On Hoagland, Animal Obsession, and the Courage of Simile
John T. Price
Early in my training as a nature essayist, I was taught to avoid certain kinds of simile like the plague. I was told that to imply, either directly or indirectly, that members of another species are like something or someone else, or that they think or feel as humans do (otherwise known as anthropomorphizing), invited a dangerous disrespect for the needs of that species as distinct from our own. That was true, as well, for entire ecosystems such as the prairie wilderness of my home region, which was described by early white explorers as being “like” a desert or “like” an ocean, anything but itself, and thus ultimately destroyed to be “like” yet another something—an Eastern forest, a corn field, a suburb, a wind farm, a vein of ethanol. Now most of that prairie wilderness is like, well, nothing at all.
Despite this, I have repeatedly violated the simile rule, especially when it comes to animals. I blame Edward Hoagland’s “The Courage of Turtles.” From the first time I read that essay in my early twenties, it disarmed me, broke down boundaries, decimated the nature writing rulebook, and set me off on wild tangents that at first invited, but ultimately defied easy understanding—just as, according to Hoagland, good essays should. “Essays don’t usually boil down to a summary, as articles do,” he wrote in “What I Think, What I Am.” They are, instead, “a combination of personality and originality and energetic loose ends that stand up like the nap on a piece of wool and can’t be brushed flat.”
“The Courage of Turtles” has this kind of nap, and no matter how many times I read it or teach it, which is a lot, I can never quite comb it flat, though I continue to try.
It was first published on December 12, 1968, in The Village Voice, but that meant nothing to me when I first discovered it as a graduate student in the late 1980s. What mattered to me then was that it was about turtles. At the time, my future wife and I shared custody of an eastern box turtle named Methuselah, so I was moved right away by Hoagland’s description of how turtles and other wildlife were displaced (or killed) when a pond near his boyhood home was bulldozed to make it flow “like an English brook.” I had been feeling a little guilty about purchasing a turtle at a pet store, but felt momentarily vindicated by this sad story and by Hoagland’s claim that turtles “manage to contain the rest of the animal world.” Saving them, as he suggested, could thus become a major “case of virtue rewarded,” and he used a ton of similes to compare turtles to, among other vulnerable creatures, giraffes, war-horses, hippos, penguins, puppies, elephants, turkeys, and cow moose. I would have only added that turtles are also like hermit crabs, full of surprises, such as the day when Methuselah appeared to be excreting all of his internal organs out his backside—a huge, wet tube of purple, pink, and amber. Panicked, I called the vet who, after conducting additional research, informed me that Methuselah was simply experiencing “arousal.” Prior to that, I had not considered turtle sexuality as anything more interesting than two rocks knocking together. Now I thought of it as being like the colors of a sunset or a tropical flower or a clown hat.
This is the kind of wild tangent I’m talking about when I talk about reading “The Courage of Turtles”—I mean, who needs it? I did, apparently. As a Midwestern nature writer, living in a state where there is less than one-tenth of one-percent of native habitats remaining, I was just beginning to understand that I would have to do a lot with a little, and Hoagland’s essay was a good model. The list of my own animal obsessions was fairly short at the time, and decidedly non-native, but his piece encouraged me to take stock. The earliest was tigers—a fascination shared, as it happens, by Hoagland. “We have wiped tigers off the earth,” he wrote in “The Problem of the Golden Rule,” “and yet our children hear as much about the symbolism of tigers as children did in the old days.” I was one of those children. My maternal grandparents called me “Tiger,” and gave me all kinds of tiger stuff, such as a tiger sleeping bag and tiger slippers and tiger pajamas and tiger posters that I used to paper my bedroom walls. I was a small, physically awkward kid who mostly hung out alone in his room, so I suppose tigers symbolized everything I wasn’t: power, confidence, beauty, grace. During that same period, my grandparents regularly took me to the now defunct restaurant chain, Sambo’s, where wall murals depicting the Lil’ Sambo story taught me that tigers could also be a little like racism.
I often wonder if that early obsession with tigers led to my more recent obsession with mountain lions, which are returning to their home territory here in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, and facing a tough time of it. Hoagland wrote about his own obsession with the species in “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” and why I don’t teach that essay more often, I can’t say. Perhaps it’s because my experiences with animals here in the Midwest have, for most of my life, been less about respecting their wild freedom, than the ethical conundrums associated with creatures over which we have complete control. Cows and pigs, for instance. Also, domestic pets—that kind of power relationship with animals (as Hoagland’s essay testifies) offers up its own distinct set of responsibilities, personal associations, and similes. In kindergarten, for instance, I owned a couple of painted turtles, Jack and Jill, but was forced to “set them free” in a nearby stream, on the verge of winter, because my mother had heard on the radio that turtles can be like Salmonella. Most of the hamsters I owned escaped and ended up dead in the old coal room in our basement, which, I guess, was like some kind of elephant graveyard for hamsters. In first grade, I fell in love with a calico guinea pig named Peppermint Patty, but then my teacher convinced my parents that it would be fun and informative to mate Patty with her own monstrous white guinea pig, which she kept in the classroom. Patty and her pups died during birth not long before my only brother died during birth, which became its own unfortunate simile. Perhaps because of this, I temporarily moved away from relationships with flesh-and-blood animals and, in the fourth grade, became infatuated with a rubber spider monkey purchased at a dime store. I named him Chico, safety-pinned him to my shoulder, and wore him to school for a couple of days. There I learned that spider monkeys were a lot like public humiliation, which felt like just another kind of death.
As a grown up nature writer, I have, like Hoagland, explored obsessive relationships with numerous wild and domestic creatures in my published work. These include bison, mice, pheasants, squirrels, praying mantids, falcons, Triops, daddy long-legs, woodchucks, moles, elk, brown recluse spiders, prairie dogs, monarch butterflies, roaches, hummingbirds, robins, frogs, and children. I am currently obsessed with peacocks. In writing about these creatures, I have rationalized that my anthropomorphizing and liberal use of simile are less about arrogant assumptions, and more about trying to create in the reader what Hoagland refers to in “What I Think, What I Am” as “a golden empathy”—though he claims such empathy is primarily the stuff of fiction, not the essay. Or maybe what Buddhists call Sunyata, the interconnection of all things, which implies not only complete dependence on other life forms, but also the necessity of humility, even in the wake of what we think at first is knowledge. While arguing that “our lonliness” makes us avid essay readers, Hoagland claims that essays themselves “belong to the animal kingdom.” As such, they often elude easy capture or containment, which is how it should be when a nature essay—or an ecosystem—is working well. Inside such a place, on the page or on the earth, people think they are chasing down one kind of animal, one kind of knowledge, but then an almost-connection leads them to another and another, until the meaning and responsibility for that meaning lands back in the collective lap of our own species, in our own historical ways with one another.
This is part of the brilliance of “The Courage of Turtles,” as I’ve experienced it, but I didn’t fully appreciate that until I was preparing to teach it in one of my first writing classes as a T.A. I was once again puzzling over the ending, where Hoagland describes an aquatic terrapin he rescued, but ultimately found “exasperating” because it exhibited “none of the hearty, accepting qualities of wood turtles.” In a well-meaning, but botched “born free” moment, Hoagland tosses the terrapin off a New York pier, only to realize that the water was too deep, the currents too strong, and that the turtle would likely die. The essay concludes: “But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.”
This scene, when I initially read it, seemed a powerful statement about the human relationship to the natural world. Here was an example of the dangerous limits of our knowledge, and the even more dangerous limits of our ability to risk true identification with other living beings, because of what it might require of us. The danger of simile, perhaps. But then, probably because I was about to teach the piece and felt some additional pressure to be thorough, I reconsidered the publication date, 1968, and an entirely new set of associations presented themselves. I went back through and took note of Hoagland’s description of a captive turtle as having a “swollen face like a napalm victim’s,” and also this description of the turtles fleeing Mud Pond: “Creeping up the brooks to sad, constricted marshes, burdened as they are with that box on their back, they’re walking into a setup where all their enemies move thirty times faster than they. It’s like the nightmare most of us have whimpered through, where we are weighted down disastrously while trying to flee; fleeing our home ground, we try to run.” Later, when I shared these observations with my students, I had the luxury of watching them conclude on their own and fairly quickly that this essay was not just about turtles, but maybe also about the Viet Nam War and empathy for its victims, civilian and military. This was 1989 or so, and some of their family members were veterans of that war, or, like me, had heard people talk about those they knew, even loved, who’d been emotionally or physically injured or left mentally ill or killed. After further discussion, some of the students concluded that the final scene might also be suggesting that the American government would, in the interests of protecting itself, walk away from Viet Nam and those it was supposedly going to “free.” Those it had, at the very least, promised to protect. Including our returning soldiers.
In this way, we discovered that an essay—on top of all its other admirable qualities—could be a lot like prophecy.
But time, like nature, cannot be contained, and my teaching experiences with “The Courage of Turtles” have roamed dramatically in that last twenty-five years. Nowadays, when I mention 1968 and napalm and ask my students for their associations, far fewer of them volunteer anything specific about Viet Nam. This inevitably disappoints me, but this disappointment, because I invite and expect it, is likely nothing more than cheap compensation for growing older. The history lesson I now feel compelled to deliver, though important in its own way, too often allows me the delusion that the large-scale, murderous forms of hubris I knew in my youth, during that war-time, are in some essential way different from those known by my young students in this war-time. Setting up such a generational hierarchy becomes, for their aging professor, yet another case of virtue rewarded, a chance to “free” them from their own ignorance. That supposedly heroic effort leaves less time to examine the still urgent, uncompromising fact that we remain at our most dangerous when we think we know what’s best for another being, when we make assumptions or create expectations about how they should best live or feel or mate or believe or know. Whether that being is another species, or another person sitting across a classroom or half-way across the globe.
Still, I can’t help myself. Case in point, my current obsession with writing about peacocks. Or rather, a particular male peacock that has been seen running around our heavily wooded neighborhood with a gang of wild turkeys. He was first spotted a couple of years ago by my then nine-year-old son, Spencer, crossing the road in front of our minivan—a strutting riot of blue and green amid the dull colors of his adopted tribe. The peacock and turkeys have been spotted many times together since then, by many people, and on certain spring mornings, his high pitched screech has shattered the otherwise trickling, Zen-like music of the song birds leaking in our bedroom windows. His call sometimes sounds like a child screaming for help, and in the stunned silence that usually follows, I often wonder if he is, in fact, in need of help. Should I do something? Call someone? I can’t resist wondering if that bird feels vulnerable or lonely, or perhaps rebellious or courageous. Does it take courage for a peacock to run with a gang of turkeys, to attempt to be like a turkey? Is he a living example of the courage of simile, the grammatical expression of the desires and actions of a creature who needs, for whatever reason, to overcome his isolation and connect with another species, another being—to be like another, and therefore, in some way, become another? To make their needs his own? Or if those needs are beyond understanding, to at least make their fate his own. To finally, and without hesitation, dive in.
The questions and challenges presented by this kind of “golden empathy” seem as relevant today, as they were in 1968 or, say, the day Jesus was born. But will future readers of my peacock story see it that way? I’m a bit worried about that, about future readers, because I’m not sure I’ll have any. If I do, I kind of both love and hate to think about somebody teaching my essay and saying something like, “Yes, it may seem to be a vapid piece about a peacock, but look at the publication date—2013! What does that year in America mean to you, class? It was, of course, the year of the government shut-down, the closing of our national parks, the botched Obamacare website, and the death of Andy Griffith—but also the Boston Marathon bombing and the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma and our endless wars in the Middle East! It’s all there in Price’s essay, if you look closely.”
Will anyone care enough to look that closely and see all of these things? If so, will they also see through the camouflage of historical relevancy to what Hoagland has designated as the true subject of all essays: “the fascination of the mind”? Will they see—do I want them to see—that the real reason the author first became fascinated with that singular peacock is that it seemed funny and out of place and in its pathetic self-deception, almost, but not quite, graceful? And that the year 2013 was, among other things, the year when the author, moving toward 50, was especially appreciative of all things funny, out of place, pathetic, and almost-but-not-quite graceful.
Sort of like him.
John T. Price is the author of three nature memoirs--Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (Shambhala, 2013), Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (Da Capo, 2008), and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (U. of Nebraska Press, 2004)--and editor of The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, forthcoming next spring from the U. of Iowa Press. He lives with his family in western Iowa and teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he directs the English Department's Creative Nonfiction Writing Program.