A Conversation with Author, Janisse Ray, about her latest Book, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans

Southern author, poet, naturalist, activist, Janisse Ray, has been busy during the pandemic. I recently reviewed her latest collection of poetry, Red Lanterns, and now, months later, have had the pleasure of reviewing Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans (Trinity University Press/2021), and interviewing Ray about her homeland, ecotourism, women empowerment, and much more…

DM: Some say writers are always looking for a homeland. Do you think your experiences and travels have led you back to Georgia? If so, how?

JR: Dawn, thank you. To describe this homecoming in terms of being “led back” isn’t entirely apt. More accurately, I could not shake the place. In my childhood the stories of family and land were drilled deep, and I felt that I was abandoning my people and my place when I left. Ultimately, I returned. The sad part is that as I was changing, my place was changing, and we were distancing ourselves from each other, so now I live in a place I sometimes don’t recognize. I think this is a global problem. So, yes, in many ways we all continue to search for a homeland.

DM: In “The Duende of Cabo Blanco,” you wrote about duende. As it relates to writing, I interpret duende as possession by a muse. Do you think the duende enjoys making writers suffer? Why must it be fatal?

JR: Sometimes we’re on earth to do a job. It’s that simple. The ancestors, the land, the spirits of the land, or the mystery needs us to do it. It doesn’t mean to make us suffer. It means for us to do our work.

DM: The imagery of clear-cuts depicted in “Opening the Big W” reminded me of surgeon amputating limbs. But some claim clear-cuts would help prevent the spread of forest fires. What’s your opinion on this?

JR: Great question. Thanks for allowing me an attempt at an answer.

If a fire is running through a forest, then certainly cutting it and clearing out underbrush would keep the fire from spreading, by removing fuel. Clear-cuts quickly become tangles of undergrowth and new growth, and these can drive fires even more quickly than forests do. Even a grassland drives a wildfire. So if we’re talking about an individual forest or area, yes, a recent clear-cut might help prevent the spread of fire.

However, an increase in wildfires in the West and elsewhere is caused by the climate crisis, not by forests. The atmosphere is hotter, and this heat dries out ecosystems at a faster rate. We have longer periods of deeper drought, which dries out forests. Then a fire gets started, and it races through forests, towns, suburbs, grasslands, lawns, homes. We have created an atmosphere conducive to burning. In essence, the earth is burning up.

Clear-cutting forests releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere, so in the end, clear-cutting only buries us deeper into the tragedy and catastrophe that is climate change.

To prevent forest fires, we need more forests. We need a huge tree-planting campaign, a trillion trees. We are not going to solve the climate crisis by switching to alternative fuels alone; we need more forest to store carbon and thus do their part in stabilizing the climate. I want to make sure I’ve answered your question very clearly: clear-cutting a forest for any reason, in the long run and in the big picture, only creates more forest fires.

Bryce Canyon

DM: In my review of Wild Spectacle, I stated that writers are time travelers, flashing forward, flashing backwards, moving into the present all in the same piece. Can you talk some about your methodology in terms of narrative time?

JR:  I took a lot of liberties with narrative time in this book because it’s a collection of essays. I was attempting a structure based on a movement through idea instead of through time. However, ultimately, I think chronological order is a wonderful order—easy to understand, natural, sensible. It’s just not part of the narrative arc of this book.

DM: When I was very young, we often traveled through Death Valley, California. I wanted my son and husband to experience the isolation of the place, but when he visited the salt flats a few years ago, it was absolutely covered up with people. In “Snapshots of a Dark Angel,” you stated that ecotourism “allows nature to compete in the market economy.” Is there a solution?

JR: The solution is more natural areas. More of us living lives that are closer to the land, so that we don’t have to go away to get to nature. More ticketed reservations at natural areas, less of a free for all. More areas closed so that they can heal and be restored.

Recently, I visited a natural area in West Virginia, Dolly Sods, that is being loved to death and I mean “to death.” I would not be the one to make this call, because outdoorspeople will be very disappointed, but that place needs to be closed to humans. Closing natural areas or limiting the numbers of visitors is part of the solution.

DM: I live in the concrete jungle and though I purposely go outside or garden, it’s different than connecting with true wildness—what you captured in your book. What advice would you give to city dwellers wanting to connect or reconnect with nature?

JR: Make the time for it. Make reservations. Have good equipment. We’ve all been in the tent that wasn’t rainproof and that’s miserable! Bugs can make an outdoor experience miserable too, so plan for those. A good bug shirt (net zips over the face) is a great investment for an outdoorsperson.

DM: I could be making this up, but oftentimes I felt like your essays were musical, like songs. Do you play any instruments? Do you “compose” your essays like a musical score?

JR: Thank you, Dawn. No one has ever said that, and it means a lot to me. I play guitar very badly. My ignorance about musical composition is a regret I carry.

Doctors Creek off of the Altamaha River

DM: Wild Spectacle champions woman empowerment. Was that one of the points you wanted to make, or is this an element that’s simply part of what makes up you?

JR: For a long time, the empowerment of women was a banner I flew. I knew it in a way that an academic would know it. I knew to keep my own name when I married, for example. I knew to choose how I wanted to dress, whether to use makeup or not. I knew about choice. But the older I get, the more I see the multitudinous, insidious, horrific—sometimes very small but very damaging—ways that women are held down and held back. In Wild Spectacle I am not trying to make a point. Feminist, women-empowering, equal-rights thinking is a part of who I am. Thanks for asking that.

DM:  You no longer fly for travel. But…if you could travel without the concerns of fossil fuels affecting the climate, or any environmental concerns, where would you go?

JR: I would go to Scotland as soon as possible. Also Cuba. I wouldn’t mind visiting Europe about twice a year! I’d love to see the eastern European countries that continue to be mostly agrarian. And wouldn’t it be nice to experience Africa and Antarctica and Iceland? I may fly again one day or figure out how to get around the globe by boat. But at the moment I’m enjoying staying put, because I know that’s what the earth needs and because I think that travel can be a form of colonialization.

DM: Thanks so much for the interview. It was a joy to read Wild Spectacle and I wish you all the best for your book and in life.

JR: Thank you so much, Dawn. You are so kind to do this. Thank you for your smart and beautiful questions and for loving stories the way you do.

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.

Okefenokee Swamp

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.

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