Issue 162, Summer 2002
These recent selections are from diaries Edward Hoagland has kept from the 1950s to the present, not so much diaries, perhaps, as observations, jottings, notes, material for use one day in his essays, the form he much prefers. He has written four novels, Cat Man, The Circle Home, The Peacock's Tail, and Seven Rivers West, this last in 1986, and since then has often focused on subjects from nature, though on urban and personal topics as well. His nonfiction books, eleven of them, include Notes from the Century Before, The Courage of Turtles, Walking the Dead Diamond River, The Tugman's Passage, Red Wolves and Black Bears, Balancing Acts, Tigers & Ice, and Compass Points. Alfred Kazin described Hoagland as one of the best "personal essayists" - "a virtuoso of the reader-capsizing sentence, a splendid observer of city street, circus lot, go-go girls, freight trains, juries in the jury room plus and, especially, any and every surviving patch of North American wild he can get to moon around in. " At present, Hoagland, who has partly overcome a serious stutter, is among the most sought-after teachers at Bennington College in Vermont.
Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings, said Auden.
A neighbor of mine shoots beavers because they cut "his" trees. Another guy shoots a nesting loon because it eats "his" fish. Another shoots a coyote because it eats "his" deer.
Mother, nearing ninety-five and almost totally incapacitated, turning the pages of a People's Princess Di book, over and over again, every mealtime for months.
On the ferryboat a blind man I assist has a Seeing Eye dog he's named Witness.
Al Stencell, a little, mustached, round-bodied, striding guy, Canada's circus impresario, now retired, grew up in a funky town in southeast Ontario in a house with a dirt cellar that flooded, spring and fall; and he, as a boy, would have to float across it on a wooden door from the stairs to the coal bin to collect fuel for the stove upstairs, paddle back, and lay it out to dry.
He brings me to meet a ghoulish young dilettante in a $1.3 million, parquet-floor triplex, with red satin walls and iron spiral stairs, in a remodeled brick loft building, formerly a waterfront factory, who collects execution photographs of Chinese beheadings and American hangings and firing squads; also mummified hands from Egypt and shrunken heads from Jivaro land, and stillborn monstrosities or anomalous embryos, "pickled punks" (bottled babies), and other far-fetched animalia. Has many skulls and wooden simulacra of shrunken heads, after the possession of the latter became DIARIES 165 illegal in South America and people displayed these to represent real ones kept hidden; meanwhile they might sell heads they'd simply cut off of dead people, not enemies they had killed, on the black market. He is a connoisseur, in other words, with a strangely cut mouth and a naked life-sized statue of a sexy young "playful" woman in the middle of his living room for us to touch. Also has plaster casts of genitalia that had been used for VD campaigns; and spook-show, crime-show, and pit-show carnival stuff, such as a dried monkey carcass sewn to a fish to simulate a mermaid. Has stuffed vultures, cobras, pythons, tortoises, lionesses, fruit bats, and other contents of a hundred-year-old Niagara Falls tourist museum that he bought.
In Barton forty years ago, men all over town would lie across the front seats of their automobiles all Sunday afternoon listening to the Red Sox game on the better reception of their car radios, with a door open to give themselves leg room. It was said that you got to sleep twice Sunday: in church and listening to the ball game.
John Foley is an endearing man partly just because he's never been much good at anything. Dyslexic in school, he also dropped the baton at his high school's relay race in Madison Square Garden, then joined the Marine Corps and led his squad fifty miles off course into enemy territory, a five-day foodless walk returning. Then messed up big in the electronics business, had a nervous breakdown, came to Vermont to recuperate and bought on credit a failing sandwich store for ninety thousand dollars that wasn't worth half that, went bankrupt again, was supported by his wife, a late-life social worker, and went into accounting, where he lost me ten thousand dollars one year. Meanwhile, more than half of his eight kids got heavily into drugs and at least one went to jail. But he often seems like my best friend.
How I would come home from boarding school at fifteen or sixteen, when Flash was very old, and put my hand in front of his nostrils as he lay sleeping on the rug, and his tail would begin to thump and he struggled to rise.
Cows' tongues manufacture an antibiotic, which explains why licking heals; presumably other animals' tongues do too. -Boston Globe, March 19, 1995.
Oak leaves burst forth in same week as apple blossoms burgeon this late year, the second week of June. Bumblebees buzz in apple trees, trying to fill the role of wiped-out honeybees.
Delayed and needed rain makes the tree frogs sing.
The pitter-patter of drops and clean-tasting new water may exhilarate them, the sense that their element is expanding, not contracting, in the world.
June 16 at high noon a moose emerges from my clear pond, after muddying it and drinking, and makes his way to the scummy pond and spends half an hour there, eating algae and water greens, before coming hesitantly to house, smelling my car and proceeding to front of barn, where he (full-size, antlers three-fifths grown, and in velvet) eats raspberry canes and fireweed and browses heavily on an elderberry and a cherry tree. Stays another half an hour, till I have to go to town.
Remember my daughter Molly at two, thinking that learning to talk involved learning to stutter.
My mother, trying to help my career, once tucked a note inside a pack of cigarettes and gave the pack to James Reston, of The New York Times, at a party, suggesting he hire me.
Watching old movies, I mainly remember my wives, not girlfriends: the two dear ones.
Dr. Johnson said a book should either help us enjoy life or endure it.
DIARIES 167 November 17, Mother at ninety-four: asleep, with mouth open in a triangle and skin deathly pale except purple-veined hands, looks comatose, but awake stays up till ten-thirty in the eve just for the sense that I am there, and when I show her a family photo, she reaches out and points to Dad delightedly.
Remember the circus elephants in Boston smelling the salt air of the harbor, lifting their trunks.
Gordon Mooney, retired Vermont State Police captain with heart trouble (says his heart attack felt "like swallowing a cup of hot grease") who was my roommate after my hernia operation, said to disable a violent man, you hit his collarbone with a monkey wrench, and his arm will drop immediately yet will heal. To approach a dangerous car you've stopped at night: Pull up right behind and to the left of his rear fender with your lights on bright, which will partially blind him and show if his hands are moving. Then run to his door with flashlight, additionally blinding him.
Laotian refugee who, "safe" in Vermont, still sleeps with both hands clasping his throat because of the scenes of throat-cutting and torture he saw on a wartime airfield converted to a showplace of terror for the conquered populace.
Remember lapsed or disciplined priest in Rome telling me, at thirty-two, that it was not something to be proud of, having a face as unmarked by life and "young" as my face still was.
It meant I hadn't really lived; and of course in my lack of commitment to anything beyond my work at that point, he was right. In my fifties, age did finally mark my face with character.
You need only one handkerchief a month, and then suddenly you need a dozen in a day! February 2, Foley and his son watch for half an hour my pair of coyotes-the female light, the male darker-mating near the old pond in the field across the road, beginning at about 6:30 A.M. Rest while lying beside each other between bouts. Pack of five zigzags to meat he leaves as bait, and single fox track still marks road, plus snowshoe hares. Many hungry chickadees and jays and purple finches. Raven comes silently to bait as well; then calls in mate. Coyotes frisk and flirt and paw each other in between three-minute bouts of screwing: about five in that half hour, whereupon they trotted off.
Babies on breast milk have no fecal smell, which was presumably an evolutionary benefit, preventing predators from scenting them. (Like fawns.) Bruce says that rabbits when hounded run a football-fieldsized circle for twenty minutes or so, then two more of shrinking size before they run into a hole. Says housecats often go into a wall to die alone. As a carpenter, he has repeatedly found them dried and mummified.
I remember Joe Fox at Random House telling me twentyfive years ago that I should go to the Amazon and write about the destruction there. Had I done so, however (and I didn't primarily because of my stutter and therefore incapacity with Portuguese), it might well have been the right thing, but would have made no difference either to the Amazon or my career, because people would have remained indifferent. It was only Abbey in Arizona or Matthiessen in Indian country, not Matthiessen in South America they responded to. Always domestic obsessions, never what's going on anyplace else.
Foley's millionaire brother in North Carolina has lived in a motel for ten years because every time he finishes "his" house he sells it. Keeps an egg timer by his phone so he won't talk for more than three minutes. Held his son's wedding reception at the local seniors' center to save money.
No mysteries can be tolerated: even the giant squid in its home three or four thousand feet down must be sought to "learn its habits." At seven forty-five in bright sunshine the three does who hung out together all last winter come bounding across the field from nightlong romancing by the river to their daytime hideout thicket by the road where no one would think to look for them. Coyote is dead-brush-colored.
I get the roots of my teeth rebuilt with Perioglas, a synthetic approximation of bone ( dentists, before AIDS, used to use cadaver bone). So now I have plastic implants in my eyeballs and Perioglas in my jawbone.
Odd dream of an aged bohemian poet riding around on the back bumper of a earful of rich women, patronesses of the arts.
Turning sixty-six, I find sometimes I expect to live twenty more years but, later the same day, I feel dull chest pains and wonder if I' 11 live to finish this book or be able to face another year.
Guy living next door is a GE engineer who commutes to Schenectady, and when we meet one time at the mailbox, I teach him eagerly what toads' songs sound like, in his own pond-to me, the most beautiful song of all the many of spring. It's news to him: which is birds, which is toads, which is spring peepers? He then tells me, "I don't know how to get rid of them." Wants a poison.
In the last two decades more than thirty new communicable diseases have been identified.
Amazing how fast asparagus goes into your piss! I talk to animals high voiced and feminine, like Julia Child on TV.
Mere dabs of red on the road: mammals and frogs who tried to cross.
At the Tenney's dinner party, they show me Charley's suicide note, the first that I have ever seen. It says, among other things, that "this will give Dad something else in common with Robert Frost." Much affection and gratitude and apology is expressed to everybody. One copy was in his apartment, the other on his body in "the Adirondacks," as he puts it, where he went to hang himself. Says he thought he would never be marriage material, and his career has run into a hole.
Sleepless, his mind has lost focus, he says; his newspaper reporting becoming inaccurate. Says, "this may be the only selfish thing I've ever done." Essays, like butterflies, jazz (and God), move irregularly, not linearly.
Bob Forty dies, Barton gun dealer whom I bought my first (antique) .22 from in 1969, a career milk-company barn inspector whose greatest regret was the wrong turn he made once, driving up to a farm where the house was on fire. Ran first to the barn to tell the family, it being milking time.
And so a baby burned to death, alone in the house, because they couldn't get back fast enough to rescue it. Had he run straight into the house, he thought he could have.
Prose writing is the study of character, and so many writers may be alcoholics because they can't help knowing theirs.
John Berryman said in class in 1954, "I've known so many talented people I could vomit." My father, dying, sailed his little boat more boldly in Long Island Sound.
In one's sixties, sleeping becomes a job, not a refreshment or seamless interlude. One works at it to get enough sleep and it feels more like the proverbial "day job," a task to get through in order to devote the hours left to life's better matters, not as a rhythmic corollary to the zeal of being awake.
Foley joined the Marines and fought in Korea partly because of what the priests did to him in school (and father at home).
His punishment for going to the stripper show occurred in his freshman year and followed by a few years his exorcism on the floor of the church, a three-day rite. It also took place over the kitchen where his mother as a schoolgirl had had her arm broken by a nun, who put it in the door of the refrigerator cooler and slammed the thing on her. Also in the same school where his father, just off the boat from Ireland, had worked for his room and board and $1. 90 per week shoveling coal and in maintenance. Foley's mother achieved her revenge by having him drink a lot of water when she saw in the paper that the nun had died, and taking him to the cemetery as a boy and having him piss on her fresh grave, while she, the mother, spit.
New French teacher doesn't know that Sartre wrote plays; tells student he can't write a paper on them because they don't exist.
In Pennsylvania they built their houses of stone and their fences of wood; in New England, quite the reverse.
My first publicity director at Random House (who had been Faulkner's) wanted to send a turtle hatchling to every book reviewer in America when The Courage a/Turtles came out, in 1971.
I used to hide money in dictionaries under moolah.
August 30, garter female gives birth to seventeen alive, in a couple of hours, and one almost but not quite. She,ate well for the last month; didn't fast. She is twenty inches long. I find a small spotted salamander by kitchen porch, the first I've seen in thirty-two years here in Barton. Survived the drought under the house, or in a shady lily bed. Next-door neighbor who got rid of all his snakes for wife's sake now has constant mouse problem.
"An intellectual is a man whose education exceeds his intelligence," says Henry Hyde.
Cheryl, cleaning woman whose former boyfriend is in prison in Texas, expresses interest in the fact that I have two homes; and I thought it might be resentment that I was rich and she was poor. But no; that I had a safe house she might go hide in with her kids when he gets out and comes for revenge because she turned him in when he had almost killed her, here in Vermont, which resulted in his repatriation to Huntsville, for violation of parole.
The Friday before Saturday when hunting season starts, Foley, at my place, does some rifle shooting to warn the wildlife that the danger time has begun, and to be alert at dawn.
Gene Higgins calls unexpectedly one night, after about five years. Says he discovered he had Parkinson's disease when he was playing jazz piano for one of his English-as-a-second-language classes in Miami, and by the time he stopped his chin was wet with drool. Says he drools, can't button his shirt, must allow an hour every morning to get dressed, can scarcely drive, has no one to take care of him: kids in Orlando estranged. Has a lifework novel to place, about Korean occupation, when he carried whores back to his tent over one shoulder. Life's high. (Kills himself half a year later after novel was rejected.) My stupidity in recalcitrantly refusing to pay attention to jazz when I was young in the 1950s, one of its golden ages, because I was repelled by some of its overly fashionable fans.
Highway pile-driving for bypass bridge across the Walloomsac River has now caused the deaths of two beavers, run over on Silk Road while trying to escape the interminably rhythmic concussions. Our flock of crows has also left: aren't roosting or nesting in the pines.
The weather is such a constant topic of conversation in New England because it's one that independents, eccentrics, and curmudgeons can agree on. Also it is mercifully a no-brainer.
My nineteenth-century daughter-growing up with kerosene lamps part of the time, and much later "losing" a child, as they used to say. Grazing Canada geese filled the wet Jersey graveyard during Reuben's burial. Torrential rain like grief.
Sleet storm launches the New Year, as if to freeze the tears and bury the tiny new grave. The death of Molly's child and the death of my book together have nearly crushed me.
Teaching helps, but for the moment I can hardly manage to live. "Success is maintaining your enthusiasm between failures," said Churchill.
Late January, captive male garter snake now fully acclimated; last of worms gone. To be human is to care for things that don't care for you.
Under our clothes we do have hair on our bodies and want to break from the treadmill of everyday sentiments and metronome scheduling: Quit, look rude and dirty, do untoward things like smoke and drink from a bottle in a paper bag occasionally. Under our clothes, we know we're mortal and are going to die whenever the crude and juicy trickle of hormones ceases. (I remember that when my wife lay comatose from cancer, the deathwatch nurse distinguished the minutes of her passing from all the other days and hours and minutes because her urine, catheterized, suddenly ceased to flow.) I consider myself a type of poet, yet I know that my ideas, images, ebullience, depression, my energy binges or days of headache, anxiety, and ennui are primarily chemical. My biochemistry is as much a gift or handicap as any particular aptitude one may have. A way with words, for instance, is only of use if the hormones in your veins and the electricity in your brain throw thoughts into your mind, and if your wits and eyes and legs are energized.
One seems to change veterinarians whenever a dog dies, in order not to be reminded of its death, to start fresh.
Our brittle, laughing dentist cracks when his father dies.
Epileptic son already a basket case; mother dead within the year.
Two months short of sixty-seven, I work all day standing up, with the typewriter on a chest, to postpone slowing down and feeling old. I do feel old after ten hours, but would anyway.
The legend of how oaks got scalloped leaves: There was a man who made a Faustian bargain with the Devil, in which after enjoying his handsomeness and riches for a year, he would have to give himself up "when the oak lost its leaves." But instead the Devil lost out, because the oak never loses all its leaves. Some cling on through the winter till the new leaves sprout in the spring. And the Devil, furious, ran round and round the archetypal tree, chewing its stubborn leaves, leaving the marks of his teeth as lobes.
April 2 5, the ice was only half off Crystal Lake and Wheeler Pond; fields piebald with melting snow. No peepers or wood frogs yet. Robins and phoebes, however, are back and, like the chickadees, paired off. Flies and ladybugs roused from winter's sleep inside my house. A trapper has scattered beaver feet and hands and torsos near my house in retaliation for my anti-hound-hunting letter to the newspaper last fall.
It helps me to have written about boxing because you sure have to be able to "take a punch" to be a writer and remain so for fifty years.
May 17, I run over a rabbit at 5 :00 A.M., when the road ought to belong to him.
So many pens and notebooks, so much paper, and so few ideas, relatively speaking.
Whore's adage: "He doesn't pay you to sleep with him.
He pays you to go home," says Roth.
I dream twice about midwifing a lion, though for some reason it was maned. He kept pushing his head against my legs or gripping them in his teeth during the labor pains, but didn't hurt me. And Philip Roth, bearded, was there.
I remember seeing my first book on the front table of Scribner's on Fifth Avenue, exactly forty-five years ago. And a prospective buyer perusing it, then looking at the author photograph, and putting the novel down. Then, turning, he noticed me and sidled hastily away.
I suffer a comical panic attack when my old bathing suit, too tight now, shrinks when wet so I can't get it off and I have to go to the bathroom and can't, and feel claustrophobic anyway, and put on my pants to hide my state, but have to fight down my hysteria till I get home and Trudy helps me worm gradually out of it, freeing the big cheeks of my awful ass. (Last panic attack had been flying into the airstrip of Kitgum, Uganda, a civil-war zone.)
August 28, man at Harvard Grads of the Northeast Kingdom Reunion says he planted sixteen thousand individual seeds of corn this spring for the wildlife, and has on his land a couple of thousand apple trees: just for the coons, birds, and bears coming off a wildlife refuge on a mountain above him. Spent thirty-five hours weeding the corn, he says. An allegiance more passionate than mine! Under apple tree, a bear's black feces and red-brown vomit, which is more strewn about, having been emitted as he walked. Dogs attempt to trump the feces by defecating on them.
Because I believe that all the vertebrates, at least, in a neighborhood are aware of everything that happens, I no longer believe that nature is "indifferent" to its destruction, as is so often said by conservationists like Abbey and developers alike. As each habitat is flattened, the myriad creatures living in it surely share an extended period of pain and panic unlike what they've felt, for example, when the resident fox has grabbed his nightly chipmunk or quintet of mice. They're linked for weeks and months in a network of terror preliminary to death.
Noontime, September 18, yearling fox catches mouse at dogwood bush, another in the garden, then climbs a leaning plum tree to eat a plum still in the branches, stays in the tree several minutes, then eats another on the ground. Bluebirds and sparrows whirl and hop about in great alarm, and the sheltie later pissed and defecated on the fox's path most excitedly.
In my house's twenty robberies, no book has ever been stolen (only the magnifying glass from the OED, small-print edition) until 2001, when a field guide to animal tracks and a bird guide got taken, and no pictures, though this year the backing was cut out of the frame of a 1798 map of Vermont to see whether money might have been hidden inside.
Boy on Martha's Vineyard kills his first deer in shotgun season, December 1, guts it, and wants to go straight to school-sixth grade-in his bloody pants "to gross out the girls." Teacher then grills him severely on why he is late. He is reluctant to confess he missed the first class because of deer season. "Next year bring me the heart!" says teach. Took five shots.
Regrets: My being so cavalier about putting my mother's glaucoma drops in, when she was in her late eighties and I didn't yet have the condition myself. And my arrogance once toward my best friend, Bill Sumner, at home in 1947, when my talent made me think I was a Sunday's child, and he, a future stockbroker, less so.
This WTC tragedy broods over one's dreams ominously, more than in the day.Juncos arrive, big hawks come through; but you wouldn't know that good stuff, from what is going on in your head at night. Nor is it really fear, per se; because someone my age fears more next week's Toronto speech (with handicap) than the death that's coming anyway, with so many friends having gone ahead.
"You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you," Trotsky once observed. Foley says the smell of burning leaves in autumn reminds him of combat and the scent of artillery half a century ago.