If one more reviewer or foreword writer refers to an author as some latter-day Thoreau, I’m going to throw that book in the nearest pond.
This knee-jerk reference is everywhere—each of the previous two authors in this series, Loren Eiseley and Edward Abbey, have been referred to as Thoreaus (a remarkable fact considering how unalike Eiseley and Abbey were). And there it was again, in the foreword of Edward Hoagland’s most recent essay collection, Sex and the River Styx (2011): “Edward Hoagland,” crows the title, “The Thoreau of Our Times.”
My beef with the comparison is that it sets up false expectations. I initially began reading Hoagland because quite a few people I was meeting told me that I should. During my first two trips to Vermont for my MFA studies, whenever I would say that my writing focused on science and nature, there was a good chance I would be asked if I had read either Annie Dillard or Hoagland. No? the incredulous inquisitor would gasp, You must read The Courage of Turtles. To me that sounded like a good bit of nature writing: the courage of turtles—a dose of ironic personification coupled with a straightforward description of subject matter. When I finally got to Hoagland, it was Sex and the River Styx first (start with the current stuff, right?). As I opened the book, the combination of writer friends’ swoons, a golden embossed tree on the cover, and that Thoreauvian header had me primed for something truly naturalistic.
But I was disappointed.
Let’s be clear: this is a complex and wide-ranging collection, which certainly touches on nature (its beauties, its dangers, and how we’re pretty much ruining it), but it remains more immersed in Hoagland’s mind than in the world around him—natural or not. So I went back to the source: the man’s seminal work, the now (unfortunately) out-of-print 1971 essay collection everyone had been recommending. I was surprised to find a dearth of nature even here. Tugboats, circuses, county fairs, and sex? Sure. Paeans to trees and reptiles and charismatic megafauna? Not really. Yes, the titular essay is about turtles, but those turtles are found in a bowl in an aquarium shop, painted up as curios at a boardwalk arcade, and in Hoagland’s own aquarium, kept as pets. Even the essays that do focus on the wild world, namely “The Moose on the Wall” and “The War in the Woods,” are about, respectively, taxidermy and bear hunting.
Strangely, though, I couldn’t stop reading. I sampled Notes from the Century Before (1968), about a summer in British Columbia; have begun Walking the Dead Diamond River (1973), a collection examining the nature/city dichotomy, and am part-way through the 2003 collection Hoagland on Nature. I can’t put him down.
In “A Last Look Around,” one of the swan-songily named essays in Sex and the River Styx, Hoagland says:
I’ve been publishing books for forty years, and I don’t have a fastball any more, just a knuckleball, spitball, and other Satchel Paigey stuff.
That stuff’s hard to hit, but a lot of fun to take a swing at (or watch from the stands). Hoagland’s writing is about nature, but it comes at you sideways, through the tugboats plying the East River, through commercial coyote trappers, through the tame big cats and sad elephants traveling the country with the Barnums, through references to pharmaceuticals and lawn maintenance. Which means Hoagland gets our human situation (and always got it—I think his earlier work is Satchel Paigey, too, which is a compliment). We don’t live in nature. We live somewhere in between.
I loved metropolises and saw no conflict between exulting in their magnetism and in wild places.
That’s from another Sex and the River Styx essay, “Small Silences,” and it suggests we can live in both worlds. But there are hazards:
Yet a more authentic affinity with what we call nature is being lost even faster than nature itself. Into the void slips obsessional pornography, fundamentalist religion, stobe-light showbiz…and squirmy corporate flacks…. If gyms don’t substitute for walking, it’s hard to find a place to walk, as houses line every beachfront and scissor every patch of woods with cul-de-sacs for real estate.
If you wait until your mature years to get to know a patch of countryside thoroughly or intimately, your responses may be generic, not specific—just curiosity and good intentions—and you will wind up going in for golf and tennis and power mowers, bypassing nature, instead.
These little rants in the latest collection are a departure from Hoagland’s earlier work, the hallmark of which is a blameless observation, crafted in a way that leads the reader to a conclusion without seeming to do the leading (more on that later, see the upcoming “bonus post” at the end). Sex and the River Styx, the essays in which were originally published between 2003 and 2010 in a variety of magazines ranging from Harper’s to American Scholar to Outside, feels, well, final. Start with the titles: “A Last Look Around,” “Last Call,” “Endgame,” “A Country for Old Men.” Hoagland is approaching 80. He has written hundreds of essays since “The Big Cats” appeared in Esquire in 1961. Sex and the River Styx has a tone of exasperation to it, as if he were saying, World, I’ve been trying to save you from yourselves for 40 years and this is the last time I’m going to tell you.
Perhaps that explains my initial disappointment. I read Hoagland the wrong way ‘round. I’m not there yet. I’m just short of 37 and have the strange notion I can still make a difference. There is a long arc to Hoagland’s work, which, taken as an oeuvre, is emphatically about how to take care of the world—without shaming anyone specifically (like Abbey does).
Also without sequestering oneself into a certain pigeon-hole. As a case in point, to find Hoagland’s work, I bounded up and down the steps of the Minneapolis Central Library, visiting the travel, literature, and science and business sections. He is anthologized in the 1989 nature writing collection This Incomparable Lande, but is omitted from Bill McKibben’s landmark American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (2008), which features about 100 works by authors including the well-recognized (hmm) nature-writers Woody Guthrie, Lyndon Johnson, and P.T. Barnum. Apparently, neither academia nor library science know exactly where to put Hoagland. (Considering McKibben’s pro-nature sensibilities, the omission of Hoagland’s “Endgame,” an extraordinary and wide ranging essay on threats to the environment, is an unfortunate oversight.)
If Hoagland had a pet subject matter, it was big mammals, especially wild predators. Yes, he is best known for a ditty about turtles, but it’s bears and mountain lions and wolves and coyotes that obviously capture his fancy. Hoagland began his adulthood traveling with the circus and working with lions and tigers, and that passion never seems to have left him. He broke into The New Yorker in 1971 with “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” has essay collections called Red Wolves and Black Bears and Tigers and Ice, and has traveled to Africa to document both the human and animal tragedies happening there.
Several of the animals he illuminates are on the federal endangered species list. The wolf, in fact, was one of the poster-fauna for the Endangered Species Act, which became law in 1973. A number of Hoagland’s essays predate that law, including those collected in The Courage of Turtles. Earlier, he contributed his wilderness memoir Notes from the Century Before (about the wild, grizzly-populated Pacific coast) to one of the greatest years for nature writing in the last century, 1969, in which Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, and John Hay all published important works.
I expect Hoagland would be horrified to learn that Congress recently stripped protection of western wolves by de-listing them in a rider to the budget bill signed recently by President Obama. No plant or animal has ever been removed from the Endangered Species Act by an act of Congress–politics trumps science.
For my part, I am still trying to figure out exactly why I have become so enamored with this writer, especially after my initial disappointment. Neither Eiseley nor Abbey affected me quite this way.
I am beginning to think it has to do with the reality of the writing. Hoagland is neither agitator, activist, nor rebel, but rather observer: of mountain lions, of bears, of kids spending more time in front of video games than outdoors, of red wolf trappers on Texas bayou plantations, of endangered animals in circus cages, of Viagra and pornography and overpopulation, of turtles. Of nature and human nature.
I don’t want to compare Hoagland to Thoreau just because both talked from time to time about plants and animals and human impacts on the environment (incidentally, Hoagland’s 1991 essay “About H.D. Thoreau” focuses on the 19th Century writer’s humanism and activism, which makes the Hoagland-Thoreau comparison a bit more apt). Hoagland seems more rooted in civilization, even as he dreams of an afterlife “thocketing among the boulders” of some creek as he washes out to sea to be gently rocked for eternity. Hoagland hits me a lot harder than Thoreau does.
For instance, at the moment of this writing, I am sitting in a campground at Wild River State Park in Minnesota. In front of me on the left is a two-person tent, where my three-year-old son is sleeping off the morning’s hike. In front of me on the right is a 32-foot motorhome, in which my father and his long-time girlfriend are doing the same. My laptop is on the picnic table on a plastic checked tablecloth purchased on the way up here at a Wal-Mart. This weekend get-away in the motorhome is Ethan’s 3rd birthday present from my dad. This is not the way I normally camp.
But this morning we were enveloped in a flock of yellow swallowtail butterflies on the banks of the St. Croix River (designated in 1968 as one of the nation’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers). We spied blooming wild geranium and trillium and false Solomon’s seal in the woods. We watched two giant russet and crimson cecropia moths mate on a tree near the visitor center. A tiny spider I cannot identify just jumped from the tablecloth to my arm, thought better of that decision, and jumped back to the tablecloth. There’s a light breeze in the oaks and the sky is blue.
I could get wrapped up in so many philosophical battles with myself (what’s the gas mileage of that motorhome? where was this tablecloth made? why have we let our rivers get so polluted that the federal government is likely to name three more Minnesota mussels to the endangered species list next year?). But I am too judgmental; I should observe more. And the most important observation? My dad took my son camping.
Which makes me think of this, from the title essay in Hoagland’s most recent collection:
And that’s not an inconsiderable recipe for life—to do no harm and to bear witness. The second is often harder than the first.
(My son, incidentally, seized my Hoagland on Nature, handing me Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go in return. A budding nature writer? Maybe Hoagland needs to grow on him a little, too….)
Proceed to the next essay, a closer examination of “The Courage of Turtles” with an eye to how Hoagland shares his (sometimes scathing) observations without placing much actual blame (a craft essay), or return to Nature Writing in America Table of Contents.
— Adam Regn Arvidson