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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“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!