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Sierra Magazine
Inside Sierra: Biology with Love

By Editor-in-chief Joan Hamilton

It's a peculiar life," says Edward Hoagland. On a Tuesday he's hurrying along Sixth Avenue in New York. On Wednesday, he's exploring Dog Canyon near the Rio Grande, "startling the vultures of a lion-killed deer in a dry streambed." Such are the days of an author whose subjects and style have always been wide-ranging. At times he's writing about circuses, tugboats, marriage, divorce, life in the city, and literary icons like John Updike and Philip Roth. Next thing you know, he's celebrating nature with poetic pieces like "Earth's Eye."

Drawn to snakes, frogs, and walks in the woods since childhood, Hoagland has earned a lofty reputation for his outdoor savvy. The Times Literary Supplement places him "among the finest nature writers that the genre has produced." Nevertheless, when I ask him about how his work has changed over the years, he begs for mercy. "People like me write books precisely because we don't talk well," he says. "Otherwise we'd be congressmen." He suggests I consult an advance copy of his latest tome, Tigers & Ice.

The book answers my question, as promised. In his fifth decade of writing, Hoagland has decided that nature is his most important story. Once just an observer, he's now an advocate, urging that we "reverse the momentum of worldwide destruction." Characteristically, he explains by means of a digression. When he is exhausted or disheartened, he likes to listen to circus music. Marine Corps bandmaster John Philip Sousa wrote many of the tunes, yet at the circus "they don't sound military-no longer music to kill or die by," he says in the introduction to Tigers & Ice. "When played with lilt and syncopation, they become poignant and chameleon-music by which to dance on a high wire or improvise a clown act or play with a tiger and survive, even thrive."

Could humans work such transformative magic on technology-harness the powers that have been killing nature "and tottering human culture" to work for its restoration and protection? The music analogy offers Hoagland hope: "It would require a change of spirit as well as rejiggering the thrust of the technological instrumentation we use-the clarinets to lilt a bit and toodle, the slide trombones to oompah, the trumpets to gild the lily, when not twitching their sharp shoulders, the drums to pile on unexpectedly, then dare to skip a beat or so."

It's hardly a scientific argument for restoration and reform. But a writer need not be a scientist. Hoagland brings passion to his subject as well as knowledge. "Nature writing," as Hoagland says, "is biology with love.


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