John Hay: A man of enduring gifts and wisdom

John Hay's palette is rich in hue for those who care to listen

By Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press

John Hay could paint brilliant word pictures with the stroke of a typewriter key as a master does with a brush. He fully absorbed the rhythm of the language, the art of creative flow, perhaps as much as anyone on a blank canvas of life.

"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," Hay, the renowned Cape Cod naturalist, wrote in his classic work, Bird Song. "Music follows, music falls, with its magicians. With birds, we hear what we could be, never what we say we are."

The Company of Light and The Way of the Salt Marsh were both published in 1998. See all of John Hays books here.John Hay spent a lifetime touching on light, always hearing what he could be, never what the world said he was. At 95, that light has been extinguished, but his spirit and his wisdom in words will survive an eternity. The author of 18 books on nature, a Harvard poet laureate, a recipient of the celebrated John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, and co-founder of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Hay-early on a mentor to me and a neighbor in Brewster's ancient Stony Brook Valley-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.

To say that Hay had a way with words is to suggest that Hemingway was a journeyman writer. Hay captured the fragile beauty of Cape Cod as if drafting in the palm of the Lord's hand, and he taught us, often against our secular instincts, that nature in its purest form is the essence of all. If we lose the natural blessing of the world around us, we lose a part of ourselves. In that lesson, Hay has left behind an abiding gift to a fast-foot, drive-by, attention-deficient nation that is beyond his eloquent words.


"He is probably a better naturalist than the son of Concord." - Herald Tribune.

In writing about nature, he was often reflecting on the fight for survival in all of us. "The fish kept moving up," he wrote in his first book, The Run, an acclaimed chronicle of the annual alewife migration, thousands of them, up the stone ladders of Brewster's Paines Creek to spawn upstream in the mill ponds, responding each year to a biological clock at the strike of spring. "I watched the 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 up as quickly as cat's-paws flicking the summer seas. They have moved by ‘reflex' rather than conscious thought, but what marvelous professionals they were in that!"

Just another day on the job for all of us, fighting the downstream currents of the moment.

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.

"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." - John Hay.

Other celebrated 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 termed 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 many 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.

"It may be surprising, in our age of information, to hear that nothing in nature is finally known," he writes in a Guide to Nature on Cape Cod and the Islands. "There is always more to be discovered about the most commonplace of things we see around us, or pick up, like colorful stones or shells on the beach. The novelty lasts for every individual and for generations to generation... The practice is as old as the world and as new and exciting as any child seeing things for the first time."

As an old friend once said, it is the dabs of color applied by others in great wisdom and in love over the years that joins the dots in one's life.

John Hay's palette is rich in hue for those who care to listen.

(Greg O'Brien, a freelance Cape Cod writer, was a neighbor to John Hay and the editor of some of his writings. O'Brien worked closely with Hay as a longtime trustee of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.)

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