when ducks cry
Sunday, June 4 2006
setting: Woodland Hills, California
I wandered the neighborhood a bit further afield before arriving at my usual destination of Starbucks. I ventured north of Victory and west of Royer, to a decidedly poorer neighborhood with smaller, shabbier houses set on larger lots. One of the streets was lined with stout ash trees, which probably were planted at about the same time the orchards were subdivided and the streets were built. One of the trees had recently been cut down and I counted a few more than forty rings, meaning the neighborhood, like my brother, dates to the early 1960s.
The strange thing about the neighborhood was so still and seemingly lifeless it was. It was the late morning of a sunny Sunday, and yet no children were riding bigwheels down the sidewalk or screaming in the backyards. Do people still have children? If so, are these kids really playing videogames all day? True, it was dreadfully hot out in the sun, but kids usually crave dirt, trees, and pædophiles on some level. Or perhaps we've come further from our roots in the last thirty years that we'd come in the preceding 10,000.
After my usual Starbucks experience of typing while watching the strangely unpierced coffee consumers queue up for their strangely icecreamish beverages, I headed out again on foot, this time southward down Fallbrook Avenue with no particular destination in mind. A hipper coffee shop or dive bar would have probably obtained my business, but the neighborhood was largely residential, interspersed with churches and gas stations.
By now my new Addidas flip flops had chewed a groove on the top of my right foot and was hobbling along under an relentless sun in mind-altering 100 degree heat. Closing my eyes and turning up my music, I could imagine I was in the desert that had once been here. But desert heat isn't really all that uncomfortable. Any sweat on your body immediately evaporates and you feel unexpectedly comfortable. The danger here isn't the heat, it's the dehydration that's allowing you to bear it. I was experiencing a mild euphoria from the caffeine, the heat, and the joy of being on foot with no destination in a land where people don't even walk to the corner.
The corner I eventually walked to was the one where Fallbrook met Ventura Blvd. Then I turned and went a block or so west and bought some bottled water and two large "Hi Gravity" beers having an alcohol concentration of 8.1 percent. I drank first the water and then one of the beers on the long walk back to the house, which I did completely barefoot. Those painted white stripes at intersections greatly increased the comfort of crossing streets.
Back at the house Luc proposed that today should be the day that we relocate the mother duck and her ducklings. Two of the latter had died in the past several days, one on land and the other in the water, though neither had shown any obvious signs of injury. Both Luc and Vikki have been expressing increased impatience with the ducks, who have been shitting in the pool and attracting troublesome green-headed males. Their pool guy, who is in an occupation that is to ducks the way that bulldozer drivers are to trees, assured them that eventually the duck shit would stain the pool, and well, you can't have that. (Because this particular pool is unusually natural-looking, with no straight edges and a darkly-textured surface, it seems doubtful that staining would do anything except enhance its appearance.)
Catching the mother duck was easy. The three of us closed in, with me the closest and in the water. When she attacked me, I held her tight and subdued her wings, and soon she was imprisoned in a cardboard box. The babies were fairly easy at that point, though they did their best to elude us by diving to impressive depths. We rounded up seven and then searched around for a good ten minutes for the eighth. But eventually he or she came out of hiding and was added to the separate cardboard box containing the ducklings.
Luc had read on the web about a nearby place that was a good place for relocating duck families, but when we drove there it seemed its pond had been filled in and converted to lawn. So we went to another park, the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area, located near where the 405 begins its ascent of the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains on the way southward towards West LA. From the parking lot we had to walk about a quarter mile to the shore of a reservoir. Along the way we passed numerous picnicking families, most of the Hispanic. A couple kids ran up to see what we were carrying and were delighted when we showed them the box of ducklings. "Patitos!" one of them shouted back to his parents.
There were a couple of dozen ducks and a handful of people at a small beach on the shore of the reservoir when we arrived. Like the people, the ducks were a strange mix of hybrids and ethnicities. There were several half-grown mallard ducklings there who looked enormous beside the week-old ones we'd brought. As onlooking humans cooed and gushed, we released first our ducklings and then their mother. After some momentary confusion, they coalesced into a tight family unit among the other ducks. All seemed well as we turned to leave. Mission accomplished, so to speak.
The use of that phrase was intended as foreshadowing, an inevitability since it acquired sardonic nuances in 2003. When we got home, Luc immediately added harsh chemicals to the pool, fetched us a round of Heinekens, and then fired up the barbecue. Not even an hour later, the female duck suddenly splashed down into the pool like an Apollo space capsule. Judging from her level of distress, she was obviously the same duck we'd just taken away. She'd flown the eight intervening miles as quickly as a homing pigeon.
What began then and lasted through the night is something that will always haunt me and leave me just a little damaged as an aware being on this planet. The mother duck wandered back and forth around the pool, periodically making interrogative quacks and then listening for some sort of response. That a being could have safely transported her and her family eight miles away lay completely outside of her understanding. Despite the familiar peeping of her babies, she'd found the lake somehow unsatisfactory and had flown back "home" to the pool where she'd hatched the ducklings, hoping to find them all safe and sound there. But this was a bad dream from which she would never awaken. According to Vikki, her hopeful quacking gradually gave way to despair and whimpering. I never actually heard her crying, but it's bad enough just knowing ducks can cry.
I don't even want to think about what happened to the ducklings. Their hearbreak must have been even greater than their mother's, since they depend on their mother for security and warmth. Ducks are precocious hatchlings and while its true that they reached amazing levels of independence in the week since hatching, I have my doubts that they were completely ready to make it on their own.
Some readers will probably be tempted to write me and suggest unhelpfully that we should have recaptured the mother duck and taken her back to the lake. But if she left her babies once, there's little chance that she would have stuck with them given a second chance. We would have had to overcome her cognitive dissonance, something obviously rooted in inflexible instinct.
This whole experience leaves me further embittered by the selfish arrogance of suburbs, which are to nature as an embalmed corpse is to a human being. To a duck flying high over the San Fernando Valley, its lush lawns and pools like a wetland, yet once she ventures down to the surface she finds the water, soil, and vegetation laced with powerful unappetizing chemicals put there for cosmetic reasons. And the few cases where this isn't the case, any attempts she makes to make use of what seems like nature will surely be frustrated in the end.
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