Books by John Hay

Released: March 2, 1998

An extravagantly lyrical indictment of our desecration of nature from the widely respected elder statesman of nature writers—aggrieved, contrarian, but ultimately self-absorbed. Readers of Hay's recent work (A Beginner's Faith in Things Unseen, 1995; The Bird of Light, 1991; etc.) will recognize familiar themes: humanity's shortcomings contrasted with nature's superior design; the foolishness of subduing and distancing the natural world. Summers in Maine and winters on Cape Cod provide the backdrop for appreciative observations of birds, butterflies, fish and the forests, fields, and marshes they inhabit. Hay has mastered the ecolyricist's requisite reverence for nature and facility for poetic description; his reveries on the sea's liberating effect or the spiritual inspiration gained from the company of barn swallows or the unexpected appearance of a kingfisher reverberate with a Whitmanesque celebration of self: ``The sea calls me out. . . . I would be carried on a wind which is free of possession. . . . I am interested in moving with the mind of birds.'' But combined with his obvious misanthropy in the face of mankind's disconnection from (or worse, hostility toward) nature, Hay's song of himself sounds an off-note between despair and self-involvement. He offers little in the way of actionable advice, opting instead for declarations that are portentous or self-evident. Much of what he says is sound (for example, he notes the absurdity of a planet that values the economic health of ``a bloated industrial society'' above clean air and water), but passion rather than fact propels his argument. The resulting sermon will undoubtedly draw plenty of amens from the choir, but it offers little saving grace for sinners. Moments of transcendent beauty, pretty writing, and a heart that's in the right place aren't enough to transcend Hay's self-conscious straining for a miracle around every corner. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 23, 1995

In this eloquent memoir, on the eve of his 80th birthday, Hay (The Bird of Light, 1991) reviews the lessons of a life lived close to nature. Widely recognized as the dean of modern nature writing, Hay divides his retirement between Cape Cod and Maine. Here he cultivates a deepening connection to nature, whether in reading the wild grasses to understand the land that lies beneath or observing in trees the stages of growth that parallel his own. As a child in Manhattan, he was first enchanted with nature in a diorama of timber wolves chasing deer across the moonlit snow at the American Museum of Natural History. There is much to be said for the ``eye of a child,'' Hay recalls, as it conveys a wonder that does not seek to control or define what it sees. Adults miss that wonder when they rush to explain rather than appreciate such mysteries as why pilot whales strand themselves on a beach. He laments the distance that the introduction of technology has opened up between humankind and nature. In the fishing industry, dragnets and radar have encouraged grossly wasteful harvesting that has destroyed entire marine ecosystems. When we repeatedly cut ourselves off from the realities of nature by viewing fish in terms of profit and loss rather than as essential food, we risk ``casting ourselves into a limbo, a darkness of our own making.'' Everywhere around him, Hay sees our desecration of nature, from the death of the Chesapeake Bay to the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains. Both his point and his examples are less than fresh, but he compellingly presents his argument that ``we ignore a deeper reality that the land is better known through respecting its mysteries than putting it on a shopping list.'' This memoir shows no diminution in Hay's genius for expressing a powerful and contagious appreciation of nature. Read full book review >
Released: July 15, 1991

A lyrical and factually engrossing account of the lives of terns—dazzling aerial acrobats and ``untiring, restless explorers of our planet.'' Hay (The Immortal Wilderness, 1986; The Undiscovered Country, 1982, etc.), widely and justifiably regarded as one of our finest nature essayists, here offers a small masterwork. In March, he watches the beach near his home for the arrival of his beloved terns. His stage quickly fills with sanderlings, gulls, whales, gales, periwinkles, alewive migrations, azure butterflies, spring peepers, and other seductions of spring. When these spectacular migrants (an Arctic tern flies 24,000 miles a year and nests within a few inches of last year's site) return and begin to court, their nesting, the brooding and care of chicks, and their fledgling flights and entire natural history are described in loving (but never didactic) detail. Hay has a rare gift and, like Thoreau, can lift us from earthbound minutiae to the oceanic. Thinking of the tern's flight from West Africa to his beach, he reflects that these birds ``...are earth's wings, and so outreach me...the dislodged feather I pick up off the beach, with its beautifully strong, light, and intricate construction, still carries an electric bond with the atmosphere.'' Hay's passion for the natural world and its creatures is combined with a cleareyed and urgent view of humanity's wanton predations on the planet, although he never stoops to bombast or ultimatum. And he reminds us that ``terns are inheritors of an ancient past which is inseparable from the present.'' A sublime love letter, to be read slowly, and savored like a lambent day in spring. Read full book review >