March 31, 2011 / 2:11 PM / 7 years ago

Rubber duck search leads to high seas yarn

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Men have gone to sea in search of adventure since history began but few have searched for toy ducks and then written a book on the environment, the commercialization of childhood and consumer society.

“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” is Donovan Hohn’s tale of doing just that.

Hohn, 38, now a features editor for GQ magazine, was a high school English teacher in Manhattan when he first learned of a cargo of plastic toys washing off the deck of a cargo ship in reading a student’s essay.

Later he had an idea for a book, a map in his hands and a vision of a journey.

“Perhaps the craziest thing I did -- forget the seafaring and walking around in the habitat of polar bears -- was quit my job and give up employer subsidized health benefits,” said Hohn.

All told the book consumed some five years of his life, and that was more than a dozen years after the ducks disappeared.

A travel narrative, a journey across the oceans, and a mock heroic with a solid dose of science, Hohn said it was largely the book he intended to write.

Starting with the position of the January 1992 toy spill, which was actually 7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles and 7,200 yellow ducks, he scoured the places the toys were found, where they should have been and in a factory in China, from whence they came.

The title is a joke but Hohn said he thought of himself as a kind of ‘Ishmael’, the narrator of the American literary classic “Moby Dick”. And there are other literary parallels.

Nature has always been a subject important in American literature from at least the time of Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, a fact which Hohn is inherently aware.

What he didn’t intend to do was write an environmental story but after seeing for himself man’s destructive impact said, “No one now could write a book about the ocean and leave the environmental concerns out.”

Expressing concern rather than an activist viewpoint, Hohn hopes the book is a “vicarious education” that entertains.

“We have changed the ocean, its chemistry and ecology,” he said. “Oceans used to seem divine, a vision of the eternal. Not now.”

Hohn concedes that despite the book’s cover, which features yellow toy ducks floating on ocean waves, it’s a deep book.

He ruminates on several mysteries of life, including childhood and the ocean and how ubiquitous yellow rubber ducks, now made from plastic, were and are in U.S. childhood and society.

Married since 1999 and with two young sons, he left on the initial journey even as the birth of his first born was imminent, with a promise to return on the next flight if need be. Hohn said he had “a little bit of the sense of being chronically juvenile” when his wayfaring began.

Perhaps, that’s what allows him to follow flotsam and global trade routes, explain the history of the rubber duck and imagine his own childhood watching “Sesame Street” from the vantage point of a shag rug.

It also leaves him able, at story’s end, to throw pine cones into New York’s Hudson River and romanticize with his son where the currents may take them. His odyssey over, Hohn admits it was less than satisfactory in some ways, more so in others.

“There was some sense of disappointment,” Hohn said. “You go back to the early clips and they talk about a break away group (of toys) on the way to Britain. They take as fact what was mostly fable. But the story I did find left me with as much wonder, if not more.”

Reporting by Nick Olivari; editing by Patricia Reaney

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