In 1846, Henry David Thoreau ascended Maine’s Mount Katahdin and shouted, in a fit of exuberance, “Who are we? Where are we?”
Author Donovan Hohn, in his new collection of essays, The Inner Coast, writes that, for Thoreau, those two questions are inseparable. We can’t truly know ourselves without knowing the world around us, and vice versa.
These interlocked questions, which animate much of Thoreau’s work, echo throughout The Inner Coast, Hohn’s second book of nonfiction. His method in these essays is to look outward and then inward, and his conclusion is that we’re mistaken when we see ourselves as separate from nature. When I called Hohn at his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he reflected on the human tendency “to pretend that we aren’t, in some extremely vulnerable and permeable way, profoundly connected to the natural world.” Hohn, who writes in a voice reminiscent of Annie Dillard or John McPhee, returns to this subject again and again as he dives deep into topics ranging from the forgotten thrill of piloting an ice canoe to the long-standing cultural significance of mammoths.
A former editor at Harper’s and GQ, Hohn now teaches creative writing at Wayne State University in Detroit. In one piece, he describes a kind of cartography project he assigns to his students that asks them to map both physical and emotional space. Like explorers venturing into an unknown land, the students walk Detroit and take detailed notes on what they see. “From those notes they are to re-create their walks for readers, the sights and sounds, but also their own reaction to the sights and sounds, their unbidden memories and thoughts,” he writes. By exploring where they are, the students are expected to discover something about who they are.
Like his students, Hohn traverses local geographies and comes to see familiar places with fresh eyes. In a far-reaching essay called “Watermarks,” he explores the way water moves through the world, especially in his home state of Michigan, drawing on insights from philosophy and literature. “Whenever I visit a river, I have the urge to follow it,” he writes. Part of what motivates Hohn’s search is the notion that water, perhaps the fundamental element of life, has become something we take for granted. We can turn a valve when we need it, but otherwise we don’t think much about it. “Living in the age of indoor plumbing is a bit like living beside a stream whose headwaters and mouth are distant rumors,” he writes. Though most of this country was initially navigated by waterways, Hohn notes, “in the 21st century, it’s not easy to follow the water.” Nonetheless, we find him following rivers and canals all over the Midwest, ultimately plunging into the depths of Lake Michigan with a team of commercial divers searching for a lost shipwreck. He joined the divers, he writes, “because I’d imagined that descending the water column would be like time travel, like flippering into the past, as if fathoms were centuries.” He is diving into physical space, yes, but he’s hoping to find something else, too.
“This may be my oldest preoccupation,” Hohn told me, “the relationship between memory and place.”
While Hohn offers personal reflections throughout the book, his focus never strays far from the subject at hand. In “Falling,” however, he turns the magnifying glass on himself, beautifully describing his childhood years living on Mount Davidson in San Francisco. “This may be my oldest preoccupation,” he told me “the relationship between memory and place.” As a boy, Hohn had a religious devotion to the natural world around him. He memorized the names of butterflies and spent full days wandering the hillside with his net or searching for creatures in tide pools. But these experiences were interwoven inextricably with his parents’ troubled relationship, his mother’s bouts of depression, his brother’s acting out, and a tragic accident that left Hohn himself in a body cast. The reader gets the sense that, instead of serving as merely the backdrop, the landscape of Hohn’s childhood home is a character as real and prominent as any of the humans in the story. Compared with family, he writes, “trees make few demands, and you can hear whatever your heart desires in the lyrical soughing of their branches.” Nature was an ally and a source of refuge and comfort.
Of course, humans don’t always treat the natural world as an ally—when we pollute and destroy it, the effects can be brutal. In “The Zealot,” an essay on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, Hohn follows Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineer at Virginia Tech University, whose research into contaminated drinking water across the U.S. has turned him from a dispassionate scientific observer into a kind of activist. This is a tension familiar to medical professionals amid our current pandemic and climate scientists whose dire warnings about a warming planet seem to fall on deaf ears. Edwards’s role in Flint was complicated: residents welcomed him as someone who could bring attention to their cause, but when his tests said the water was once again safe to drink, many who had grown rightfully suspicious of the water weren’t ready to accept his findings. Others criticized him for seeking the spotlight instead of standing behind city residents, who, critics thought, should have been the focus. In this essay, Hohn demonstrates how humans’ vulnerability in the natural world is almost always felt most acutely by marginalized communities, and the tension he illustrates is one we’ll continue to grapple with as events like climate change exacerbate existing inequalities.
For Hohn, “at a time of bewildering and accelerating changes to habitats and geographies,” Thoreau’s questions—Who are we? Where are we?—“continue to invite new answers.” And because those changes have only further accelerated in the months since The Inner Coast went to print, the reader will discover answers that Hohn himself couldn’t have foreseen while writing these essays.
The coronavirus, too, is of the natural world. Like us, it’s naturally occurring and composed of genetic code. Hohn told me that one unanticipated effect of the virus might be to “disillusion some of us who have mostly joyous experiences with the natural world.” We may see nature as something beautiful to escape to—but also something brutal that can upend our lives at a moment’s notice.