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The Language of the Landscape

Linda Hogan's vocabulary of senses and environmental sensibility


Linda Hogan
  • Linda Hogan

It is clear there is a vocabulary of senses, a grammar beyond that of human making," Linda Hogan wrote in the collection of essays she edited last year, Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals. Those familiar with Hogan's writing over the past quarter century are well-versed in her vocabulary of senses, understanding its fluency when they hear it, though there are few who have mastered incorporating that unique grammar into writing as eloquently as Linda Hogan.

The title of her upcoming talk at Colorado College, "Writing From the Land," gives a good indication of where she's coming from.

"For eight years, working with animals became the center of my life, the pivot point at which I learned to think," Hogan said in Intimate Nature, "and because of this work, I took a fresh look at the traditions of the past." Hogan's work employs a wide-eyed, unblinking consciousness about the animals that share the pages with her characters, reflecting her lifelong interest in the relationship between indigenous peoples and animals, and her own experiences volunteering her time in wildlife and raptor rehabilitation.

Juxtaposition and duality are at the heart of Hogan's writing, from her earliest poems to her recent fiction. "We live, I see now, by different stories, the Western mind and the indigenous," Hogan writes in Intimate Nature. "It has been my lifelong work to see an understanding of the two views of the world," she writes in a separate essay in the collection Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. "It is clear that we have strayed from the treaties we once had with the land and with the animals."

One of Hogan's most vivid images is the opening scene in Mean Spirit, when a hot spell in Oklahoma compels many of the town's population to bring their beds outside, where they can sleep in the cool breeze coming off the flat fields of the Dust Bowl. "Cots were unfolded in kitchen gardens. White iron beds sat in horse pastures. Four-posters rested in cornfields that were lying fallow." Hogan immediately establishes this dramatic juxtaposition -- disclosing a primary theme of the book and of her body of work -- the chronicle of civilization buttressing itself up against the edges of the natural world.

Though her activism is generally cloaked in the metaphor of fiction, her essays give Hogan the chance to be clear and direct in her beliefs. "While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being," she writes in another Dwellings essay, "it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. It is something beyond us, something that does not need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours."

In Power, her most recent novel, Hogan uses the kinship with the land even more intensely, blurring the distinction between character and setting, taking her reader through a looking-glass adventure that often brings forth comparisons to the magical realism of South American writers.

"Stories are for people what water is for plants," the 16-year-old narrator concludes after a book-length journey into a wilderness of words, a lush, dreamy, upside-down world that is falling in on itself, eroding beneath the steady onslaught of wind and rain, unraveling like a worn-out sweater. Omishto, the One Who Watches and mentor to the girl, lives up to her name, bearing witness to the events of the dwindling Taiga tribe, sharing with readers a wealth of subterranean streams of consciousness, "beneath sound, beneath language," like the power of water moving just beneath the silent surface of limestone, moving unseen back to the sea.

Hogan consistently weaves together her lyrical use of language with a unique vision of the natural world, double-stitching a seam between contradictory truths.

Fans, and those new to her work alike, should take the opportunity to hear her speak in person.

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