Saturday, May 7, 2022

Book Review: Wild Spectacle by Janisse Ray

 Reviewed by John Krieg

Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World beyond Humans 
by Janisse Ray
Trinity University Press.  

This collection of 11 essays by staunch environmental advocate, fierce nature lover, admitted southern cracker, lyrical poet, and unencumbered free spirit Jannise Ray showcases her writing at her best.  I have read a lot of her prose, and if only given one word to describe it, I would call it fearless.  Fearless in word choice, fearless in phrasing, and fearless of critique.  Ray gets her point across one way – her way, and lets the chips fall where they may.  That’s a rare talent.

From the swamps of America’s southeast, to the forests of Montana, to the still untrammeled wilderness areas of Alaska, south of the border to mainland Mexico and the governmentally protected rain forests of Costa Rica, Ray  relentlessly searches for the wild places and brings back the tragic story: they are fast disappearing.  She laments that she was not born of another time, the time before European contact in America.  A time when the vastness and diversity of nature ruled and humanity, us, Homo sapiens was just another species in the grand scheme of things, living amongst the other species; no better, no worse, just another creature struggling to survive.  

These are stories of innocent vulnerability intertwined with strands of uncommon strength; intricately woven tales encompassing equal measures of magic and passion.  They speak of what is still out there if you’re astute and bold enough to notice it.  What does it mean to still be wild?  It means to realize that nature is bigger than you.  That nature doesn’t need you.  Wildness puts humanity in its place. Wildness is awe.  And, as she so eloquently states, where nature is still undisturbed, unadulterated, and unmolested it is still wild, it is in fact a wild spectacle:

I have, in my luckiest moments, lived heart-pounding moments of wild spectacle (p. x).

Her essay about swimming amongst the manatees in the Crystal River of Florida is not for the hard-hearted.  It springs forth with kindness and the essence of love – acceptance and tolerance of something different than ourselves.  These docile creatures, their backs sliced  and scarred by the props of the motorboats of the callous and uncaring so-called apex species deeply moved her.  She communes with a mother manatee and her calf:

Then I hear the manatee mother speak.  She is beseeching me.  “You must help us,” she says.  “You must help us.” 

I hear her distinctly: “You must help us.”

She turns, blows at the surface, nudges her baby, and sinks away, back into the descension of the primitive river bottom.  Something rises in me that has been rising for a long time, and I break into the sentient air, dizzy, trembling, and blind with love (p. 142).

This woman has courage.  Not the brazen reckless courage of the braggart or the fool, but the calculated courage of knowing the risks and the odds against succeeding and fighting through those misgivings and taking them on.  She will write grants, volunteer her labor, accept the kindness of likeminded nature lovers to get  to the wild places.  In the same vein as Annie Dillard before her, Ray risks all to be in a position to write, to be able to go to where the story is.  She blocks out the white noise of the manmade world to better interpret the wild one, the one which she prefers.  A world that she wants to share with those astute enough to understand that it has always been there and could be again.  In her acknowledgements, which she terms “gratitude” she says as much:

My greatest desire is to enliven our culture, cultivating and spreading ideas about a world beyond violence and destruction, a wild and inclusive world, a world that is at our fingertips; and to offer the possibility of transformation.  I thank those who keep their hearts open to all life (p. 194).

Janisse Ray is a marvelous contradiction of inherent grit versus raw emotion.  This woman, tough as nails, is easily given to weeping over natural beauty, beauty rapidly disappearing, beauty lost.  If that isn’t worth crying about, what is?

Click here for more information about Wild Spectacle

Also available:
Red Lanterns: Poems by Janisse Ray

Click here for more information about Red Lanterns

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