I was amused to see the following tweet from Merlin Mann the other day:
"When I was a baby, I didn't like the smell of buses. Now, I really like the smell of motorcycles. It's so distinctive." — My Weird Daughter
It’s pretty clear (if you’ve read any of Merlin’s writing) that when he says “My Weird Daughter” he actually (quite rightly) means “My Amazing and Excellent Daughter”. However, it reminded me of an occasion from my own childhood when my mother had good reason to think she had a weird kid. I thought I would tell the story to reassure anyone in a similar position that we Weird Daughters usually turn out more or less OK.
I’ve been obsessed by animals for as long as I can remember, but the obsession was particularly acute when I was a child. I loved anything to do with animals, and would insist on going to any animal-themed films that came around. The only problem was that if there was any death and/or suffering depicted, I would cry and be inconsolable, so my mother would have to watch me like a hawk and be ready to swoop with the tissues. Interestingly, when I was younger, I wasn’t bothered much by the suffering of humans in films — only animals. I only started caring about people too as I got older.
Anyway, one day (when I must have been about 5 or 6 years old), my Mum took me with my brother to see a film called When the North Wind Blows (not the Raymond Briggs animation of the same name). It was set in Siberia1, and involved a tiger hunter. On one hunt, the tiger attacked his friend’s son, and in trying to shoot the tiger, he accidentally shot and killed the boy2. Guilt-stricken, the hunter goes on the run into the forest, assuming that he will be charged with murder. He starts to live off the land and after a series of slightly improbable and highly anthropomorphic scenes involving a tiger saving his life and him reciprocating, he befriends a female tiger. She trusts him enough to allow him near her cubs, and the tigers and the man romp through Siberian woods and meadows together. His friend tracks him down to tell the hunter that he knows the shooting was an accident, but by that time our hero is at one with the wilderness and decides to stay away from civilisation for good.
At some point during the film (I don’t remember exactly when) I started to cry. I cried all the way home, during my tea, and I was still crying when I went to bed. My poor mother, bewildered about why I was so grief-stricken, and by now slightly exasperated by the whole thing, said, “Why are you still crying? It wasn’t even a sad ending!”
Between sobs and sniffling, I eventually managed to wail, “I want to go to Siberia.”
Mum gave me a long look, which communicated pretty clearly (if very affectionately) this thought: “How in the world did we manage to produce such a Weird Daughter?”.
“I want to go to Siberia” was as close as I could get at the time to explaining why I was so moved, but I remember precisely what I felt and can express it a bit better now. It was probably the first time (but certainly not the last) that I had ever been moved to tears by the sheer heartbreaking beauty of the natural world. I saw the dark, still, pine forests, silenced by snow, and watched a man running for joy across a sunlit clearing with a huge tiger at his side. The snow they kicked up sparkled in the sun and the tiger was like a chip of amber held up to the light, the stripes like shadows cast by the trees. I wanted to be there, running with them. I wanted to feel the diamond-cold air in my lungs and reach out and touch the rough, thick fur of the tiger, to feel her warmth and the power of the muscles beneath her skin. I wanted it all so badly that it hurt. I couldn’t express any of this at the time, and the closest I could get was to explain it as a kind of homesickness.
Naturally, this incident became a family legend, and I still get my leg pulled about it every now and again. The animal-mad kid ended up as a biologist, taking a rational, objective approach to explaining the natural world, but also secretly revelling in the “beautiful ramifications”, as Darwin put it. I think I turned out OK, and Merlin — I’m sure your Weird Daughter will too.