"I'm damn sure I never want to see another depression, and I'd never want you to go through something like that," my father said, "but, in a way, they were some of the best years. I was young, and I actually liked getting out in the marshes running that trapline. I liked cutting trees. It was better exercise than golf and, physically, I felt great after a day in the woods. What I was doing was fun, if I could have done it without worrying. I was always afraid we weren't going to have enough to eat and that I was going to have to go on relief or the WPA. That time I broke my nose splitting wood, I knew the damn ax was going to break, but I didn't want to spend the money in a hardware for a handle and I didn't want to bother making one, so I just put tape on it and the head flew off and conked me. I remember waking up and there I was bleeding like a pig, but I was thinking I'd have to get an ax handle someplace because I had a customer for a couple of cords. Then I really got worried because there might be doctor bills. It seems like you could at least have had a broken nose in peace and quiet but you couldn't. You went to bed worrying about money, woke up worrying even when you had been conked. The Depression was there all the time."
Now, 30 years after that conversation, I can at least imaginatively comprehend how hard economically and psychologically the times must have been. Yet when they were happening I was oblivious of them. I certainly had no sense of hardship, deprivation or worry. In part this was because I was too young, but it was also because my father made a shield of himself that protected me, body and mind. I have no memory of a harassed, desperate man, though he often must have been so. I remember he was usually laughing, teasing and joking, invariably tolerant and patient. I remember an informative, immensely energetic person who seemed to have an inexhaustible amount of time to spend with me and was having as good a time doing it as I was—which was very good indeed. There were all sorts of good times—riding on a tractor with him, learning to swim, to canoe, to sail, to hit a ball out of a sand trap with a niblick; there were serious discussions about the relative merits of Tommy Bridges and Carl Hubbell; we raced turtles, built castles in the sweet-sour-smelling mounds of oak sawdust, lassoed the Judas goat, and more and more and more.
As things turned out, the most consequential common interest we had was in natural history. Though his formal training was in botany, he was an enormously inquisitive general naturalist. He took me along on his plant-collecting trips if they did not extend too far into too difficult bush. By the time I was in kindergarten I knew the Latin names of a good many southern Michigan species of flora. (After a few years of formal education I forgot most of them, replacing this information with a lot of facts about the principal products of France.) On one of these trips we found a massasauga, the small rattlesnake of the northern wetlands. My father restrained the snake, showed me its distinctive identifying features, explained the properties of its venom and why the animal should be treated with prudence. Then he released the massasauga, at a safe distance. The experience left me with a feeling that rattlesnakes were interesting, if formidable, creatures but in no sense loathsome or scary.
Another day, while my grandfather (a man of the old Cotton Mather that-which-is-not-useful-is-vicious school) was advising poison and shot, my father spent most of a morning digging out a badger that was threatening to undermine the 6th green. As he dug he showed me with enthusiasm the intricacies of the badger's tunnels. Finally he got the big powerful weasel into a box, and together we drove it to an abandoned farm several miles away where it was released, furious but unharmed.
Through such intimate and instructive encounters I had been introduced, even before I could tie a dependable bow-knot in my shoes, to a good many members of the local community of flora and fauna. These early experiences helped shape my own adult interests, my studies and my choice of profession, but more important I now think they created an enduring attitude—in a sense an appetite—that the so-called natural world is an unfailing source of instruction, stimulation, recreation and just pure pleasure. I can think of no better legacy that my father might have left to me.
The fall and winter of 1931 were the worst of the hard times for my family, or so my mother, who was recently consulted about these matters, tells me. There was less money than ever and prospects of getting more were at their bleakest. On top of everything else, winter came early and hard, making it more difficult to cut wood and trap, requiring more heat, light, clothing and thus money. Again, so far as I can recall now, I was oblivious of all of that. I remember only disconnected incidents from that early winter, none of them bad, none related to economic crises. We found a sea gull that had become trapped in the shore ice because its webbed feet were cruelly entangled in a bass plug somebody had lost the summer before and which the bird had apparently pounced on hoping to get something to eat. While my father operated to free the barbs, I edged closer, so close that the gull reached out and gouged my hand with a beak that was as strong as and much sharper than a pair of snap-lock pliers. I was proud of the scar for some years.
Somehow my father broke our exuberant Airedale, Mike, to harness, taught him to pull a toboggan-like sled that he sometimes used to carry traps and kindling. After the ice froze solid and if the weather was not too bad, he would hitch up the dog, put me on the sled and we would tour the frozen lake to see what was happening.
Indoors, where I spent more time than usual because of the weather, there were two mouse cages, one of white foots and the other of meadow voles, to watch, feed and anthropomorphize with. A flying squirrel ranged more or less freely in the cottage. My mother read to me a lot, especially, I remember, about an Indian duck named Shingibis (spelling doubtful) who engaged in heroic struggles against the cruel and tyrannic North Wind. My mother also recalls this tale clearly, if not so fondly. "I read that story over and over and over until I knew it by heart," she says. "So did you. Sometimes I wished the North Wind would win and freeze that damn duck stiff, but I suppose it was good for me, too. Kept me from thinking about other things."
The day before Christmas would have given Shingibis all he wanted. A great blizzard was howling over the lake. Enough snow had fallen so that we left and entered the cottage through a narrow trench, deeper than I was tall, dug through a snowbank. On the windward side of the cottage, drifts were piled up to the lower windowpanes. In the midst of squalls we could not see more than 20 yards from the windows, but when the wind abated temporarily we could look out on the chalk-white expanse of the lake where, because of both the fallen and swirling snow, it was difficult to find a clear line of demarcation between the land and sky. Most of that Christmas Eve afternoon we watched the storm, not with any alarm, but for entertainment, as now we might watch Days of Our Lives or fat men shoving each other about on a plastic carpet contending for balls.
About dusk the wind began to die, the snow stopped and the sky cleared. It began to get much colder as the storm moved eastward and a great still sea of arctic air descended in its wake. Sheets of ice formed on the inside of the windows, freezing in fantastic crystalline patterns. The windows were kaleidoscopic in design and color, the crystals catching and reflecting the light from lamps, the fireplace, the Christmas tree.