categories: Cocktail Hour
As I mentioned in this space, both John Hay and John Haines died within five days of each other last week. I’ve written quite a bit about the uses of elders, how we define ourselves both by and against writers we admire who came before us. I consider myself very lucky to have spent a lot of time with older writers, not just Hay but Haines, who I had a long and wonderful conversation with at an AWP conference a few years back.
What follows is, again, modified from my book The Prophet of Dry Hill:
When I lived on Cape Cod I was only about a mile from John Hay’s house and I visited him often on his small fortress of land on Dry Hill.
John was famously private and before I started working on my book about him the produced of a New England TV show had warned me: “He didn’t greet me at the edge of his property with a shotgun, but close. That old bastard is one tough interview.”
But after a while I didn’t find him so tough. I would even sometimes visit spontaneously, without a phone call first, and he didn’t shoot at me once. One morning I saw hundreds of northern gannets from my study window—blazing white birds diving into a broiling Cape Cod Bay—and afterward was so excited that I drove right over to tell him the news.
“You should be pleased,” he said. “Gannets are a good luck bird.”
( TO SEE GANNETS DIVE FOR YOURSELF CLICK here. IT’S WORTH IT!)
There was something at once warm and formal about John’s voice. He made a sudden plunging motion with his hand.
“Did you know that after they hit the water they dive like cormorants? They can swim underwater and submerge almost seventy-five feet.”
He described seeing thousands of gannets during trips he’d made to Nova Scotia and England. Though the birds could spend months without landing on shore, when they roosted and bred they crowded the off-shore rocks.
“Bass rock in England was covered in gannets,” he said. “They turned the cliffs entirely white.”
John gave me an enigmatic look, a look that might have been the result of his cataracts, or might have been consciously enigmatic.
“I’d like to see your gannets,” he said.
A few days later I drove him down to the beach at the mouth of Payne’s Creek, hoping to fulfill his beach.
“It’s getting a little colder,” I said. “Maybe the gannets will be firing up soon.”
“You think they need cold? It’s fish that they’re after.”
“But I associate them with cold. I call it gannet weather.”
I make no pretensions to clairvoyance, but that day it was almost as if I called up the birds. Within five minutes I saw the first group massing out near where the old target ship used to sit. The target ship was a honeycombed wreck–once used for bombing practice by the military–that had now sunken completely. At first I mistook the birds for gulls, which is fairly easy to do from a distance. But then I walked right up to the shoreline and got a glimpse through the binoculars of the unmistakably long and radiant wings. I called for John to join me, and soon we were watching a full-on ariel show. The sun lit the undersides of the wings so that they blazed the same white as the breakers, and as we watched the birds hovered, tilted, and then dove into the water like white arrows.
I felt as if we were watching a thrilling sporting event as dozens more of the gannets gathered, clearly having found a great fishing spot. What was it like to be a fish and suddenly have a bird come tunnelling down from above out of the air into water, your element? If I felt for the fish, it didn’t interfere with the sheer pleasure I took in the gannets’ athleticism. One immature bird turned a full 360 before striking the water, flashing its dark back to white belly. Once the gannets found a spot they hit the water relentlessly. In a single second four, five, six birds would blade into the water. Bird after bird dove and splash after splash went up like the spouts from the blowholes of tiny whales. We cheered them on mindlessly.
“Boom!” I yelled when one hit the water. Then, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”
If not acting quite as foolishly as me, John was having fun, too. He wore a steady smile and laughed as the birds dove and rose back up, dove and rose again. This is what we had come to see.
“I’d like to be out there with them,” John said.
“I thought birds were supposed to be energy conservers,” I said.
“Not gannets,” he said. “They’re excessive.”
We began to wonder how many fish a day a gannet would need to survive, particularly given their wild expenditures of effort. He asked me how many fish an osprey caught a day and I said three or four, though sometimes more once the clutch of nestlings hatched.
Suddenly John turned from the gannets and swept his right arm across the horizon and then, pivoting, back behind him at the estuary. It was like standing inside a moving painting: The wind blowing the water and sand, the jangling light spraying over the beach, the colors and feel of the wind bracing us.
“I love the way the whole landscape is rhythmically alive,” he said.
That was how it seemed. I suggested the notion that it was like a painting but he had other ideas.
“But there is so much movement. One movement leading to another. More like a symphony.”
And he was right. The landscape was a kind of musical composition that the gannets were part of. The whole of it, the pulsing, the wildness, the rhythms, all of it ran through us like a great electric current. We were part of something larger and that thing that we were part of was vital. Was alive.
* * *
While watching the gannets dive I admitted to John that lately I’d been spending much of the time during my beach walks worrying and planning for the future. For the last few years Nina and I had tried to support ourselves as writers. But we knew we couldn’t afford to stay on Cape Cod much longer and that our pastoral adventure would soon end. We hoped to start a family and we were always short on money. I had dreamed of writing a book that would solve these problems, but this had begun to seem increasingly unrealistic. It was getting harder to keep worry from muscling into my mind, and I was now using my walks to the bluff for therapy or planning sessions.
“You need to watch that,” he said with surprising sharpness. “You’re not really seeing nature at all if you’re just listening to your own chatter. You can’t come to it for your own uses. You’ve got to see it for itself. To open yourself to it. It isn’t easy.”
“For me planning can be as bad as worrying,” I said.
“We all need the illusion of control. Just like the sea walls and trophy homes. We need to preserve the myth that we’re in charge. We don’t like to face the fact that we’re as vulnerable as skunks or shorebirds. But nature teaches that uncertainty and chance are enormous factors in the lives of animals, and it just so happens that we are animals. If we admit that it may not solve anything, but at least it has the advantage of being honest. And if we admit how truly vulnerable we are then humility isn’t just the wise choice, it’s the obvious one.”
I liked the consistency between the man and the books. When I wrote about nature, I often used it as a stage for human drama. But John was always pointing beyond the human. For him, emotion wasn’t to be wasted on oneself, but, through empathy, imparted on and into other creatures and plants. To put it another way the beach and woods weren’t places for tunneling inward as much as going outward.
In the 1964 congressional record of his address accepting the John Burroughs medal, nature writing’s Pulitzer, John had said: “To see, and then to interpret, takes practice, and practice in depth.” Reading his books over the last weeks I kept coming back to the importance of seeing well as his perpetual theme.
In fact the more I read of his work, and the more I talked to him, the more I understood that seeing meant everything to John Hay, and that was what excited me. Both the ability to see the miraculous nature of the world, and the ability to see the consequences of one’s life and actions. To see! That, after all, was the great discipline nature taught. To make the effort–and it was an effort–to see without a cluttered controlling mind. To see and respect other beings and peoples for what they were. To turn one’s vision, not inward, always inward, but outward toward the multifarious world.
* * *
When we first arrived we’d had the beach and the gannets to ourselves but not long after a gray-haired couple arrived. They set up camp down the beach from us, watching the gannets through a telescope. After a while we walked over and asked if we could have a peek. As bird watchers they were relative beginners, and they asked us what the birds were called. John began to expound on the gannets’ habits, telling them of his visits to the gannetries on Bonaventure Island on the Gaspe Peninsula off Quebec. The couple seemed very pleased. When he was done the woman addressed him almost bashfully.
“Are you John Hay?” she asked.
John admitted he was. It was a funny moment: the oxymoron of the non-celebrity celebrity. Clearly this had been more than the couple had bargained for when they took their brand new telescope to the beach. They were getting their money’s worth: seeing both spectacular diving gannets and the Cape’s famous celebrator of birds.
Through the scope the scene was even more immediate and vivid, and you felt almost as if you were part of the dive, becoming the great white birds as they searched the water, feeling the tension of hovering, then the release in a great and wild plunge. Another line of eiders came rifling and humping through, bisecting the view through the scope from west to east. And then a line of brants that were more haphazardly aligned. When John looked into the scope again, he muttered, “Yes…Wow, marvelous.” Now we had eiders, scoters, plovers, brant, killdeer, gulls, and cormorants covering the horizon, all trying to upstage each other, flying in every direction. A great whirl of birds.
“In the old days there were really a lot of birds around,” he said. “But this isn’t half bad.”
To me it seemed a little more than that. If exaltation took practice, as John had written, then I’d practiced plenty since moving back to Cape Cod. But the moments of lift had almost always come while walking alone. There was something about being both with John and with the birds that lifted this day above the ordinary.
“It’s quite a wonderful time of year, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s a changeover. All the migrants come and go and the winds go with it. A time for movement and transition.”
We went back to watching the gannets but soon the north wind picked up and a more seasonable cold blew in. We decided to retreat to the car.
“That was marvelous,” he said as we walked back to the car, “Just marvelous. I’m afraid I’ll have to be getting back home. I’m exhausted now. But that was worth everything.”
We climbed in the car and drove away from the beach. On Route 6-A we passed the Cape Museum of Natural History, which, forty years before, John had helped found and become the first president of. Though temperamentally apolitical, his love for nature had transformed him into a leader, an activist, and he was still active in the museum’s affairs. For decades he had served as the museum’s chief adminstrator, fundraiser, and, of course, visionary. As we passed he gestured at the museum and told me that he was anticipating, later that day, a visit from the museum’s current director. John didn’t like the direction the museum had been heading in, and was particularly affronted by the fact that this new director didn’t even live on the Cape, but commuted here for work. And he was upset with the man over the firing of a young poet who had worked at the museum. John described to me how he’d like to drive the director off his property and “bawl him out.”
“Maybe I should go in and buy a bottle of Jack Daniels to prepare myself,” he said when we passed the liquor store.
“You can slug back a few shots before he arrives.”
“Well, yes. I better think about how to behave this afternoon. I don’t want to just fly off the handle.”
We drove back up Stony Brook Road and pulled over to check his mail box at the bottom of Dry Hill. The mail wasn’t in yet but we picked up the newspaper.
“It’ll be the same news as yesterday,” he said. “The world going to hell. It’s terrifying.”
But the experience on the beach had lifted him too high to let the paper drag him down. The open air had worked its alchemy, transubstantiating curmudgeonry into wonder.
“I have an idea–” I said.
“What’s that?” he interrupted. His voice was loud and playful. “You’re going to turn yourself into a gannet, right? Then you can have some real fun.”
He laughed in his usual startled manner and I forgot what I was going to say.
“Transformation,” he said as he climbed out of the car. “That’s the secret, transformation.”
I walked him to the house and we stood on his front porch for a while talking.
“There are larger rhythms than just our human rhythms,” he said. “It’s when we think our rhythms are the only noise, that’s when we get in trouble. How do we stop jabbering long enough to hear something beyond ourselves? Living by the ocean helps of course. It’s harder to think you’re so all important when you have something so primal next door.”
He sighed and leaned against the door frame.
“A day out with the birds,” he said. “That’s about as close as I can come to an answer.”
He dipped into the house and came back with an old book. It was Bird Display and Behavior by Edward A. Armstrong. He handed me the book and suggested I read the first chapter, “The Ceremonial of the Gannet.”
“He writes about the importance of ritual in the gannet’s life,” he said. “Ritual is the key. The rituals of nest-building, courtship, and diving.”
I thanked him for the book and we said goodbye. I drove off, but when I got to the bottom of the hill I noticed that the flag on his mailbox was now up. Driving back up the driveway with his mail I no longer felt awkward or intimidated, as I had just a few weeks before; in fact I felt an almost goofy comfortableness.
When I knocked again he popped his head out. He thanked me for the mail. Then he mentioned the new museum director again before I left.
“Give him a kick in the shin for me,” I said.
“I’ll give him a kick in the ass,” he growled.
This time when I climbed back in the car I remembered that I’d brought along my copy of Nature’s Year. I ran back to the house one more time and asked him to sign it.
“You won’t go away,” he said.
But he walked out on the porch and took the book from me, pinning it against the house and scribbling something in an unsteady hand.
“That was a marvelous outing,” he said again, handing me the book. “Thank you for it.”
This time I finally did leave, driving out through the tunnel of trees. I had come to John because I thought he might be good material, but I was quickly sensing that I might be getting more than I’d bargained for. Earlier in the day I’d read a line in Nature’s Year: “I regret the shorter day and the need to leave the great air so soon.” I already regretted that our adventure was over. Winter was blowing in, and the change from daylight savings would occur in three days. I wondered if I would have much of a chance to get John outside during the coming cold months. “Old age is no good,” he’d said earlier with a sigh. But at least we’d had moments, and moments, it seemed to me were what he had built his life on.
At the bottom of Dry Hill I pulled over and looked at his inscription on the title page of my book.
On good luck gannet day. October 31.