We lived in a dying town with a dwindling tax base. I never thought I'd come back, but the swamp was in me; if Dad was half feral, I was one-quarter. I liked the way the water tasted, the sound of birds outside my window in the morning. A few years in Raleigh studying conservation biology at the state university and I needed to find a place where I could look out my window and see nothing man-made. I missed the smell of things rotting, the sun bearing down on a wet log.
Nothing in the city seemed real to me - it was fabricated, plastic, artificial, fast. After years of biology classes, every come-on was a mating call, every bar conversation a display - a complicated modern spin on ancient rules. I didn't believe in altruistic acts - I could find a selfish root to anything. Eventually I felt as if I was looking out at the busy world and I could see nothing but its ugly bones. I was taught that at the heart of all people, all things, lay raw self-interest. Sure, you could dress a person up nice, put pretty words in his mouth, but underneath the silk tie and pressed shirt was an animal. A territorial, hungry animal anxious to satisfy his own needs.
At least in the swamp, there was no make-believe chivalry, no playing nice. It was eat or be eaten out there, life at its purest, and it's where I wanted to be.
Another thing - I loved my dad. I'd never known my mother - she'd died just after giving birth to me - so he was all I'd ever had. He was honest, fun, and unapologetically himself.
I'm not asking you to come home, my dad said, when I approached him with the idea. You won't find a husband here, he added.
I don't want one, I'd said - and for a while, that had been the truth. Perhaps it was all the years I'd watched my father carve out a happy life alone.
Your old room is packed solid, he'd said. I disassembled a tobacco barn. Numbered the slats. You can't move in 'til I sell it.
I'll take the room over the garage, I said. I have some money to fix it up - I'll put in a shower.
Aside from serving in Korea and a short stint living on a houseboat in his twenties, Dad had remained hidden from the world in the swamp, inhabiting the same house, trapping the same illegal lines, fishing the same shallow waters.
We didn't watch the market or follow politics. That was part of the appeal, for me anyway. For centuries people had used the swamp to hide from their problems. Runaway slaves, ruthless fugitives, shell-shocked soldiers, and cheating wives - all had hidden in the swamp at one time.
When I moved from the city to the swamp, the things I could not have became special again. Cappuccino was special. Driving forty minutes to eat second-rate Indian food was special. Planning a day around the "good" grocery store - special.
You got about half fancy living out of town, Dad told me.
I was a thirty-six-year-old single woman living in a poor man's theme park, running birding trips into the swamp. Most of my binocular-laden clients were pushing sixty and just as concerned with sunscreen and hydration as they were with spotting a pileated woodpecker. I drove them into the swamp in Dad's pickup, left them with a map, a bagged lunch, water, a GPS device, and a phone, and picked them up at twilight in a place that seemed less wild every day.
For the most part, I was happy.
Excerpted from Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Copyright © 2012 by Megan Mayhew Bergman. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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