Notes from the Century Before

by Edward Hoagland
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103

In the journal’s next to last entry, dated August 2, Hoagland describes a scene on the Tahltan River near Telegraph Creek. A landslide has filled the river, and salmon are blocked from their spawning grounds upriver. Though the river has blasted a passage through the slide, it is narrow and the water moves through like a fire hose, killing the trapped fish. Attempts by fisheries workers to carry the fish in barrels past the slide are ineffective as the salmon die in transport. Watching from the shore, Hoagland feels like crying as thirty thousand fish, many without noses because of the battering on rocks, slowly die.

The picture of large fish carried by instincts to unfulfilled obliteration is an apt concluding note to the journal. It serves to depict the condition Hoagland senses human beings face as the twentieth century draws to a close. His journal has held in focus a very small, rare generation of explorers who forsook the America of cities and highways to spend entire lifetimes in the wilderness. With all the wonder Hoagland feels for their lives, his journal, he realizes, is an elegy to a gone world, not an encouragement to future explorers. What is lost, Hoagland senses, is not a breed of men capable of living this life, but the open geography, wild and empty of settlements. Like the blocked salmon driven upriver, the rare man capable of living the all-consuming life of exploration is denied fulfillment simply because all the wilderness has been chartered.

The best man, Hoagland intimates again and again, the man most worthy of drawing breath, is the man who lives the Cro-Magnon dream. Leaving civilization is not enough. The ideal man leaves civilization to inhabit the wilderness permanently. An example of such a man, for Hoagland, is John Creyke, citizen of Telegraph Creek whose trapping territory alone is twice as large as the state of Delaware. His life of moving on foot or behind a dogsled across a huge area has established his identity, a presence so admirable to Hoagland that he records it as heroic: “He’s been south to the Nass . . . and north to the headwaters of the Yukon, and west to the International Boundary, and east into the Liard River system—one of the iron men, one of the princes.” Men such as Creyke are the object of Hoagland’s search. His self-appointed function as a journalist is to preserve their memory. Creyke, as it happens, can neither read nor write. Such “doers” stand above the common herd. Hoagland notes that most others have shot their dog teams, and the Indians are rarely practitioners of Creyke’s passions either. After lauding Creyke in two pages of his journal, Hoagland abruptly switches to inhabitants of Telegraph Creek who are not living the dream. The Hudson’s Bay clerk is a frail functionary. A preacher and a nurse exhibit inferior obsessions.

In his introduction to the journal, Hoagland writes, “The problem nowadays turns on how we shall decide to live.” The person who sees as much as there is to see is to be honored. Hoagland’s valuation of such people is unashamedly romantic. Jim Morgan’s eyes are “extraordinary,” and when they see something “they light on it. It’s not that they’re big; it’s that they’re wide.” The wideness Hoagland attributes to Morgan’s lifetime of seeing, not to innocence, just as the wolf’s eyes have developed a slant for self-preservation. Hoagland takes pride in his own eyes, in the searching they have done to rescue these anonymous heroes. A happy moment for him is when he is assumed to be the grandson of Frank Swanell, another explorer, who is for Hoagland in the “whittled down” modern era “the equivalent of De Soto.”

Hoagland also values the quality of the relationship such men have with the wildness they call home. A reader of the journal will sense that the qualities Hoagland finds to admire in the old men are projected in faith from his own sensibility, since, for the most part, the explorers and trappers are inarticulate about their feelings. The finely honed writer’s awareness is everywhere transmuting the wilderness phenomena, as well as seeking it out. After seeing a cow butchered, Hoagland meditates and describes for three pages in an agony of empathy for the cow: “The pawing was redolent with woe and sharp frustration—all was dissolved.” The author’s capacity to be taken in by what he sees, to sustain interest, is no small part of what the journal preserves.

Notes from the Century Before is full of many expressions belonging distinctly to Hoagland. His ability to nail down what he experiences with sharp images is a phenomenon as wild and unpredictable as the wilderness itself. Seeing a group of wild horses, he writes, “They have the corrupt, gangster faces of mercenaries and that tight herding instinct.” Impressionistic energy is released in describing each new face. Wriglesworth’s wife’s “hair is a frumpy dab, her mouth bends like a bobby pin.” An Indian has “a chin like a goiter, a distorted cone of a forehead. He looked like a movie monster; he was stupendous.” Leading off a paragraph with the assertion that a certain man is difficult to convey on paper, Hoagland proceeds to do what is so difficult, in two pages describing how the man chops wood, drinks from his hat, and appears blithe despite lips so chapped that he cannot smile. What strikes a reader is not so much the uncommonness of the man described, but the uncommonness of the powers exerted in the seeing.

Living on the edge of boundlessness as the settlers do, Hoagland asserts, is very healthy for the mind, both the practical, inventive side, which is daily challenged, and the imaginative side. “You’re always looking for what’s ahead,” a Telegraph Creek trapper tells Hoagland, explaining the pleasure each day offers. Hoagland’s work of searching out the people who live such lives is similarly pleasurable, as the journal logs character after character, view after view. Hoagland’s hometown, New York, cannot shape a person the way the fastnesses of British Columbia do; a writer is lucky to find people so alive, even if, as Hoagland repeatedly reminds himself, the possibility for such daily rapture died the century before. Hoagland also shows, without apology, that such pleasures are the domain of men alone. The typical wife looks like a nurse, stout and servantlike, but a man, such as Amel Phillipon of Eddontenajon, achieves serenity: “He’s marked with the exuberance of the search.”

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