Martha’s Vineyard’s Edward Hoagland aged to perfection

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“Sex and the River Styx” by Edward Hoagland, Chelsea Green Publishing, Feb. 2011, 247 pp., $27.50 hardcover, $17.95 paperback.

As some of us reach the last decades of our lives we can’t help but look back on how we’ve lived, what we’ve done, and where we’ve been, perhaps hoping to make some sense of it all. Our reflections might be expressed in diverse ways: writing a memoir, telling grandchildren stories about our youth, or gaffing with our contemporaries about how it used to be.

If you happen to be a writer with more than 70 years of keen, critical observation under your belt, you’ve got a lot of material to work with – especially when you’ve traveled widely and trained yourself to notice both the simple and the intricate facts of life around you.

Here on the Vineyard, we should count ourselves lucky that we have one such writer hidden in plain sight in our midst – just a couple of blocks from the heart of downtown Edgartown. Though he’s nearly 80 years old, Edward Hoagland is still writing up a storm, and his craft shows no signs of diminishing, thankfully. Why? He explains it this way in the essay “Last Call,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 2010: “My attention span probably hasn’t shortened a lot because I still tap a typewriter, thumb through reference books, kid around with bank tellers in person, and watch for nuances as in time-lapse photography, which is mostly nature’s speed.”

We’re also lucky that this and 12 other recent Hoagland essays appeared together last year in a single volume, “Sex and the River Styx.” Most of Mr. Hoagland’s 20-some books are collections of essays, but he’s also written five novels, three travel books, and one memoir. He started his first novel, “Cat Man,” when he was 19 and sold it before he graduated from college, in 1954.

He’s taught at 10 colleges and universities, most recently at Bennington College in Vermont. He has collected a slew of fellowships and awards in his time, and continues to do so: in October he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He will receive the 2012 John Burroughs Medal, awarded annually to the author of a distinguished book of natural history, at a public luncheon in April at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

“Sex and the River Styx” is the latest showcase of one of our finest American essayists. Its recollections, observations, and insights are derived from many, many years of careful observations, wherever Mr. Hoagland found himself – in the circus where he worked during college, traveling in Africa and Alaska, growing up in Connecticut, or, just now, around his plain summer place way north in Vermont.

His careful eye, fine-tuned sensibility, and precise prose make for work of exceptional clarity and depth. Reading these essays is not always easy: the precision with which he writes requires careful reading, for which one is amply rewarded by both his insight and descriptive power, especially when he writes about nature.

With years of experience to draw on, Mr. Hoagland takes his cuts at aging, sexuality, dreams, African genocides, coyotes, foxes and field mice, elephants and tigers in these pages. Never far from the surface is his concern for our growing disconnect with nature, which occasions the debasing of it and thus its loss, which affects him deeply. “Nature, when abused, may react eventually like a tiger whose tail has been pulled,” he writes.

On aging, Mr. Hoagland is positive and ambivalent. “People tend to gain in tolerance and grow more generous spirited as they grow older, but on the other hand, we often lose connectedness and some degree of interest in what’s going on,” he writes in one essay, and in another: “Everybody wants to flee from a dying man, but for the preceding dozen years or more he may exude a certain twilight, or candlelit, appeal: that stability, humor, perspective, with so little of the macho bluster of a younger guy, and no worrisome consequences from a mild flirtation.”

On contemporary life, he’s skeptical: “Are we kneecapping ourselves? Would Conrad and Melville have enjoyed the work on a container ship?” And: “With nature mostly shelved, can iPods do it?”

While the thrust of most of the essays reflects the collection’s title, two travel pieces — “East of Everest” and “Barley and Yaks” — are included. In the first, a trip to Arunachal Pradesh, an indigenous tribal area of extraordinarily rugged natural beauty in the foothills of the Himalayas, he describes the terrain, the wildlife, and the people there clearly and objectively, in contrast to the much more subjective preceding essays, demonstrating a fine eye and ear as a travel writer.

In the second one, on a recent visit to China and Tibet, Mr. Hoagland tends to be more critical as the political plays a much larger part in any discussion of the People’s Republic, especially regarding their treatment of the Tibetans. “China’s strictures on freedom exact a great cost,” he writes. “And the panda’s camouflaged face, whose black-and-white pattern is familiar worldwide, looks tear-stained, much as the cheetah’s does in Africa. Tear-blotched cheetahs and pandas – whose habitats, which created their furry camouflage, have been skinned.” Still, he is an interested observer of Tibetan ways, be they cultural, agricultural, or gastronomic.

“Sex and the River Styx” is just the latest demonstration of Mr. Hoagland’s extraordinary writing skills: he has few equals as a recorder, an interpreter, a confessor. We are the luckier for his continued willingness, or need, to share his passionate interactions with the natural and the peopled world, and how it all appears and feels as he grows older. As Ingmar Bergman once said about aging: “It’s like climbing a mountain; the climbing gets harder, but the view gets better.” Mr. Hoagland gives us his view from the heights, a wide and perceptive one indeed.

Tony Higgins is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.