on Wild Spectacle by Janisse Ray

Reading Wild Spectacle feels something like Janisse Ray inviting me over to dinner to tell me stories all night over a bottle of wine. As its title indicates, this essay collection contains descriptions of the spectacles of nature: birds, marine life, endangered landscapes, and wild, shy creatures. But, like Aimee Nezhukumatathil does in World of Wonders, Ray elevates and transforms all of these subjects by weaving them not only with personal experience, but also with a distinct voice and approach, such as her instructions for getting to know a place:

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.

Then you stay.

In her casual and colloquial writing style, Ray touches on climate change, environmental destruction, and ecotourism, especially the ways in which experiencing nature as “spectacle” can often be destructive, even as it provides support for local economies near parks and preserves. “Nature’s job is not to entertain,” Ray writes. The wild is spectacle, yes, but more importantly it is an integral part of human existence. To treat it only as spectacle is to degrade it, as one tourist does in “Snapshots of a Dark Angel,” throwing a lizard into the bushes after photographing it. Instead, Ray proposes a different, more integrative relationship with nature, a relationship captured in a description of Ray’s grandmother: “her body was the hayfield itself.” 

On occasion, Ray’s familiar style can make for slightly difficult reading. In several essays, Ray inserts what seem to be excerpts from writings of a different time. There is no explanation for these—and little transition, which feels like a glimpse into someone’s unfiltered consciousness and workings of memory. The very first time Ray does this, however, she sets up the memory in such a way that it becomes part of her “field notes,” echoing her observations of kestrels in Montana. “Back home we had [kestrels],” Ray thinks. She watches the kestrels circle, converge, eat. And, then, she writes, “All afternoon the day after Grandmama died, people gathered in a fluctuating circle under a water oak in her swept yard,” as if they, too, were birds, gathering and departing as dictated by nature. Despite the sudden transition to an experience that is both in the past and not fully explained within the essay’s narrative, Ray draws a connection between the experience of all animals, human and non-, paralleling their rituals and society. 

Ray also repeatedly draws equivalents between people and place, and by extension, she instructs the reader in how to do the same. “I was a long way from my people,” she notes in “Montana,” and, later, in “The Duende of Cabo Blanco,” she describes her return to the United States as a return to “my own ecosystem.” Getting to know a place, she claims, is “a reciprocal process of incorporation, of adding one life to another. It is an exchange.” A place partakes of us, just as we partake of it, and whether that relationship is beneficial to both parties is, in my reading, largely up to us. It depends on how we act, how we treat the landscape, and what we choose to observe and learn. When we know the names of things, Ray says, we are not lost. As much as Wild Spectacle is about the wild, it is even more so about the humans who observe, record, and communicate its wonders.

The collection is arranged in three sections that feature landscapes in the American West, South America, Mexico, and the author’s home turf, the American South. Ray confesses that she has made the decision to stop flying because of the environmental implications of doing so. Thus, the narratives in far-flung locales are necessarily of Ray’s past. There’s an emotional weight to that: Ray is not the only one who will never see these places again—they may cease to exist as Ray has described them. She often draws connections between her place in the world and the places visited in the essays. Sometimes the connection is visual, sometimes a related species (ponderosa pines remind her of longleaf pines), but the most powerful connection she observes occurs while watching warblers in Belize: 

Magnolia, Kentucky, prothonotary, yellow-throated, black-throated green.
Soon these birds will return to their nesting grounds, my homeland. 

I know them better now that I’ve seen their other country, the other side of them.

This moment contains a gift—to Ray herself as she sits under a strangler fig to note the species in her journal, and to the reader, present in this moment of realization about how such small creatures connect distant parts of the globe, and in the process teach us about the smallness of our planet. They teach us that what we do in one place matters in another. In essence these bird teachers become a part of Ray’s global community, even her family, an idea Ray returns to again and again throughout these essays.

Birds are not the only teachers in this collection. There are elk. There are manatees. But the human teachers fill as many moments as the plants, animals, mountains, and waters. Some of these humans are guides in the countries Ray visits. Others are guides in parts of the United States that are new to Ray; they teach her to see new species and landscapes. Still others, like Pat Miller and Gail Stratton, two arachnologists, are in Ray’s own ecosystem, but they teach her to see what Ray calls “the spider underworld” in a churchyard in Oxford, Mississippi. The spider underworld contains multitudes—spiders so small they can drown in a raindrop, spiders that make noise like a roaring motorcycle. This world exists alongside the human world, which Ray communicates deftly with Miller’s comment about the spider churchyard, “My mom is buried here.” This essay, ostensibly about spiders, is at heart about humans also: “Inside this world, invisible except in moments, spiders by the millions live their lives. . . . Two women in a Mississippi cemetery shine tiny lights into that big dark world. One evening they showed it to me.” 

Ray shines her own “tiny light” in these pages, as she ruminates on what it means to belong to a place—and to the wider world. How can we see ourselves belonging to the entire globe if we stay in one place? What connects us to people, animals, and ecosystems on different continents? She brings home the point that what we do in our own small corner can in fact have consequences for places very far from us, because birds and butterflies travel, and they need places to land, to breathe, and to eat.

The ritual of consuming food brings together many of Ray’s writerly concerns. In “The Dinner Party,” Ray draws an explicit connection between the human activity of eating and the human practices of learning, creating community, and connecting with the environment. Perhaps my feeling of being at a dinner with Ray stems from the way Ray links food, people, and landscape. She twice refers to eating of a place as “filling ourselves with a place we love,” and posits that by eating of a place, especially a wild place, we become that place, we become wild, rather than what we become by eating processed food. She takes the idea far beyond the environmental concerns of locavores and instead suggests a much more visceral reason why eating food of our own place is important: if we are of a place, we advocate for that place and we share it with others. 

The physical bond with place is also deeply connected to writing. Recounting a reading she attended with Rick Bass, Ray describes “the fire we sat around, listening to a storyteller who knew how to traverse one world in order to enter another and bring it back in description and metaphor.” Looking to Bass as inspiration, Ray digs into a central question of this essay collection: why this type of writing matters. 

“Nature writing has been called a marginal literature,” Ray writes in “The Dinner Party,” but she challenges that statement by showing the ways that nature writing connects people to one another, connects people to landscapes, and broadens the knowledge of reader and writer. These essays are filled with mentions of other writers, other conservationists, writing conferences, gatherings, classes, work trips, and other communal activities undertaken by what Ray classifies as a “tribe,” drawing on Stanley Kunitz’s use of the term. “Any passion or profession enlists a person in a tribe. I belong to a tribe of nature writers,” Ray writes, connoting social fabric, common interest, and collective effort, not a solitary or isolated artistic pursuit. 

One of the purposes of nature writing—one that Ray doesn’t mention, but which is implicit—is recording and documenting what may soon be lost. Ray mentions in passing that part of the desert she is visiting is “protected as Bears Ears National Monument,” and though she discusses the wear and tear on the land as tourists trample all over it, she does not mention that the preserved land is also subject to the vagaries of politics: reduced in size by the acting administration in 2017, restored by Biden in 2021, and facing an uncertain future. In the ensuing essay, Ray documents a trip to see millions of monarch butterflies in Mexico, but the trip reveals the ways that what we most treasure may be lost to climate change and other human-caused change. 

In a testament to Ray’s ideas about nature writing and community, I find, thumbing through the pages of World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil in Mississippi, not far from Ray’s home in Georgia, also contemplating monarch butterflies as she and her family wait and wait, pray and pray, for a chrysalis that never hatches. On Ray’s trip to see the monarchs in Mexico, she notes that “Historically, [the monarchs] lapped nectar from extensive longleaf pine meadows that carpeted the coastal plains,” a place where Ray knows the names of things, a place she knows is also disappearing: “longleaf, the pine of my home, which had historically dominated southern uplands but was rapidly being logged.” Ray isn’t didactic about the connection between distant ecosystems, but, immersed as we are in her worldview, we may connect the threads she weaves throughout the book. What Ray does well in this collection is to show that so many corners of the world face the same threats, the same pressures. But many also have passionate people fighting to save them.


Wild Spectacle. By Janisse Ray. San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2021. 200 pp. $19.95, paper.


J.D. Ho holds an MFA from the Michener Center at the University of Texas in Austin. Ho’s work has appeared in the Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.