By Jeff Hodges
My daughter often tells our friends she is glad she survived my childhood.
We spent our workweeks in Manhattan and our weekends upstate, which meant that by kindergarten my daughter could hail a taxi and pick up a snake. She often juxtaposed her locales—I once overheard her instructing some hunters sitting around the woodstove in the Farm Supply Store on how to spot a drag queen from afar.
When she was still a babe in arms I would lug her up the rocky ridge behind our house to watch the winter sunsets. Other times I’d carry her through the woods like an oversize football, where she quickly learned to fend off the branches with her tiny arms.
One autumn afternoon we were sitting by a river watching the trout bulldozing through the shallows in a spawning frenzy—always a remarkable sight to behold. After watching for a while, my daughter turned to me and said: “OK, Dad—let’s shop!” and she positioned us on opposite sides of a forked tree so I could purchase imaginary Wheaties, Kleenex and Hershey Bars from my pre-school proprietor.
A fearsome event occurred one sunny morning when we were walking up our dirt road and I saw a grapevine hanging within easy reach.
“Look!” I said, “This is what you do with a grapevine!” and began my swinging demo, only to end up on my back as a horrible splintering and crashing came from the upper canopy. We rolled off the road as a ton of rotten lumber landed within a few feet of us. Amid the rising dust she treated me to a torrent of expletives she must have previously overheard from her mother.
When she was five we’d go canoeing in a nearby swamp and she would say “Dad—let’s pretend we’re lost and we need to figure out how to survive” and we would concoct various hunting and gathering scenarios and wild food menus—an exercise my wife insisted was a subconscious reaction to a very real possibility.
Once a nesting swan with an unhappy and threatening demeanor accosted us in a narrow stretch of water. With typical bombast I said “Stand up and whack her with your paddle if she gives us any trouble” and shot us through the watery Thermopylae. I’ll never forget my diminutive daughter holding her paddle over the darting beak of the swan nor will I ever lose sight of what could have been a long series of plastic surgeries.
The only time I ever saw her in full retreat occurred when we set out with her best friend to observe a beaver. We walked through the frozen wetland on the chance of observing this reclusive mammal, and when we came upon his lodge, I said he was probably inside.
“What do you think he’s doing in there?” they asked.
“Just watching TV,” I replied.
For reasons best illuminated by Carl Jung or Maxwell Perkins, this sent both of them shrieking back to the car. Even now, neither can really explain why the image of a beaver basking in the blue glow of his television screen put the natural world into such a terrifying tailspin.