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Aging Into Nature

Book review: Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland

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Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, Chelsea Green Publishing, 272 pages. $27.50/$17.95.
  • Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland, Chelsea Green Publishing, 272 pages. $27.50/$17.95.

The acclaimed essayist Edward Hoagland will turn 79 in December. No surprise, then, that in a handful of essays collected in his 21st book, Sex and the River Styx, the part-time Northeast Kingdom resident and former Bennington College professor ruminates on aging and death. Yet what stands out in these contemplative pieces is Hoagland’s attitude of candid wonderment at life.

“Children are born with bursting buoyancy,” he writes in “A Country for Old Men.” “But I didn’t guess that, seventy years on, their artesian buoyancy in subdued form would remain a force” in older folks — Hoagland included.

Such an outlook helps make Sex and the River Styx a surprisingly engrossing read. And not just about “geezerdom,” or the phenomenon of “dirty old men” that serves as the title essay’s slightly cringe-inducing subject. Hoagland, a nature and travel writer whose career now spans 55 years, telescopes a lifetime of singular experiences into this volume: two summers tending big cats in a traveling circus while studying as an undergraduate at Harvard; a stint in a morgue; travels in Uganda, Tibet and India.

Through it all, Hoagland is guided by a “belief in an immanent divinity,” an Emersonian faith in nature itself. “Life is, as Emerson suggested, a seethe of ecstasy,” he writes. While his ’50s college generation preferred “existential pessimism, counterposed to postwar prosperity ... I thought life could be radiant, especially if you got outdoors.”

Hoagland first encountered nature at age 8, when his family moved from New York City to rural Connecticut. Hampered by a stutter, he immersed himself in the undeveloped acres of woods, stream and pond behind his house.

The captivating opening essay, “Small Silences,” evokes that time but doesn’t restrict itself to nature writing. Hoagland also remembers the wealthy neighborhood’s African American servants and nannies, including one his mother hired whose stay was brief. Hoagland’s father, from the “former slave state” of Missouri, believed that “it reduced a property’s value ... if a colored person had ever lived in it.”

The essay accumulates a series of close, frank observations of both nature and people that finally underpin far-ranging musings about how linked we humans still are to our surroundings, “still with our feet in the primal muck.” It’s a fair sample of this writer’s richly digressive, meditative style. Hoagland is a writer’s writer, as evidenced by the slew of tribute quotes on Sex and the River Styx’s back cover from the likes of Annie Dillard, Philip Roth and Robert Stone. Like these admirers, Hoagland has written both short stories and novels; his first book, published while he was still an undergraduate, was Cat Man, a novel based on his time in the circus. But he’s best known as a “master personal essayist,” as the New York Review of Books recently hailed him.

Part of Hoagland’s appeal may lie in his ability to combine clear-sightedness with an endearing kind of hope. In “Visiting Norah,” Hoagland notes that he has been sending money to a grandmother in Kampala, Uganda. The woman, Norah, obtained his name and address from a contact Hoagland had made on a previous trip. Norah needed help financing her grandchildren’s education (their parents had died of AIDS), and Hoagland obliged. After some time, he writes, he decided to fly over and meet her.

Acutely aware of “the tacit barrier that they were nearly destitute and I was not,” Hoagland got to know not just Norah but a string of other individuals whose stories he tells in detail, including two Rwandan prostitute-refugees and a hotel owner who describes escaping death by Idi Amin’s henchmen by a couple of hours. Hoagland acknowledges the “urgent subtext of ‘money, money’” in these interactions, but that doesn’t stop him from attempting to understand and befriend the people he encounters.

The writer regards his own eventual death with a similar combination of clarity and equanimity — an attitude that Julian Barnes, author of another meditation on death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, might find admirable but baffling. Hoagland hopes his own body will feed the millipedes and requests “a minimal coffin” to speed the process. For him, death is a way of “repaying our infinitesimal loan from the universal energy pool.” Remembering the odd prevalence of “an Etruscan sort of smile, inward-turning” among his older gurney-bound charges in the morgue, he guesses that death won’t be unwelcome.

Hoagland takes a different perspective when he looks beyond the demise of individuals. The greater “death” he writes about is that of the natural world itself, which is happening on a staggering scale — a reality he doesn’t downplay. In his own lifetime, Hoagland writes, he has witnessed the shrinking gene pool and shortened lifespans of the very animals he cared for as a 20-year-old.

“The major wars of our epoch in retrospect will not have occurred in such places as Iraq,” he asserts, “but against the splendid diversities of nature, with no armistice planned or system invented for winding it down.”

Perhaps because he has led a life so steeped in the observation of nature, Hoagland is continually wondering what “evolutionary purpose” this or that human tic serves. Our capacity to feel joy when we witness something beautiful in nature particularly stumps him, because it can’t be attributed to survival or procreative instincts; it’s not “utilitarian,” as he puts it in “Curtain Calls.” In “Endgame,” he concludes that the otherwise useless feeling is “an outgrowth of a gradual refinement of existing rudiments in other creatures.”

We’re not so far from animals, in other words. Hoagland asks rhetorically, “Do the species that wear the splendid plumage or coats of fur or superb scaly camouflage we admire not feel an equivalent ebullience at the sight of one another, too?”

Hoagland starts to sound old fashioned when he maps these evolutionary musings onto male-female relationships. “Nubile women,” he writes in “Sex and the River Styx,” “need a long-term partner, not a one-night stand or a creaky pasha, in order to raise children.” And, having passed the procreative stage, older women, he assumes, “don’t covet pretty men at their bedside, or cross the River Styx joking of blondes” as their male counterparts do. Seeing women’s desires through the prism of biological determinism is rather outdated; didn’t the second wave of feminism put that nonsense to rest?

One suddenly wishes for a bit of David Foster Wallace’s meta-awareness, some arch footnotes à la Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, for example, to indicate a layer of irony. But then it wouldn’t be Hoagland, whose candor is what makes these essays so absorbing to read. In the end, the writer who contemplates the River Styx and thinks of “primal muck” — not to mention “sunshine chevroned with tree shadows in the woods, plus the low-slung moss, a tiger-colored butterfly, the Tiffany glitter of a spider’s web after a gust of rain, and the yellow-spotted salamander emerging from under the nearest log” — is the one whose books you want in your bedside pile.

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