Home & Away series

Yesterday two dogs and six kids with six fishing poles crowded into the whaler to skiff to Brown’s Lagoon, which you enter like a storybook, with cliffs rising up either side, and rapids that vanish under high tide and bear paths through fireweed and nettles growing over steep sharp rocks along the water. The kids immediately started taking off boots and pants to wade out farther, and then Luke stripped completely naked and fished that way for hours. The poet, Mary Oliver, writes Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in…Attention is the beginning of devotion.

And I want this story to be all rejoicing in nature and our place in it and the freedom of being nine years old and naked in a river full of pink salmon. But the natural state of boys isn’t exactly gentle. A month of boys visiting the cabin this summer was a month of knives flicked open and twirled and fidgeted with and stuck into things, abandoned socks, communal socks, so many lost things, endless bets: a dollar to wash your hands in the toilet, more to swim all the way to the holding skiff. Unwashed hair. Hands deep in fish belly, in tide pools scooping up eels they eat and decide blenny stew is terrible. Hands snitching cookies, flicking flint, jellyfish stung, bee stung, nettle stung. Song lines repeated over and over. Noise for the sake of making noises. Chairs on three legs, chairs rocked, chairs upended. Water fights that always escalate to a garden hose. One night I found a boy holding a confused squirrel upside down by the foot, while his brother raced for a knife To do what, exactly? I asked. Skin and eat it? What in the world were you thinking? as he dropped the squirrel and it raced off into the woods. And days later, Mom, I’m sorry I threw that piece of metal at the squirrel. I don’t know what made me do that. Maybe it was a hunting instinct? Maybe being out here brings out the savage in me?

Don’t they have machetes? My dad asked when he visited. That’s what boys are good for—destruction. But you gotta give them creative destruction. Positive destruction. They could clear these branches, work on this path. In fact, they did clear and build a whole village out back by the creek, out of birch trees and ferns, until they lost their machetes in the brush. They begged to be allowed to sleep there in spite of it being basically the bears’ favorite route to the beach. We relented. They survived. In the morning, over a tower of pancakes, they said that what woke them up was all the bird song. I wish this for all children, to feel free and easy in a place, to clear some path to sweetness.