–Away I must fly.–
From over a hundred yards away, I hear the enormous sound of what surely is a hundred geese cackling in loud cacophony. I cannot see them in the pre-dawn darkness. But in the growing light of my return walk, I make out the small gaggle of only a dozen very loud domesticated white geese as it mills under the venerable Cottonwood in Craig’s pasture, making its only-as-a-goose-can-do honking.
* * *
An acquaintance of ours called to say that he was moving, and would we take his three ducks.
“Sure,” I said enthusiastically, “they’ll fit in nicely with our ducks.”
He brought his ducks over the next day: three big white ducks with creamy yellow bills. We were happy to add these beautiful birds to our aviary. But the moment our friend drove away, the big whites began to chase and attack our smaller blues and greens, tearing at them viciously. Seeing one white grab onto the neck of a terrified Swedish blue, I hurriedly picked up a stick and ran to the rescue. Swinging to strike the white duck’s behind, my swing reached farther than I had intended, and the stick struck the white duck on the neck. Its head flopped over on its broken neck, and the duck began to flop erratically around. While I felt sad at having killed the white duck, the indignant part of me felt a sense of justice at having rescued the blue from a bully.
* * *
September’s first morning frost foretells the coming of Winter. Birds of many species begin to flock southward. At the strange sound of trilled honks, I look up from walking on Rabbit Lane to see three Great Blue Herons fly not 20 feet overhead with broad, powerful wing strokes, their dagger beaks piercing the air. Minutes later a flock of 30 Canada Geese approaches from the Great Salt Lake in the familiar triangular formation. The leader turns rather suddenly, throwing the flock into the momentary chaos of a long single-file line with a bulb of birds in the rear. Within seconds they find their form again. Following their leader, this larger flock of birds also flies directly over me in quacking cacophony. They fly so low that I can see their soft gray undersides and dark underwing feathers, and I can hear their wings beating, can hear the air whistling through their feathers with a light, breathy sound as they push strongly but smoothly upon the air. Their heads and necks extend fully forward, stretched like graceful fuselages, unlike the herons, who, gorgeous in their own right, fly with their necks curved back and then forward again in a tight “S” shape led by the beak and followed by the beautiful body and long dangling legs. In typical fashion, the flying geese honk noisily. Every few seconds, a single member rolls radically to one side or the other, dropping momentarily out of formation only to immediately rejoin the formation farther back.
Another gaggle flies over me in a gentle arc, not a hard-angled “V”, and lands in a cow pasture, where the geese waddle serenely. The echoing blast of a shotgun startles me, and the geese rise in a frightened flush to more gunfire. While I know the farmer has a right to shoot the birds on his own farm, and to serve them up for his dinner, still, irritation seeps into my hot face at this unnecessary disruption of peaceful life.
* * *
In some places the irrigation ditch flows four to six feet below the banked edge of Rabbit Lane. The trickling water is choced with Watercress and obscured by four-foot tall grass growing thickly in the steep banks and bending over the open ditch. On some cold mornings, a mist hovers over the ditch, rising from the warmer waters.
As I approach one of these deep areas on a morning walk, a small Mallard rises vertically from the depths of the steamy ditch, in complete silence, like a remote control helicopter, its short wings a fluttering blur. Several feet above the ground, it tilts forward and to the side, flying low and away over the ripening alfalfa. Picking a spot to its liking, it comes to a hover and drops, disappearing into the alfalfa.
Had the little duck remained where it was, perfectly concealed in the deep ditch, I would have walked past it, never knowing it was there. It had been safe in its concealment. Something about my approach, however, caused the bird to panic, to reveal itself, and to seek what it perceived to be a safer hiding spot.
* * *
One winter day an unsuspecting driver inched his wheel off the edge of the icy road and slid his car into a deep section of the ditch, leaving the back wheel suspended and spinning several feet off the ground. It remained perched on the precipice for several days.
* * *
Walking with Erin (11) one morning on Rabbit Lane, I heard a wary quack in the irrigation ditch ahead and stopped her suddenly.
“Ssh. Do you hear that?” I asked in an excited whisper.
“It’s just a duck, Dad,” she replied with disdain.
“Ah,” I whispered, “but do you know what species?”
“No,” she answered, looking at me with the mixture of awe and boredom that only she can produce.
“Well,” I lied playfully, “neither do I!” Growing quiet and serious, I continued, “But the quacking of a common duck is as precious to me as the mournful cry of a Common Loon, which is anything but common.”
We walked in silence then, attentive to whatever would reveal itself.
* * *
As Brian (12) and I walked along Rabbit Lane one evening, small creatures made spooky, rustling noises in the ditch-side bushes and willows. We could not see them in the darkness, and our flashlight only served to accentuate the shadows and add to the mystery. Steam moved sensuously over the murmuring water. A small Mallard jumped from the water, captured in the flashlight beam, and hovered for a moment, seeming unable to decide what to do or where to go. Then it pivoted like a model harrier jet and eased off over the fields toward an unseen wetland.
* * *
I think that the happiest days of Laura’s life were the days I brought chicks or ducklings home from the feed store. She begged to let her first yellow duckling swim, so I filled a five-gallon bucket from the mud room sink, and she plopped the little duckling in to swim. The duckling swam happily for a few minutes. Although only a day or two old, it somehow knew how to be a duck, dunking its head in the water and letting the droplets run down its back. But soon the duckling began to founder and sink. While the danger had not occurred to me before, I suddenly realized what was happening. The water from the mud-room sink was cold, being drawn directly from our 200-foot deep well. The duckling was so new that its little body couldn’t keep itself warm against the pervasive cold of the well water. The frigid water was sucking the warmth right out of the duck—it would be dead within seconds. I hurriedly scooped the ducking out of the cold water, rubbed it dry with a towel, and tucked it inside my shirt against my bare body. By this time, Laura had figured out what was happening, and was in tears. For the sakes of both the duckling and my daughter, I did not want this duckling to die, and uttered a silent prayer. I sighed with relief as the duckling began to move against its dark confinement inside my shirt. Hearing its protesting peeps, I drew the living duckling from the darkness and handed it to Laura, who now cried tears of joy.
The next year we brought home a newborn black duckling. Laura raised it in a rabbit cage in her room for several days, until its incessant night peeping, not to mention its incessant pooping, drove us to move the duckling to an empty pen in the chicken coop, under a heat lamp. Laura and I sat in the yard one day holding her new duckling. Suddenly it stopped moving, its legs straightened and slacked, and its head fell back on a limp neck. I watched its black eyes, gazing wide into the bright sky, literally glaze over. For some reason we could not fathom, the duckling had suddenly died while cradled in Laura’s ten-year-old hands. The poor child began to sob hysterically. I took the duckling from her and tenderly manipulated the dead duckling’s winglets, legs, and head, not knowing what I was doing but wanting to look like I knew what I was doing. A strange premonition popped into my mind, telling me that the duckling’s heart had stopped, and that I needed to restart it. Almost without thinking, I thumped the duckling’s tiny chest with my open index finger, once, then twice. Without warning, the duckling’s eyes cleared, it picked up its hanging head, and it began kicking its webbed feet. Incredulous, I handed the wriggling duckling back to the still-crying girl. This duck lived to become Laura’s dear friend, following her around the yard like a puppy. She named it Wingers. I can’t explain the inspiration that compelled me to revive the baby duck. I choose to believe that someone who knew and cared about the tender depths of Laura’s heart urged me into life-saving action. She needed her duckling to live, to not die in her hands, and I had been allowed to doctor it back to life. Laura enjoys telling about the time her Dad successfully performed CPR on a duck.
A year or so later, a neighbor’s marauding dogs killed all of our ducks, breaking one duck’s neck with a bite and a shake before moving on to the next duck. Hearing strange noises from my bedroom, I ventured outside with a flashlight, dressed in my bathrobe. Finding the dead and dying ducks, including Laura’s Wingers, in the midnight dark, and the tame but bloodthirsty dogs still in my yard, I hauled the dogs by their collars to the neighbor’s front porch and banged furiously on the door. Shouting in uncharacteristic fury, I dumped a bucket full of dead and bloody ducks at the neighbor’s feet. I am not proud of my outburst; it was a measure of mine and my family’s grief combined with fury at the neighbor’s carelessness and irresponsibility.