Donovan Hohn was correcting high-school English papers one night, when one of his students brought to his attention the existence of thousands of plastic bath toys—ducks, beavers, frogs and turtles—circumnavigating the globe after tumbling off of a container ship en route to the United States from China.
The image of inanimate yellow ducks bobbing cheerfully in the ocean inspired children's author Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) to write 10 Little Rubber Ducks, and beachcombers in Newfoundland and England to search for weather-beaten bath toys that might have safely crossed the Arctic. It also sent Hohn-—schoolteacher by day, investigative journalist by night—to put his investigative skills to work in a five-year wild duck chase, away from his wife and newborn son.
Hohn set out to learn what the toys might have encountered on the high seas and whether they actually made it to the Atlantic, but the resulting book, 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 (Viking, 370 pages, $27.95), goes far beyond a simple investigation into these questions.
"Questions, I've learned since, can be like ocean currents," Hohn writes poetically. "Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you're way out at sea, no land in sight, dogpaddling around in mysteries four miles deep."
Hohn tells of his adventures in Alaska, Hawaii and China, of the environmental disasters he encountered, and of the eccentric scientists and environmentalists devoting their lives to sea-borne plastics. This "quixotic duckie hunter," as he calls himself, learns that plastic flotsam is like a magnet for toxins, delivering hazardous chemicals from land to sea, potentially poisoning plastic-munching aquatic life. And though it must be done, no one can agree on a solution to keep plastic out of the sea.
Hohn's scientific reporting is complemented by frequent quotations of Thoreau and personal admissions of fears about fatherhood. He doesn't say which came first—the book deal or the voyage—but he is no stranger to publishing. Before his days as a schoolteacher, he was an editor at Harper's and is now the features editor at GQ. Astonishingly well written, Moby-Duck joins the work of Rachel Carson and Bill McKibben in the eco-writing hall of fame.
READ: Donovan Hohn speaks at Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., 878-7323. 7 pm Wednesday, April 20. Free.