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| 7 out of place  david gessner Learning to Talk Bird Today I am walking along the edge of the Cape Fear River searching for painted buntings, birds made up of patches of wild fauvist color—bluebird’s head, flaming belly, lime-green wings. But while this quest happily occupies my eyes, my mind is elsewhere. I am thinking, as hundreds of fiddler crabs scuttle off in front of me, about two men named John. In life the writers John Hay and John Haines were sometimes confused with each another. So, too, in death. Late this past winter, in a strange coincidence, the two naturewriting elders died within five days of each other. Hay was ninety-five, Haines eighty-six. I knew John Haines only a little, both in person and on the page. I had read The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, a fierce memoir of his life of homesteading, trapping, and isolation on a hundredplus acres in Alaska. Later I was lucky enough to meet him at a conference and tell him how I felt about the book. He was gracious and attentive, undermining his curmudgeonly reputation. I knew John Hay quite a bit better. About a decade ago I began paying a series of visits to his house on Dry Hill, in the town of Brewster on Cape Cod. While Haines retreated to Alaska, John Hay withdrew from the world to that house on the hill after World War II. To some, Cape Cod might seem a rather tame and civilized retreat, but in the 1940s, Brewster, where John engaged in his own form of homesteading, had only eight hundred citizens, and he was able to buy his eighteen acres for just twentyfive dollars an acre. It might have paled next to John Haines’s retreat, but there was wildness and solitude aplenty during February by the shore. John moved to Brewster after college to seek out the poet Conrad Aiken, who had recently settled there. He had vague literary ambitions, and approached Aiken to see if he “couldn’t get in a little apprentice writing with him.” He ended up staying with the Aikens for a while, doing both yard and literary work, hoping to absorb whatever it was that made Aiken a writer. “It was Aiken’s personality as much as his work, that seemed almost immediately liberating, even thrilling,” John told me. “My parents, my mother in particular, believed in being proper and restrained, and that was how I was raised. Conrad was entirely different. Wild and uninhibited.” World War II interrupted his time 8 | ecotone with Aiken, but before he shipped out, John made an uncharacteristically impulsive decision, one that would affect the course of the rest of his life, and bought the land on Dry Hill. The land waited for him during the war. When he returned, John made his furtive start as a writer, with Aiken serving the dual roles of any good mentor, someone for John to define himself both by and against. John loved the man’s wildness and his late-night monologues about “consciousness,” and the extravagant cocktail hours which grew so famous that even the napkins used for the Aiken’s pewter drinking goblets later found their way into an Updike novel. But despite Aiken’s company, Cape Cod struck him at first as a somewhat bleak place, particularly in the off-season. John later told me that it took a while to “start to see possibilities in the land.” Meanwhile John struggled to write, living in the shadow of the famous poet and unclear of his own subject. But if the writing wasn’t going well, something else was happening. He began to feel more deeply the cycles of the natural world. “The mystery about the travels of birds, eels, monarch butterflies, or alewives, is not only a matter of routes or seasonal behavior,” he wrote in The Run, his book about the annual migration of the alewife. “It has to do with an internal response to the spinning globe and its unending creative energies. As a result of a respectful regard for other animals we may find that we are being led onto traveled ways that...


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