Edward Hoagland’s book Sex and the River Styx is a collection of essays about nature, travel, and what he has learned from life. He self-consciously situates himself as someone nearing the end of his life looking back and taking stock. This is the first Hoagland book I’ve read (which I got from the publisher on NetGalley), although I’ve read single essays of his from various collections before. It’s an interesting book and a number of things stand out about it, most obviously the quality of the writing, as in this passage, where he writes about his own death:
. . . accepting death as a process of disassembly into humus, then brook, and finally seawater demystifies it for me. I don’t mean I comprehend bidding consciousness goodbye. But I love the rich smell of humus, of true woods soil, and of course the sea — love rivulets and brooks, lying earthbound, on the ground. The question of decomposition is not pressing or frightening. From the top of the food chain I’ll reenter the bottom. Be a bug; then a shiner shimmering in the closest stream … or partially mineralized — does one need retinas and a hippocampus? Because I don’t particularly want to be me, my theory is no. A green shoot a woodchuck might munch seems okay. I believe in continuity through conductivity: that the seething underpinnings of life’s flash and filigree, its igniting chemistry, may, like fertilizer, appear temporarily dead, but spark across species like the electricity of empathy, or as though paralleling the posthumous alchemy of art.
His descriptions are so specific, so precise, that you can imagine exactly what he’s describing. even if you haven’t actually seen it with your own eyes. I also admired the strong sense of joy that runs through the book, alongside the equally strong (or stronger, perhaps?) sense of doom. As one who loves nature deeply, Hoagland mourns over all that we’ve lost on the earth and all that we will lose in the future. When he says he’s glad he won’t be around to witness the future destruction that is inevitably on the way, I sympathize. But still, he has a strong sense of joy that he sees running through the entire creation; here is he thinking about the question of who or what, exactly, experiences joy:
Most of us nowadays agree that the birds that sing at dawn in the spring are expressing some degree of gladness in their surging notes, not merely a mechanical territoriality. But for a person like me who considers the toads’ sparkling, twinned-note, extended song on warm days in May and June to be actually loveliest of all, the answer is not that easy. I can’t swallow the notion that I — but not the toads — find it so lovely. (I also think I’ve seen and heard alligators and seen turtles enjoy themselves.) However, then the question shifts to whether amphibians that sing, such as frogs and toads, only began to respond to warmth and what we call beauty after they left the constancy of the water and ceased being fish. Not a sure-shot answer there either, unless you discount the evidence of your eyes when you’re closely watching fish. And water is an unboxed, undulant medium. What does it mimic when it sloshes?
This passage is from the first essay, which describes Hoagland’s childhood experiences with nature. Other essays tell of journeys that he made into Africa and India. The African trip recounted in “Visiting Norah” takes him to Uganda (his fifth trip to that continent) to see the family he has supported financially. He writes of happiness at seeing the people with whom he has been corresponding, but also his uncomfortable awareness of the vast differences in comfort and privilege between him and everyone he sees and how those differences infiltrate his every conversation.
Other essays are about stories from his interesting life; he writes about working in the circus, for example, and the lessons he learned about animals and humans both. He writes about what aging has taught him and in particular, what it means to be a man who is growing old. He writes about his stutter and how that turned him both inward into himself and outward toward nature.
Sometimes he sounds like a crotchety old man who thinks the world isn’t nearly as good as it was when he was young, but most of the time it’s easy to see that he may well be right, especially when he writes about what we are doing to nature — about rainforests lost and species destroyed. I’m inclined to be suspicious of his arguments about technology and how it turns us away from the natural world, but he may well be right there too.
This is a bracing, sometimes uncomfortable read, but in its best moments, it’s exhilarating as well. Hoagland’s vision of a world full of marvels and bubbling over with energy and joy is a beautiful one and should make us think carefully about what we are doing to it.
11 responses to “Sex and the River Styx”
I am just coming back to reading essays after a long gap and at the moment I’m concentrating on those to do with books because I know my interest in the subject will ensure that I engage with the thought processes behind the writing. I don’t think essay reading is something that should be engaged with lightly. When I feel I’ve got my essay related stamina back, however, this certainly sounds like something to at least dip into. Thank you for the pointer.
Annie — I’m curious why you think essay reading shouldn’t be taken lightly? It’s one of my favorite genres, so I’m all for indiscriminate essay reading 🙂 But they can take a certain mindset and they require concentration. Reading essays about books is a wonderful way to get back into the genre. Books about books are so much fun.
Dorothy, I think it’s because the thoughts in essays are so often very condensed. There is no room when engaging with them for the reader to take a ‘breath’, you have to be in full concentration mode all the time. I used to enjoy that but have got out of practice, hence the need to break myself back in gently.
That makes sense, Ann, thank you. I think you are right that they can be condensed, and therefore an intense reading experience.
I love the second passage – so often people view the attribution of joy and other emotions to animals as a kind of soft-hearted or anti-rigorous. And sometimes it is hard not to anthropomorphize, but it’s equally arrogant to assume, like Descartes did, that simply by virtue of our humanity people are the only creatures who feel joy or think thoughts.
Another essayist who is completely new to me! I’ll look him up, Dorothy.
I like those excerpts, Dorothy–an interesting and considered review. Thanks!
These sound like wonderful essays. I liked both the passages you quoted. Having lived with animals of various intellectual abilities all my life I do believe they feel joy. It may not be the same as humans experience it but I don’t think that means it can be discounted.
Emily — I think Hoagland does a great job acknowledging the ways animals might experience joy and seem to experience it based on his observations, and also recognizing that they are fundamentally mysterious to us, and we really don’t know what their experience is like. perhaps that’s a way to keep from anthropomorphizing them.
Litlove — he was mostly new to me, and I was happy to learn more about him!
Lilian — good. He has quite a way with words, I think.
Stefanie — I agree, and I think it’s important to leave open the possibility that animals experience all kinds of complex emotions.
Stefanie is reading a books of essays from Netgalley as well–I can see I need to explore their books a little more carefully, though the number of books they have is a little staggering. When I was reading essays last year I found the ones I often liked the best were nature essays, so I’ll have to check this one out.
Danielle — I agree that NetGalley can be a little overwhelming, and their search functions aren’t that great. Actually, their whole website is pretty sub-par. But still, all those free galleys! Hard to resist.