Monday, October 25, 2021

Essaying toward Action: Janisse Ray in Conversation with Amy Wright

Janisse Ray put a moratorium on personal air travel in 2008 in an individual Kyoto pledge to reduce carbon emissions. She also rides bicycles and trains when she can, in addition to making other choices that honor her environmental values. It can be hard to understand such devotion when ethics inconvenience us, and it is far easier to discount another’s commitments than ask the same of ourselves—until we meet one who essays into difficult territory with reasons that sparkle like treefrog-filled vernal pools. Ray’s newest collection, Wild Spectacle, illustrates the potential of responding to the climate crisis with gestures equal to the natural world. Moved by the beauty of these travel narratives—after over a year of travel restrictions—I reached out to her to learn more. —Amy Wright


Amy Wright: You dedicate Wild Spectacle “To my teachers, past, present, and future.” How does this book represent or speak to gratitude for your education?

Janisse Ray: Any success that I’ve had at imagining the life I want, or any progress toward creating it, has been due to the guidance of brilliant, wise, and generous teachers. I am reminded of this at the end of a yoga session (which is embodiment more than mindfulness practice to me) when I say those exact words. I am flooded with images of teachers, not just schoolteachers or professors, but friends, children, passers-by, journalists, authors. A good deal of study has been conducted regarding gratitude; being grateful, apparently, makes a person feel more optimistic and more connected. For me, I think it’s easy to dwell on what I don’t have and what isn’t working, so the habit of being grateful reminds me of what bounty and privilege I do have. 

AW: Wild Spectacle is divided into three sections: Meridian, Migration, and Magnitude. How do these sections shape and reflect the arc of the book?

JR: The shape of three is primal, archetypal—it’s the pyramid, the trilogy, the mountain. It’s the classic shape of a story, the entrance, the middle ground, the exit. Of course there’s a fourth part, but it’s underground, inside the reader. That’s the mycelium. The three aboveground sections in Wild Spectacle are divided spatially, starting with time I’ve spent in Montana, which is important to me as the place I came of age as a writer. The middle section, “Migration,” happens in farther-flung places. I try to come home, in many ways, in “Magnitude.”

AW: The first essay in the book recounts a time you and your husband Raven were able to get very close to a band of elk, thanks to a camouflage of wind direction, willow trees, and rain. You say, “We were so invisible we were two spirits, crouched by a stream.” The theme of disappearing into nature recurs elsewhere in the book. Is one of your goals as a naturalist to sublimate human presence in the natural world?

JR: This is such an interesting idea, that of sublimating humans in nature. That’s not what I’m intending to do. I believe there are multiple—at least two—worlds that interface and overlay each other. One of them we see and experience in bodily, meaning sensual, terms. The other(s) we may not. But those worlds—the psychic one, the emotional one, the spiritual one—are there. This is the idea I’m approaching by comparing Raven and me to two spirits.

AW: Wild Spectacle is subtitled “Seeking Wonders in a World Beyond Humans,” yet several essays in this collection portray profound human connections. How have human relationships informed your relationship with the natural world?

JR: Sometimes humans are my guides into the natural world. Sometimes they are my inspiration. Sometimes they are conveyance. Often they are a valuable source of wisdom. Another human does not necessarily detract from a magnificent experience in the wild but can add to it. Alone, I have myself, the thing I’m experiencing, and the feeling it produces in me. With someone else, we each have those three entities, and we have another, as well, which is the platform of the shared experience. The philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore talks about the shared experience.

I hope I’ve not gotten too philosophical here. Let’s just say I love people and that I think there’s a relationship with the wild world that lies beyond human relationship. Conversely, the natural world can also be relational, in the way that humans are relational.

AW: In “The Dinner Party,” you describe an hours-long meal in Sitka, Alaska, saying, “In my memory that meal has come to represent a whole territory…a provenance of superhuman wildness, ten times to the wild power.” I appreciate how this paradox encourages readers to imagine wildness and humanity not as mutually exclusive, but what would you say human wildness aspires for, or means?

JR: Mostly this is hyperbole. I think that describing the wildness I found in Alaska as “superhuman” is kind of funny. And this is a very profound question. It seems simple but asks a lot. Let me just say that human wildness means, at its very basic, acknowledging that humans are part and parcel of nature, biological creatures, and that’s inescapable and precious.

AW: In “Montana,” you track kestrels “flashing copper trails” to illustrate the moment you fell in love with the West. The essay ends with your confession, “But I could not stay.” Who or what pulled you away?

JR: A weird and inexplicable loyalty to my homeland.

AW: In “Bird-Men of Belize,” you describe many bird species, including the descriptively named blue-crowned motmot. Would you share a favorite bird encounter or sighting?

JR: Oh, so many. Those scissor-tailed flycatchers in the hotel plaza the moment we arrived are not to be forgotten.

AW: As the title indicates, you focus on wonders in Wild Spectacle, but you also include a devastating account after a brutal storm left hundreds of thousands of monarchs dead in Angangueo, Michoacán, Mexico. How would you hope this book prompts readers to respond to the climate crisis?

JR: I hope the book illuminates the incalculable services, the irreplaceable beauty, and the unbelievable, staggering, bewildering, profound wonderment of life we are losing because of climate instability and chaos. My hope is that the book will turn each of us into a serious, committed defender of life on earth, ready to make the changes necessary to save it.

AW: While working in Costa Rica’s oldest national park, you say, “Words leave multiple and often incomprehensible meanings dangling all over the vegetation.” As a nature writer, you’ve given a lot of thought to language and nature. How do you think about the relationship between them?

JR: Language works in service of nature. I just wish it did a better job.

AW: Each essay includes a prefatory note of the setting to orient readers, including “Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana,” “Belize, Central America,” and “Crystal River, Florida.” Given this book’s release during COVID-related travel restrictions, these travel narratives seem timely. Were you inspired by the pandemic to gather these stories now?

JR: Travel is being curtailed by the pandemic, and as we sink deeper into the climate emergency, travel becomes less feasible, less practical, and less ethical. For example, I quit flying about fifteen years ago because of the climate, so there will be wonderful wild spectacles that I won’t get to see. I doubt I’ll ever get to Africa on safari, for example. I believe that we First-World humans need to stop seeing travel and tourism as an inherent right. Because we have the funds and the means to do it, we believe it’s okay. We have an entire mythology that is not an apology for all our wasteful wandering-about but a mythology of entitlement. How much and how often we travel is one way we judge our importance and success in the world, which is simply ridiculous. Global travel is not a basic human right. As I said, it’s mostly not even ethical anymore. And this is freaking sad. I love to travel. There are many places on earth I’d like to visit. I’d like to see my ancestral homeland in Great Britain. Hopefully one day I can catch a boat headed that way.

AW: The book concludes with a dramatic essay titled “I Have Seen the Warrior,” in which you make a canoe rescue to save a poisoned teenage boy. Your physically demanding gesture to help him reminds you of your yoga practice and your teacher, who says, “Sometimes the only weapon we have is awareness.” Since this book is devoted to raising awareness of the natural world, will you talk about the relationship between awareness and action?

JR: A couple of steps are missing in that equation, I think. Awareness leads us down the path to empathy, and with one quick turnaround we’re on the doorstep of love, and love catapults us to action. It happens very quickly and predictably, except that one thing can derail this process, and that would be at any step of the process fear becomes too great to allow us the natural evolution. Fear can throw up a lot of walls and cliffs and bramble thickets. (Although often it’s on the illusion of walls, cliffs, and thickets.) Our job, then, is to keep working at being the best lover we can be, “lover” of course used here in the bigger sense. My yoga teacher was right about awareness. Staying aware can be a powerful tool. My sense is that the unspoken part of her wisdom is that it inevitably directs a person toward action.


Janisse Ray is a writer, essayist, and reporter whose subject is often nature. Her first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was named a New York Times Notable Book. Ray’s latest, a collection of essays titled Wild Spectacle, is forthcoming from Trinity University Press in October 2021. Ray has won a Pushcart Prize, an American Book Award, and Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Awards, among others. She lives and works in Georgia.

Amy Wright is the author of Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round (Sarabande Books, 2021) as well as three poetry books, and six chapbooks. She has received two Peter Taylor Fellowships to The Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her essays and poems appear in Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.

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