For our seventh anniversary, after breakfast out, Carter and I spent part of the day assembling a Costco chicken house. It is not especially well-constructed, but is better than we could have built on our own. I really had no immediate plans to fill the abode. But critter houses rarely sit empty with us for long.
The next day, I followed my long-pondered desire to add a pair of ducks to our mix. We took our five-year-old granddaughter, Taylor, off on a farm adventure to a place nearby selling muscovy ducks, chickens, turkeys, and red worms for vermiculture. From the flock of speckled ducks of all ages we selected two juvenile muscovies: one with green and white blotches, and the other mostly all white. On the drive home, the ducks were dead quiet. Not a peep.
Although I had thought about keeping a pair of ducks for years, the act of bringing them home happened rather suddenly in the end, and as we neared our house I began hazily awakening to the awesome responsibility of incorporating new creatures into our family.
The older I get, the more sensitive I become to “inflicting” my intentions on others. As I carried the ducks into our backyard, my mind was ticking off directives: “Now, Susan, don’t rush the ducks. Let them find their way into their new yard. Be patient. Leave them alone. Don’t force this…”
Meanwhile, at my feet, grabbing at the duck-carry-bin, Taylor was chattering excitedly, “I want to hold them now when they come out of the box. Can I to pet each one—especially the white one? I want to see them go into their new home. Can you put them in their wading pool? Will they eat out of my hands?”
Taylor’s child voice was the voice inside my head for many years, and it resides just below the surface of my consciousness now. I, too, want to hold, to touch, to enforce my will. It is human nature, I think. Or maybe it is just my nature. But I have come to dislike that part of myself because it is so very dishonoring of “the other.” Granted, it is a child voice, but so many of us never grow out of it.
“Taylor, when I take each duck out of the box, you may pet each one, but once I put them down, you may not chase them or try to touch them. It would be very scary for them. They are in a completely strange place, away from all of their friends. We need to give them space and not crowd or frighten them. We must move slowly, and speak quietly, so they will learn to trust us. It will take time. It won’t happen today.”
I gently lifted Lucy, the speckled one, out of the box. At least as gently as you can lift a squirming, struggling mass of feather and muscles. Taylor stroked her glossy back feathers. “She’s so soft!” Taylor exclaimed. I set Lucy down on the grass and let her go, and she waddled off a few steps, then fluffed her feathers indignantly. With no other duck in sight, she paused, not knowing where—or if—she should go.
I lifted Snow out of the bin. Unlike Lucy, she simply went dead in my hands, her neck hanging submissively. Such different personalities! I supported Snow’s limp neck while Taylor petted her fluffy white tail. “I like her best,” Taylor whispered. Snow came back to life when her feet touched solid ground, and she hurried off to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her sister. Both ducks stood and looked at us while we looked back. They wandered off a few feet on remarkably stout legs, turned in circles a few times, and promptly sat down. Lucy yawned. Snow preened her sister’s face, making adorable little-duck peeping sounds.
“I’ll go pet them now,” Taylor said, her whole small body reaching forward in anticipation.
“No, Taylor, you won’t,” I told her. “We’ll just sit here and watch them watch us.”
“Because we are not going to be pushy and rude. Let’s let them to get to know us on their own terms.”
“Because it is the kind thing to do.”
“Well, after they relax, would you put them in their house because I really want to see them go in their house.”
I watched Taylor struggle with her need to befriend the ducks on her terms. Every 30 seconds, she would tell me that the ducks were “relaxed” now, and she thought it was the time for her to pet them. Or hold them. Or make them go into their house.
They say that everything that annoys you is a mirror in some way, and I don’t know if that’s entirely true, but it certainly was in this case. I said “no” more times than I could count, while on the back burner of my brain, I was counting up all the many, many ways I subtly and not-so-subtly try and control others. And I mean all sorts of “others:” I train my honeysuckles and grapes to grow where I want them. I pull weeds from certain parts of the yard where I know they are doing more good than harm. I bring home frogs and fish from ponds where they were living fine lives until I came along and kidnapped them. I enforce a certain “look” upon my yard that adheres to a certain idea I have about what a “haven” should look like. I won’t even begin to go into my pushy behavior in human-to-human relationships because that is just too humiliating, thank you.
All of this was whizzing at light-speed through my head as I slowly followed the ducks around the yard, sitting when they sat, wandering when they wandered, and keeping Taylor an impatient distance from our stunned and confused flock of two.
Yes, keeping order is a fine thing, but many fine things can become mindless things and mindless things can become dangerous, toxic. In my yoga practice, we are encouraged to look at those things we do without thinking, and I am pushy without thinking. I think a lot of us push and cajole and manipulate and manage without thinking. What is is about this need to enforce the world? To inflict ourselves upon every creature, every plant, and every patch of ground we name our own, and “manage” it?
Our upper yard, which I have christened the Bee Yard, I designated to be the more wild part of our property. I was going to leave it be. Bee. I can’t tell you how often I have futzed with, planted, pulled, and primped this “wild” space. It is shameful, really. And I am trying so hard not to “manage” my bees, while needing in certain ways to “manage” my bees. How crazy is this?
Speaking of worms, we did take some from the vermiculture chest and toss some to Snow and Lucy, which they gobbled with little smacking noises. Taylor tried to create a trail of worms leading up to her lap, so that she could coax the ducks within petting range (I give her high scores for relentless determination), but they were not taking the bait. Arms length was as close as they would come. Funny how they could measure that, without even seeing our arms.
I find Lucy and Snow remarkably entertaining, while admitting I am very, very easily entertained. The ducks walk. They waggle their tails. They preen a bit. They inspect the grass and eat a few snippets. They sit a great deal and look at the air. I could watch them do this for hours. Taylor is not so enchanted with duck behavior. she wants to see them swim in their wading pool, check out Fowlty Towers, eat from her hand, and just…well…DO something. They bored and intrigued her, all at the same time.
While she ran around them offering them leaves, grass, and small dishes of water, I sat still and allowed myself to feel the tension, like a knot that forms in my stomach, when I try to keep my hands off something I believe needs my attention. The feeling is the same whether I refrain from knocking down a spider’s web, avoid pulling up the large swaths of dandelions that grow everywhere in our yard, or stop myself from giving advice that is not wanted anyway. That tension is the exact same in kind, differing only in intensity, depending on the situation.
I believe this need to meddle is a large problem for our species. As a new beekeeper, I read about all of the ways I “should” be meddling in my hives to “manage” my bees—for their own good, of course. Like I know better how they should manage their affairs. Like any of us knows better how to manage the natural world then the Force that created it.
That night, the ducks put themselves to bed before I did. I raced around the yard looking under every bush and leaning board I could find and was starting to panic when I finally found them curled up in Carter’s workshop, under a table saw. I knew that when I grabbed them to place them safely in Fowlty Towers I would destroy the tiny, minute bit of trust I had established with them by being so carefully hands-off all day. But that was a bit of meddling that needed to be done.
They were petrified of my big, grabbing hands, but I got them installed in the Towers and got the latches all locked. I have a lot of raccoons at my night-creature feeding station here. Any one of the coons would appreciate a duck dinner.
The next day, I had to be away all day long, so I left Lucy and Snow to their own devices in our safe and securely fenced yard. When I came home late in the afternoon, I saw that they had never left the Towers. The food and water remained untouched. They sat still in the loft of the Towers, quietly looking up at the air.
Maybe I should have left them to sit and break out of their fear-trance in their own good time. But there was that feeling, that tension in my stomach and limbs. Butt in, or keep out? I fiddled with the door to the nesting box where they were huddled and they bolted down and out of the Towers and to the food and watering dishes I’d set just outside. They drank for a long time. They waggled their tails and drank a bit from the wading pool just outside the Towers, as well. Lucy stuck her head under water and seemed intrigued, but not enough to venture in. Snow came near when I tossed them a handful of juicy worms.
Snow is the foodie of the two. I used this new-found knowledge of her behavior to eventually coax her into the wading pool by tossing a few worms into the water. Bam! She was in the water, head down and butt up faster than my eyes could track her. Lucy followed a few long minutes later, only because she wanted to be closer to her sister. They floated in the shallow water, and watched the air.
That evening, I managed to gently herd the ducks up to the entrance of the Towers. Lucy ventured hesitantly inside. Snow made a run for the bee yard and I had to grab her, which I hated doing, but it was a necessary intervention: I’d discovered a raccoon with an injured paw sniffing around the duck pool early that morning. I need to be very vigilant about night safety for the ducks.
“You can’t be here during the day,” I told the raccoon. “There’s plenty of food for you at night, but you can’t be in the yard in the daylight. Go on now, go.” He ambled up to the bee yard and vanished in a tangle of bamboo and blackberry vines.
I feel an ache inside tonight. A part of me wants no more of this meddling-managing energy. The effort to determine when to intrude and when to withdraw somehow seems too much on this late summer evening. I want to be aware and awake in my life. Mostly. Expect for the times when it all feels just too big and I realize how little I know about how to be—truly be—a good and honorable participant in the pageant of Creation.
Maybe it is enough just to be flummoxed by it all. Maybe that is a good enough start. I think tomorrow, I will sit with Lucy and Snow for awhile and all three of us will spend some quiet time just looking at the air. I think those ducks are on to something.
What a beautiful…and much needed…reminder! Thank you, Susan!
Thanks, Debby. It’s so easy to just sort of barge our way into the World!
Thank you, as always.
Thought you might enjoy the book “Enslaved by Ducks by Bob Tarte.
I grew up on a farm in Michigan and Bob’s experiences with the ducks and the other animals in his life were so true to our experiences with them that they made me laugh and cry.
I realize now that we were rather ignorant and not especially aware of our animals in the way that people are now but we loved them and did our best with very limited resources to provide for them. This book points that up beautifully and although many reviewed it harshly, I can say it touched me deeply and made me laugh and cry in a way no other book has recently.