David Brendan Hopes,
A Sense of the Morning
(Milkweed, 1999)

For lack of a better label to slap on his work, the literary powers that be have called David Brendan Hopes a "nature writer." Being the type of author who deals with stereotypes by simply writing around them, Hopes is not in the least bit concerned about being pigeonholed and labeled. With characteristic amusement, he writes, "I cannot really present A Sense of the Morning as a book of nature loving. I have not gone camping in ten years and didn't like it that much when I did. I stop being interested in hiking when I start being tired, by which time I have probably seen enough."

It would be a mistake, however, to let his rollicking sense of fun fool you into thinking that he is less than serious about the natural world. "If I love nature," Hopes continues, "it is not because nature is beautiful -- though, of course, it is beautiful -- but because it bears witness. The witness it bears is terrible and uncompromising."

It is that "terrible and uncompromising" witness that Hopes has set out to illuminate in this collection of 16 essays. As a result, A Sense of the Morning is not an easy book to read. The witness, as presented by Hopes, is indeed terrible at times, particularly when its subject is human destruction and cruelty. In stark and unflinching language, he tells of an afternoon spent in the desolate landscape of a rock quarry at the start of the hunting season:

"Then I saw a shape coming toward me, a raccoon, maybe frightened out of the woods by the gunfire. It broke through the eggshell ice on the puddles as it came, a noisy and awkward thing for a wild animal to do. It dragged something behind it. A shadow followed it across the ground. It kept coming at me, right for me, as though it wanted something. Maybe it didn't see me. I moved so it would see me. It stopped, turned wearily away, as though deflected by habit rather than genuine concern. I saw then what it dragged behind it. Its backside and one hind leg had been shot away by bullets. Its organs hung in the air like jumbled flowers, beautiful and oddly bloodless."

But if Hopes is unsparing in his exposure of the terrible, he is equally dedicated to celebrating and questioning the wonders he sees around him. His vision of the world, as he freely admits, is a bit quirky. "In my brain," he says, "there's a whole file for 'Things That Don't Make Sense Unless You Get Out of Your Ordinary Mind-set,' an activity at which I'm pretty good." An example? Instead of getting up in the morning, yawning and heading for the coffee pot, like 90 percent of the modern world, Hopes reflects on the ritual of choosing a spiritual guide for the day as practiced by the people on the Isle of Man. According to their tradition, the first thing one sees upon leaving the house in the morning is to be taken as a spiritual guide for the day. Naturally Hopes has a field day with this. "What if you knelt to tie your bootlace, and saw a sexton beetle rolling its little globe of death toward the shrubbery?" he asks. "What if you woke and saw the panther crouching at your side, deciding whether you were Master or Supper? Would you then be your own judge and executioner, the instrument of your own destiny?"

However, Hopes has much more to say about both spirituality and guides, and his playful jests quickly move into startling cogitations. Have we considered, he wants to know, what cosmic forces were at work in creating the elements that form our bodies; what immense and cataclysmic events had to occur for elements such as carbon, helium, magnesium, calcium, iron, nitrogen, oxygen and sodium to exist? Never thought much about it? Well, Hopes has, and his description is riveting. "They rained into the trencher of the infant Earth," he concludes, "so that, four billion years later, they might course through your blood, eddy in and out with your breath. Take that as your guide for the day."

Hopes' interests are nothing if not eclectic. The subject matter in this collection ranges from the explosions of stars and the existence of ghosts to Newtonian physics and the lessons to be learned from weeding a rhubarb patch. Seemingly mundane topics, such as catching glimpses of herons and woodpeckers while out walking in the woods rub shoulders with larger, more disturbing discussions of industrial wastelands and the fate of supernovae.

Underlying and weaving all the stories together is the presence of a human character who, unlike the painfully astute writer with his razor-edged descriptions, offers us a vulnerable, endearing view of the world. This character is Hopes the human -- the small, wide-eyed child struggling with the death of a puppy, the homesick graduate student disillusioned by the competitiveness and intellectual snobbery of his school, and the teacher who bores his students and irritates his friends "by assuming that there is a meaning to everything." It is the human Hopes who understands that the daily visits of a mockingbird are "a special grace," who realizes that the reason he sees herons and woodpeckers when he goes into the woods is "because they know of my love and desire, and they come to me." And it is the human Hopes who says, "I perch on the world's pinnacle and stretch out the hands of my heart," longing with touching sincerity, "to touch everything."

But in the end, it is neither intellectual brilliance nor human frailty that set A Sense of the Morning apart as a book to be reckoned and wrestled with. Instead, it is the awareness, permeating every sentence and every word, that something grand and glorious is at work on our world, the "deepest intuition," as Hopes puts it, "that the world is holy."

[ by Jena Ball ]
Rambles: 26 October 2002

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