Essayist Edward Hoagland will be in San Francisco March 4 as part of the "Talking at the Herbst" arts and lectures series. The phone to the box office is always busy at (415) 392-4400, but if you want a ticket to the 8 p.m. conversation between Hoagland and writer Gretel Ehrlich, I've been told you can buy seats that night at the Herbst Theater box office. Tickets are $15.
Hoagland teaches at Bennington College in Vermont but on two occasions, in 1990 and 1992, he taught at UC Davis. When he first visited Davis he was legally blind but when returned, following successful surgery two years later, he could see. Perhaps that's why he has fond memories of this quiet university town in the spring when the ornamental trees are blooming. "I like the atmosphere in Davis, I like to walk the streets," he said in a recent phone interview from his mother's home on Martha's Vineyard.
He is currently working on three projects: his memoirs, another book about Africa (his first was "African Calliope") and a collection of essays (in addition to "Heart's Desire"). He decided to write his memoirs when doctors said he was losing his sight.
"I signed a contract to write my memoirs with Simon & Schuster," he said. "I'm primarily a non-fiction writer, so what else can you write when you're blind? Then I got my eyesight back, so I postponed it. I wanted to see as much as I could before I lost my eyesight again, which doctors say will happen. I went to India in '93, Antarctica in '94, and back to Africa for my fourth trip in '95."
Hoagland decided not to travel this winter because he's taken so many recent trips. "I gorged on beautiful, exotic sights," he said. Plus, he spent the fall teaching at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Now he wants to concentrate on his own projects. "My work is going very well," he said. "I'm working 12 hours a day."
During a long weekend at his mother's house recently, Hoagland went through family scrapbooks and photo albums with his memoirs in mind. "I found the first poem I ever wrote. It was in 1942 when I was 9 in La Jolla, Calif. It was about a frog that lived n a stream behind my grandfather's house. My first published piece appeared the next year in the school newspaper. It was an essay about snakes."
Hoagland frequently writes about animals including lions, turtles and snakes. "One of the things I've been trying to do is finish a 10,000-word essay on snakes...and more than a half century ago I wrote an essay about snakes. See, we don't change. And I'm still trying to get it right."
Hoagland speaks with a stutter. He says the stutter led him to an interest in animals, animals being a lot more forgiving of a speech difficulties than people. But he realizes this pat answer isn't quite true. He didn't start stuttering until after age 10, by which time he'd already begun to write about animals.
He also is the general editor of the Penguin Nature Classics series that includes four books ("The Mountains of California," "1,000 Mile Walk to the Gulf," "Travels to Alaska," and "My First Summer in the Sierra") by John Muir, one of his heroes.
"John Muir lives today because he was a visionary conservationist, not only in founding the Sierra Club but in exhibiting a fighting spirit directed toward conservation that few people had before 1900. He was ahead of his time," said Hoagland.
"Henry David Thoreau was angrier (than Muir) but Thoreau was more preoccupied with abolishing slavery than saving the wilderness. 'The Mountains of California' was published in 1894, 40 years after 'Walden.' Muir was not as good a writer as Thoreau," continued Hoagland. "His prose is not a master's prose but it is sufficient to his task, to record the wilderness. But he was a field botanist and geologist of professional level who figured the Sierra landscape had been caused by glaciers, not underground cataclysmic events. He came to this conclusion without knowing that anyone else had also figured it out.
"Muir also was a much more isolated man than Thoreau, emotionally and intellectually. He focused on the mountains, the flowering meadows, glaciers, trees, bees and grizzly bears. He was a mountain man in terms of his stamina, courage and daring joy in hiking and climbing. No other writer is comparable to him in his time or ours. The closest person may have been Edward Abbey."
For those who want to read more about Muir, Hoagland recommends Frederick Turner's biography, "Rediscovering America."