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“Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans”By: Janisse Ray

“Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans”

Author: Janisse Ray

Publisher: Trinity University Press

Pages: 208

Price: $25.95 (Hardcover)

A Naturalist Writes of Powerful Encounters with the Wild

Janisse Ray is the author of seven books, the most successful of which is “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” the story of her childhood in rural Georgia, growing up in difficult circumstances, with a religiously obsessed father, in what one might call a junkyard.

However unlikely this background may seem, Ray nevertheless became an acute observer, a spokesperson, a protector and in a sense that comes close to literal, a lover of the natural world.

This new book is a collection of 16 essays, reports, really, from her adventures, expeditions, sojourns in Montana, Alaska, Belize, Costa Rica, the Okefenokee Swamp and other wild, remote, distant, hard-to-get-to places, and some of the interesting characters she encountered along the way.

These are places few humans other than devoted naturalists visit and a kind of Romantic paradox is set up.

Yes, people would be nourished and educated by spending time in these woods, jungles, swamps and deserts. Ray says: “I believed that if more people saw nature, they would love it and protect it.” She used to think ecotourism was an answer to preservation but, alas, ecotourism turns out not to be an “earth-friendly industry.” Visitors erode the trails, crush vegetation, disturb the wild animals, throw trash around. Nature is not supposed to be entertainment and she laments the “Disneyfication” of our experiences in the natural world.

Thoreau, writing “Walden,” had no idea tens of thousands would trek through there every year and a hamburger stand would be set up.

In any case, even if we can’t go ourselves, Ray’s reports are detailed. Sometimes at considerable length, with long lists of birds observed and plants paddled by. In Belize, for example, there are 540 species of birds and she means to see them all. On the grounds of her hotel she sees: scissor-tailed flycatcher, great-tailed grackle, northern jacana, great kiskadee, hooded oriole, rock dove.

Paddling through a swamp in Georgia on a "feverishly gorgeous" day she sees water lily, spatterdock, swamp iris, yellow bladderwort, hooded pitcher plant and golden trumpet.

Ray is a maker of lists!

But Ray is more than a knowledgeable observer. Her relationship with the natural world is passionate and spiritual, especially with females.

In the opening essay, set in Montana, she and her husband, out hiking, see a herd of some 25 elk approaching. They achieve a stillness so perfect that the elk, normally hyper-alert, skittish, move toward and then around them. She is one with the elk, under their spell. The biggest cow comes near.

Ray says “if the cow had asked me to go with her I would have.” 

Later, swimming with manatees in Florida, she caresses them, which is against the law, then they rub up on her and she tells us “I hear the manatee mother speak. She is beseeching me. ‘You must help us’ she says. ‘You must help us.’”

Ray’s relationship with the natural world is so intense, in fact, that it approaches what we might loosely think of as Hinduism in her reverence for all life. Caught out at night in the forest, she has to make her way home in the dark. In that total darkness, she blends with the natural world.

“I felt my body become the earth’s body…. I was the hillock, I was the maples and birch growing there. I was the placid bowl of pond, vibrating. I dared not move, for fear of treading on some life.”

On other adventures, Ray is moved to tears by the beauty she sees and speaks of her soul leaving her body.

These are religious experiences, personal and, ultimately, as William James tells us, incommunicable, but perfectly sincere and believable.

Ray does have, in various times and places, experience with her fellow humans.

On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, she falls under the spell of a shaman named Joaquin, who possesses “duende,” that is, a powerful force Federico Garcia Lorca defines as “irrationality, earthiness, a heightened consciousness of death, and a touch of the diabolical.”

In Belize, her guide, Rubin, taught himself to recognize over 500 birds, by sight and also by their song.

Less sensational but still charming is her report of spending a day with the fiction writer / naturalist Rick Bass in Yaak, Montana. Ray had gone to visit Bass, to keep up their friendship, and expected to go on a hike, his normal way to spend a day. Instead, Bass announced they would cook an elaborate meal together. It took five hours and at first Ray was disappointed. Parts of that meal reflected Bass's passion for the outdoors. There was elk he had killed himself, mushrooms he had gathered and so on. But Bass had also ordered crabs legs from Seattle.

 In the end, preparing the meal, and sharing it with others, was just as powerful an experience and in its way transcendent. It generated a feeling of oneness through that most valuable and elusive condition: friendship.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.