Jed was not a nature lover. But his wife was.
Born and raised in the city, Jed didn’t know how to start a fire, set up a tent, or hunt deer. He hated insects. When his wife got him to join her on a hike, he often complained about spotty internet reception (to her everlasting chagrin).
“After a year of marriage, and three months into the pregnancy, they had decided to go to a counselor after a big fight that started with him wondering why he had to go to every sonogram appointment.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate nature. He loved to look at landscape paintings in the museum. He read National Geographic. He enjoyed the panoramic view of mountainous terrain while eating lunch or dinner behind the floor-to-ceiling glass wall of an air-conditioned restaurant at the Stonewall Resort when he and his wife visited her hometown in West Virginia (though he complained about the Internet reception). He loved animals.
He just wasn’t a man of the elements. His idea of “roughing it” was renting a cabin in the woods with all the modern amenities. Hot water. Furniture. Heating and air conditioning. And, of course, internet access.
But with a baby on the way and tensions in his marriage escalating of late, he had to find a way to appease his wife. When she was a girl growing up in West Virginia, her father had taught her how to fish in the rivers and how to hunt, shoot, and camp in the mountains. Nature was in her blood like urban sprawl was in his.
So, there he was, his feet crunching the gravel of a trail he was walking with his wife. It was on a Sunday, two days after their first session in couples therapy. After a year of marriage, and three months into the pregnancy, they had decided to go to a counselor after a big fight that started with him wondering why he had to go to every sonogram appointment. She lashed back, expressing her frustration that she bore the entire “mental workload” in getting them prepared for the big day: she had already read three books on pregnancy and he’d read none; she scheduled the doctor appointments and he just tagged along while being annoyed about it; she had signed them up for breastfeeding and infant CPR classes, and then he complained about having to get up early on Saturday morning to attend them; two weeks after she learned she was pregnant, he had not rushed home from work to make sure she was okay when the weather forecast said a snowstorm was on the way, even though she had a fever and was nearly delirious after the doctor warned her that a fever so early in the pregnancy could cause birth defects.
He shot back that the snowstorm was not supposed to begin until the next day, and he didn’t know she was sick until she told him when he came home; he didn’t see the point of going to every single sonogram appointment, especially after ceding to her request that they wait until delivery to find out whether it was a boy or girl; he hated classroom learning and thought he could learn everything he needed to know about breastfeeding by looking it up online, which she scoffed at, reminding him that he had yet to read a single book on pregnancy; he found plenty of CPR classes they could take on a weeknight; he felt like he had no control over the decisions and preparation, because if he disagreed with her on something, like what should go in the bag they would take with them to the hospital on the big day or whether the straps on the car seat for the baby were secured tightly enough, she wouldn’t listen to him anyway.
The fight was a culmination of months of bickering that had them fearing estrangement before their baby was born. Hence, couples therapy. The counselor asked questions, they answered them, and it became increasingly clear that their fight was only the latest eruption of hostilities that had been escalating between two dominant personalities who were set in their ways, unable to empathize with each other because they could not overcome old habits, fixed ideas, and anxieties ingrained by experience. He was an introvert and workaholic who made her feel like second fiddle whenever he condescended to come out of his office. He was an inveterate gadfly prone to contrarian views and picking apart everything anyone said, which infuriated his wife when she came home and wanted to vent about people at work and did not want him poking holes in her meandering recollections of what her colleagues did or said and why she had a right to be irked by it. He had responded to the news that she was pregnant with nonchalance, saying “of course” the news came as no surprise to him because they had fucked for five straight nights during her ovulation period, and had previously made light of her concerns about the challenge of getting pregnant considering that many couples spend months and even years trying to get pregnant (“My dad had seven kids,” he declared with perplexed insouciance).
For her part, she had unpredictable mood swings that would send him to the sanctuary of his office; often these were followed by her bursting open the door with eyes blazing, screaming her dissatisfaction that he would rather spend time in his office than with her. She was a recovering Xanax addict who suffered from what he euphemistically called “above average” levels of anxiety. She also had extreme paranoia about germs. When he absent-mindedly went about cleaning the kitchen counter with the same towel he had used to clean the toilets, on an evening they had set aside to clean the house, she did not simply point out his error and correct him. She stormed into his office and, pushing a stack of philosophy books (“the only thing you really care about!” she exclaimed) onto the floor as a kind of retaliation, called him the stupidest person she had ever met. Later she sent him to the couch for the night along with a tirade of insults and epithets that made him wonder if she might next come out of the bedroom wielding a kitchen knife.
“You guys have reached a point where you don’t trust that the other person in the relationship actually cares about making you happy, and it’s severely affected your ability to communicate in good faith,” the counselor told them. “In other words, there is zero benefit of the doubt going on here,” he continued.
He then suggested they each try to do something the other likes and, especially for Jed, try not to complain while doing it.
Jed thought about camping. Early in their relationship, she had often expressed a hope that he would join her on a camping trip one day, but whenever she brought it up, Jed would say that the humidity this time of year would attract too many mosquitoes, or he would ask about showering facilities, or he would remind her that he didn’t know how to make a fire. He was endlessly resourceful in his ability to weasel his way out of doing new things, not exactly by finding flaws directly but by querulously raising points about picky little details in the same way a foodie might insinuate unfavorable opinions about spices, dishes, or libations that did not agree with his palate. Or as she would say, he knew how “to suck the joy out of life.” She loved to travel to other countries, and after planning multiple trips, she had come to resent bitterly how he would frown at the prospect of a long flight and how he would invariably spot shortcomings in the accommodations of foreign hotels.
Yet a nature hike struck him as a good idea. It wasn’t camping, but when his wife wanted to clear her mind, she would drive to the local wetland park and go for a walk. He even joined her at times, happy to get the dog out of the house, when they took her. It was usually with a hint of reluctance that his wife easily picked up on. This time, he told himself, he was determined to enjoy the experience. So, on a Sunday morning, two days after therapy, Jed checked the weather, saw a sunny spring afternoon in the forecast, and proposed they take a trip to the local wetland park that afternoon.
His wife took him up on the offer, though somewhat chary about it, given the enmity that was still fresh between them. Now on the trail, she was warming up to him, while he strained to match her natural giddiness about nature and avoided saying or doing anything that would come across as insensitive or incendiary. They stopped here and there to look at a bird swerving between trees or a rabbit hopping through the underbrush behind a fallen tree. When gnats whined at his ear, instead of flailing his arms in an attempt to swat them away, he took up his stride again, without beckoning his wife to catch up with him, as if he were only indulging a spontaneous curiosity.
At a fork in the trail, his wife asked which way he wanted to go. He chose the path to the open wetland. Within a few steps, still under the canopy of trees, he saw the wetland ahead of him, fully exposed to the blazing afternoon sun. He second-guessed his choice, for he hated direct sunlight and preferred the shelter afforded by the shadows of leaves and branches. Still, he continued astride, eventually coming to the boardwalk that cut a path through the wetland, like a causeway from one part of the woods to another.
“Look, a snapping turtle,” his wife said.
“Where?” Jed asked. He could never spot things like his wife could.
She pointed to a snapping turtle resting in the shallow pool beneath the boardwalk.
“Cool,” he said, trying to appear interested. He watched the minnows swivel around the turtle’s head that stuck out from a shell enmeshed in the muddy pool like a boulder. Jed was amazed by how the minnows courted death by swimming so close to the turtle’s head. He waited for the turtle to whip out its tongue. The turtle lay inert and unperturbed.
Jed grew bored. He started ahead.
“Look, a beaver dam,” his wife said. She began to explain how beavers spend hours and days dragging tree branches and other debris into a pile to dam a creek.
Jed looked at the beaver dam. He tried to appreciate the engineering feat of a creature that didn’t have the intelligence of a human being. But it looked to him like the trash heaps in the backyards of triple-deckers in his old neighborhood.
Finding no beaver, he sighed. The sun weighed heavily on the wetland all around him. He felt the same lethargy he often felt on nature walks. Maybe he didn’t have the eye for this sort of thing. It was nothing like the TV shows where the cameras always found the action. Gory lion kills. Snakes slivering behind a rock before snatching and swallowing a frog or rodent. Alligators seizing the neck of an antelope as the antelope gingerly tried to sip water in a pond.
Jed could find no frogs in the mud or snakes slithering in the grass. No alligator nostrils stealthily rising above the surface of the marsh like periscopes. The sleepy turtle that his wife had to point out to him was the only exotic creature he had found. The rabbits and birds on the trail were more like flitting ghosts, too quick for him to get a good look. The only killing he saw was a mosquito he swatted instinctively when it landed on his arm. Everything was picturesque. A still-life. But no action.
His wife, griping that he could not frame a photograph the way she liked “if his life depended on it,” went ahead to take a picture of the wetland with her phone. He resented the remark about his photography skills, but tried to let it go. Looking around, Jed suddenly saw an ant scurry up from the wedge between two wooden planks of the boardwalk that were laid out like railroad ties. He moved his right foot aside when the ant tried to hide under his foot. It was strange, he thought, that an ant should flee toward his shoe rather than away from it. Jed would let the ant live, but the ant should have detected a mortal danger, not a refuge. Jed remembered that, as a boy, he stepped on a lot of ants. On bright, summer afternoons, he’d catch sight of black ants foraging around hot cement sidewalks. He’d chase after them and stomp on them with the flat of his sneaker before they could scurry into sand wedges or disappear into forests of soil and lawn grass. When he caught one, he would inspect the flat of his sneaker to confirm his kill. Then he’d scrape the sole against the bullnose curve of a porch step to wipe it clean, inspecting the mangled black carcasses like they were macabre boogers. He crushed a lot of ants, sometimes hopscotching at them if the ants came out in a swarm, until he got bored and went off looking for new tricks, like the time he turned and saw what looked like an oversized misshapen acorn hanging from a tree, went over to examine it, saw hornets buzzing nearby, and decided to pick up a thick tree branch and take a baseball-bat-like swing at what turned out to be a hornet’s nest. Jed bolted inside the house and shut the door as an army of stingers chased after him.
As he stood on the boardwalk, Jed tried to remember how it felt to be such a menace to insects minding their business. Thirty years later, he felt only regret and remorse, reflecting on how the life of those ants, unlike the bold and senseless ant now making a straightaway for his shoe, depended precariously on the random impulses of his oblivious five-year-old conscience. What had changed? Maturity? Maybe. But when did he become “mature”? At what age? And how could he tell? Were there specific experiences that served as rites of passage or illuminated the progress of a conscience? A recurring traumatic memory from when he was only ten years old came to mind. Mortified by what the neighbors must think when his parents railed at each other one night in an explosive donnybrook, not altogether unlike the one he recently had with his wife, Jed found solace letting an ant mill around a window sill in his bedroom while shouts and insults pounded the wall. Unlike when he was five, Jed was content to watch rather than squash the ant with his fist, until at last he heard a plate crash and he anxiously turned from the window in search of another distraction.
The flashback to his parents fighting made him think of the baby on the way. He cringed at the possibility that his own child might grow up in a household where the animosity he observed between his parents would prevail between him and his wife. He remembered how scared he used to be when his parents fought. How vulnerable he felt, how embarrassed. How he coped by withdrawing inward. How he puzzled over why his parents seemed utterly incapable of resolving differences or avoiding temper tantrums.
How would his child have felt after witnessing the fight that had persuaded him and his wife to go to the counselor? The same? Different? It chilled him to realize that he had little idea. How could one predict how a child would internalize conflict between his parents? Some may turn out alright in the long run, but Jed didn’t like the odds. He had a general intuition from all the research he had read about childhood psychology and the importance of stable two-parent families. And what it said about broken and dysfunctional families was not good.
“Jed, look over there,” his wife said. Plucked from his flashbacks like an ostrich pulled from the sand, Jed followed his wife’s finger until he saw a heron in the distance clasping the torso and head of a frog with its beak. The frog’s legs frantically kicked the air. For a moment, he was relieved to see the heron drop the frog in the water. But then he saw the heron grab hold again and swing the frog side to side. The heron was only rinsing the frog before swallowing him whole. When he saw the lump burrow down the heron’s neck, he tried to imagine the terror felt by the nameless, sentient frog suffocating in the soupy pit of a heron’s gut, perhaps leaping wildly in its death cage like a fly caught in a cobweb.
“Poor frog,” he said to his wife.
“Did you see the heron washing the frog?” his wife replied.
“What do you mean?” he answered.
“The way the heron dropped the frog in the water. The frog thought he’d gotten away. But the heron was only splashing him in water. Cleaning him,” she said.
“I saw that,” he said pensively. “Man, that’s brutal.”
“That’s nature, honey,” she said.
“I know. Just, wow, you know? Just like that,” he said.
“You’re never going to forget that frog,” his wife cracked.
“No, probably not,” he replied.
He looked up at the blue sky. He felt again the soft sleepy pall of unsullied nature. He was a tourist of nature, he thought. An intruder. An observer of nature rather than a part of nature. It was the way he had felt about his place in the world all his life. But it was just as well. He knew he would never forget that nameless frog. That was worth something, he figured. “You alright?” his wife asked.
“Huh? Yes, I was just thinking…’ he said.
“Clear the way for Einstein, folks,’ his wife jabbed.
He forced a smile. “I was trying to say I could get used to this nature thing,” he said.
“Get used to it?” she asked skeptically, almost as if she were offended.
“I mean, you know, I like it,” he said.
“Mmm,” she said with an expression that was half-grin, half-frown, and started walking ahead.