JUNE 14, 2020
A FEW YEARS BACK, spending a few days in Zürich, Switzerland, I stayed in a hotel undergoing renovation where the workers would pack their toolboxes and line them up neatly against a corridor wall. The toolboxes were not locked, and a few days in, being the nosy fellow and aspiring handy person that I am, I decided to have a look inside. There I found screwdrivers and chisels that looked as if they had been handed down from great-grandparents, made of the metallic equivalent of old-growth forest. Certainly the wooden handles were ancient enough to have come from trees grown to maturity when Karl Marx was first enjoining workers to unite.
I thought of my own toolboxes, stuffed with cheap plastic-handled screwdrivers that cost a dollar in bins at the hardware store, with hammers barely drop-forged, nothing that one might have wanted to hand down to anyone. It being Switzerland, the tools were immaculate: not a spot of rust on them, well oiled, ready to pop into action the moment they were picked up.
I got home and replaced dozens of cheap tools with more expensive ones that will last a lifetime. “Newer is still better,” concludes Donovan Hohn in “A Romance of Rust: Nostalgia, Progress, and the Meaning of Tools” (2005), one of his 10 essays now collected in The Inner Coast (2020), adding, “but now we are nostalgic for almost everything.” It’s a curious way to close a piece in which things old come in for appreciation, arguing along the way that newer is — just newer.
Indeed, the subject of his unhurried “A Romance of Rust,” originally published in Harper’s Magazine, is an assiduous collector of well-worn tools — assiduous, and not terribly discriminating, filling barns and outbuildings with old tin shears, planes, adzes, drill bits, roofer’s hammers, whatever might have pleased the eccentric, old-school-conservative Eric Sloane, the writer who helped launch the counterculture’s respect for old tools well made and well cared for. That the tools are largely Island of Misfit Toys candidates — one wrench had died, in the collector’s words, underwater, which allowed him to acquire it for a dollar — is a small matter, for they afford the opportunity to rhapsodize, to taxonomize, to ponder the meaning of tools and the proper usage of the term, which properly refers to an implement used to make other implements, one at a time, painstakingly and with art and craft fully engaged.
There’s a method to the madness of that long piece about rusty tools, which takes Hohn into the territory of Robert M. Pirsig and, more recently, Matthew B. Crawford, author of the delightful meditation Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2009). As Hohn writes in his introductory piece, being the writer of the family has also made him its archivist and historian while going out in the world searching for stories has required him to gather evidence, raising the question of what one does with all that stuff, particularly when the collection assembled is meaningful only to oneself and is just as likely to wind up in the dumpster as in special collections once the hearse has pulled away. Hohn’s unstated answer, these essays suggest, is to cram as much of it as he can into each piece, trusting in the reader’s indulgence. And if some of the pieces burst at the seams as a result, there’s not really a wasted word or narrative turn.
For instance, “Rust” is the second essay in the collection, following one in which Hohn, as if in a confessional, admits to doing unkind things to snails as a nine-year-old. That essay, “Snail Picking” (2008), is short, just a page and a half, but it contains a whole childhood world blending cruelty with exploration and discovery. It’s characteristic of his unblinking, head-on approach to his subjects that he recounts chucking those snails high into the air, over the telephone wire, “little spinning cosmonauts, brown specks on a canvas sky.” Naturally, the snails did not fare well in space, as Hohn learned on examining “the shattered bubbles of their bodies.” The miniature essay is a touch horrifying, and though marked by beautiful words such as “ichorous” and delightful phrases such as “ganglia lit up like filaments,” it puts the reader in a position to wonder whether our narrator is altogether likable.
He atones by taking his reader to places such as watery Southern Michigan, his home territory, much in the news these days for — water problems ranging from the toxicity of the tap water in Flint to the Nestlé corporation’s acquisition of rights to mine ancient groundwater for a token $200 a year. Before tumbling, in “Watermarks: Diving into the Fathoms to Find Life’s Fluency” (2018), backward off a boat into northern Lake Michigan in an effort to fulfill a long-held wish to scuba dive — after all, as some wag put it, the lake is salt- and shark-free — he thinks of a poem by Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck” (1973), that lends support both to his enterprise and his cause, which might be said to be the drive to elucidate the elusive mystery of water wherever it flows, with or without ancient wrenches hidden under the surface.
In that effort, Hohn writes in an essay for The New York Times Magazine, “Don’t ask just the ecologists. Ask the engineers.” Not so very handy himself, he allows, Hohn correctly observes in “Can We Reverse-Engineer the Environment?” (2015) that much of what must be done before we do the ecologists’ work of restoring habitats and ecosystems is to do the engineers’ work of removing the monstrosities we have built, from lead-laden water pipes to check dams on once-wild streams. A Virgil in strange and unwonted places, Hohn now emerges as not only trustworthy, but also just the sort of person you’d want spinning a yarn over a fire in some backwoods fishing camp, and likable, indeed, especially in his larger-hearted moments, as when he writes, in a subsequent essay, “All human lives are poignant when seen intimately but from a distance. This may help explain the widespread belief, contradicted by so much evidence, in a loving God.” It’s a generous sentence worthy of Henry David Thoreau or Marilynne Robinson, both of whom he cites as his own guides.
Deftly weaving literature, science, journalism, philosophy, the history of out-the-way locales, arcane skills like canoe building, and no small number of family secrets, Donovan Hohn offers with The Inner Coast a humane view of a world that, as Ernest Hemingway said, is a fine place worth fighting for. And well worth reading about, too, allowing for a few very unfortunate gastropods along the way.