Ah! Wilderness

Mr. Hoagland’s account of his trip in June and July of 1966 to northwestern British Columbia is one of the most interesting, revealing and delightful travel books I have read. “I walk around and around the experience with my questions, but can’t dislodge it from its naturalness. They made berry beer from the soapberries and wine from the saskatoons.” Expand these sentences to 272 pages and you have the book; first, its hovering circularity, its beautifully woven, highly concentrated structure. In 1960 Hoagland made his honeymoon trip to the region and saw that this marvelous web of watersheds, gorges, and rivers of the coastal range, once an amateur prospector’s paradise, was now, and soon would cease to be, a writer’s goldmine. The second sentence has all the exotic Arcadian flavor that one could ask for.

Ignorant of his novels and not wanting to prejudice the case, I still would guess that Mr. Hoagland, now thirty-six, is one of those slow Yankee developers like Francis Parkman, to whom he pays tribute and whom he resembles in his fondness for the Indians, also in his rugged and solitary preparation for the task. “I acquired the hobo’s aloofness,” he says, “I find good-byes easy to say, believing that we are alone to begin with anyway, and that the good-bye only returns us to our original state.” But the contrast to Parkman in style and substance is more tantalizing than the similarities. Parkman’s form was still the monomaniac medieval Quest, and his closest affinity was to another and still madder explorer, the Sieur René Robert Cavelier de La Salle. (“There you lie, grand Bashaw!” the assassin said, one of La Salle’s own men.) Mr. Hoagland’s form on the other hand is closer to, say, an evening of John Cage’s music, composed of the harmonies born (sometimes) of anarchic pleasure. “I talked to maybe eighty people, and their gaiety, their consistency growing out of the gaiety and long labor of opening a new country to settlement, gave the experience a coherence I hadn’t expected.”

He has the same clear, extraordinary eyes as Armel Philippon and Alec McPhee, only more so. When these touch something they light on it. It’s not that they’re big; it’s that they’re wide. They’ve seen nothing they couldn’t look at, and this not, I think, from innocence but rather because of all they have seen.

It’s a gift all right, natural or acquired, in this excited reporter with his oddly impassive Quakerish passion for things, the long lists from the abandoned cabins of these ranges, the boyish poetry of the found object. And a gift, too, in his subjects, who, as Mr. Hoagland sensed early enough to give his book its circling rhythms, became, in a more radical sense than any other group, white or Indian, and by a more complex refining process, survivors.

Telegraph Creek, the book’s anchor, is a poor, sturdy, feckless encampment built in terraces above a bend in the Stikine river 165 miles from…

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