SEASONS AT EAGLE POND
by Donald Hall
Ticknor & Fields. 86 pp. $15.95
In Donald Hall, the poet and essayist, the venerable New England tradition of the rural literary sage just might be alive and kicking. Certainly Hall answers the mythological description: Nearing 60, he has the age, the experience, the seasoned body of work we associate with Robert Frost and E.B. White. A New England native, he has lived since 1975 at his 180-year-old family farm near the fittingly obscure village of Danbury, N.H. And like Thoreau, Hall knows how to draw inspiration from the sable waters of a local pond.
In the slender "Seasons at Eagle Pond," his latest collection of essays, Hall evokes rural New England as eloquently as any living writer. From his ancestral valley in the shadow of Mount Kearsarge, Hall writes of ice storms with a "painful glaze reflecting from maple and birch, granite boulder and stonewall, turning electric wires into bright silver filaments"; of Old Home Day in Danbury, where, watching slides of previous Old Home Days, the villagers sit "in the Town Hall with shades drawn on a warm dry afternoon late in August looking at our dead in Ektachrome."
Born of an honest search for home, this eloquent volume remains authentic. Moving into the region, some writers graft traditional rural values onto themselves and pose as Yankee savants, achieving a pseudo-eloquence that can persuade the unwary. Coming home to New Hampshire -- or, at least, to the summer place of his youth (he grew up in suburban Connecticut) -- Hall writes not only from memory and recent experience but also from rigorous self-examination. This search for organic connection to a chosen place distinguishes the work, moves it out into deeper waters than more ordinary accounts of New England seasons and culture.
The place itself is where Hall's search begins. Here he feels the stern presence of ancestors, wrestles with his legacy of traditional New England values, tries joining the community -- umpiring softball games, cooking for the church fair.
Evoking New England's picture-perfect charms, Hall is laboring under a handicap: They are altogether too familiar. And the book's organizing principle -- the four seasons, each with a chapter -- is the hoariest cliche' in the nature-writing genre.
But Hall the poet proves equal to the challenge of making us see, as if for the first time, snowflakes that "seem tentative and awkward at first, then in a hastening host a whole brief army falls, white militia paratrooping out of the close sky over various textures, making them one"; or acorns with "tiny metallic smooth green breasts with sharp nipple points, knitted caps on top to end breasthood."
A more timid soul would duck the subject of New England's autumn leaves, lest tongue falter or description drown in cliche's; but as if determined to rise to the most glorious of natural occasions, Hall pulls out all the metaphorical stops in his "Fall" chapter, likening the season to opera, to "arias brilliant with contrast, gross gorgeous vulgar screeches of color"; to a "Latin Quarter of passionate disorderly violent color"; to "expressionist cooking" combining the likes of curry powder and chocolate, fresh pineapple and chile relleno. The extravagance is exhilarating, a delirious rejoinder to Yankee understatement.
In each of these seasonal essays, Hall is probing his own character in what he describes, what he endures, what he treasures. Each season is a facet of the man -- autumn's prodigality, winter's stoicism; each holds a clue to the link between place and the writer's affirmation of identity.
Alarmed by the modern tide of dishonest writing, Hall wrote in his 1968 essay "An Ethic of Clarity": "Our reading of good writers and our attempt to write like them can help to guard against the dulling onslaught. But we can only do this if we are able to look into ourselves with some honesty. An ethic of clarity demands intelligence and self-knowledge."
True to his words, "Seasons at Eagle Pond" makes no phony claims. Though he lives on a farm in a predominantly agrarian community, Hall admits he's no farmer -- neighbors do the farm work for him. Though he frequently dislikes the "summer people" who vacation in New Hampshire, Hall remembers that he, too, came not so long ago from the outside. In a sense, he remains an outsider -- a self-conscious artist in a utilitarian community.
At the center of this affecting work is a quiet drama. A writer's chosen place nurtures his writing. A companionable fellow, Donald Hall refuses to set himself apart from his community. Still, his search for home is not over.
The reviewer is a writer who lives in Orchard Gap, Va.