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Qn Dry Hill; A John Hay Tribute David Gessner If you were to suggest to the fishermen and carpenters who live down the street from John Hay that he is one of the great artists and original thinkers of the latter part of the twentieth century, you could forgive them if they rolled their eyes. The old guy in the baseball cap, baggy khakis, and flannel shirt who grumbles about traffic and tourists doesn't exactly look the part of environmental prophet. Just another salty Cape Cod crank. On the other hand, more than a few neighbors have penetrated his disguise. Not long ago, standing in the Hays' greenhouse, I had a conversation with their gardener, Jess. "I didn't know he was a writer at first, and Tm glad," he said. "If I knew how brilliant he was I wouldn't have been able to talk to him. One day I took one of his books home. It was so intense that it took me two hours to read a page." Jess's opinion is more or less in line with that of environmental critics . The editors of The Norton Book ofNature Writing call John Hay "one of the most innovative and daring of contemporary writers in the genre." James Dickey goes a little further: "If all of humanity were to read Mr. Hay's work, it is not unlikely that Darwin and St. Francis of Assisi would come back and join hands." No matter that the octogenarians who frequent the East Dennis post office, where John comes to mail his packages, might frown at the sight of those two dead men holding hands, and no matter that not quite all of humanity has read John Hay's work. The point is that the old man who lives up on Dry Hill has, unbeknownst to most of his neighbors, played a significant role in the development of American environmental thought and literature. Henry David Thoreau, of course, was the fountainhead of this thought, and it would be hyperbolic to suggest that John was as original and germinative as his great predecessor. But John has both preserved and expanded Thoreauvian thought. At the 136 A John Hay Tribute time when he began to put his sentences to paper American nature writing had endured a relative Dark Ages after its initial nineteenth century flowering with the work of Thoreau, Burroughs, and Muir. There were others who stood out in the early-to-mid twentieth century—Robinson Jeffers, Aldo Leopold, Henry Beston—but when John started writing about nature in the 1950s no one was doing the sort of work he was. Leopold's prose was more clear and scientific, lucidly articulating an environmental philosophy, and Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring would come out the same year as John's first book, would better galvanize the public behind the great issues. But as for the title the critics loved to dole out—"the modern Thoreau"—well, that crown clearly belonged on John's head. "He looks at nature from the inside out," a student of his once said, and that was just the thing. John Hay, in contrast with the other writers, had the instincts of a poet first, and didn't systemize his thoughts in the manner of Leopold. But by the early 1960s John was voicing poetic sentiments in prose that would anticipate the movement of environmental thought over the next forty years. Specifically, he anticipated the modern movement away from the self that Thoreau had lived out over his final years. Though there is always a personal vision in John Hay's writing, his books are also, in another way, almost entirely impersonal, if "personal" means cluttered by the details of an individual life. He manages, to an almost uncanny degree, to get outside of himself and into the lives of the birds, the fish, even the trees, exploring the unexplored edges between the human and non-human. In this way he was a forerunner, moving from the anthropocentric , or human-centered, to the biocentric and ecocentic. Or, to put it even more bluntly, from a philosophy that put man first to one that primarily considered the balance of...


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pp. 136-140
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