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The Prophet of Dry Hill: Lessons From a Life in Nature Hardcover – September 7, 2005
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In an era when the average person moves every 3.5 years, the notion of a man living 60 years on one piece of land is as quaint and anachronistic as button-hook shoes and the Pony Express; yet that's just what the legendary naturalist John Hay did on the 50-acre Cape Cod wilderness he called home. Fellow nature writer Gessner grew up on the Cape and returned there, planning to write Hay's biography. What emerged instead is an ardent memoir of the year they spent sharing the joys, wonders, secrets, and treasures of a landscape quickly succumbing to developers' bulldozers. As they explored surf and stream, observed spawning herring and diving gannets, an abiding friendship evolved between the revered octogenarian and the man young enough to be his grandson, a relationship as benevolent, fundamental, and momentous as any other in nature. Sharing a philosophy of life and living, Gessner eloquently reacquaints readers old and new to Hay's magnificent contributions to the art of nature writing. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
This book is an enormous gift, an act of preservation as important as any chunk of land purchased by The Nature Conservancy. John Hay's stature cannot be overestimated, and David Gessner has done him great justice.--Bill McKibben, author of Wandering Home
"The Prophet of Dry Hill is a surprising book in many ways, tender, elegant, intelligent, always frank and sometimes very funny. This is a work of generous love, the story of a prickly friendship, but also and preeminently a short and fiery course on how to live in an increasingly crowded and confusing world."--Bill Roorbach, author of Temple Stream
"Reading The Prophet of Dry Hill is like taking a long, soul-satisfying walk with two remarkable naturalists, John Hay and David Gessner. Through Hay's wise words and Gessner's keen observations, we witness a gentle unfolding of a friendship seeded in a shared passion for the natural world and nurtured in the unpredictability of human connectedness." --Kate Whouley, author of Cottage for Sale, Must Be Moved
"If Thoreau had wanted a disciple, he couldn't have had a better one than David Gessner. Following the great nature writer John Hay around his Cape Cod haunts, witnessing Hay's increasing dismay at the development crushing his beloved Cape, Gessner has made Hay's cri de coeur his own. This beautiful book should inspire the reader to 'get down in nature, down in the water and the dirt,' as Hay urges. I am sending my copy of this book to the wildlife-destroyer in the White House."-- Alice Furlaud, NPR reporter
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Not that it isn't well -written; for all of that it is better written. The opening line of the chapter titled "Exodus," is finely crafted alliteration: "With the warm weather came waves of movement." He must have enjoyed creating that line. I can imagine him as excited as Dylan Thomas was when he penned "the rain wringing wind." Echoes can be heard here too of the best works of American wilderness writing. Gessner's return to the need for "relinquishment" revive a theme found in Faulkner's great hymn to relinquishment in "The Bear."
As John Hay before him, Gessner here is doing his part to keep alive a legacy, an American tradition, of nature writing vital to our national identity. I disagree with Gessner at one point: Thoreau is not "the fountainhead of this thought." The tradition was carried to the New World and to Thoreau by the Puritans, and this faith was delivered to those saints by prophets before them. It can be found in the Old Testament. It is in danger today of being drowned in oil slicks and ipads and post-modern solipsism. Here, David Gessner is helping to keep alive the sense that inspired Prophets like John Hay of some fiery mystery that does exist outside the text. As we stumble forward into an uncertain and unnatural future, no greater compliment can be paid a writer.
Gessner becomes friends with Hay, and as he accompanies the elderly gentleman on walks, he learns much about the man and about the way the Cape used to be. "The Prophet of Dry Hill" reads more like a few casual excursions and tame adventures than a traditional biography, and that suits the subject just fine. Hay, then in his mid-80s, is slowing down, and both men believe that his time here is limited. And like David Brower, Hay says what he thinks about the interconnectedness of all things and the blindness of politicians to see it. It's the end of an era on the Cape, where little old cottages are being torn down to make way for million-dollar mansions. In fact, by the end of the book, Hay and his wife have relocated to a more secluded place in Maine, and Gessner and his wife have moved to North Carolina. Neither can afford -- in one way or another -- to stay on that beautiful sandy peninsula at the easternmost edge of the continent.
This book is not the first to reminisce about the way the Cape used to be. It surely won't be the last. But it also serves as possibly a final walk along the shoreline with a man who cared deeply for the land and all of its creatures; a man who made a difference in conservation of Cape land; and a man who contributed deeply to our canon of American nature writing. It also solidifies David Gessner's place in that genre as well. It is one of the few books I've read that I know I need to read again, this time with a pen in hand to underline and star the best passages.
Diane C. Donovan, Editor