EDWARD HOAGLAND is one of New York City's important links with the wilderness. In the editorial columns of The New York Times the reader unnerved by nerve gas or frayed by the cost of living index may suddenly come upon an editorial that begins, "There's nothing like a canoe." Or, "Last spring's pigs have grown so big they're already having trouble peering out from under their ears." He is in Hoagland's company. And since the call of the wild is rarely heard in the 21 Club, or even on 43rd Street, Hoagland's nature prose is the next best thing. And it is a good thing indeed.
Hoagland took over as The Times' regular writer of "nature editorials" from the late Hal Borland. Borland had been The Times' nature man for 37 years before he died in 1978 and was an acknowledged master of the form. But, with all respect to Borland, Hoagland is better.
That is worth saying because the nature editorial, which any country editor worth his hire once considered an essential string to his bow, is very nearly a journalistic fossil today. It never was easy to write. It required an observant and practiced eye and a firm sense of craft. Alas, there are many writers whose genuine love of trees, flowers and animals can be transmuted by the typewriter into sheer gush, making even a good sunset odious. No, the nature editorial can't be faked. When it is, it is no improvement on blank space.
Hoagland says, surprisingly, that the brief essays he calls here "A Year as It Turns" "quite wrote themselves." That is
probably an exag geration. Yet Hoagland's small vignettes have a spontaneity, a quiet and unforced wit, a precision of observation and theme that can't be counterfeited. One has the feeling that he enjoyed writing them, especially from the isolation of his Vermont summer retreat.
The Hoagland reader will know--just to sample the flavor--that the great crested flycatcher seeks a sloughed-off snakeskin to weave into its nest but will sometimes make do with a piece of cellophane. He knows that "tree swallows like to stick a white feather upright at the back of their nests, in a dark cozy hole high in a tree, to help them navigate as they swoop in to land at dusk."
I would like to be equally enthusiastic about Hoagland's longer pieces. Some are quite good, but sometimes the dominant theme is elusive or missing. Hoagland is committed, he writes in one essay, to the view that "to live is to see." So perhaps the clarity with which he sees--tugmen working in New York Harbor, the fauna of Kenya and Tanzania and Cairo, the life of Johnny Appleseed simply told--is its own justification, needing no other.
The more unfamiliar the scene, the more clearly Hoagland makes one see it. His work reminds us that before television shrank horizons, it was the classic enterprise of the essayist to bring strange sights to the sedentary. Like Evelyn Waugh, Lawrence Durrell, Peter Matthiessen and others Hoagland is in a long tradition that reaches back to Herodotus and beyond.
But another function of the informal essay is to give novelty to the familiar, as G.K. Chesterton did so well at his best. This is Hoagland's weakness, if he has one. His essays on subjects close at hand are full of interesting perceptions but do not clearly establish what he thinks or what he wants us to think. In his essay on sex roles, for example, he can write that "androgyny may be an irresistible phenomenon, not to be opposed by 'Ghost Dance' political movements or wistful traditionaists of a less hidebound stripe . . . a natural means of birth control, in other words, for a society gradually growing old." I confess that this is less than clear to me.
Notwithstanding such occasional rhetorical muddles, Edward Hoagland is a luminous and accomplished essayist with considerable eloquence and an eye for telling detail. But he is better at the 400-word sprint than the 20-page marathon.