Friday, March 30th, 2007
Darwin’s parents just bought a camp house not far from us on the Tombigbee River. It’s a very simple little house, but it has a screened-in porch all across the front (very handy for mosquito-attracters like me), and it’s surrounded by huge trees and peaceful quiet.
It reminded me of the little place my family owned when we were children. We bought it with my grandparents (on my dad’s side), who would come up from Mobile to live there for a month or two at a time. It was a five-room cabin (1 bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom, and the little nook with our bunk beds) in the Yocona (Yok’ nuh) River area of North Mississippi, which is the area William Faulkner borrowed for his novels’ settings.
My mother called the place “the camp,” which I disapproved of because it wasn’t nearly romantic enough. I wanted something like the place names in L.M. Montgomery books – Green Gables and New Moon and Silver Bush. Despite my protests, the name stuck, and to this day – when we haven’t seen the place in 13 years – we think of it as The Camp.
It didn’t matter that the cabin was small because we spent most of our time outside. The cabin faced a little river with a wood bridge and a huge fallen log across it, connecting the shady, cool spot by the house to the bright patch of green field on the other side. It was the perfect place for my sister, my cousin Courtney and I to pretend we were trolls and fairies, princesses and talking animals.
I loved that log bridge, loved to dance and skip across it, and when we divvied up property in our pretend games, I always claimed ownership of it and exacted imaginary tolls before allowing my cousin and sister to cross.
But one day I stopped being able to cross it myself. One day I got afraid of falling in and had to start taking the wood bridge with the grown-ups. That was around the same time pretending got harder to do.
Maybe The Camp would’ve soon lost its magic for me anyway. But the beavers ended it when it was at its peak.
What we thought of as a river was actually a “slough” – a slow-moving watercourse probably 20 feet wide that turned into creeks and swampy land behind the house, where the beavers perpetually built their dams and our family perpetually destroyed them.
My dad and his dad, who we called Pa, hated the beavers. They weren’t the lovable talking creatures I’d read about in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with their quaint little hut on the frozen river. They were destructive; their goal was to flood the land, and our goal was to live on dry land. We could not co-exist.
Once when I was in fourth or fifth grade, we brought two boys from our neighborhood with us to The Camp. They were my age, and I was desperately in love with them both. Dad took us out onto a shallow creek to break up a beaver dam. I was standing in the middle of the creek when I slipped and fell in, soaking my clothes and embarrassing myself to within an inch of my life while the boys pointed and laughed.
Still, the work felt important. I was with my Dad. I was helping. I was ridding the world of beaver dams.
Meanwhile, Pa had other beavers in his sights. He was a member of a hunting club back in Mobile with his best friend Sam, who lived in the house behind theirs and waved to us over the fence when we played in their back yard.
One day the two of them went out together to break up a beaver dam. Pa was wearing boots and heavy gear.
When the heart attack came – as it had come so many times to him before – Pa fell in the water. Sam tried to save him, but Pa was too heavy and he sank and he was gone.
The insurance company found that the water – not the heart attack – had killed him. Gran did not want to accept it, though an accidental drowning death paid more insurance money. She must’ve been preparing for years to lose him to a heart attack – he’d begun having them when I was only a baby, and his chest was scarred from all the surgeries. A drowning death was unexpected; it was all wrong.
But to my 11-year-old self, it seemed oddly fitting. Pa hated the beavers. He had died doing something he thought was important. Their goal was to flood the land, and his goal was to live on dry land. They could not co-exist.
Not longer after Pa’s death, Gran developed ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. It started in her tongue, in a slurring of the speech that her children at first attributed to over-medicating.
She and Dad sold The Camp, and we never saw it again. The place is so vivid in my memory that I wouldn’t want to see it now. I don’t want to replace the cabin and dock and log bridge of my memory with whatever the reality is or was.
Still, sometimes I wonder … did the next owners fight the beavers the way we did or did they let them claim the land?
Last night, on the way to the in-laws’ camp house for the first time, I told Darwin I never wanted to spend the night there, cramped on a funny-smelling fold-out sofa.
“There’s no reason to,” I said, “when we live so close by.”
But once I got there, the memories of The Camp were so strong that I was the one who suggested all of the family stay there some weekend.
Especially when we have children, I want them to have that experience of giggling with their cousins before an early bedtime; waking up in a strange, simple place; and running out to enjoy everything a flat plane of grass, a river, and a stand of hardwoods has to offer.
There are no beavers behind this camp house, but we will do just fine without them.