in conversation with Alex Shephard

In January of 1992, 28,800 bathtub toys — beavers, frogs, turtles, and, of course, ducks — were lost at sea when a container ship traveling from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington encountered a steep roll and spilled a (relatively small) portion of its cargo. Cargo spills are rarely reported (unless they’re truly massive), but this one was slightly different. The idea of bath toys lost at sea quickly took hold of the public imagination and the story — which quickly changed from 28,800 beavers, frogs, turtles, and ducks to, simply, thousands upon thousands of rubber ducks — became a kind of myth: ink was spilled by journalists across the world; contests were held, with cash prizes for anyone who located a duck on the Eastern seaboard (no one ever did); and Eric Carle wrote a children’s book, 10 Little Rubber Ducks, inspired by the thousands of plastic toys lost at sea.

Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck is the story of the author’s search for those bath toys, but that’s sort of like saying Moby-Dick is just a book about whaling. Like Melville, Hohn manages to unite an incredibly diverse set of threads — about childhood and fatherhood, about container ships and global capitalism, about China and the Arctic, about rubber ducks and the plastic they’re made out of. And, like Melville’s magnum opus, the book is filled with incredible asides, meditations about “the yellowness of the duck” and their diversity, and strange, surreal moments — in the Arctic, for instance, a polar bear wanders up to the ship as he and the crew are watching a documentary about polar bears. Hohn is a master analogist, an excellent observer, and an ideal guide: Moby-Duck encapsulates the best of what we call travel writing, nature writing, and science writing, often at the same time — and often by calling those forms into question.

I spoke with Hohn about Moby-Dick and Moby-Duck, the idea of “wilderness,” and our capacity for wonder and awe.

When did the yellow duck become  your white whale?

When I was just beginning the research, before I had written a word, I had the idea for the title. It was kind of a joke, but I don’t think it’s a frivolous parallel, I think it’s a useful parallel. After all, it had a disaster at sea, just like there was a factual incident on which the sinking of the Pequod was based; here was this element of fact that had grown into a kind of myth. And there would be a hunt.

When I was thinking about how to structure it, I thought, “If you’re going to call it Moby-Duck, of course you have to have meditative chapters on the yellowness of the duck.” It was like an assignment I gave myself, but it very quickly became genuinely interesting to think about. It was an accident because of the title, and because I was teaching Moby-Dick. But it’s also, in some ways, germane to the subject matter.

You draw a number of parallels between the evolution of our understanding of childhood and the evolution of our understanding of nature. When did that connection become clear to you?

Starting in the 18th century, but increasingly in the Victorian-era – and Berger notes this in his essay, “Why We Look at Animals” — the way we look at animals parallels the way we look at children. Just as animals are becoming exotic curiosities in the zoo or domesticated as pets you see children become domesticated. …. There’s this phenomenon of children with animals in paintings and photographs, whether it was as a kind of  “noble savage” or as domesticated, both of them were regarded as not fully human. From the Enlightenment-era, where the child was a blank slate that we had to influence, to the Romantic-era there are strong parallels between the way we think about animals and the way we think about children.

In the 21st century, it’s bizarre. If you go to the children’s book section it’s all animals [laughs] [Perhaps] it’s liberating for children to project their imagination into a universe that is recognizable, but different. There might be something developmental to it, but it’s clearly a cultural phenomenon. Most [plastic] ducks – they come in so many varieties – are anthropomorphized: they’re little children, they’re babies that are smiling with big lips. And it’s amazing how many adults there are that love them. It’s bizarre and not even like the sort of people who collect beanie babies …. It almost seemed like a riddle, the way in which the image on the cover of my book has had such an appeal. I think it’s that contrast between what that yellow duck suggests to us and what the ocean suggests to us.

The book is riddled with diverse literary allusions – Melville, obviously, but also Donald Barthelme, Nathaniel West, Joseph Conrad, Wallace Stevens.  How did they come into the piece?

In my 20s I had tried writing fiction, but the truth is that I was probably always disposed towards the essay and am an incorrigible English major. So I love being able to write about the reading. Even if I weren’t consciously thinking about Moby-Dick, where Ishmael goes “swimming through libraries and sailing through oceans,” I set out to do both of those things. I want to write essays that are a journey of the mind as well as a journey through space and time.

So much of the book is about exploring the tension between “places of the mind” and the places you actually encounter.

There’s this attempt to experience first-hand, that movement between what you imagine and what you actually find. …. I learned that something like 80% of our images of bald eagles are shot on the Homer Spit, where a woman feeds her birds tuna fish from cans. And they crop out the bird perch and the bird shit from the photographs! There’s something satisfying about that.  And there’s a good sense of how I feel about both images and writing about nature: I want to step back and have the bird-lady with her cans of tuna fish out in the foreground and then think about eagles. In that trip to the Arctic …. you go there thinking you’re going to get the snapshot – everybody does that – but in fact the pleasures of travel are often these accidental little moments that occur that are maybe only tangentially related to what you set out to experience in the first place. There’s a way in which the book consciously is doing that.

In the book you talk about two terms John McPhee coined: “Sierra Club syndrome,” the impulse to sanctify, and “Dallas syndrome,” the impulse to exploit. Do you think that those terms factor into contemporary nature writing?

[McPhee] was thinking about that not so much in a literary sense, but looking at the political landscape of Alaska. You could say that there’s a Sierra Club syndrome in nature writing as well. There’s certain tones of lyrical, slightly devotional rapture in a natural world that feel to me clichéd and exhausted. There are exceptions, of course.

Before I wrote the Harper’s essay [about the ducks that preceded the book Moby-Duck], I wrote a long essay about obsolete tools, where I went around the Midwest to farm auctions. The pleasure of that piece was that my guide – I usually have a guide on the journeys I take – was a botanist turned tool collector. There was something about applying the naturalist’s skills and the naturalist’s way of thinking to man-made artifacts that I found rich and fascinating.

I’ve long loved the best of what’s called “Nature writing” in the American tradition. Thoreau at his pond and pulling out his magnifying glass, watching the battle of the ants – that kind of intense, descriptive observation has always appealed to me. But I also felt that a lot of the gestures that that tradition had made were a bit worn-out. The fact of the matter is, growing up in the 70s and 80s my experience of nature was so frequently in this very artificial, mediated form – at The Natural History Museum, or whatever. So that kind of blurry borderland between these categories that we think of as nature or history …. had always been something that fascinated me.

Thoreau gets totally misunderstood and miscast as being some sort of bardic Druid out in the woods, communing. So much of that book is social satire; it’s him looking back at the town. There are certain gestures that, when they were first made were fresh and startling, but then they ossified into cliché. The through line that runs through that tradition at its best is this attempt to see, to perceive with great clarity. What becomes worrisome to me about the Sierra Club syndrome in writing would be if the act of looking is in some way a kind of ritual, where we’re repeating what’s been done before, rather than to try to see anew.

You have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the natural world in Moby-Duck. There are moments of genuine wonder, but so often you relate a sort of inability to feel the kind of reverence that others who came before you felt.

Nature writing can blur into science writing. Thoreau, in the early 19th century was doing actual field work – he had botanical papers that Lewis Agassi was consulting at Harvard. Being an excellent observer could somehow be enough. But there aren’t naturalists anymore. And science has gone to this extreme where, even biology, [for instance], is all about genetics and the oceanographers I was with were not simply pulling up samples or poking around in petri dishes: they’re using satellites and computers. It’s acquired a level of abstraction that, at least for me, forced me to look at nature differently.

I think that my generation was raised – and it’s even more so now – in an environment of media, which is there all the time. You have this irony where fewer of us experience the ocean firsthand, since fewer of us have reasons to go to sea, but we have more images of the ocean than we’ve ever had – whether it’s Planet Earth or an aquarium. You go back to the early 1900s, what was below the surface was completely mysterious to most people. …. They thought for a long time that below a certain level there would be no life. It was genuinely as mysterious as space was later! But now we have this abundance of images, so the attempt to actually perceive nature firsthand is actually impossible — the motif of fancy and fact runs throughout the whole book and, in the end, I think that they’re actually inseparable.

Do you think that that results in a diminished capacity for wonder and awe?

I do. …. I can pull up footage of the tsunami, which is awesome, but in a strange way it just becomes footage of a tsunami. [It’s unreal], even though it’s raw. In the way that television is shot, you can see this desire for footage that’s more and more raw and quote-unquote real.

Crossing the North Pacific in storm season, there was a sense of having to be totally bored for days in order to get an appropriate sense of scale. On the other hand, even though I think we have a diminished capacity for awe, it’s because that Romantic idea – the sublime was supposed to inspire pity and awe – and that is something that I think is, in some ways, impossible.  As I say [at one point in the book], the scale of humanity, of what we’ve created and of our waste and our impact is, in some ways, more likely to inspire awe. The essayist’s impulse – you know, Whitman, “Do I contradict myself?” – is that sense of moving back and forth: there’s the desire to experience something wonderful in the natural world and, at other moments, not being able to do that.

There’s such a cultural overload that an attempt to perceive anything always bumps into media.

Absolutely. So that idea of just doing – though I love Annie Dillard’s stuff – the idea of just going down to Tinker Creek and seeing the natural world with this total clarity, [which you find] in the great nature writing of the 70s and 80s – you almost never have intrusions of, say, pop culture or the present, in a weird way. You’re seeking this landscape that feels eternal. And when it does intrude it intrudes as a symbol of blight – sometimes appropriate. It felt like wasn’t an accurate representation of how I experienced the world. ….

[I quote Thoreau in the book]: “If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale.” I love that. Of course, you can’t observe realities only – especially now – but you can try.

What I discovered wasn’t what I first imagined I discovered. At the beginning an ocenographer told me with great confidence that the toys had made it to the North Atlantic; I’m left with great doubt that they did. …. Even the conclusions that oceanographers are drawing [about currents] changed over the course of my research. … For me, that’s why, as a matter of necessity, it had to be told in journey form, rather than some sort of detached journalistic, “Here’s the story; here’s why you should care,” or an argument. I want to create that sense of curiosity about it at the beginning and to make the changing understanding the education that I undergo part of the experience for the reader.

It’s strange though, how the impulse to go out into nature or to go to sea, seems somewhat ridiculous in that environment.

But it has value. I do think it’s a little like how I feel about religion [laugh]. For me, I love Bach. Go into a church and hear an organ playing Bach and you feel like you can have intimations of a beauty approaching the divine, and yet, feeling left without faith. There’s a little bit of that when I go to the natural world.

There’s a streak of environmental reporting in the book and I do feel genuine distress and dismay at the pace of which we’ve manage to alter even the ocean – that’s why the book ends with a Rachel Carson quote. She initially said, “at least we haven’t fucked up the ocean.” And then 10 years later, she changed her mind. That’s distressing for all sorts of reasons.

Near the end of the book you write, “I know now that it is upon Rachel Carson’s ocean, not Melville’s, that I sailed.” Can you talk about that distinction?

Melville’s ocean is so gorgeous. There are moments where the sea is the cannibalistic sea, where it’s savage. Then there are moments, like the masthead chapter, where you get a very Emersonian vision of a kind of paradise at sea, of tranquility. So he’s going back and forth. But the one thing you have throughout is this sense of the sea as divine and eternal. When Pip falls overboard and he looks down, he sees God’s foot on the treadle of the loom, weaving the entire world. The last sentence, “the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” is Biblically apocalyptic. There’s a sense of a second flood and it’s also a return to the opening verses of Genesis: here we are, as if the world had been uncreated. But there’s also a sense that the ocean is eternal. These human actors, small and absurd, appear briefly and the ocean endures, unchanged.

The reason that’s not the ocean I sailed on is that scientists can tell us all sorts of ways that the ocean has changed over the millennia, but, even more recently, it’s changed over decades. It forces us to think about the meaning of the ocean. A harder topic, in some ways, than the meaning of yellow duck.

Do you think that there’s such a thing as wilderness anymore?

As I say [at one point in the book], I wonder if the word wilderness is worn-out, that it’s exhausted, having had to carry so many different meanings. First, unequivocally pejorative meanings. Wilderness was tantamount to wasteland when people talk about the “howling wilderness.” And then all the way to the Sierra Club syndrome opposite meaning – to wilderness as a kind of paradise. Where I end up is that wilderness is now inescapably – at least in part – this human creation. Which is a paradox, because it’s supposed to be the area beyond human creation. When we think we’re experiencing the wild, we’re often imagining the wild. What would be genuinely wild? I think you’d almost need a new language. ….

I love that the word bewildered comes from wildness … I don’t find wilderness, but I find bewilderment over the course of the book. There’s a usefulness, maybe, to bewilderment — having this sense of being lost in the woods, when your certainties fall away.