I’ve been thinking a lot about the bookcase at the cottage.
There’s just one, it stands beside the north door. Made of pine; I think a carpenter friend of my maternal grandparents built it.
Like most everything at the cottage, it’s something of a repository for the past. A few of our old games are stacked on the bottom shelf: Parcheesi, Chinese checkers, Yahtzee. There’s an old scrapbook that my parents used to have visitors sign.
My two favorite Golden books are on the bookcase: Smoky the Bear (which came with a Jr. Forest Ranger’s badge, I still have it) and Bobby the Dog, the whimsical tale of a dog in France who eats croissants and crashes his bicycle. (Not to worry—he recovers nicely, sitting in bed, playing dominoes with his friends Tabitha the cat and Charcoal the mouse.)
We have a lot of field guides. What cottage worthy of the title would be without them? They’re a mix of old and new, now. A wildflower guide, in which my mom penciled notations next to the flowers they located and my dad photographed. One of my old favorites, Michigan Trees Worth Knowing. First printing: 1948, it says in the new-ish copy my dad gave me one year. (I think the one at the cottage is ’52). Every now and then I make a new find, like the newspaper clipping Dad tucked into a guide: a conservation officer’s account of sighting a sturgeon some fourteen feet long and three feet across, off Seul Choix Point in Lake Michigan in the 1940s.
There remain a lot of memories on the bookcase. But lately I’ve been thinking of books long-gone, the titles that were there as far back as I can remember. Some of them probably got tossed even before the Great Mouse Invasion of 1990-something, when we had to throw out quite a few.
There were mysteries, of course—my mom’s Agatha Christies. They all migrated down-state and I gave away what she still had—a grocery bag full—when she died. It’s good to have a detective story to read while you’re on vacation—but those aren’t the books I’ve had my mind on, either.
This is what I’ve been remembering:
Kon-Tiki, the book Thor Heyerdahl wrote about drifting across the Pacific on a balsa-wood raft. A copy of Born Free, with the cover falling off. I used to flip through the black and white photos in the middle, of the Adamsons and Elsa the lioness, in Kenya. We had the sequels, Living Free and Forever Free, too.
The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau. My dad was a big fan and had several of Cousteau’s books. I remember looking at those photos, too. Explorations of the world’s oceans—at the cottage, they were shelved beside an inland sea.
And Rachel Carson: Paperback copies of both Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us were on our bookshelf. I was way too young to be able to read them. But I knew, vaguely, what Silent Spring was about.
And I knew the book was there.
I learned recently that in the past few years political extremists, in their effort to discredit and destroy all things environmental, have been particularly vicious to Rachel Carson’s legacy. They’ve claimed, falsely, that her campaign against DDT was directly responsible for the deaths of millions from malaria. In actual fact, her predictions about DDT and malaria have come to pass: Malaria-carrying mosquitoes have become resistant to DDT over time, in places where the chemical remained in use. I find it worse than sad—obscene, really—that anyone would compare Rachel Carson to Hitler (as one commentator did).
How do we get so far from truth?
Thinking about The Silent World, I read a little about Jacques Cousteau. He didn’t start out as much of an environmentalist. He was a spear fisherman, and an ingenious inventor. (He, along with some others, developed the first SCUBA system.) But as time went on, he became more and more a champion of conservation. I came across this Cousteau quote: “People protect what they love.”
So simple: Love.
We don’t get there by accident.
One morning last fall at the cottage I walked outside as the sun was coming up. I’d heard gunshots (a pretty common occurrence, in recent years) and wanted to know where they were coming from. I went down the steps to the beach and walked up on the bank, coffee mug in hand. And then I looked up—and saw a bald eagle soaring over me, its white head glowing pink in the sunrise.
Chances are, without Rachel Carson, there would be no eagles to see.
Thinking on those old paperbacks at the cottage, the ones I used to look at but could not yet read—I realize that growing up, I took for granted the ideas those books stood for. How beautiful and awe-inspiring is the world around us, what incomparable excitement to explore it. The responsibility we have, to be good stewards, and to be conscious that we are just one tiny strand in the web of life on this planet.
I don’t take any of that for granted, anymore.
I’m planning to recreate the old cottage bookshelf. I’m going to pick up a few of the old titles I remember, and add some new ones. Come to think of it, I’ve already started—I bought a 50th anniversary copy of Silent Spring a few years ago. I only read a couple of chapters—I found it quite technical, and after all, I do know more or less how it concludes.
But even if I never do read the whole thing, it still does me good, just to know it’s there.