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.