Although HOAGLAND ON NATURE has a magisteral ring to it -- like an arcane treatise on the law -- it is, in fact, a collection of graceful personal essays written over a span of four decades by the man John Updike calls "the best essayist of my generation". Joyce Carol Oates has included Hoagland's "Heaven and Nature" in her collection of the 55 best essays of the 20th century. It is a sad commentary on American reading habits that this wonderful book languishes, unreviewed until now, in 1.2 millionth place on the Amazon popularity chart, while readers throng to read and review books about vampires, crooked lawyers, and pre-pubescent wizards. The unnatural novel triumphs over essays about nature.
The "nature" explored and described in these essays is neither cute and disneyesque, nor is it merely the pristine wilderness of the grizzly and the caribou. Hoagland's nature is messier, more frightening, more antic, and altogether more fascinating than that. He has roamed all seven continents, employing a discerning eye and stylish pen to capture for his readers the minute, the majestic, and the human he encounters along the way. Titles like "The Courage of Turtles", "O Wyoming", "Wowlas and Coral", and "Up the Black to Chalkyitsik" only hint at the breadth of his experience and interests.
Hoagland's companions of choice are "bedroll scientists", government trappers, and people who live in remote wild places all year round. He admires woodsmen but not outdoorsmen, and has little use for armchair scientists (busy "shining their epaulets") or amateur conservationists (obsessing on "showy predators and hearty herd beasts"). He is a spiritual heir of Henry David Thoreau, holding the Transcendentalist view that man is part of nature, rather than standing apart from it. Hoagland writes about the garter snakes that live under his cabin in northern Vermont and about the seasonal changes in the woods nearby. He describes the struggle of native Alaskans and the Todas of the Madras highlands in trying to adapt to a changing world. He chronicles the tragi-comic history of the inept red wolf of east Texas. The collection ends with several short appreciations of other nature writers: Gilbert White of the 18th century, Thoreau and John Muir of the 19th century, and Edward Abbey of the 20th century.
One of the pleasures of reading this book is Hoagland's supple use of language. He can, by turn, be pithy and epigrammatic: "Geography has glamour in America." and "Henry Thoreau lived to write, but Muir lived to hike."; or poetic: [about a pond] "Amber or pewter-colored, it's a drinking fountain for scurrying raccoons and mincing deer, a waterbugs' and minnows' arena for hunting insect larvae, a holding pen for rain that may coalesce into ocean waves next year."; or apocalyptic: "No permission is given in Isaiah, Job, or Genesis for the holcaust mankind has visited upon the natural world, whereby the rhinoceros may soon be as scarce as the unicorn. No stretch of grief or the imagination, no precedent in science or logic can get a handle on this catastrophe -- half of creation extinguished in a single life span."
What Hoagland on Nature never is is dull!
on December 2, 2013
Originally a fiction writer, this author jumped on the environmental bandwagon of the late 1960s, writing pieces about scientists, trappers etc. for prestigious venues like Sports Illustrated. But his "nature writing" is really more about himself than nature or attempts to protect it, to which he adopts a superior, detached attitude. He refused, for example, to write for the publications of environmental organizations, with the rationale that it was "preaching to the converted," but the fact that it was less prestigious and profitable than writing for the big slicks seems a possible motive as well. The "Edward Hoagland" that emerges from his essays is a self-centered snob who flaunts a sadistic streak. In a book about Africa, for example, he fantasizes being an "itinerant slave trader." So his "nature writing" consists to a considerable extent of descriptions of wildlife being slaughtered, exterminated, or otherwise mistreated, subjects that evidently titillate him. And he seems to take slaughter and extermination for granted-- going on blithely about "the creature world we are losing" etc. etc. You might call that "crocodile tears," but it would be unfair to crocodiles. Pretty sick stuff. No wonder Joyce Carol Oates likes it. Professor Oates has described her personal hatred of nature in an essay entitled "Against Nature." So reading about the last grizzly bear in Mexico being blown to smithereens in a trap set with dynamite must gratify her, as writing about it seems to gratify the author.