State of grace

When you meet him, David Brendan Hopes doesn’t seem like the type who’d be outdoors a lot — but after reading his new book, A Sense of the Morning (Milkweed Editions, 1999), one learns not to be fooled by his somewhat bookish facade.

In fact, Hopes has spent a great deal of his life in nature. In Morning, he directs his considerable literary talents there, as well — with sometimes surprising results. The book, (which has been excerpted in The New Yorker and Audubon, among other places) was begun when Hopes was a graduate student at Syracuse University, and published in 1988 by Dial Press.

It quickly went out of print, but has found new life in the thoroughly revised Milkweed edition, released this January.

Any book of essays with a vague theme like “nature” can quickly trigger suspicions that it will be rife with second-hand Romanticism or Transcendentalism — or, worse yet, a Bambi-esque New Age conviction that the natural world is one big, happy family, with Thumper and Flower cowering as they hide from the bad man with the gun. While Hopes’ book does indulge in Romanticism from time to time (he is, after all, a professor of literature, language, humanities and creative writing, right here at our own UNCA), the book is blessedly free of the fuzzy delusions that can make nature books seem tedious.

In the introduction, the author writes: “If I ‘love’ nature it is not because nature is beautiful — though, of course, it is beautiful — but because it bears witness. The witness it bears is terrible and uncompromising. Like the blow of a swan’s wing or a sudden plunge into a waterfall, nature can wake us into immediate and not always gratifying awareness. Bracing and immaculate, it can take our breath away without leaving us any wiser.” This passage sets the tone for the lyrical, thoughtful essays that follow, in which the author writes of his various encounters with nature, by turns terrible and exquisite.

The book’s subtitle is Field Notes of a Born Observer, which Hopes surely is. From guppies to galaxies, he takes everything in, “[trying] to extract the message.” Hopes perceives nature keenly, gazing with equal wonder on a doe strolling through the woods or a hawk swooping down to kill a grouse. For him, everything is miraculous, and he wants to make the reader see as he sees — with eyes enlivened by a poet’s sense of wonder. In fact, Hopes’ best prose is poetry. In “The Raven’s Wing,” he writes, “The light of the luminous bedroom clock, the gold of the ring that binds you, are born of a supernova, an exploding colossal sun in which incomprehensible force and unimaginable resistance meet head-on and, despite the cocktail party paradox, do not stalemate, but flower into the cataclysm of created worlds.”

While the inspiration for many of these essays comes from faraway spots in Ohio, New Hampshire, Maryland and New York, a good many of the places Hopes honors will be familiar to any resident of Western North Carolina. (The author is now working on a sequel to Morning, tentatively titled Birdsongs in the Mesozoic, which, is, he says, “very intensely North Carolinian.”) In “Walkers,” a piece about Hope’s various hiking companions over the years, he recalls treks through Graveyard Fields and the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. In “Winter,” he elucidates for readers the wondrous peculiarities of the Shut-In Trail — which stretches from Biltmore Estate to Mount Pisgah, 17 miles away.

Back indoors, so to speak, Hopes finds time in his book to hold forth on the difference between scientists and artists, stating: “Artists capture the human imagination more firmly and permanently than scientists. Imagine a Broadway show about Lyell, a movie about Agassiz, an opera about chemists living in a garret on the Left Bank.” He also explains why he believes hiking is best done with a member of the same sex, declaring that: “Men, for perfectly justified evolutionary reasons, get protective and show-offy around women in the wild. We turn from doctors and cellists into bull bison, huffing and flaring our nostrils, hacking at innocent vegetation, making elaborate plans to meet the least likely hazards.”

In the end, A Sense of the Morning is much too complex a work to be thought of as simply a book about nature. It is a book about learning to see the world — not as it should be, but as it is — and learning to love what you see.

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