Asking the Big Questions: Barbara Hurd’s Epilogues: Afterwords on the Planet: A Review by Andy Ray

In an age of sound bites, reductionist agendas, and oversimplifications, it is refreshing and comforting to see that honest and open-ended inquiry is still possible. Barbara Hurd, in Epilogues: Afterwords on the Planet provides such an inquiry. In this multi-faceted work, a combination of geological history, documentarian essay, and poetic lament, Hurd explores our current eco-status without the taint of either romanticism or hyper-dystopianism. Through her Socratic-styled inquiry, she tackles the inevitability of human diminishment in the story of the earth in an unvarnished realism that seeks to advance thoughtful questions as much as answer them. Hers is the confident voice of a studied naturalist, the rhetoric of a skilled essayist, and the lyric lament of a sensitive and attentive human being. Epilogues is a hybrid approach, and as such, is not history, not essay, not poetry, while being all three of those at the same time. The whole of this work is truly greater than the sum of its parts and it serves as a rich primer on the state of the world climate in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

I am going to focus on the lyrical aspects of Epilogues that exist within both the essays and the lamentations that appear throughout the book. While the essays, which constitute the bulk of each chapter, lean toward the style of a naturalist documentarian, they do not shy away from lyric when a particular image or idea embraces the topic at hand. And, while the lamentations which serve as a lyrical coda at the end of each chapter, are certainly more lyrical than the essay portion of the chapter, they are in symbiosis with the essays and, as such, create an effect on the reader that exceeds what either the essay or the lamentation could achieve on their own. That is the brilliance of how this work is structured.  

Less lyrical, but no less important to the structure of Epilogues, are the geological history pre-frames that serve as the deep rooting of this work in time and space, and the organizing pillars for the work at large. These geological histories open each section of the book, setting the stage for the essays and lamentations by providing a historical context for all that follows. Their importance as an anchoring device in the system of this work cannot be overstated. They serve to keep the essays and lamentations from drifting into romanticism or political statement. The sub-text to these geological histories is clear; earth is not our mother. It is beyond anthropomorphizing. The earth occupies physical space and time in a massive time scale. It is moved by the forces of the galaxy, the rotation of the solar system, and the shifting magma that drives tectonic plates and the life that exists, or doesn’t, on the onion-skin reality of terra firma.  Earth—no matter what humans do—will continue its journey through time and space with or without us. We do not determine earth’s destiny, but the earth can easily determine ours. These geological pre-frames, focused on cataclysmic extinction events through earth’s history, open each of the seven sections of Epilogues and set the stage for the essays and lamentations that follow them.  

The title chapter of the book appears at about the mid-point of the volume. That chapter, “Epilogues” is a good example of the interplay between the essay and poetic lamentation that Hurd masters throughout the work. In this chapter, she weaves a naturalist discussion about redwood trees, a book discussion on Robert MacFarlane’s book, Underland, and instruction on the 1,300-year-old ancient box huckleberry, and that is just in the first few paragraphs. What follows is nothing short of wisdom-writing, quiet in its thunder, and tectonically shifting in its opportunity to change our personal perceptions about mortality and our individual place in this ecosystem we inhabit. “I’d been in a mood to consider mortality, including of course my own, trying to weigh the lure of longevity against the power of limits.”  And so she begins exploring one of the biggest questions we have in life, mortality, longevity, and limits. Like MacFarlane’s landmark book, she seeks a different way of connecting her thoughts and wisdom on the subject.  She holds in balance, the optimism of being able to experience life in its fullness, “the rewards of continued good work, family warmth, the next good game, the pleasure of seeing a Motherwell painting or a black bear ambling along the edge of our field...” alongside the more fatalistic view of the Kurt Vonnegut idea that, “If a person survives an ordinary span of sixty years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over, but the story is.”  She deals with these two viewpoints as she deals with all dichotomies throughout the book, by asking questions.  

Hurd questions her own positive outlook, “but does such thinking, I wonder, serve mostly to soften the final blow and allow us to side-step that most un-Western notion of the value of limits?” Ahhh, life is about dealing with limits. She moves on, “Somewhere between too much and too little is where we learn sufficiency and how limits help us to distill and refine, to concentrate and shape.” She is working those verbs, honing down her thinking, and taking us along with her.  

After a heart-wrenching passage discussing the inevitably of her husband’s demise to Parkinson’s Disease, along with a walkthrough bio-ethics and the role wealth has in the ability to extend one’s life, she arrives at an acceptance of mortality as a limit that we can work with, “maybe mortality is a limit that can work the way all good limits can.” What strikes me here is the use of the word “maybe.” This word choice allows me to stay in this mode of inquiry with her, and that is a technique she uses throughout the book. We are in this together.

She pulls back from this personalized worldview rather quickly and puts us back into the huckleberry, and Macfarlane’s Underland, back to the natural world where, “In our hubris, we’ve exceeded our limits, sullied the waters and filled the atmosphere with gasses now choking our planet.” It is the disregard for limitation that creates the natural disaster of our own making and, as such, limits our options for the future. “In our disregard for limits, we’ve sacrificed, it seems the ability to control what happens next and what legacies we’ll leave.” And that is the sentence that illuminates the entire preceding discussion and the conclusion that she is inevitably drawn to, and it is expressed with a deep sense of humanity and still maintains deference by use of the words, “it seems.” She will not teach us by plopping down certainties, like Vonnegut, or the rest of humanity. Hurd is willing to accept and share that the results of her inquiry are tenuous like our hold on the future of our existence on this earth.

“Lamentation 8” immediately follows the conclusion of the “Epilogue” chapter.  It is an oversimplification to say that the lamentations act as the pathos to the essay’s ethos that precedes it. The interplay is more complicated than that. First of all, the essays have plenty of pathos to sustain them. Secondly, Hurd states early in the book that these lamentations serve another purpose, “lamentation is the conscience struggling to speak.” In these more lyrical lamentations, Hurd is tapping into the difficulty of saying the sometimes-unsayable utterings of the deep heart/mind. They are, nothing less than another voicing of the essay that precedes it, both wholly reliant on the essay for context, and returning context to the essay proper. When, in “Lamentation 8” Hurd writes, “how weary of fear we become” she is prefacing her realization concerning the acceptance of limitation as a guiding force. Without that line, the piece would not circle back to the essay and the essay would not be complemented by the conscience struggling through fear to arrive at wisdom or even reconciliation.  

But all of this realization is conditioned on a very real human one-on-one relationship in “Lamentation 8.” There is back and forth through the listing style of this lyric that is symbiotic on its face. Ultimately the intimacy achieved by the shared experience in the lamentation, limited as it is by fear and fatigue, there is still the hope of “looking up” and the ability “to comfort each other.” I am struck by how this ultimate bonding of reality to acceptance of limits concludes “mute, in the stellar dark.” How apt that is, and how poetically quiet.  It is an appropriate and deeply felt expression of all that was built before it.  

The entirety of Epilogues; Afterwords on the Planet rests on the structure that Hurd deploys, (history, essay, lyric), but is energized by the style and inquiry of the author. The clarity of Hurd’s vision, the compassion of her voice, and the vulnerability of her inquiry set the stage for a work of writing that resonates with me over time, and I find myself referring to its pages for both the knowledge it presents and the laments it offers on behalf of all of us.  

Andy Ray is a poet and essayist based in Houston, Texas.  He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Literature from The University of Texas at Dallas and his Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.