Dogs, ducks, chickens—nature & birdy days in youth & memoir.I’ve always needed or at least wanted animals in my life. My memoir is crawling with them. As a daydreaming boy I loved reading stories about animals and ecosystems—maybe the genesis of my passion for nonfiction. I got in trouble at school for reading a book about turtles during class. At home, my bedroom floor was covered with animal skins, including that of a zebra an uncle shot in Africa. Atop my walnut dressers: an incubator stuffed with domestic duck eggs and aquariums shimmering with snakes and fish caught in nearby lots and ditches. Sometimes a free-ranging iguana or parakeet passed through.
I gave up the reptiles eventually. They were, well, too reptilian. Birds possess a warmth, maybe emanating from their feathers. There seems a reciprocal consciousness, even an interest, in their eyes.
Satellite Beach, Florida, where I grew up, was an earthly paradise, situated atop a scrim of sand between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Indian River, a broad estuary, to the west. Until my father’s almost-fatal heart attack in 1967, when he was 49 and I was twelve, he took us fishing and skiing in the river. I was grieving for the loss of the first home I’d known, our Georgia cattle ranch, but I took solace in nature. In winter, migrating ducks rode the river’s dark face, and lying in my bedroom at night I thought of them—each bird alone but all together and wholly immortal in their vast rafts. When I finally raised wild ducks in middle age, in Indiana, I felt them carry a piece of me into the sky when they took wing.Such experiences helped draw me to Helen Macdonald’s acclaimed memoir H is for Hawk, reviewed in my previous post, about her training a goshawk to hunt. Her story kindled nostalgia for training my Labrador retriever, Tess, when I was a young newspaper reporter in Florida. I cast Tess into many a field and stream. We participated in a retriever trial near Tallahassee when she was still a pup, rapturous over fetching rubber bumpers. Later we hunted pheasants in Michigan and grouse in Indiana.
Mostly I hurled Frisbees for her—she ran flat-out from my side and caught them over her shoulder, like a wide receiver. Tess appears early in my memoir of farming, helping me court my wife. And then, in our children’s early years, she shuffles off the stage with an arthritic shoulder, the cost of our endless Frisbee game. Tess took me from youth to middle age.
I’m really a farmer at heart, and my interest in hunting faded as Tess did. On that pocket farm in Indiana, Tess supervised my rearing of laying hens, broilers, bantams, and mallards. As a poultryman, I grew to hate raccoons and to harbor mixed feelings about raptors. They fascinate me—they’re birds, after all—but they eat chickens and ducks. My chosen birds eat grain and peck at grass; birds that eat them, or that consume any flesh, strike me as deeply wrong.My next great dog love was Jack, a feisty canine id loosed upon the world. That termite was a far bigger presence in Shepherd: A Memoir than was Tess. He gave chase to groundhogs, which riddled our pastures with holes, and to chicken-eating raccoons and opossums. Just before we moved off the farm we had to have him stitched up from his winning fight with a huge possum. He was 12. I posted Jack’s obituary here five years ago. Overcome with grief, I tried to avoid sentimentality and surely failed. Most such accounts ask for unearned emotion, though it hasn’t stopped me from reading them.
In H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s love for her hawk’s killer soul rivets the reader. The goshawk, named Mabel, is gorgeous but, as Macdonald also underscores, more than faintly reptilian. To reward Mabel during training, Macdonald gives her treats of dead day-old chicks.
I know a fellow bird nerd when I see one. But give me, any day, a sleek mallard or a sturdy chicken with a yen for yellow corn. Or, in a pinch, a lovable dog.