How to Be in the Wild: Janisse Ray Leads by Example in Wild Spectacle

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Janisse Ray’s collection of essays, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World beyond Humans, is so multi-faceted that it nearly defies categorization. Part praise poem, part reportage, part travelogue, Wild Spectacle does, however, have a unifying credo: Humans need the wide, wild world but humans also need to be wiser users and keepers of the wild. About the Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana, for instance, Ray is blunt about the logging industry in that valley: “if it gets laid open, austere and soulless, then we can give up on wildness in this nation of fools.” She is passionate about how the nature writer must also advocate: “If culture is a set of stories we tell about life in a place and how to navigate that life, then nature writing is literature at its most essential. Its tenets are that humans are biological; that we are dependent on the earth; that places are vital to our psyches; and that humans have volumes to learn from nature.” True to her environmental and place-based roots and drawing on her skills as a poet, Ray’s sixteen essays nearly reach off the page to teach us by example of how to be in the wild in body, mind, and soul.

Wild Spectacle is a new and selected book of sorts, as some of the essays have been collected from previous publications as early as 2002. One thread that sews these essays together is geography and specificity of place. We journey first to the wilds of Montana, then into Mexico and Central America, and finally to the swamps and coastal regions of Florida and Georgia, close to Ray’s current homeplace. (Oh yes, there is that one detour to the panhandle of Alaska for a dinner party of salmon and shrimp, heron eggs on kelp, and the delicacy of halibut cheeks!) How do you get to know a place, Ray asks in “Montana”? Her directive is one she practices well in this book:     

First you bathe there. . . .

            Then you go barefoot, naked if you can.

            Then you eat and drink from a place. You sleep with it.

            You watch and listen. You study. You learn. You listen.

With Ray as guide, we study elk, kestrel, monarch butterflies, spiders. We see monkeys, whales, and manatee. We hear the “song-rope” of coyote calls and the cacophony of mating frogs. We witness deep friendships—friendship, Ray writes, is “a snail shell, a cloud formation, a zephyr. It’s a bird hatching, . . .”—the necessity of swamp hollers as survival strategy, and the ever-present dangers of being in the wild. Ray’s close calls with drowning, being caught in storms or darkness, and a sudden onset of illness give us an urgency and drama that propel her essays far beyond the genre of nature writing. The closing essay, for instance, is both a meditation on the Okefenokee Swamp and a thrilling page-turner.

In addition to bringing alive particular places, Ray also hems these essays together with her inimitable poetic style. She is mindful and lyrical about naming and an expert at translating observations into concrete and vivid detail. Her language is rich with description, metaphor, and music. A sudden storm is “as if God drove a chariot across the skies, ripping open golden clouds, slapping ropes of lightning together to make thunder.” A herd of elk “poured like molasses” toward a stream, and the night sky is “a hand-painted bowl, silver on black.” But like the skilled poet she is, her literary sensibilities are not used just to extoll beauty. She describes ecotourism as the “Disneyfication of the wild” and the loss of nature as “a terrorism.” She depicts with heartache the clearcut sections of the Yaak Valley, “and threaded through it all, like tapeworms, are skinny white logging roads.” Ray’s keen observations and brutal honesty make this collection necessary reading if we want to live with and preserve the wild places on the planet.

“I have always been in love with the world, as long as I can remember,” Ray tells us, and we believe her. She circles back to her creed at the end of this stellar collection. In “I Have Seen the Warrior” she writes of her determination to be wild, “to be aware, to not turn a blind eye, to not back down, to not give up. Sometimes the only weapon we have is awareness. Sometimes all we have is a little light that we can shine outward into a big darkness. Sometimes, however, we tap into our superpowers, and then we can transcend and bring about transcendence.” Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World beyond Humans is a force, a lesson, a gift.

  • Marianne Worthington

    Marianne Worthington is a poet, editor, and educator. She co-founded Still: The Journal, an online magazine publishing writers, musicians, and artists with ties to Appalachia since 2009. Her collection of poems, The Girl Singer, was released by University Press of Kentucky in 2021.
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