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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 the Pacific and 800 from Vancouver. It now numbers 150 inhabitants, yet because of its former glory as, first, the terminus of a crazy scheme in 1867 to build a telegraph line from New York to London via Alaska and Russia (much of it completed before the Atlantic cable was laid), then as a way-station during the small gold rush of 1873 and the “mammoth Klondike strike” of 1898, and until recently as the center of an immensely rich trapping country, the town is still marked on many atlases in print as big as Chicago’s.

The declension of Telegraph Creek from a town serviced by seventeen riverboats to a village with mail once a week by bush plane and one erratic boat in season—provided that the Stikine has been properly “snagged” (meaning unsnagged) by a snagger who does nothing else—endeared the place to Mr. Hoagland. The point to make about his elegy for a lost world that never really took itself very seriously—to come prospecting here, he says, was “the blithe approach to the Depression,” and trapping made few men rich—is that the puritan beatitudes of self-reliance are seen here as mostly a lifelong lark, with none of their usual surly ferocity. (“Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes / Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”)

His book is a gem of atmospheric figure painting and imaginative anthropology: thousands of anecdotes and small observations resolving themselves into a gallery of shaped figures. There are no Mr. Kurtzes at the end of the quest. Except for the playful sadism of hunting guides with their tenderfeet clients, the absence of the macabre amazed Hoagland; and these guides, remember, are the near outskirts of Jack London country. Little insanity, no suicide, no random murder or other carnage. You might think Hoagland had stumbled on a remnant of vastly eccentric secular Franciscans. Not all were welcoming at first or even at last; there was one “angry Indian,” but not too angry to tell his story. Some needed much patience in the approach, others had almost lost the power of speech, still others were blankly unable to color their narrative with even a twinge of romance, indeed were offended that anyone should want them to. All were lousy liars, Hoagland thinks, quite pleased to make a tall story look short.

There were women, of course, in matching colors, especially the chunky Tahltans whom many of the whites have mated “to make little Indians,” morganatically, as he puts it. We hear of a couple of famous bar-tending foulmouths but don’t, unfortunately, see them. This has to be a man’s world; in such a landscape women either die sooner or take their men to the coastal cities, where they promptly die. In this book anthropology and natural history look like one and the same.

È naturale, Zerlina sings in Don Giovanni, non da disgusto. Nature is where one sees it, and Hoagland embraces his backwater like a Saul Bellow on upper Broadway, which makes his tales of the local Indians especially valuable. Intermarriage is normal—white man and Indian wife—but the hostility between tribes, the patriarchal Tlingits whose myths and totems he takes seriously, the more commonplace Tahltans and the hapless Sikanni whom the Tahltans consider “backward and slightly dumb and silly,” is greater than their hostility toward the whites—so far, at any rate. Often the tribes would play soccer only with white teams and then compare scores to see who was best; but in the annual tug-of-war at one station where white teams took on Indians, the Indians usually won. Some whites championed the Indians and became unpopular, others were more diplomatic in both directions. White employers found the Indians open and trusting at first but sensitive to unpredictable slights and once alienated, alienated for good. Hoagland’s forecast is gloomy, but then he is a born technology-hater. I find it hard to believe that the advent of roads, mines, lumberjacks, and tourists will be quite such a horror as he assumes. To me this is fashion, Mailerism à rebours. He convinces when he describes an actual Indian village: “The picture is one of confusion and gradual social disintegration without bitterness.”

Mr. Hoagland’s Canada is like Yeats’s Galway, a speaking metaphor. Sentences like “The run of kings will begin very soon” jump out at you; you know he means salmon but you also know he is committing—dare I say it?—poetry. There’s a shaping desperation behind the elegy. “I can see Gus Adamson out the window, and Wriglesworth’s house, and A.J. Marion’s steep snow roof: all those walkers, sustaining each other now.”

This writer is quotable, so I want to end with two passages, one about the recovery of a runaway horse, the other about Indians and their strange mal de forêt.

We found the footprints in the waterside clay. Having ventured where hardly a horse had been before, and seeing us still able to trace him, he knew there was no point in running. He went on nibbling flower heads, watching to be sure we were who we presumed to be. He trotted to the proferred oats, foolish and friendly—only allowing for his pride. The bargain was kept; after haltering him Morgan rubbed him affectionately and let him eat….

Samuel Black, writing in his journal in 1824 about the precursor village to Caribou Hide, said somewhat the same thing. He wasn’t finding much game himself, but he noticed a distressing limp fatalism in the Indians of the area, who were facing starvation. They weren’t numb senseless stoics, by any means. They were wretched and worried enough, but if there was any determined resolve to survive, it was more likely the man would lie in his tent motionless, conserving his energies to the very last on the chance that an animal would stray down the trail, then that he’d go out and hunt relentlessly. This was perhaps only partly an attitude of “God’s will.” We whites, after all, have a penchant for forced marches and the like because we believe we have somewhere to go. We have outposts to reach and cities beyond them, whereas the Indian was starving at home. Black also wrote absorbingly about missing: how one could starve when surrounded by game just by missing, going out and getting a shot and missing. He recognized that mental factors might apply, that one presumably could court death in this way, and he observed that the Indians seemed even more susceptible to such quirks of mind than the white roustabouts of his party. It was rather jittery waiting for meat when he felt that his hunters were missing compulsively.

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