By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press
Listen and you touch on light twisting through the shallows; you sense a speech within a time eluding it, ripples on stone. It has no answer. Music follows, music falls, with its magicians. With birds, we hear what we could be, never what we say we are.”—John Hay, “Bird Song”
John Hay of Brewster has spent a lifetime touching on light, always hearing what he could be, never what the world said he was. The author of 18 books on nature, a Harvard poet laureate, and recipient of the celebrated John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, Hay—a mentor and neighbor in the Stony Brook Valley where Paines Creek makes its way up the stone ladders of Brewster’s Herring run into Lower Mill Pond—has been compared in many ways to the venerable Henry David Thoreau. “He (Hay) is probably a better naturalist than the son of Concord,” the New York Herald Tribune once wrote.
The son of noted archaeologist Clarence Hay and the grandson of John Hay, secretary of state under Theodore Roosevelt and a private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, the reclusive and pensive Hay published his first collection of poetry in 1947, the year he moved to the Cape. Surrounded by an awe-inspiring setting, he turned to nature writing with a perspective wider than an aerial view. In his first nature book, The Run, published in 1959, Hay wrote eloquently about the annual migration of the alewives at Stony Brook Run in Brewster, just down the road from where he lives. “The fish kept moving,” he wrote. “I watched them swinging back and forth with the current, great-eyed, sinewy, probing, weaving, their dorsal fins cutting the surface, their ventral fins fanning, their tails flipping and sculling. In the thick, interbalanced crowd there would suddenly be a scattered dashing, coming as quickly as cat’s paws flickering the summer seas.”
Other acclaimed books soon followed, among them Nature’s Year, The Season of Cape Cod, The Great Beach, Sandy Shore, In the Company Of Light; and A Beginner’s Faith In Things Unseen. The New York Times Book Review has called Hay “gifted and perceptive.” The Christian Science Monitor has said he “dramatizes our isolation from the rest of life.” And Publisher’s Weekly once described Hay as “a man with an almost religious sense of nature.”
In a call to arms several years ago, Hay warned, “There has been a pronounced detachment, and pulling away from, our land, primarily thought of as an area of what may falsely be called ‘improvement.’ We do not see our nature or natural history as a necessity or food for our well-being. We need to involve people in the process of seeing—innate, natural sight—not substitutes for sight…We need help from people, young and old, who will participate in its vision. We are nothing about the life we are given to share.”
Hay has shared passionately, and I will always treasure the talks in his living room up the street and in his snug writing studio about observing nature and crafting the language. He taught me and others to think and how to feel. His spirit will echo long after his voice has been silenced.
A principle lost on many, life is void without mentors and role models—individuals who fill in the blanks, flick on the lights of our dim observations. Hay, in this sense, is a master electrician, and so is writer Robert Finch, who once lived on the lip of a kettle hole, at the bottom of the hill, just below Hay, his teacher. Square foot for square foot, this section of Brewster was once one of the most literary places in all of America. More critically acclaimed nature writing has been written here than any other place on the continent. Finch—a role model of mine and a contributor when I edited The Cape Codder, Cape Cod Life and The Naturalist, a journal of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History—is the author/editor of more than a dozen highly praised nature books. Author of Common Ground, A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, The Primal Place (essays about the marvels of our Stony Brook Road neighborhood), Outlands, Journeys to the Outer Edges of Cape Cod, and The Cape Itself, Death of a Hornet, and a Place Apart: A Cape Cod Reader, to mention a few, Finch, who now lives in Wellfleet, has been praised for his writing in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. His simple eloquence, poetic verse at times and dedication to his craft, capture the essence of good writing and are an inspiration to follow.
“(Finch’s writing) temperament is introspective, his prose fleshy, sometimes sentimental, and occasionally rhapsodic,” writer Alex Wilkinson, who spent childhood summers in Wellfleet and wrote the local best-seller Midnights, the story of a year working the midnight-to-eight shift on the Wellfleet Police Department, said of Finch in the New York Times Book Review.
There was never more a sentimental writer than the late Henry Beetle Hough, who for more than a half century toiled on the Vineyard as editor and publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. It has been said that Hough influenced more young journalists, present company included, to carry on the noble and now virtually defunct cause of country newspapering than any other writer in America. Hough possessed a rare gift as both a writer and editor to affect the character of the community he called home. “Instead of being qualified in a profession, it seems to me that I have taken root in a place,” he wrote in Country Editor, a best-selling memoir of island life and one of several books he produced. “Yet why not? To each there must be some particular spot on the surface of the globe and I rejoice that this is mine.”
In a 1996 introduction to a reissue of Country Editor, Hough’s friend and colleague Walter Cronkite quoted from the Reverend John Golding’s eulogy at Hough’s funeral: “Thoreau once said that one is not born into the word to do everything, but to do something. Henry Hough did something for 65 years—with a small newspaper, in a small town, on a small island. And he did it with such a deliberate and concentrated attention that the world off-island soon took notice. What he wrote and what he stood for was so specific to this place that it was universal.”
Clearly, the days of writing from the heart in journalism—not the pocketbook, a focus group, or in the middle of a dizzying pack of scribblers—are waning. The late Malcolm Hobbs, editor, publisher and owner of The Cape Codder for 40 years and a surrogate father to me in many ways, was among the last of a rare breed. Trained as a congressional and White House reporter for major news outlets in Washington, D.C., Malcolm knew a story when he saw it. His newspaper philosophy was to the point: “Our intent is to keep The Cape Codder well above the level of newspaper mediocrity. Perfection is beyond us, but striving for it isn’t.” His striving led to one of the nation’s finest country newspapers.
Hobbs was as direct in running his newspaper; the word “curmudgeon” was often used to describe him. His credo, distributed to all reporters (still have one in my office), directed them to make the news more readable, pertinent, and fair. He wanted The Cape Codder written in style. “Anyone can dip a brush in globs of colored paint and dab the result on canvas,” he wrote to his reporters. “How the colors are arranged distinguishes the painter from the dauber.”
Malcolm’s alter ego was the late Cape Codder executive editor John A. Ullman, nickednamed “Mouldy” by Malcolm because of his advancing age, blunt but always entertaining personality and the fact that he wrote swiftly, gracefully and with little effort. We were in jealous awe of his talent, and always looking for ways to marginalize him. As much as Malcolm, John knew the colors, all the shades and hues, of the palette.
I shared a farewell scotch with John shortly before his death about a year ago. It was Tuesday with Mouldy, and we sat at his kitchen table overlooking Great Pond in Eastham, a place where he learned to fish, taught his children to swim and sail, and marveled at the beauty all around him. He had hardly been out of bed in two days and hadn’t eaten much, not surprising for a man closing in on the century mark. But he wanted to talk—about his life, his many blessings, the newspaper business he so loved and had so changed, and about his late wife of 61 years, Eleanor, who died in 2002.
For a brief moment, John was young again: his eyes brighter, his mind engaged and the razor wit that once trimmed cub reporters to their suitable size returned in full force. For the next two hours, John, a friend and mentor for more than three decades, reminisced about his life—a mix of pride, satisfaction, humor and humility for a remarkable career that also included several newspaper stints after attending Dartmouth College, New York University and the University of Georgia. He worked for the Atlanta Constitution, the Worcester Telegram, the Boston American, and contributed to numerous publications like defunct New York Mirror, True Detective Magazine, and curiously enough Airwoman Magazine where he once served as its managing editor. He also was a runner on Wall Street as a young man, working the floor the day the stock market crashed; was a labor organizer with the United Auto Workers (UAW) and with the New England Newspaper Guild, negotiating union contracts for reporters; and wrote the local bestseller, Fried Fog.
“When I think of all the people who helped me get to where I am—which is now retired and disconnected—I owe a lot of people an awful lot of good love and thanks in the world,” he said with a smile. “I’ve been carried on people’s shoulders. I’ve been carefully nurtured, and it has been an incalculable benefit to me. I’ve tried to be a decent guy.”
If Malcolm Hobbs, who owned and edited The Cape Codder for close to 40 years, was the soul of this community paper, then John was its pulse. Through his insightful and prosaic reporting and writing, and through his brilliant and often lyrical editorials, most pounded out with two fingers on his manual Underwood or his Hermes Ambassador typewriter, John captured the essence of the Outer Cape—its people, its issues and the need to preserve its haunting charm.
“I have no regrets,” he said. “Working with Malcolm at The Cape Codder, that’s where I was happy. That’s where life was free and wide open.”
John—JAU as many knew him—was a man of absolutes, like Malcolm. Mouldy followed to the letter the framed quotation from H.L. Mencken that hung in the office he shared years ago with Malcolm. “Editors are unmemorable without reporters,” Mencken wrote. “Reporters will have nothing to remember if they don’t insist on having fun. As I look back over a misspent youth, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”
Indeed John lived like a king. Not so much in the rambling farmhouse on Kinsbury Beach Road that had no central heat, but in his big heart and in his large mind that suppressed his gruffness. At his 93rd birthday party when he officially retired from The Cape Codder, John held court with fellow scribes on the purpose of a newspaper, comments that would raise many bottom line eyebrows in today’s corporate newspaper boardrooms. “A newspaper,” he said, “is not a money-making operation, it is not a commercial enterprise. It has to make money. It has to stay in the black, but the purpose of any profit is only to permit it to publish another day.”
Malcolm and Mencken must still be smiling.
When I left The Cape Codder in 1976 after a stint as a cub reporter—to return seven years later to pursue my dream of running the paper—Malcolm and John exhorted me on my way out the door to my new assignment as a political and court reporter for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. “Keep searching for mentors,” they stressed. I found one in a tough-talking but caring Superior Court judge in the Valley of the Sun.
The woman with the gentle smile and penetrating stare had an engaging way about her, unless you were an unprepared or swaggering lawyer in her Maricopa Country Superior Courtroom in Phoenix. In that case, she would verbally skin you like a rattlesnake for all the courtroom to see. This mother of three, a cowgirl in a loose black robe, was tough on lawyers.
As a young reporter for The Republic, as green as South Boston, I entered her courtroom in 1977 with great trepidations, fumbling to record everything she said, just in case she ever called me on it. For a kid out of college who was used to reading little more than baseball box scores, understanding the complexities of legal issues was as daunting as the mysteries of the universe. I felt sucked into a black hole of ignorance.
On this particular steamy afternoon after the judge abruptly ended a court session, redressing the stunned attorneys at the bench, I slithered into her office to check on the status of the case. I was confused about the proceeding, and had a deadline to meet.
“Excuse me, can I ask a quick question,” I said, clearing my throat and fully expecting to be shown the door.
“Sure,” the woman said, indicating she had seen me in her courtroom taking notes. “Sit down.”
Her office manner changed abruptly from her courtroom demeanor, like a soothing desert rain after a scorching day. “What’s on your mind?”
After I explained my dilemma and paucity of court reporting experience, she closed the law books on her cluttered desk, leaned forward in her chair and began tutoring me on the fine points of covering a Superior Court case.
“I’m glad you came by,” she said, patiently answering all my questions point-by-point and inviting me back the following day if there were more.
I took her up on the offer, and we soon became casual courtroom friends. I would regularly stop by her office to discuss cases I was covering in her court and to ask legal questions about cases in other courts. She always had time, and there was no such thing as an ignorant question so long as you wanted to learn.
A few years later when she was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, I followed her out to the state capital, covering the high courts, Governor’s Office and legislature. I always felt comfortable stopping by to discuss appeals court cases or the political issues of the day. The door was always open.
I was elated in 1981when my tutor, Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed by President Reagan as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Before she left, she took me aside and advised to keep asking questions. “Keep at it until you get all the answers,” she said.
“Sounds like my mom,” O’Connor’s son, Scott, a Phoenix real estate developer, told me in a phone interview.
The first time Scott, 47, realized his mother was a rising star was when she received national publicity as the first women in the country to be majority leader of a state legislature. “But she always wanted to be a judge,” he said.
Sandra Day O’Connor, Scott said, will terribly miss her job on the highest court. “She will have horrible withdrawal pains, but at some point you have to move aside,” he noted.
“We’ll be glad to have her back,” said Scott. “To most everyone else, she is the most powerful woman in the country. To us, she’s just Mom.”
And so Mom it is! When it comes to mentors and roles models, it’s not the star power that counts; it is the passion in someone’s heart for what they do and for what they do well that counts.
As Malcolm Hobbs might say, it’s the dabs of color applied by others in great wisdom and love over the years that connects the dots in one’s life.