On January 6, 1992, 12 containers knocked loose by hurricane-force winds and 36-foot waves tumbled off a cargo ship traveling from Hong Kong to Tacoma, dispensing upon the Pacific a dowry of little plastic bath toys. Those containers had housed 7,200 packages, each including a red beaver, green frog, blue turtle, and the iconic childhood plaything anointed as cultural royalty by Bert and Ernie in 1970: a yellow rubber duck.
When Donovan Hohn learned about the toys in an essay by one of his high school students in 2005, he decided to track them down, but not in a casually disinterested way. Hohn went after the ducks with maniacal abandon, quitting his job as a teacher, embarking on six ocean-bound journeys in an attempt to not only hold the toys in his hands but to understand them in all their abstract, metaphysical, symbolic, and cultural meaning. In short, he went after them Ahab-style. And then he wrote a book about it.
The UCSB Reads program, in which the university in conjunction with local public libraries dispenses free copies of the book so that the entire community shares a literary experience, this year chose that book, which is entitled Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.
Hohn will give a free talk Monday at 8 p.m. in UCSB’s Campbell Hall. He was kind enough to take a call from The Santa Barbara Independent at his office in New York, where he currently works as the features editor for GQ magazine, to discuss Moby-Duck in advance of his visit.
When did you first become interested in matters environmental or in writing about nature? Probably as a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay area. I was a bit of a nature boy and went to oceanography summer camp, subscribed to Ranger Rick. It probably goes back to that. But I hadn’t been doing environmental journalism. The book project just really began with that scrap of a news story mentioning the journey of the toys.
Despite my first question, I did not read Moby-Duck as environmental. Kind of like the whale in Moby-Dick, the ducks are a screen onto which we can project our own preoccupations. I was wondering at what point in the project that occurred to you. I don’t see it as a work of environmental journalism either. If I had to describe it, I would say it is like a travel narrative in which there are certain environmental themes. As far as the ducks being like the whale, fairly early on I was just imagining a short magazine piece that would bring together the narrative of the journey of the toys with the meaning of the toys. It was before I wrote a single word that I settled on the title, and the title in some ways determined what would follow.
The title of your book, of course, is a pun on Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. Aside from Melville, you seem really drawn to other writers of the American Renaissance. What is it that fascinates you by the writing and thinking of Emerson, Thoreau, et cetera.? You are right. I am drawn to those writers, Thoreau and Melville in particular. Some of that is in part because I taught American literature. Of course, I taught American literature because I loved those writers. With Thoreau, it’s the impulse to look closely at place. It’s about trying to make sense of place. In a way, I was responding to that tradition — the idea that you could know the world by sounding a pond (or measuring its depth as Henry David Thoreau does in Walden) and looking closely enough that you would see revelations around you. I liked that idea, but I think I saw myself as — this is going to sound grandiose but — a lapsed transcendentalist. With Emerson and Thoreau, they felt that they could see a kind of divinity in the natural world. Their writing was an attempt to make contact with it. For me, the undertaking was much more doubtful. That’s where I think Melville may eclipse Emerson and Thoreau because he’s a deeply doubtful writer.
For Melville, nature is not always so beneficent. Another discussion those writers engage in is the metaphysical distinction between the natural world and the synthetic world. Where do you stand on that concept? I try to articulate that the distinction between those terms — “natural” and “synthetic“ — is an artificial one. What Thoreau is doing is not going out into the wilderness. He’s a mile from town. What he is doing is changing his vantage point. Thoreau is looking for a new position from which to look back on. So in that sense of trying to see differently, I certainly felt a sense of the ocean being an utterly foreign landscape that I couldn’t imagine. That’s why I felt the need to go out onto it and to see it myself. In traveling the ocean, I tried to change my understanding of the world as I know it on land.
One of the characters in Moby-Duck is this guy named Richard Wong who is a toy exporter. He coins the term “kidult.” It’s supposed to describe the adult desire for the imaginative play of children, but for him it’s also a market. A lot of your book reflects on what it means to be a child and the narrative is framed by the first three years of your son’s life. How did your experience as a first-time father shape your narrative? A couple things. If the query you’re chasing is a hollow plastic plaything that’s become an icon of childhood in popular culture and not a white whale, then that required me to be thinking about what it meant, and that required me to be thinking about childhood in America. So that theme would have been there regardless. But because my journey did coincide with my own fatherhood, childhood was very much on my mind throughout. It seemed to me it almost would have been harder and weirder and less truthful to have left that personal experience out of the narrative. I was hoping that bringing in my own personal experience as a kidult and as somebody who was going to be now experiencing childhood through the vantage of a father, it seemed like it might enrich the narrative.
So the book is based on this children’s toy which a lot of environmentalists might see as wasteful. Some of the environmentalists you talk to — and some that I talk to — have these utopian fantasies that Americans are going to change their lifestyles en masse. You seem to dismiss those fantasies. Do you think we are headed for a doomsday scenario as ecologist Garrett Hardin suggests in his public commons thesis that individual rational actors will use up a limited resource to the long-term detriment of all? The tragedy of the commons thing I don’t think is a doomsday scenario. On a smaller scale, the tragedy can be the extinction of a species or extinction of a resource. It doesn’t have to be a total apocalypse. I have a hard time crediting either the doomsday scenario or the utopian scenario. I did want to as clearly as possible reckon the scale and reality of the various threats to the ocean in this particular case since that’s where I was traveling. And they are real. There are growing quantities of plastic in the ocean. That’s true. It does have an impact.
What was important for me when I initially heard the story of the garbage patch and the plastics was to sound it. And this goes back to what we were talking about before as far as the impossibility to imagine the ocean when we are sitting at home. It sounded apocalyptic, like there was a floating junkyard out there. I definitely wanted to have it both ways. There is a reality to it, but you want to describe that reality as accurately as possible. It’s not a floating junkyard. It’s more like airborne particles blowing through the water column. We know that entanglement does kill a number of marine mammals and birds, and yet, if we’re ranking the threats to the ocean, it’s probably a less serious one than global warming or acidification. You want to then be able to appreciate it accordingly.
The images surrounding plastic and the ocean carry a symbolic weight. You see it, you hear it, and it seems horrifying, mainly because you can see the stuff with your eyes. You go to the right shoreline, and there really is tons of trash washing up. But there are all these other threats that you just can’t see. You can’t see the amount of CO2 the ocean has absorbed since 1850. You can’t see the hydrocarbons from coastal highways that are running into the ocean. The visual is always going to make a bigger impact.
To build on that, journalists are supposed to find the truth or demystify the subject they are writing about. As you were just explaining, you do that in Moby-Duck. At the same time, you want to magnify the resonance of the plastic bath toys. I thought that made your work more interesting than a typical work of journalism. I wanted to be able to dramatize the education that I embarked on and take the readers along. When you first hear about the garbage patch in the second chapter in the book, I want to imagine it, and that’s how I experienced it. Gradually, over the course of the journey, it complicates in ways that are useful.
What do you think about plastic bag bans? As far as the plastic issue goes, if you go back to the middle of the century, we had to acquire the notion that plastics were endlessly abundant and without consequence so that we could use them for a few seconds and throw them away without thought. I do agree that there is an impact of that. You are using a nonrenewable resource. The vast majority of plastics come from fossil fuels. And they do end up getting into waterways. I don’t think the costs of plastics are reflected in the price of plastic. It seems to me better for the environment and maybe economically more rational if they did.
It’s a big source of political contention here in Santa Barbara and surrounding communities. What I qualify it with is that I don’t think plastic is inherently evil, even from an environmental point of view. If you try to measure aluminum, it consumes a huge amount of energy. It’s not necessarily like plastic is somehow wrong. Likewise if you substitute it with wood. There’s that quote from the late 1800s when the plastic industry was just beginning and the inventors of it were introducing it as the salvation of the tortoise and the whale because all these plastic products would replace whale bones and tortoise shell. There is a reality to that. Likewise, you can’t have modern medicine without them. You can’t have lightweight, fuel-efficient vehicles without them. But the problem to me is that we treat them as if they are disposable and as if they are free and cheap with no consequence to using them.
After your six journeys out to the ocean, is it possible to synthesize what you learned? I like narratives that are just as much about the journey and are not going to lead to a clear conclusion. But I think the closest I could come to one is that if I began reading of Melville’s ocean, I ended with a sense that the ocean as he imagined it and as most people imagined it for centuries as this divine, indomitable, wrathful, unfathomable, cosmic part of the planet that dwarfed humanity. By the end I felt that it was Rachel Carson’s ocean I ended up sailing on. The degree to which we’ve altered it, the degree to which it is inseparable from the rest of the planet because of currents and winds: that’s the biggest unifying claim and conclusion to the book.