The Tale of the Naturalist’s Log

There are books we love because they move us, maybe even change the way we live our life.

Vicki Doudera here. Don’t worry —  I’m not going to talk about The Goldfinch again. (But that post’s available here if you didn’t get to read it the first time…)

Other books scare the Holy Hannahs out of us, and for lots of reasons we crime writers love to discuss, we enjoy these books as well. For me, that super-scare of a book was The Shining.  So vividly do I recall turning those pages, curled up on our living room couch, shaking in my proverbial boots. (Jaws was another one. Can we ever forget inhaling those novels?)

And then there are the books that are special only to us.  For some, it’s a treasured family Bible, with names and dates penciled carefully in. Or a tattered paperback that saw its reader through a difficult period. Or a rip-roaring adventure that mirrored a time in the past when we, too, were on a rollercoaster of a ride.

Perhaps most important are the books we make ourselves, full of our own unique stories.  I’m not talking about books we write and publish (although those are pretty darn important to their authors, trust me!) but tomes of a more personal nature. Scrapbooks of Christmases going back to our days as a newlywed. Journals of trips taken, discoveries made. Diaries from tortuous times in middle school.  Yes, I possess all of these things, including saucy accounts of a college year in Paris, but for me, one of the most treasured books in my collection is The Pitcher Pond Naturalist’s Log, a journal that had its beginnings back in 1998.

I can’t talk about the Log without mentioning my son Matt, whose 26th birthday is today. Not only is he the creator of the book itself, but, it turns out, he was responsible (albeit unintentionally) for its long disappearance.

But let me start in the beginning, back in the summer of ‘98, when my husband and I sold our 11-room Inn in Camden, packed up our possessions, and moved to a camp (if you’re from Maine you know what I mean – for the rest of you, a camp is a small lakeside cottage) that we’d fortuitously purchased only months before.

The camp was – and still is – in Lincolnville, on a narrow, glacier-formed body of water called Pitcher Pond. Ten years before bidding on the place, we’d rented it, and Matt had been all of 2 months old. When the camp went on the market in the spring of ‘98 we put in an offer to purchase it, never dreaming that our bid would be accepted, much less that our business (and home) would sell three months later.

By then our family had grown to include Nate, 8 years old; Lexi, who was four; chocolate Lab Daisy, and cats Tom and Jerry. It was a crazy,  whirlwind of a time in our family’s saga. We had two weeks to pack up our personal items at the Inn and get the heck out, all the while flipping flapjacks for guests, taking reservations, and presenting to all of our paying customers a relaxed, serene demeanor, even if we felt far from it.

When we finally found ourselves ex-Innkeepers and new residents of Pitcher Pond, we took about a week to unwind from all the stress. Turns out a little lakeside cottage hailing from the 1950’s was the perfect place to do just that.

It was mid-July, and with all of the fishing, swimming, biking, and BB gun shooting, I’m not sure why this

eldest son of mine made the book in the first place. Probably because, even at age ten, he was the kind of person who liked to craft things with his hands. Chances are he spotted the fabric first, then found some cardboard, grabbed the stapler, paper and scissors, and next thing he knew, he’d made a little book.

I think it was all the wildlife we were witnessing that made me think of starting a Naturalist’s Log. The earliest entries are veritable laundry lists of sightings: porcupines, raccoons, red-tailed hawks, bear scat, paper wasps, and fish ranging from perch to pike.  The very first entry? Mother catfish and approx. 100 one inch babies by shore of beach. Believe it or not, I can still recall seeing that incredible sight, marveling with the kids how each one of the babies was a tiny version of the slowly swimming, protective mom.  It was something I will most likely never see again.

Before long, the boys were scribbling in their own discoveries. Caught a one foot bass on dock during cookout, wrote Matt in July of 2000. Wanted to eat it but Mom said no.  Nate spotted “two grouse and one baby while picking blueberries” in July of 2002. Lexi, still a little young to journal, proved to be an adept finder of unusual creatures, spying tree frogs, salamander eggs, and winged creatures of all types, some of which (if they were dead) we pasted in the journal.

And then, in 2003, the unthinkable happened:  the Log disappeared.

That summer, it simply vanished from its customary perch on a shelf in the camp’s living room, and despite searches of both the cottage and our Camden home, the journal did not turn up.

For five long years it remained missing. And all that time it bugged me. For five summers, I asked myself where the hell the book could be. I looked high and low, in every conceivable spot, and still, the little journal refused to be found.

And then, in 2008, I moved a dresser from the boys’ bunkhouse into my camp bedroom. The lowest drawer was stuck shut, and when I finally pried it open, inside lay the Log. The last entry, written in June of 2003, was one dramatic line, scrawled in Matt’s distinctive handwriting.

Today I saw a bald eagle and it flew right over my head.

At last our Log was back, and we wasted no time once more recording discoveries. A meteor shower that lit up the lake. A mother duck and eight tiny ducklings. A spotting of seven loons swimming in a black-and-white pack. Hummingbirds, chipmunks, Lady slippers, Canada geese – the list goes on and on.

Including the notations I made yesterday as I sat on the camp’s screened-in porch. Saw a giant snapping turtle with a shell 18 inches across, a dead bat, and a kingfisher.

Why do we like to record events in our life?  For me, the Log is a way of remembering just how multi-layered a natural environment can be, how much diversity can co-exist on a three-mile-long pond in the Maine woods. It’s an account of funny family stories (like the time Nate wrote about a loon swimming under his legs, which years later he admitted was fictitious.) It’s a measure of the months and years, stacking up like firewood, a way to make sure we remember that the times gone by have been rich indeed.

As our Maine summer rolls on, I hope you’re enjoying both words and wildlife.  My thoughts today are on Matt, off captaining a yacht in St. Thomas, where he’s spotting everything from sharks to sea turtles.  Happy Birthday, Matt, and thank you for creating a very special book.

And to the rest of you, enjoy this beautiful day.


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