One of the interesting things about being a relative newcomer to a particular genre is that you are constantly discovering writers, or books, even though everyone else seems to know about them. You can be embarrassed by the fact that you are far behind colleagues and friends who are well-read or perhaps have PhDs, or you can accept who you are and dive in, head-first, to the many discoveries that lie ahead. I remember when Pride and Prejudice was assigned in an introductory literature course when I was a freshman in college. The professor asked how many of us had read the book. Then he sighed wistfully, and said, “How I envy those of you who are about to read Pride and Prejudice for the first time.” Having now read that book at least four times, watched the BBC series and one or two movie adaptations, I understand his sentiment. To discover a great writer or book for the first time is an experience you can never quite repeat.
Recently, I discovered American essayist Edward Hoagland, who is clearly a staple among essayists (considering that Amazon.com notes that Hoagland was “called the best essayist of his time by luminaries like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Edward Abbey”). I could be embarrassed that I have not read his work before, or simply relish the opportunity to read and learn from it now. So I’m choosing the second option.
I’ve just started reading Hoagland’s most recently published essay collection, Sex and the River Styx, Chelsea Green Publishing (February 18, 2011). I was particularly interested because of his association with nature writing. I’m finding, more and more, that nature, wildlife, birds, and animals in general play a large role in my own work. They find their way into my essays even when I don’t start out intending to write about them. So I was interested in reading the work of someone who is generally accepted as a master in writing essays that focus on the natural world.
I’m only about 12% of the way through the book (that’s something you’d only say in this new world of Kindle reading), but I’m already humbled by the quality of Hoagland’s prose, by the seamless way he moves between observation and reflection, time periods, and philosophical contemplation. I have been paying attention especially to the graceful descriptions of things I’ve tried myself to describe — trees, the wind, a pond, the moon. I have admired phrases such as “plopping raindrops” and “wobbly riffles,” and descriptions such as: “This is our moon. It’s full, we’ll murmur; or It’s a crescent, or like a cradle lying partly tipped. And a new moon is no moon.”
I can tell already that we differ slightly in our philosophies; Hoagland talks about nature and humankind playing off each other, and the need to spend time with both to find balance. I am not as generous, at least at the moment, in my views toward humankind. But I am reading Hoagland’s work, turning over his point of view in my own mind as I absorb his prose and observe his thoughts. And that’s what a great essayist encourages you to do.
But perhaps the best compliment I could give Hoagland so far is this: after reading his book for a little while during a visit to upstate New York, I put down my Kindle, closed up my laptop, and walked outside. I followed a mowed pathway through one of the fields that surrounds my parents’ old farmhouse, and made my way to a small, muddy pond that I used to swim in, and skate on, as a child. As I approached the edge of the pond, frightened frogs released panicked croaks and leaped into the water. I looked into the brown water, and watched tiny fish just below the surface, darting back and forth. A couple of small trees have crashed into the water over the past couple of years, and from the tooth marks on at least one of their trunks, it appeared as if a beaver was responsible. I was disappointed not to find a beaver hut, but it was nice to imagine the small brown creature working there, his fur slick with muddy pond water.
I didn’t stay long; insects were biting. But reading Hoagland’s book reminded me of the importance of getting outside and examining nature with a child’s curiosity. It’s a curiosity I think I can say I’ve never lost, but as Hoagland points out in his writing, we have all lost something as we’ve adopted more and more of the modern technologies that remove us further and further from our relationship to nature. As I type this, I’m working on a laptop, yes, but I’m also sitting outside in my parents’ backyard with the hot sun beating down on my shoulders and face. I’m listening to a bird I can’t identify repeat a call over and over in a nearby tree. I love the sound of birds singing more than almost any other sound. There are a few other sounds I can think of that compete or come close, such as the sound of water bubbling across rocks in a creek, or the sound of my favorite music.
Thank you, Mr. Hoagland, for reminding me.