Edward Hoagland — Small Silences
The following excerpt is from
Sex and the River Styx
by Edward Hoagland
Chelsea Green Publishing,
Available at Bunch of Grapes >
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, broad-gauge 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 toads, is not a godhead. Like sparks flung out, each perhaps is 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, and puberty, when the emphasis 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 exulting in their magnetism and in wild places. Human nature is interstitial with nature and not to be shunned by a naturalist. This accidental ambidexterity enriched my traveling because I enjoyed landing and staying awhile in London on the way to Africa, or exploring Bombay and Calcutta en route 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 and 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 preferred 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’s supposed to, moonlight is an elixir with mystical reverberations that we can pine and yet grin over, even when “empty-armed.” 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 naming 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 underwater, 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, we’ll murmur; or It’s a crescent, or like a cradle lying 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 like precooked pig or processed 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 our 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, 70 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: 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 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.
No man was complete without a parrot on his shoulder, I used to think. Pirates had them—or perhaps a monkey with a string knotted around its waist—and far-flung sailors, and naturalists searching the tropics for undiscovered plant and animal species. An Orinoco toucan or an orange-epauletted Amazon or hyacinth macaw nibbled at an earlobe or chatted in their ear. At the mouth of the Congo River or the Amazon, hotels had to post a sign saying no parrots were allowed here, and the birds lived so long that in tamer harbors like the U.S.A. you might never know who had taught yours to cry, What’s that down between your legs, big boy? In the port area of Lower Manhattan that later became the World Trade Center, I used to see foulmouthed merchant seamen’s big-billed birds for sale in a cigar store that also proffered shrunken human heads with pained and puckered faces and sewn-up lips which sailors on the coffee or United Fruit banana boats had purchased from tribes such as the famous head-hunting Jivaros of Ecuador. Both the brilliant-colored parrots and the Indians’ heads, suspended behind the counter by their greasy black braids of hair, had been jungle-born, except of course for the especially valuable blond-tressed heads of white women and their missionary husbands: although, buyer beware, you were supposed to be careful about fakes—maybe monkeys that had been treated and bleached.
And there was a kind of “leopard store,” as I thought of it, named Trefflich’s, in a brownstone at 215 Fulton Street, close to where a lot of other ships came in to dock from Joseph Conrad countries. It sold jaguar cubs, anacondas, margay cats and ocelots, aoudads and addaxes, baboons, pangolins, gibbons, adolescent elephants—importing wholesale stuff for zoos to a warehouse in New Jersey. But you could walk around the several floors, if you were with your father, and look at giant Seychelles tortoises, reticulated or Burmese pythons, black panthers peering between the slats of cargo crates, and wheedling monkeys whose organ grinder might have died. Carnival owners stopped by in the spring in painted trucks to purchase an iron cage with a sun bear already in it or rent a half-trained lion, or a bunch of monkeys. “When it comes to monkeys,” a placard boasted, “we pledge ourselves to give full cooperation to all operators interested in giving the public their monkey’s worth!” Beasts in makeshift confinement—an arctic wolf, a rainbow boa, a baby camel—crammed every corner, and then
in season might be touring the nation’s midways, living on roadkills or sick chickens the drivers stopped to pick up, the panther on foundered horses or dead dogs from a pound, the monks on fruit the public bought.
Parrots did not remain a priority for me because I sensed that they were delicate and in considerable peril, though squawking harshly and nipping fingers. Even when a fancier hamstrung them by scissoring their flight feathers, as if to bauble-ize them, they continued to emit untamable screams and like a peg-leg pirate moved about laboriously by grabbing footholds with their beaks and chimneying up or belaying down in mountaineer fashion. Their shrieks might bring the neighborhood’s blue jays to the owner’s window as if to try to help a friend in need, and double the noise. Then you’d see the guy abandon a thousand-dollar pet to his local flower shop, where at least it had the ferns and ficus trees for company.
Or I’ve known a parrot or two that escaped from captivity and shimmied high into a fir tree next to the house, and even in the wintertime simply refused to come down. Up, up, the pinioned bird hitched with claws and beak, watching the hollering jays and crows circling around and screaming gleefully with them. Although of course it couldn’t fly, it ate a few tart bits of bark or cone in freedom at their level. The drama continued for hours—pleas and commands from the ground, and hullabaloo from the whirling wild birds. Then a soft snow started falling, as night settled down. The native flocks—warmly plumaged and observing the newcomer’s crippled condition—flew away to their sheltered roosts, while the parrot, in its bright jungle colors, climbed poignantly, stoically higher, to wait in silence to nibble needles and freeze.
I went to summer camp in the Adirondacks, helped out at an animal hospital near my home, and, with a friend’s family, visited a little dude ranch in the Wind River range at Dubois, Wyoming, going out by train when I was fourteen. This showed me that whole tiers of land exist that most of us never reach; just look at, perhaps. My horse could scramble by switchbacks for a short way, like a badger galumphing. Horses were more independent-minded than a dog, preferring the open range as a grubstake to any barn and wintering there for six months as uncosseted as the elk or mule deer. The ranch hands wintered pretty tough, too—not just drank a lot but practically hibernated in snowed-over cabins, living on a wad of cash secreted in a coffee can, not a bank account, and snaring jackrabbits, eating root-cellar turnips and steaks axed off a frozen side of beef, by a hissing Coleman lantern. They lost their teeth sooner than Easterners, and the men got gimpy at an early age from being thrown or kicked. Not only the rodeo types: many ordinary wranglers were fallen on, stepped on, in breaking horses,
roping calves, rassling a steer, or had slid off an icy road in a Chevy and limped for miles with a broken bone, help was so damned far. The bristling, pelagic scale of the landscapes, skyscapes, exhilarated me, plus the chance to catch sight of a cougar by peering up a box canyon, or the coyotes that howled after dark from the same creek bed where I had walked an hour before. In these late 1940s the Good War was barely over, evil had been defeated, but a tremor of risk and early death still prickled the mood of many people of middle age: veterans who wouldn’t speak of what they’d done, and for whom foreign travel had involved stifling weeks on a troop ship to places they never wanted to lay eyes on again. They squinted and bit their lips, thinking back. Dale, the one cowhand I got to know somewhat—who taught me to ride in a roundup and shoot ground squirrels, and talked confidingly toward the end—was both mild in manner and steadfast, yet lamed internally, with a cowboy’s kidney disabilities and a flat-wallet winter to look ahead to. As with Hope, I can’t reconstruct our conversations from sixty years ago, except that there were many factualities for me to learn, glued to yearnings Dale might even help me fulfill. Our talk was less inchoate. Childless from knocking around the West all his life, he was sympathetic to my wish to hear stories of mega-wildlife, trapper-hermits, gold prospecting, bigfoot myths, and not just rehearse my saddle skills like the other dudes. That West was already threadbare but not skeletal, and I learned that when somebody in the
know recognizes what you care about, he may earnestly try to help. Antelope, moose, and marmots—“whistlers”—we looked for, and falling-down cabins in draws that had yarns attached to them. Dale was slightly built, like a person who dealt with creatures so large that heft itself hardly mattered, compared with logic and telepathy. He sized up people quietly too, and minimized his reactions if he could, the way you would with
a haywire heifer or bull.
Act purposefully but minimally and keep your reasons under wraps, was a lesson he taught me. Not the whole formula for life, but quite a beginning, because love and openness to what you love are fragile and yet will flower if cupped and sunlit: as will a freelance toughness and survivability, when you need that. Like a certain helicopter pilot in the Brooks Range in Alaska who flew me around decades later, Dale grounded my enthusiasms at the same time that perhaps mine reinforced his. I couldn’t help him face an old age of penury, but we were wistful when this summer interlude wound up. Teasing so many memories out of his mind had cheered him up, made him feel that they were worth it, and as in a relay race, he was passing along nuggets to me, not necessarily from his own life but that turn-of-the-century horse wranglers had conveyed to him. Just so, we elasticize our lives—as you’ll see a tiny school of fish do in an aquarium. As quick as mercury and multidirectional, they impart a darkly silver, wriggly sorcery to the cubic inches of the tank. Instead of gallons, it becomes like having a mini-planetarium in the house, because the stars also sometimes seem to swim in the sky, not just hang in suspension there.
Pets in containers, or loose as catty companions or doggy slaves, can hardly fill in for the immensity of wind, stars, and trees, the infinity of unlobotomized animal species, the intricacy of landscapes, the galaxy of scents and shapes in natural creation, that we are losing, or just no longer sense or see. A planetarium is not the heavens, or an aquarium the southern oceans, and our own intricacy—our bristly whiskers, flaring nostrils, our fingerpads flicking in and out as ceaselessly as gills, our curling pinnae and peripheral vision and intuitive antennae, all seeking connections—perhaps demands them. Only 2 percent of Americans are farmers now, and yet the rest of us are still avid for spring’s green-up and weather forecasts. Without the primeval dangers that formed us, we tune in bruising professional football or pore through the tabloids for raunchy murders, sexual triangles, and kidnappings, news of disease, greedy scandals. We actually learn skills of the chase and the feint from these, learn about insanity and bad judgment and to control our spates of rage, to cushion our marriages, downsize our fantasies, put the brakes on our Neanderthal instincts. The tabloids are appetite-rich and Darwinian. We read them for meat and war games, or watch the tube for boobs that we can’t ogle in real life, and truth or consequences—robbers punished—while rejiggering our minds’ chemistry with pills, replacing an aging hip with titanium, and exercising on a gym machine, or face-lifting our long-suffering skin.
But I seem to have gained, around eight, nine, or ten, the rather precious sense of continuity that knows that when you come out of the woods into a house it’s only temporary; you will be going back out again. People are less amphibious or ambidextrous in this regard than they used to be. A thousand or so may have topped Mt. Everest (“Well we knocked the bastard off,” Sir Edmund Hillary famously said, after conquering it in 1953), and plenty run marathons or balance on surfboards. 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, strobe-light showbiz (no Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra, who blazed on forever), and squirmy corporate flacks such as the old power brokers seldom employed. 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. You may prefer the ubiquity of electricity to seeing fields of stars after dark, but losing constellation after constellation in the night, and countless water meadows along uncontoured rivers, and bushy-tailed horizons, may be a titanic change. Our motors similarly wipe out the buzz and songs of insects, birds, the sibilation of the breezes that hunters used to front, always stalking into the wind and studying the folds of the terrain for how it flowed, because meals were won by knowing the intimacies of the wind. To lose moonlight, and compass placement, and grasshoppers telling us the temperature by the intensity of their sound, poses the question of whether we can safely do away with everything else. The ecology of solitary confinement on this planet may be calamitous: not to mention the sadness. To assuage the emotional effects, already one notices an explosion of plant nurseries, pet stores, computer-simulated androids, and television animations. We’ve boarded up our windows so as to live interiorly with just our own inventions—though sensing too that we are in the grip of a slow, systemic illness, somehow pervasive—as meanwhile chimpanzees are being eaten up wholesale in Africa as “bushmeat,” the elephants butchered, the lions poisoned.
I knew these signature animals by the age of eighteen because I worked for two summers in a circus where we had in our charge some of the most glorious and legendary wilderness creatures. Asian elephants, Sumatran and Siberian and Bengal tigers, a cheetah, a hippo, a jaguar, pythons and boas, three lowland gorillas, a rhino, and an orangutan. My mentor then was a Mohawk Indian, from a culture that was comparably endangered. Indeed, he finished out the remainder of his years as a groom at the riding stable that services New York’s yuppie equestrians who ride in Central Park, before having his ashes scattered off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River, which are immemorial waters for the Mohawks. But the survival of wild places and wild things, like the permanence of noteworthy architecture, or the opera, a multiplicity of languages, or old shade trees in old neighborhoods, is not a priority for most people. They are on their way out, and you simply love and love them as you, too, shuffle along. But the elephants, wrinkled in their sagging hides, appeared to recognize the tenor of events. They were not optimistic—at least I thought not—and forty years later, seeing shattered herds in India and Africa, I was surer still that they realized that the road for them shambled off downhill. Their anxiety was more than jumpy; it seemed demoralized. Their bizarre hugeness only doomed them further. We generally discover important things late: like how very closely the great apes’ genome resembles ours. This was obvious to the naked eye and won’t prevent wild ones from being eaten in Africa, but makes their treatment here in captivity more appalling. And thus it was with elephants’ infrasonic communications, which supplement the squeals and trumpeting we hear. It took a former whale biologist, Katy Payne, who had helped record the high frequencies humpbacks sometimes use, beyond the capacity of a human ear, to figure out that elephants also talk at acoustic, though subsonic, levels we can’t detect, and that these deep sound waves travel as messages for surprising distances, from herd to herd (yet nothing like what the ocean’s physics can accomplish for certain whales’ low-voiced emotings).
The more complexities we come to know about a fellow being, the less cavalier we’re going to feel when its kin are wiped out. Most species that disappear, of course, have never been examined or “discovered” at all. But with the jumbo kind—formerly demonized as rogues, or boat swampers and living oil wells—we have a good deal less excuse. Indeed, in the circus, decades before Katy Payne’s breakthrough, I had experienced intimations that within our single herd, animals a hundred yards apart could convey their politics or frustrations by sounds below the lowest range that people heard. They would be clearly communing across the field, looking at each other, swinging their trunks convivially and swaying with eloquent body language, until after a minute or so the session ended with a strain of sound finally edging up into a low-pitched groan. I was eighteen, nineteen, not a scientist, and these insights were accompanied by a swarm of others about our giant, protean, poignant beasts—Ruth and Modoc and twenty others whose feet I liked to lie close to, testing my trust in the rapport I thought I had with their rhythms and whims. Acoustics were not the reason I was touched or central to what I was trying to comprehend, even when they stood there forthrightly and frontally, broadcasting sounds I sometimes intuited but couldn’t hear.
In East Africa on two trips during the 1970s, I saw pristine herds on the vastness of the veldt, browsing slowly among the thorn trees as creatures do when engaged in being themselves. Although they were being poached, the horizons were huge, and the scale of ivory-hunting an attrition they could bear. Their humor, gait, and dignity were intact, the tutoring of the calves, the playfulness of bathing, the virtuoso trunks spraying dust when insects annoyed them, or plucking an epicurean shoot,
or squealing at a stork. By the 1990s, however, when I returned twice again, the splintered groups, targeted by Somalis with Kalashnikovs, had witnessed so much butchery and anguish—their numbers more than halved—that they acted as if danger were everywhere. They drank at the water holes twitchily, hastily, and migrated between their feeding groves without the ambling ambience of old. Like the chimps I saw, they didn’t just react to immediacies, as, for instance, the big cats did, but appeared to worry in advance. They weren’t freewheeling personalities anymore, and it was a relief to meet a noncommittal aardvark or a snoopy jackal on the track.