One of the rewards of spending time with the natural world is that once in a while we are privileged to have an experience of connection with a wild creature that affirms our kinship and the willingness of those creatures to offer us that connection when we open ourselves to it. This story is about a connection I experienced, with one of Nature’s most humble.
There’s a small pond near where I live that I sit by as often as I can, for an hour at a time, and do nothing. No thing. Nothing, that is, but be as aware as I am able, through all my senses, of everything around me. I listen for bird alarms and look for their meaning; I feel, smell, and taste the air; I watch the turtles, muskrats, and snakes as they watch the insects and frogs; I lie back on the warm bank and snooze when the sun is out, anytime from March to November; and I watch the ducks. Most of the ducks are mallards and some are buffleheads. Occasionally there is a blue heron or a belted kingfisher, and for two weeks one winter there was a yellow-billed loon, visiting at the extreme southern end of its wintering territory.
One spring, there were two sets of mallard ducklings raised on this pond. They hatched about two weeks apart – one group that started out as eight and went down to six, and one that started as nine and went down to five. I watched the ducklings grow and fledge out, taking on the colouring of their kind. I watched them feed. Occasionally they would come and forage in plain view. They would swim along the bank of the pond less than three metres from my feet, working the mud and leaf litter in the water with smacking-slurping sounds, paying no apparent attention to me. One morning I watched a muskrat swimming among the ducklings and their adult mentor, all of them in calm acceptance of one another, in a graceful little parade right past my feet.
And once I had an experience that I will never forget.
This was a beautiful late April day, and I approached my sit place filled with gratitude for all of life. I sat down, and I saw through the screen of alder leaves one of the groups of ducklings feeding about 30 metres away. As the adult hen that was with them moved, they moved with her, instinctively knowing that she would not endanger them. As I watched her, I saw the serene confidence in the way she accepted this responsibility, and felt in myself a surge of admiration and affinity for her and for all those beings who understand and follow their Original Instructions so well.
The instant that this feeling came into me, she turned. She swam straight toward where I sat two metres up from the edge of the water, arms wrapped around my knees. Followed by the remaining eight fledglings, she swam to the shore. She climbed the bank to a spot beside me, turned around to face the pond, and sat down close enough that I could have reached out and touched her. I was thrilled. I could hardly breathe; I didn’t want even to look directly at her.
I watched the young ducks climb out on the bank. I could almost read their minds: “It’s big and ugly, but Mom doesn’t seem to mind, so I guess it’s okay, and hey, here’s an yummy-looking little bug.”
We sat that way, the duck and I, for a minute or so. Two of Creation’s children, appreciating the day and each other’s presence. Hangin’ out together.
An unpleasant thought entered my head. I couldn’t banish it quickly enough. With that thought, there was a brief exchange between me and the duck – her dismay at my thought, me trying to release it.
This exchange was over in less than a second. She got up, walked with a dignified waddle back into the water, and swam away. The ducklings followed.
What was the thought that entered my head? Let’s just say it had to do with the food chain.
She didn’t come near me for two weeks, but as the summer ripened, our relationship recovered, and she would come to me for sunflower seeds or just to say hello from the water.
There’s a happy ending to this story too, or at least a happy next chapter.
I got busy during that summer, and didn’t get back to that sit spot very often. During the winter I found a different sit spot, and went to the pond even less frequently. One warm day in late spring the next year, I decided to visit the pond again. I rode my bicycle to the area and laid it down on the dry grass on the point that divided the pond into a butterfly shape. I moved down the bank to my old sit spot on bank inside the west wing of the butterfly.
During the hour I sat there, I saw no ducks, no muskrats, no turtles. I enjoyed the time, though something felt missing too. I rose and moved quietly up the bank, back toward my bicycle. I was bending to pick it up when I heard something behind me. I stood up and turned, and there was the duck, standing there looking at me. The duck. Without a shred of doubt: my friend, the duck.
She had walked up the bank after me. Now she walked toward me, passing by three metres away, and continued in the direction of the other wing of the pond. She stopped and looked back at me. I understood that she was telling me to follow. She led me down the bank and went into the water. I followed to the water’s edge, and watched in awed silence as she gathered four tiny yellow ducklings and brought them to me. “Here’s this year’s family, Human. I remember you.”
I remember you too, Duck. Thanks.