BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
The first years of my life that I can remember were spent in a sunny apartment on the edge of campus in a small New Hampshire college town. There was a big front porch we shared with the other families in our building, and a willow tree out back where the neighborhood kids gathered to start games of freeze tag.
Then, just before I started school, my family moved into a house farther out from the center of town. You couldn’t see our closest neighbors through the trees, and they wouldn’t have heard you if you shouted. The land behind us was part of a nature preserve, 163 acres of woods and wildlife. It was quiet at night and dark. There weren’t even any streetlights.
These are all things I love about the house I grew up in now, but I remember being scared of everything then, scared of the silence, scared when I heard a sound, scared of the dark woods at night, scared of the shadows beneath the trees in the day. My parents didn’t have much experience in the outdoors, and neither was much help dispelling whatever terror I saw when I stared out our kitchen windows. My mother worried about bears, and her worries only confirmed my belief that there was something out there.
It wasn’t until Mrs. Von Burske’s second grade class that I finally heard Danny the Champion of the World read aloud. I brought the book home and made my father read it to me. Then my mother. Then I read it. Then I read it again. The book obsessed me, the story of Danny and his father and the fine art of poaching.
Danny lives in a small English town, in a gypsy caravan on the edge of a great wood. When he wakes up late one night to find his father out, he becomes inducted into the secret world of pheasant poaching. He learns the trade secrets from his father, handed down from his grandfather, and eventually he tries out his own tricks on the coveted flock of the comically evil Mr. Hazell.
It wasn’t anything sudden or dramatic, but after I’d practically memorized Danny’s adventures I started thinking differently about my surroundings. There were great passages that described the woods as I saw them. When Danny ventures into Hazell’s Wood alone at night, Danny says:
The sense of loneliness was overwhelming, the silence as deep as death, and the only sounds were the ones I made myself. I tried to keep absolutely still for as long as possible, to see if I could hear anything at all. I listened and I listened. I held my breath and I listened again. I had a queer feeling that the whole wood was listening with me, the trees and the bushes, the little animals hiding in the undergrowth and the birds roosting in the branches. All were listening. Even the silence was listening.
Then of course he forges ahead and everything turns out all right. But more than Danny’s example of bravery, it was the portrayal of poaching that stuck with me, that there were tricks to taming the wilderness, and that anyone with a little patience could learn those tricks. I wondered if maybe I could do that.
One passage describes a technique for poaching trout right out of a stream using only your bare hands. Since there was a stream running along the edge of our property and into the nature preserve, this seemed like a logical place to start. The stream was about half an acre into the woods, and I can’t say how many times I started in alone only to run back out, but eventually I reached it’s edge. I lay on my belly with one hand in the water feeling along the muddy bank, half hoping I would, half hoping I wouldn’t, lay my hand on a slimy, sleeping trout.
After that, I played poacher all the time. I crept around, practicing stealth and setting traps for squirrels that never worked. I wanted so much to see a pheasant that when I finally caught sight of a wild turkey, it seemed almost too good to be true. I started spending so much time in the woods and exploring so deeply that my mother set a rule: if I couldn’t see the house, I’d gone too far and I had to come back.
My friend PJ and I followed this rule very literally. As we went farther into the nature preserve, we took turns convincing the other that we could still see some sliver of the house, a corner of the roof, a single slate shingle, just enough so we could go a little farther. We found fallen trees, stumps gnawed by beavers, a swamp, a hiking trail, and then one day we popped out onto a road. I remember looking back, a little frightened to be so far from home but surprised to learn that the woods ended somewhere.
Danny the Champion of the World wasn’t the first book I read or the first book I loved. My house was filled with books, and I was likely doomed to a reader’s life long before I learned the alphabet. But Danny was the first book I read that left the world changed once I’d finished it. The world outside my house was larger, full of fallen trees and wild turkeys, and somehow it all lead to a road. I wouldn’t learn where that road went until years later when I got my driver’s license and began to piece my town together from behind the wheel, but by then I’d long since stopped looking back through the trees to see how far I was from home.