Friday, February 24, 2012


Author Edward Hoagland with some of the covers from his books at his summer home in Sutton, Vermont, June 7, 2011.

from Sex and the River Styx

I never totaled a car (machines may not have interested me enough) or
broke my bones, and had an upbeat view of life, experiencing the kindness
of many strangers when I hitchhiked, for instance. I speculated as
to what the anthropological purpose could be of the brimming, broadgauge
affection people like me felt when watching a wriggling tadpole
or clouds wreathing a massif — sights that have no reproductive or
nutritional aspect. Call it “biophilia” or agape; it wasn’t in response to
a hunter’s blunt hunger, or kinship-protective, or sexual in some way.
Was it a religious wellspring, then? Silence and solitude are fertile if
the aptitude is there, and love in its wider applications is also, I think,
an aptitude, like the capacity for romantic love, indeed — stilling for a
few minutes the chatterbox in us. That massif wreathed in clouds, or
the modest pond that has been left in peace to breed its toad, is not
a godhead. Like sparks flung, out each perhaps as evidence instead (as
are our empathy and exuberance), but not a locus. And yet a link seems
to need to take hold somewhere around nine, ten or eleven — about
Mowgli’s age, in Kipling — between the onset of one’s ability to marinate
in the spices of solitude, in other words , in puberty, when the
emphases will shift to contact sports, or dress, and other sexual ploys
and fantasies or calculations.

But nine was fine; and when you came to feel at home in Connecticut's
woods, New Hampshire’s were not a large step up the ladder,
or Wyoming’s expansive mountains after that, then California’s by
twenty, building toward British Columbia’s and Alaska’s, Africa’s and
India’s, in the course of the future. The sea was different, however.
I admired it from the beach or a steamship but never acquired the
nonchalance required for solo sailing; was afraid of drowning. On the
other hand, having been born in New York City and then returned to
live there as an adult, I loved metropolises and saw no conflict between
exalting in their magnetism and in wild places. Human nature is interstitial
with nature and not be shunned by a naturalist. This accidental and by ambidexterity
enriched by traveling because I enjoyed landing and staying awhile in London
on the way to Africa, or exploring Bombay and Calcutta enroute to Coimbatore
or Dibrugarh. Didn’t just want to hurry on to a tribal or wildlife wilderness
area without first poking around in these great cities, which I rejoiced in as
much. Although there are now far too many people for nature to digest,
we are all going to go down together, I believe. We are part and parcel of it,
and as it sickens so will we.

In the meantime, joy is joy: the blue and yellow stripes of a perfect day,
with green effusive trees in the dramatic shapes of the streaming clouds.
Our moods can be altered simply by sunlight, and I found that having cared
for primates, giraffes, and big cats in the circus made it easier to meander almost
anywhere. Few people were scarier than a tiger, or lovelier than a striding
giraffe, or more poignant than our brethren, the chimps and orangutans,
and you can often disarm an adversary if you recognize the poignancy in him.
Nevertheless, I prefer to step off the road, when I was walking in the woods at
night and saw headlights approaching. Better to take one’s chances with
any creature that might conceivably be lurking there than with the potential
aberrations of the drive-by human being behind the wheel. It may seem
contradictory that for reverence and revelation one needs a balance. You
can be staggered by the feast of sensations out-of-doors, but not staggering.
Your pins ought to be under you and your eyes focused. As in music, where
beauty lodges not in one note but in combining many, your pleasure surges
from the counterpoint of saplings and windthrow, or the moon and snow.
Both are pale and cold, yet mysteriously scrimshawed — the moon by craters,
mountains, and lava flows, the snow by swaying withes or maybe a buck’s
feet and antler tines. Although like snow, the moon will disappear predictably
and reappear when it is suppose to, moonlight is an elixir with mystical
reverberations that we can pine and yet grin over, even when “emptyarmed.”
It’s off-the-loop, a private swatch of time, unaccountable to anybody else
if we have paused to gaze upward, and not burdened with the responsibility
of name birdcalls, identifying flowers, or the other complications of
the hobby of nature study. One just admires a sickle moon, half-moon, full moon
that weightless and yet punctual, rises, hovering. Sometimes it may seem
almost as if under water, the way its dimensions and yellow-ruddy coloring
appear to change to butter, or russet, or polar. The Hungry Moon, Harvest Moon,
Hunter Moon, are each emotional, and expertise about their candlepower
or mileage from the earth is a bit extraneous. Although our own cycles are
no longer tied to whether they are waning or gibbous, we feel a vestigial
tropism. This is our moon. It’s full, will murmur; or it’s a crescent, or like a
cradle line partly tipped. And a new moon is no moon.

Twilight, the stalking hour, itself can energize us to go out and employ that
natural itch to put our best foot forward and “socialize.” The collared neck,
the twitching calf, and tumid penis will respond to daylight’s variations or
the moonrise, as we gulp raw oysters and crunch soft-shelled crabs that still
possess that caught quality, not that precooked pig or process cow. If we’ve
lost the sense of astrological spell and navigational exigency that the stars’
constellations used to hold, we at least present fragrant bouquets and suck
the legs of briny lobsters like savages on important occasions. The stunning
galaxies have been diminished to blackboard equations that physicists compute,
and are dulled eyes, when we glance up, instead of seeing cryptic patterns
and metaphors, settle rather cursorily for the moon.

Water does retain a good deal more of its ancient power to please or panic us.
Bouncing downhill in a rocky bed, shouldering into any indentation, and then
nurturing fish, mirroring a spectrum of colors, or bulking into waves that hit
the spindrift beach at the inducement of the wind, it’s the most protean of life’s
building blocks the womb of the world. “My God, there’s the river!” We will say,
in pure delight at the big waterway willows, the glistering currents bounding along
like a dozen otters seizing ownership of the place, as we walk within sight. Our
bodies, seventy percent water (and our brains more), only mimic the earth’s surface
in this respect. And we want a mixed and muscular sky, bulging yet depthless,
and full of totems, talismans, in the clouds colon not every day but when we have
the energy for it, just to know that we’re alive. Rising land of course will lift our
spirits too. Hills, a ridgeline, not to begin toiling right up today but the possibility
of doing so, perhaps discovering unmapped crannies up there and trees as tiny
as bonsai on the crest, yet dips for the eyes to rest in as we look. We already think
we know too much about too much, so mountains are for the mystery of ungeometric
convolutions, a boost without knowing what’s on top. Awe is not a word much used
lately, sounding primitive, like kerosene lamps. What’s to be awed about — is this
the Three Wise Men following the Star? — what hasn’t been explained? Actually,
I don’t know what has been explained. If we are told, for example, that 99 percent of
our genes are similar to those of a mouse, does that explain anything? Apprehension,
disillusion, disorientation, selfishness, lust, irony, envy, greed, and even self-sacrifice
are commonplace: but awe? Society is not annealed enough. trust and continuity and
leadership are deteriorating, and the problem when you are alone is the clutter. Finding
even a sight line outdoors without buildings, pavement, people, is a task, and we’re
not awed by other people anymore: too much of a good thing. We need to glimpse
a portion of the axle, the undercarriage, of what it’s all about. And mountains (an
axis, if not an axle) are harder to be glib about than technological news reports. But
if you wait until you’re 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.

author's photo : glenn russell (free press)
sex and the river styx (chelsea green)