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A Tribute to John Hay (1915-2011)

The naturalist and writer John Hay, whom Annie Dillard called, "One of the world's handful of very great nature writers," died February 26 at the age of 95. Beacon Press published three of Hay's books: In the Company of LightA Beginner's Faith in Things Unseen, and a 40th anniversary edition of his first book, The Run. Hay was the author of eighteen books over a career that spanned half a century. He was co-founder of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and spent much of his life in Brewster, MA, where he eventually acquired 50 acres of land which is now under conservation protection. He was also the subject of David Gessner's book The Prophet of Dry Hill

David Gessner is also the author of Soaring with FidelSick of Nature, and The Return of the OspreyGessner's next book, My Green Manifesto, will be published by Milkweed Editions this summer. He blogs at Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour.

JohnhayThe great writer, John Hay, died on Saturday in Bremen, Maine. I have not yet had time to organize my thoughts but here are some sentences adapted from my book about John:

If you were to suggest to the fishermen and carpenters who had lived down the street from John Hay that he was one of the great artists and original thinkers of the latter part of the 20th century you could forgive them if they rolled their eyes. The old guy in the baseball cap, baggy khakis, and flannel shirt who grumbled about traffic and tourists didn’t exactly look the part of environmental prophet. Just another salty Cape Cod crank.

On the other hand, while he lived on Dry Hill more than a few neighbors penetrated his disguise. I once had a conversation with his gardener, Jess, who off-handedly mentioned John’s work.

“I didn’t know he was a writer at first, and I’m glad,” Jess said. “If I knew how brilliant he was I wouldn’t have been able to talk to him.”

Jess’s opinion is more or less in line with that of environmental critics. The editors ofThe Norton Book of Nature Writingcall John Hay “one of the most innovative and daring of contemporary writers in the genre.” James Dickey, the poet and author ofDeliverance, went a little further: “If all of humanity were to read Mr. Hay’s work, it is not unlikely that Darwin and St. Francis of Assisi would come back and join hands.”

No matter that the octogenarians who frequent the East Dennis post office, where John used to mail his packages, might frown at the sight of those two dead men holding hands, and no matter that not quite all of humanity has read John Hay’s work. The point is that the old man who lived up on Dry Hill had, unbeknownst to most of his neighbors, played a significant role in the development of American environmental thought and literature.

Another thing the neighbors didn’t know was that John Hay was born a child of privilege in 1915, and grew up roaming the wilds of Manhattan. The names of his predecessors were sprinkled, not just through the society pages, but through the history books. For instance, his grandfather, with whom he shared his name, was an elegant diplomat, and popular poet, who served as Lincoln’s personal secretary during the civil war and, forty years later, as Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt. A refined, charming and dapper little man-- he stood 5’2″-- John Milton Hay had been equally at ease while negotiating for the Panama Canal as when composing a sonnet. Near the end of his life, Hay’s wit and elegance served as subtle counterpoints to Roosevelt’s brash boisterousness.

The diplomat’s son, Clarence Hay, worked as a curator of archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Throughout John’s childhood Clarence was often heading down for archaeological expeditions to the Yucatan, and John grew up fascinated by the Mayan artifacts his father brought home, and by the paintings of birds and the stuffed snowy owl in the hallways of the Hays’ summer home in Lake Sunapee. The Sunapee land had been purchased by his famous grandfather, and it was in the woods around that New Hampshire lake that John first experienced the mystery of nature. He would later write that those days were his earliest glimpse behind the veil at another type of life, a wild life different from the proper one he’d learned in the city. In Sunapee he piloted the lake in the houseboat he made, with his pet goat and airedale as first mates, and he camped along the shore and stared up at the stars, and listened to Indian stories. At night he read J. Fenimore Cooper and heard rumors of wolves, and in this time before television, his love of books grew, rivalling his love of the woods. “We didn’t have radio for a long time and obviously we didn’t have television,” he said once. “So I read a great deal. It was books, books, books.” John was shipped off to prep school as a young man, and later to Harvard. His love of books deepened, especially of poetry, while he almost failed math. He was a dreamy adolescent, nicknamed “Foggy Hay” at school. It would come as a surprise to everyone in the Hay family when John eventually ended up writing about science.

John would write in the environmental tradition of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau, of course, was the fountainhead of this tradition, and it would be hyperbolic to suggest that John was as original and germinative as his great predecessor. But John both preserved and expanded Thoreauvian thought. He was both a radical and a traditionalist, going back to old ways, grounded ways, but simultaneously, using empathy to throw himself into new worlds beyond the human world.

And just as important, to me at least, was that John lived a life that kept time with a different type of clock. A life in tune with more elemental movements and ritual, a life of ceremony. I now live a thousand miles away from Cape Cod, on the edge of a city full of strip malls and Southern accents. But I also still live on the edge of the ocean, a place that, if not my home beach, is a beach nonetheless. It is in the ocean that I see possibilities and can begin to imagine making a life here. Every day I try to get out to the edge of the sea, confident that this will change my life in ways I can’t quite put into words. In spring and fall I watch the migrations, hoping these movements will become part of me, part of my blood. I hope to follow the year’s journey, absorbing its rhythms. I dream of living an elemental life.

Most often I fail.

Gessner and Hay at the herring run.

But I try. And while the concept of learning from elders is hopelessly outdated, I am happy to have had a predecessor, an exemplar, someone who walked out ahead to show me it can be done. Not a perfect character-- hardly. But someone who had made a journey out of his time on earth. Someone who had, in his own words, tried to “go farther afield, from one man’s center.”

* * *

“People connect to the land as their imaginations allow,” writes William Least Heat Moon. John’s imagination allowed for no less than a lifelong, passionate love affair with the world. When I think of John now, with some distance, I no longer shy away from calling him a “prophet.” Granted prophecy is a big word, a grand archaic word that understandably scares people off. But it is also, I’ve come to believe, the right word. Here is a man who had his vision and then spent his life trying to articulate that vision. Part of that articulation was attempting to convince people that the things they valued were not the things of greatest value, that there was a whole secret life available to them if they only re-ordered their priorities. In this sense John fit all three major definitions of a prophet: he had had his divine vision, he was a leader of a movement, and he presented a vision of the future.

That vision–of cancerous development and growth, of the disregard for and uprooting of local people, animals, and places–was, like most prophetic visions, somewhat apocalyptic. This is nothing new. Apocalyptic language has always been a tool of the prophets: descriptions of the apocalypse were made in hopes of preventing it. “We create images of doom to avert doom,” wrote Lawrence Buell, “that is the strategy of the jeremiad.” Or, as E.B. White put it: “A seer a day keeps Armageddon away.” Of course foresight– that isvision--is the prophet’s first tool and John began issuing warnings about the world before anyone knew what the hell “ecology” was. This half-blind old man saw clearly both where we had come from and where we were going, and he didn’t like it one bit.

Like the biblical prophets, John Hay went to his hill to find his vision, and, sure enough, certain universal truths were revealed to him on his mountaintop. And like the prophets he tried to deliver this unwavering vision to an often unbelieving and uninterested public. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Thoreau. John believed that the best human lives are those connected to wildness on an intimate and daily basis, and that this basis affects human lives in ways they can’t understand or explain. Was it any surprise that wild animals had larger brains–and more creative responses to the world–than their domestic cousins?

John had spent a lifetime fighting to both live inside and preserve that wildness, and it was often a depressing fight. He watched the things he loved about Cape Cod be defiled, and watched the rest of the country head in the same direction. Though people paid lip service to loving nature, they just didn’t seem to take its destructionpersonallyenough. Worse John had been consistently ignored and misunderstood, labelled impractical and airy and snobbish. This hurt, but it didn’t stop him. He had, in fact, become more and more passionate in his belief in the wild.

Jeremiah, for one, knew the impossibility of trying to deliver a message of cataclysm in an affluent time and, like John, was often greeted with some variant of the question “What’s the fuss?” Trying to describe just what the fuss was was central to John’s life work. Jeremiah himself had been labeled a traitor, and there was no doubt there were some people these days who would label John as un-American for his consistent belief that less was better than more. But even those not inclined to thinking in terms of the apocalypse couldn’t help but see that something close to cataclysmic seemed to be coming: world-wide extinctions, global warming, rampant habitat loss. To change any of that John believed we had to first enact the most rigorous transformation of all: changing our own minds.

* * *

John Hay's studio.

John’s ideas, I believe now, were–andare–subtly radical. Primary among these ideas, the one imbedded everywhere in his work, is the notion that human beings may not be so central to the world after all. There are human consequences, of course, to seeing the world as more than human-centered. These involve radical shifts in what one values in this life. If what truly matters is respecting the earth and preserving the diversity of ecosystems, then it follows that traditional ways of seeing land for what one can “get” from it are discarded.

These ideas are of course antithetical to a culture that always keeps half an eye cocked toward the mirror; to a people who spend their time primping and fixing their hair. For fifty years John insisted that we should be looking, not in the mirror, but out and through the window. By focusing always inward and seeing the outer world only through our own inner constructs, the eyes are kept prisoner to the brain. And, as it turns out, the brain is a lonely place. By never making the leap out of self we are left isolated, cold and blind. But ultimately, if we follow our better instincts, we can climb right out the window, and it is there–outside of ourselves–that we will find things that will expand our definitions of ourselves.

ProphetofdryhillUnlike most of us, John spent his days training himself to look outward. In fact it is this outward focus, this still-active love affair with the world not the self, that most defined John Hay.

“Strange to have come through the whole century and find that the most interesting thing is the birds,” John said to me during our very first walk together. “Or maybe it’s just the human mind is more interesting when focusing on something other than itself.”

In this insistence on looking outward John Hay ran entirely against the prevailing culture. He didn’t believe that salvation of the self was to be found within the self. In fact he saw this proposition, one of our culture’s central tenets, as essentially neurotic and crippling. “The answers to life can’t be found by trying to solve things in our brains,” he said, “But by stepping out of our brains entirely.” We can expand ourselves only by looking outward toward the source, toward the mystery, and by joining the ritual of the natural year we can join that mystery. The good news is that the reflections we see of ourselves in our beloved places will be cleaner ones than the ones we see in a mirror. By focusing inward without reference to the world we make islands of ourselves, but by looking outward we re-invent and expand ourselves. I had come to John Hay to write a book about him, not to seek “lessons.” But if there is one thing I took with me from his home on Dry Hill it is this: inwardness only means so much. What we need to learn is to get out of our own way. Yes, inward tunnelling counts for something and something important, but there is so much more outside. If we look for it we will find that there is a whole world waiting for us. And it is in that world that we, not seeking it, will find a sort of salvation.

Read John Hay's Obituary on Wicked Local.