the Books is offering a virtual panel October 9th at 12:45 PM on southern author and painter, William Gay. From the comfort of your home listen to wonderful stories told from some of those who remember William Gay best and learn more about William Gay’s last posthumous novel, Fugitives of the Heart. To watch this panel, please visit this link: William Gay Panel and scroll down.

For more about the authors, panels, and full schedule visit: SFB SCHEDULE & AUTHOR LIST

Get your hard cover copy of William Gay’s Fugitives of the Heart, signed by Sonny Brewer and J.M. White by visiting the link to: The Alabama Booksmith. It’s the same price as on Amazon, is signed, and you will be feeling warm and fuzzy by supporting independent bookstores.

Please consider donating to Southern Festival for the Book. Gifts of $50 or more are eligible for some cool gifts. TO DONATE VISIT: SFB Donation. You may also help support Tennessee Humanities by purchasing super hip stickers for your laptops, tees, journals, and much more at: SFBShop.