Courtesy of Mel Shaw

How I Became a Nature Writer

Originally published in A Wing in the Door

I grew up surrounded by a small woods and, because of my artist parents’ solitary life, the trees became more my kin than people will ever be. But alas, for all its charm, my woods was threatened on all sides by exploitation. Looking out from the profound shade of lacy hemlocks, I saw a world now bereft of trees and found no place for myself there, although I could not have said so then. Where I did belong, what my heart cried out for, I was unable to envision. Except that once there was one beaver pond.

When I was thirteen, my uncle Joe, who delighted in wildness, told my parents about a property his outdoors club was buying to turn into a conservation area. He tried to say how much this land meant to him and he told my parents that we should go and have a look at it sometime. Yet, that first time when I did go with my family, I found the resounding solitude and the unending possibilities at first boring and then frightening. My parents, ever searching for scenes, explored briefly, and then set up their easels to paint. “Why don’t you go for a walk,” they suggested absently.

To stand still and contemplate the silence and the strangeness was unthinkable. Wholly ill at ease, I wandered off alone across sparse fields sprouting with scrub, drawn by the sound of water music along a cart road toward a distant forest.

Soon after, I entered a nightmare, becoming lost as I never had been before. Barely had I slipped inside this utterly foreign, seemingly endless woods, than the silence was reeling in my head; the silver-trunked trees were staggering dizzyingly about me. Never had I even dreamed of being so lost. At my feet was a tiny pool, a dew-pond of a pool. As I looked at it in my whirling, the leaves reflected in its bottom grew corpselike, leering, shivering. The leaves and the shimmering trunks seemed to be hissing that I could be lost forever and no one would find me. Simply by entering this wildly echoing, empty land, I would cease to be.

Fleeing this lostness, I stumbled on, clinging to the water sounds that had drawn me to the forest. I plunged wildly up a bank, snatching at trunks to help me, and came out upon the broad expanse of the first beaver pond I had ever seen. Too exhausted by my terror to continue, I sank down on a fallen trunk, my breath shuddering.

The stillness was intense, but once I stopped, it was no longer menacing. A pair of harlequin-colored wood ducks sailed near the far edge of the pond. Closer by, rings burst on the mirror surface of the pond, and a V-shaped wake streamed across the water. While I crouched, the V drew gently closer, until I could detect a slick wet head with dark eyes studying me, waiting for me to state my place in his scheme of things. Surrounding me now were no longer the waves of my terror—instead there was the purl of water in a trickling fall from the nearby beaver dam. A slight breeze riffled the pond’s surface and subsided. I leaned forward to see the beaver more closely, but that brought a resonant, reproachful thwack, and the animal sank out of sight. I lived for stories, and it seemed that everywhere here in this unfamiliar place was composed of tantalizing stories drawing me in.

Fear completely forgotten, I crept to the edge of the pond, hidden among the rushing grasses, and simply waited to see what would happen next. Clouds scudded across the water; sinewy schools of minnows threaded their way amid the reeds beneath the surface. On a floating log, armored turtles shone in the heavy sun. Never had I felt such a complete connection with place.

But before the beaver surfaced again, my father’s cheery whistle sounded, and he stepped into the clearing, come to fetch me now his sketch was done. Although I went willingly, obedient to my memory of the recent dread of being lost, in a way, I never left. I never would be able to leave the idea of the pond, the ducks, the beaver, more highly colored, more real than anything else I had ever encountered.

A tumult of school and university, marriage and children, followed. But the memory of that beaver pond lay submerged, deep within me, waiting.


Small with Great Love

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