My middle son, Owen, 7, recently learned to read. For homework each night, he reads aloud a book that he is working on at school. Yesterday, the book was about a baby otter searching for food. First he tries to eat an old, crushed soda can. Owen paused here to tell us that “littering is bad.” I beamed at my ecoconscious son. And then he said: “I’ve seen what litter can do on ‘SpongeBob SquarePants.’”
Eventually, the baby otter finds a clamshell that is closed tight. He dives back to the ocean floor, just like his mother has taught him, to find a rock. Then back to the surface of the water he goes with the rock and clamshell clutched under his arms. He rolls onto his back, places the rock on his belly, and slams the clamshell against the rock until it breaks open.
“That’s a lot of work just to get some food,” I said when Owen had finished reading.
Owen left the room to put the book in his backpack. I watched him walk away and considered the fact that I had just returned from the grocery store. It’s a feat not unlike a baby otter struggling with a clamshell, searching for a rock, and then toting the rock and shell through the water so that he can smash one against the other.
Does the otter ever think, “There has to be a better way. Like, can’t I order this stuff on Amazon?”
I turned to the sink to finish washing dishes and I began to wonder: What would a baby otter think of human grocery shopping? If an otter brought home a book about it to read to his mother, might it go something like this:
The female human tries to grow food in the backyard, but this proves to be complicated because she lacks something humans call a “green thumb.” Most people like eggs, milk, beef and poultry, and yet they do not keep the animals that provide such things. So the human female travels several times a week to a place called the grocery store. Grocery stores sell all the foods that humans eat, no matter where they live. Yes, there are bananas in Maine.
When the human female visits the grocery store, she usually has her children with her. The children will sit in or hang from something called a shopping cart. If the female shops at a kid-friendly store with shopping carts made to look like race cars and-or trucks, the children might even ride on top of the hood of the plastic car.
Besides the children, the shopping cart also holds all of the purchases so that the female’s arms are free to pluck more food from the shelves. When the female isn’t looking, the children toss unwanted and unhealthy items like Fruit Roll-Ups and Lucky Charms into the basket. If the female is lucky, that is the worst her children will do; it is not unheard of for human children to throw themselves on the floor, at the feet of their mother, and beg for candy and soda.
Sometimes, small human children dart away, duck behind a display of bread and then dash off to the frozen foods, so that the female has to sprint up and down the aisles calling out his name, and then eventually, once she finds the little rascal, backtrack through aisles 3 through 11 again to find her shopping cart, which has probably by now been emptied and returned to the front of the store by an employee.
The female usually has a portable phone in her purse, and she will use it at aisle 9 to call her husband and ask what kind of beer he wants. When he tells her that he also needs more salsa and avocado, she will groan as she trudges back to aisle 1 again.
When it is time to pay for the groceries, the female and her children will be corralled through passageways filled with candy, soda and trashy magazines. The children will beg for all but the magazines. The female unloads her cart. The items are scanned and bagged. They are loaded into the cart again before being unloaded into the back of the human’s car.
Note: The grocery store staff does not follow the female home to help unload the groceries. And often, her children don’t help either.
The female will spend about an hour putting away her groceries, throwing out old, spoiled food, and stuffing plastic bags into a tube, to be used later as a sack for dirty diapers. At first her pantry will seem full and satisfying. One day later, however, someone — probably her husband — will open the refrigerator door and say, “Don’t we have anything to eat? When are you going to the store?” Soon after, the process begins again.
If this is what an otter child’s book about human food would be like, then surely, after the child has read it to his otter mother, she will feel exhausted just for having listened. Then she will say, “That’s a lot of work for some food. Now scurry away, son, and find us a good clam. And don’t forget the rock.”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com.