When I first moved from Nebraska to New Jersey I felt somewhat out of place. We had moved from a town of 25,000 to a church camp and conference center with a neighboring town of 167 people and twelve thousand cows. I might be slightly off on the count of the cows since I didn't meet all of them, but Johnsonburg dairies sent seven or eight semi-trailers of milk to NYC every day. I am positive that it took more udders than it did people.
The camp was over 400 acres in size and I spent a great deal of time wandering the woods, investigating the swamps, the creeks, the springs, and the lake. I learned a great deal of nature and introduced myself to wild food harvesting. Once a year I would visit a spring-fed creek and collect a few mussels that the raccoons had not gathered. I cooked them in a broth I made from watercress and one small stewed fish. Ummmm... delicious.
I found I didn't enjoy catching and eating fish as much as I enjoyed watching them. I thought of myself as a budding musician then. I'm still budding all these years later and no longer have my handmade 12-string guitar because I gave it to my son-in-law. But my first summer at the camp I had a wonderful Yamaha acoustic and then later I had my Maton 12-string.
I learned to modulate sounds and how sound waves traveled through the air, wood, and water. The camp had floating swimming cribs and floating docks. Many evenings I would sit on the docks and play my guitar and sing, and watch the fish. The sunfish would gather around me first and fan out like steel filings attracted to a magnet. Behind them the bass would form and sometimes a few bullhead would gather below the sunfish. A large snapping turtle would cling to the outer edges of the floating swimming cribs and not move.
They weren't just immersed in the water, they were engrossed in the sounds. The fish in our lake preferred the minor keys and modes. If my chord patterns stayed in the major group too long the bass would slowly back away and vanish. The turtle would start looking around and the sunfish just disappeared. I learned to toy with my finned audience and could make them move as if choreographed ballet. At times I felt as if playing for the fish healed my soul from the hurts of adolescence.
Being a child of the camp director made "belonging" difficult. I belonged there but all the visitors were off-limits. It was difficult to stay aloof from the people there but I had a few friends and I had the fish. I am sure that none of the fish remembered my discussions with them, but perhaps that snapping turtle would remember. The turtle was still there, or seemed to be the same one, when I revisted the camp fifteen years later.
My father released the caretaker and their family moved away. I was heart-broken and shared my anger and disappointment with my congregation of gathered fish. I told them and the turtle of my sadness for the caretaker's daughter had captured my heart. She smiled and my world was lighted. She touched me and my soul melted. She taught me the majestic beauty of a horse and how to ride. And it was the turtle clinging to the wooden slats of the swimming cribs that heard it all. I entertained the fish with my music and their slow dance cured my riven heart.
I wonder if that turtle remembers the beautiful blond I fell in love with in a later summer and then surprisingly met again when I switched schools. My best friend David and I got to play ping-pong with her and her friend. She never new how much I wanted to talk to her more, but the turtle did. In the new school she knew me but just didn't know what I had felt for her.
Did the fish remember my anguish at breaking up with a high school sweetheart one year, then actually having her arrive at the camp with her parents and sister? Probably not, but the turtle would recall how excited I was then and the love songs I wrote for her even though she preferred Peter Frampton. And my circle of fish, with fins waving as they slowly drew in closer to my guitar and lamenting voice, drew closer still when tears coursed my cheeks when again my Martianette severed our ties. No longer to be her Preppie, but the turtle patiently listened to my pain.
One night under the stars a new throb in my heart sat with me and talked for hours into the early dawn. Under the shining stars and glorious moon she shared my heart with the ballet of fish and my good friend the snapping turtle. We sang together and they danced. We held hands while we talked and the fish drew in close as if they too wanted to be so close as we. But age and time drew us apart as well and the fish gathered near to sooth my soul once again. The turtle floated in the water and watched me and listened patiently.
And so I've learned patience of my own. I have no fins to steer my course. I have no shell to protect me. But I've known drawn hearts, twinned souls, and merged minds. My fish are gone and my turtle too, but those beautiful girls grew up to be beautiful women and fill me with wonder every time I see them in the distance or hear of their dances through life. The didn't know the inner me, but my fish did. They may not remember our fleeting pasts, but my turtle did and may still. And I remember.
So it is to fish and turtles, and all nature, that I turn for soul soothing. And it is with great interest that I learn about more wildlife, and I am always reminded of past love when I see nature at work. The mermaids of my youth weren't fictional. They were and are unique persons and I still sing to watching fish and talk to patient turtles.