NEA Literature Fellowships

Donovan Hohn

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(2010 - Prose)

From the creative nonfiction piece "Falling"

Not long after we moved to the mountain, my father, then chief resident in surgery at UCSF, began coming home to chaos--his sons fighting, dinner unprepared, his wife locked in her room. Some nights she would emerge only to pull on her coat and disappear. Where she went I was never sure, though the evidence usually pointed west, to the far side of the mountain, the foggy side, invisible from our windows. In 1920, after visiting the forest that grows there, James Decatur, the Western Union official and YMCA director whose idea it had been to build the Mount Davidson cross, wrote that the "peace and quiet was so profound that it seemed almost unbelievable that the noise and roar of a great city was only a few minutes behind." Losing herself in the understory for hours at a time, my mother would return with pockets full of scavengings--mossy twigs, lichen-covered rocks, the spotted, crescent-shaped leaves and germinal buttons that showered from the branches of the blue-gum eucalyptus--which she would arrange into still lifes on our mantelpiece.

My father was a practicing Presbyterian, she a convert to Catholicism, and the parochial school they sent us to was Episcopalian, but in truth we belonged to none of these denominations. We were "forest Christians," followers of that characteristically American brand of pantheism whose founding prophets were Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. In the Bible, wilderness is either a sanctuary to which prophets flee from the persecution of tyrants and toward the call of God, or else it is a purgatory through which chosen people wander, doing penance for their love of Mammon. In the scriptures of forest Christians, however, the untamed refuges of North America are wilderness and promised land both, and to be exiled there is not perdition but deliverance. My father's worship of nature was more pastoral (he spent his weekends tending his vegetable garden); my mother's, more druidic (she favored oceans and woods). Both regarded the California wilderness as a new Eden, every wild strawberry and manzanita bush an encryption of divinity. Forest Christians are not to be confused with hippies, with whom they share many political affinities but few cultural ones. Although my mother counseled draft dodgers and demonstrated at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, neither of my parents experimented with drugs or free love. (My mother still sometimes regrets not having become a nun, and to this day my father claims never to have been drunk.) Friday nights on Molimo Drive, during those rare weeks when my parents were not too distracted by their disintegrating marriage, we played environmentally themed board games that my mother had mailed away for--mind-numbingly didactic diversions printed on recycled cardboard. Save the Whales, one was called; Nectar Collector, another.

Her favorite was The Ungame, in which players rolled dice and moved their tokens in pointless, hypothetically endless laps around the board, stopping at places with names like Worry Wharf or Cheerful Chalet. On each turn, you would draw a card that would instruct you to reveal something about yourself--one blessing you were grateful for, say, or a lie you'd told. If the card asked whether you'd been unhappy today and you answered in the affirmative, you'd be banished to Happy House for a turn. The game could never be won or lost. You just stopped playing when you'd grown bored of it, which usually didn't take long. To my mother's dismay, we preferred Monopoly and Risk.

Family vacations we invariably spent out-of-doors--skiing in Yosemite, strolling among the gargantuan sequoias in Muir Woods, inspecting the elephant seals at Año Nuevo. One summer, we waded through subterranean pools in the caverns of the Pinnacles. Another--the last the four of us ever spent together--we backpacked to the summit of Half Dome, stopping on the way to swim naked in a lake fed by melting snow. My mother never wanted these vacations to end. Back in South San Francisco, just prior to her first desertion, she'd learned of a Quaker commune in the redwood forest near Santa Cruz and, imagining a peaceful utopia among the ferns, decided that our family should join. We'd spent a weekend there, but the place had disappointed her, as such places always would. Other times the escapes she sought were purely spiritual. She was a serial convert, periodically changing churches or gurus or even faiths, setting her Catholicism aside for a fling with Quakerism, or New Age astrology, only to return to Catholicism, her fervor mysteriously restored, and with each new enthusiasm she'd attempt to convert us too. When she proselytized, her temper, always stormy, attained hurricane force. Against her torrents of outrage, my father would pile up rhetorical sandbags--what exactly was she so upset about? what exactly did she want from him?--that angered her all the more. Over the course of a few days, her righteous gales would exhaust themselves, and the breezes of despair would waft through our house once again.

Donovan Hohn has been a contributing editor of Harper's since 2008 and is a 2008 winner of a Whiting Writers' Award. Born and raised in San Francisco, he now lives in New York City, where he was for a time a high school English teacher at Friends Seminary. Nominated as one of the Best New Writers of 2006 in the PEN American Center's annual survey, Hohn is also the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Jane Kenyon Prize, Hopwood Awards in essay and poetry, and a journalism fellowship from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. With Adrienne Rich he shared the Laurence Goldstein Prize for the best poem published in the Michigan Quarterly Review in 2004. His nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outside Magazine, The Bedford Reader, and The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 2. He is completing work on his first book, which is based on the January 2007 cover story he wrote for Harper's, "Moby-Duck: Or, The Synthetic Wilderness of Childhood."

Photo by Beth Chimera

Author's Statement

There's a passage in Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea that became a favorite of mine during the years I spent writing my first book. "The incertitude which attends closely every artistic endeavor is absent from its regulated enterprise," Conrad writes of the modern merchant marine. "It has no great moments of self-confidence, or moments not less great of doubt and heart-searching." I don't know if all sailors on cargo ships would agree with that, but Conrad's right about artistic endeavors; at the helm of your writing desk, day after day, night after night, you go pitching and yawing through crests of confidence and troughs of doubt. If you're self-employed, as I was, and if you've spent both your book advance and your life savings in order to travel the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of water craft, as I had, the financial perils make the incertitude of your enterprise all the greater. This funding arrived at a crucially doubtful moment and gave me both the confidence and the means to finish what--naively, years before--I'd set out to do.