By Adam Regn Arvidson
The rant comes easily to nonfiction writers—especially environmental and nature writers. Most feel the need to write about nature either out of pure love for the natural world or out of concern for its well-being. Inherently, the writer will offer opinions on who is at fault for perceived ills and what we should be doing about it.
Earlier in this series of essays on nature writing in America, I have noted that Edward Abbey rants plentifully (I even admit that I often feel he’s kicking me in the butt). The targets of Abbey’s criticism are very specific, beginning with the National Park Service and certain corporations and extending in some cases to specific individuals associated with projects he hates.
Not so with Edward Hoagland. In my previous piece on Hoagland, I mentioned how this author’s early works hooked me hard and how I wasn’t entirely sure why. Curious, I looked more closely, comparing his early work to the most recent collection, Sex and the River Styx. Beginning in The Courage of Turtles and on up through the big compendium Hoagland on Nature, the writing is nearly devoid of finger-pointing. I didn’t notice it at first because I clearly understood Hoagland’s message about caring for the natural world without throwing humanity out with the pond-water, as it were. But a careful reading brings no villains—characters, yes, even characters acting in ways Hoagland seems to want us all to avoid, but there is never any specific criticism, like Abbey lofts at the Corps of Engineers or Loren Eiseley levels (more softly) at academia.
How does he do this? In this installment, I’m taking a short break from the regular personal-reflections-on-a-mid-century-environmental-writer format to provide a craft essay. And like any good craft essay (especially one to be read on-line), I will narrow my scope—to one work.
Edward Hoagland’s well-known essay “The Courage of Turtles,” which is contained in his 1968 collection of the same name, is a clever combination of humorous terrapin descriptions and withering criticism of how humans treat the natural world. That criticism, however, relies on carefully constructed phrases and images delivered at perfect moments, rather than on long-winded tirades. The essay is wrenching exactly because of this technique of criticism, which, at one point, Hoagland even directs at himself.
“The Courage of Turtles” is, of course, about turtles, and it is constructed as a rambling interweaving of stories, descriptions, and ruminations. There are three “critical stories.” The Mud Pond Story introduces the essay and then returns in the third-to-last paragraph, interrupted by pages of general turtle information. The Penny Arcade Story constitutes the penultimate paragraph; while the Diamondback Story comprises the final one. The arrangement of these critical stories within the essay is itself notable. The vast majority of the piece (about 7 of the 10 pages, as typeset in my 1985 North Point Press issuance) isn’t critical at all. Instead the reader is regaled with Hoagland’s childhood searches for turtles at a variety of different ponds, the relative benefits of different kinds of reptilian pets, and the distinct personalities of his own turtles (namely five babies “in a kidney-shaped bowl” and an adult wood turtle which seems more Jack Russell terrier than terrapin). The introduction of the Mud Pond Story near the beginning hints that “The Courage of Turtles” is not merely about the joys of owning turtles, but Hoagland doesn’t let the full message out of its shell (ugh!) until the end, once the reader is already enamored of turtles.
Mud Pond, an artificial water reservoir teeming with aquatic life, was drained in the 1960s to make room for housing. The painted turtles, former inhabitants of the pond, writes Hoagland, “wandered forlornly” looking for the water. Snapping turtles burrowed down into the mud to wait out the drought and “the mud baked over them and slowly entombed them.” The latter is not at all a gratuitously gory phrase, but as it mulls in the mind it coalesces into the picture of a horrible fate. However, Hoagland never demonizes the developers nor the water company, who are, one can glean, responsible for these turtle deaths. He instead references a drought that “squeezed the edges in” and “convinced the local water company that the pond really wasn’t a necessity as a catch basin.”
The essay returns to Mud Pond later, after the jovial description of the wood turtle, who is “well off to be with me rather than at Mud Pond.” Hoagland reminds the reader of the mud-baked turtles, then goes farther:
Creeping up the brooks to sad, constricted marshes, burdened as they are with that box on their backs, they’re walking into a setup where all their enemies move thirty times faster than they. It’s like the nightmare most of us have whimpered through, where we are weighted down disastrously while trying to flee….
This passage is even more aching over the fate of the turtles, but again Hoagland never places blame. These are the facts of life, and it is up to the reader to connect the dots.
The Penny Arcade Story begins in the next paragraph, with the segue: “I’ve seen turtles in still worse straits.” Hoagland visits with the penny arcade’s proprietor, who was selling turtles whose shells had been painted with colorful sayings. He goes upstairs to the man’s office and sees hundreds of turtles in boxes, and also witnesses the little station where the artist would paint the reptiles. Hoagland describes the place and the people in distasteful terms. The proprietor is “smudgy-faced,” the artist is “homely, short, and eccentric-looking, with funny black hair,” and the room has “shallow tin bins on top of one another” in which the turtles crawl. There are of course many ways to describe this scene, but Hoagland chooses to use words like shallow, smudgy, and homely to, in essence, criticize the proprietor and other such business-people, though he never does so directly. There is not a single word about how they shouldn’t be doing this to turtles, or how the turtles feel about this set-up, or how the reader should feel about this scene.
The scene set, Hoagland then matter-of-factly tells the reader the fate of the painted turtles:
Of course the turtles’ doom was sealed when she painted them, because their bodies would continue to grow but their shells would not. Gradually, invisibly, they would be crushed.
Interestingly, we never see the artist actually paint a turtle, so the indictment of this activity is, again, oblique. There is no denying the sadness of the situation, but Hoagland never calls out the artist nor the proprietor, never says that this practice should stop. To drive the point home, Hoagland goes back to the turtles, using description, not direct comment
Around us their bellies—two thousand shells—rubbed on the bins with a mournful, momentous hiss.
In the last critical story, the Diamondback Story, Hoagland turns the lens on himself. The last paragraph of the essay begins, in effect, with an admission of guilt, then moves forward in time:
Somehow there were so many of them [at the penny arcade] I didn’t rescue one. Years later, however, I was walking on First Avenue when I noticed a basket of living turtles in front of a fish store. They were as dry as a heap of old bones in the sun….
He buys one, which turns out to be a tidewater turtle called a Diamondback. The rest of the story traces that turtle’s short life of banging around the inside of Hoagland’s apartment. Hoagland never introduces the horrible store owner that would put turtles in a bin on the sidewalk to desiccate. Instead, he himself begins to find that turtle’s “unrelenting presence exasperating” and he throws it into the Hudson. Hoagland describes how he comes to realize this will be certain death for the Diamondback, but he admits that “since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.”
Importantly, before that concluding statement, Hoagland describes the turtle as seeming “surprised when I tossed him in” and “afraid as he bobbed about on top of the water, looking up at me from ten feet below.” Because of the personification, Hoagland’s departure seems cruel, though he describes it in the same matter-of-fact way he describes snappers entombed in mud and baby turtles crushed by their own shells.
In all of these stories, Hoagland complicates who the villain is. There are plenty of people to indict—the developers, the water company, the artist, the arcade owner, the fish shop owner, himself—but Hoagland instead focuses on what happens to the turtles. By doing so, we readers are left to consider the rest, and to ask ourselves whether we care about what happens to turtles (and, by extension, other species), and to wonder how we might treat a turtle if and when we encounter one. The wrenching imagery is there (snapping turtles gradually suffocating in the mud, little painted babies stuck forever in baby-sized shells, a fully realized turtle individual abandoned under a pier in New York), but it is never accompanied by the implications of or reasons for those images. This is careful criticism of human actions, which leaves much up to the reader.
I love a good rant now and then. But the image of that little Diamondback looking pleadingly up at Mr. Hoagland as the man strides away—that sticks with me.
— Adam Regn Arvidson