The Island

Where I’m from


A young man asks me this morning where I grew up, and instead of the usual geographical and demographic and topographic news, out of me floats a tumult of spiky stickerball seedpods from sweetgum trees, and helicopteric seedpods from sugar maples, and lilac bushes so loaded with redolent flowers that they were leaning dangerously over the fence, and the faintest hint of low-tide mud and clam-flat and dead crab when the wind blew from the south, and occasional terrific snows, and twice a hurricane, and old men fishing for blues and striped bass and jigging for flounder from decrepit wooden docks, and cordgrass and cattails, and bayberry and huckleberry, and every sort of little scrabbly scraggly bony elbowy oak and pine tree you could imagine, all of them looking gnarled and annoyed and peevish.

It was the sort of place where, if you wandered along the docks and asked politely what the boats were going out for and coming in with, the burly salted men in overalls and thick jackets would say cool words like butterfish and blackfish and dogfish. If you went often and looked closely, you would eventually see a shark hanging from a chain. Scallopers didn’t talk much, but crabbers did. There was a man who used to catch terrapin, but that was long ago and all anyone did as regards catching terrapin any more was talk about the man who used to catch them long ago. There were turtles in the woods if you looked closely, and you would never go easily and casually into a pond for fear of snapping turtles, of which many stories were told—none of which ended with a full set of fingers or toes.

Every moment of every day it seemed to me that a bird nearby was saying something cheerful or cutting or snide. Perhaps other places in the world were so rife and rich with birds that anywhere you went a bird was there glaring and neurotic. When we were little we greeted them all by name, and it seemed that some of them knew us and returned our greetings and this was not miraculous or magical but quotidian and normal and pleasant. Later we would be surprised and interested to discover that there were such things as seabirds and woodbirds and waterbirds, because when we were young there were just bird birds, and it was quite possible to wander out in the morning and discover a heron sitting on the basketball stanchion, or a herring gull sitting on the statue of Saint John Vianney, or the old damp garage alert with just-hatched sparrows who flobbled out like tiny scrawny questions when you opened the garage door and stood there gawking.

I suppose all the places where we are from have their own languages of animals and light and music and scent and possible and improbable and maybe and yes. I suppose all the places we are from are still in us even when we go far away, as I have. I suppose where we are from is a lot of who we still are, so that even though I am far away from where I am from, and delighted where I went to, and am entranced here, on the West Coast, by elk and osprey and spruce and salmonberry, I still somehow have butterfish and bayberry and scrub oak and pitch pine deep inside, somehow—not so deeply buried as I thought they were, I guess, considering how quickly they leapt out this morning when a young man asked me where I am from, where I grew up, what place was my first language?

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Brian Doyle, an essayist and novelist, died on May 27, 2017. To read Epiphanies, his longtime blog for the Scholar, please go here.


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