Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Summer Memories

As a kid in the upper Midwest, I used to revel in summer. I looked forward to the last bell of school and the opportunity to wend my way through my days with minimal structure for the next three months.

Sure, I engaged in some team sports and took swimming lessons, but the bulk of my time was spent playing outside with kids in the neighborhood, most of whom were like me. We played ditch and tag and other games too, I’m sure, though I think we mostly explored.

Living in a suburb near land that had not yet been developed, we had a large area to wander and study. One of our neighbors was a farm boy named Paul who knew a great deal about nature and who wasn’t shy about explaining it to us. He was a couple years older too, so he had a natural authority about him.

We’d climb trees and collect wildlife, looking for new creatures. At one point, we became intrigued by tiger salamanders. Paul told us they sometimes fell into window wells on their way to the pond, so we went from house to house, rescuing them from their prisons, collecting perhaps as many as 200.

If only the story had stopped there. Unfortunately, however, we piled them into a discarded bathtub, leaving them overnight, intending to play with them the next day. The following morning we discovered that a lot of them had died, crushed by their comrades.

We guiltily released the others, but the damage was done. For years afterwards, we rarely saw salamanders in the neighborhood. We did learn, however, from our mistakes. We never took another salamander. We still collected butterflies, fireflies, frogs and even garter snakes, but always in reasonable numbers, and we began letting them go at the end of our day.

Curiosity compelled our actions. We bore our captives no malice. On the contrary, we found them fascinating. We wanted to study them, to see how they navigated their world. If we killed them, it was accidentally. Yet in our enthusiasm, being ignorant children, we harmed many of our subjects.

Perhaps that’s why I never became a hunter, or much of a fisherman, for that matter. I feel like I’ve already committed my share of damage to the world. I look still, but I no longer touch.

I grow milkweed and other insect-friendly plants. I refuse to fertilize my lawn. I lower my thermostat in the winter and use only a small window air conditioner in my bedroom in the summer, just so I can sleep.

Guilt runs deep, even if it doesn’t run all day.

I still live in the neighborhood where I grew up. The ravine where we spent the bulk of our summers is now a freeway, a concrete divider between my home and the Mississippi River, where the only wildlife I can discern are the crazy motorists who talk and text instead of focusing on what they’re supposed to be doing.

And I have two window wells that I check every so often, looking for the elusive tiger salamander, hoping to find one that I can free from its prison and set on the path toward the pond behind my house.

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