Alan and I were driving back from the feed store one day – our bi-monthly trip to stock up on chicken and duck food. As we approached the main intersection, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a traffic jam. “Traffic” and “jams” are both rarities out here, and we peered around to see what possibly could have happened. A large box truck had collided with a car and the resulting hypotenuse took up both lanes of traffic.
As we inched around the wreckage, we found the now sideways truck to be filled with racing pigeons, the sides of the truck stacked with individual wire crates accessible from the outside. The birds stared at us with googly-eyes and confused expressions, clearly out of their element.
I am fairly certain I’ve had that same look on occasion. Moving to the country was a cultural shift of a sort I wasn’t prepared for. I remember the first time this became crystal clear: we had moved in the week before and I was driving down our new road on a clear, crisp January day. Everything around me was white, save for the barren trees and tall gold prairie grasses. It was clean, but bleak. I straddled the center line of the road, uncertain of where its edges ended and the ditches began. As I came over the railroad tracks and the woods parted, I could see for miles in each direction, a long white clearing flanked by trees and power lines on each side.
Suddenly along the right half of the road were a dozen or so ring-necked pheasants. They were shaped like copper bowling balls, with sharp teal blue tails and bright red necks. I had always thought Mother Nature was prone to camouflage; these were as ill-fitting as a bridesmaid’s dress at a dive bar. I stared at them with my mouth gaping as I made my way slowly around, taking care not to veer into the ditch. You’re not in Kansas anymore, I thought to myself.
It wasn’t until we had lived here a few years that I learned they were most likely raised at the nearby rod and gun club for eventual hunting. They had escaped their confines, but weren’t quite sure exactly what to do next. They were as out of their element as I was.
The first night we stayed at our farmhouse was a bitter cold Christmas Eve. The owner had quickly moved out so we might spend the holidays in our new home, and presumably she in hers. Alan packed up a mattress and a few morning essentials in the truck and we made the long trek out.
When we got there, the boiler was out. The old brick house was freezing. The only thing that was still working was a small gas fireplace in the kitchen, creating an aura of warmth in its immediate vicinity. We didn’t know enough about boilers to troubleshoot, and didn’t know enough about the house to even know where the light switch was, so we slid the mattress on the kitchen floor and camped out for the evening.
We later found that lack of heat was de riguer. The boiler was fed by a nearby gas well, a selling point of the house. Free heat? Sign me up! But free is synonymous with finicky, and it seemed to work only when the muse struck. That winter we learned about pressure gauges and pancake valves, and took to resetting the line dozens of times each day. It was a delicate system that tripped off when the pressure was either too great or too little, and only ran smoothly when precisely everything was going its way. I have worked with individuals like this in the past, and it’s never pleasant.
We studied the technology, hoping to uncover its quirks. At 150 years old, it was basically a glorified metal straw jammed into the earth. If there was gas at the bottom of the straw, it bubbled up through. If there was water or debris, it didn’t. That’s it? I asked in disbelief, expecting something more complex. That’s it, I was assured.
We had a propane backup – not only for the boiler, but a hot water tank and clothes dryer as well. We assumed the people who’d lived here before had been preppers, as in crazies who didn’t trust the government and kept a supply of canned food and ammo lest things go south. We later realized they were probably just tired of their appliances not working.
When we moved to the area, we knew the winters might be a bit worse than we were accustomed to, but that winter was downright brutal – one of the coldest on record. It caused a national propane shortage, with prices near triple and a state-wide emergency. Because we were considered new customers, no one would even sell to us, leaving us – quite literally – out in the cold.
We made an emergency decision to buy a pellet stove. They’re essentially fireplaces that use an auger to feed in pelletized sawdust, the hardwood equivalent of rabbit food. But they have the advantage of not needing a full chimney, just a vent to the outside. It was an expensive addition, and painfully heavy – but necessary for short term survival.
We didn’t have a good place to put it; the farmhouse walls were double-thick with brick and stone, and not something we’d easily penetrate. And we didn’t want to do any long-term damage to a house that had outlived us by more than a century. So there we were in the middle of February, cutting a hole through the center of our front door, hoping for the best.
When winter finally broke its icy grip, we were so happy we cried with relief. Every winter since has been a tad dicier than we’d like, but none quite as brutal as our first. We had taken on the elements and endured.
When I was in college, I read a book about the “maladaptive society”. It was the single toughest text I’d had to chew through at the time, and I didn’t fully appreciate it until much later. A maladaptive society is one where its cultural norms work against its own self-preservation. I read dozens of stories about ancient tribal communities drawing their drinking water downstream of where their cattle would bathe, leading to diseases that would eventually overtake them – and other such travesties. They would inevitably die out as a result of their own social, cultural, or economic decisions.
I think about it often these days, as I hear stories of groundwater contamination from fracking wells, soil laid bare from pesticides, and other ecological atrocities. I’ve long believed that humanity is not linear; for every bit of knowledge we absorb from the past, we forget another – or invent something new that works against our long term self-interests. Alan and I may not have known what we were getting into when we moved out to the country, but we knew we wanted to live in harmony with nature. We tried to not only fit into the community, but fit in with our surroundings as well.
Alan wanted to farm the land, and raise animals for eggs and meat. He planted a massive garden with heirloom varieties of nearly every vegetable imaginable, along with several kinds of berries. We planted our first fruit trees in staggered rows in the orchard, each paired for cross-pollination. We raised our first chickens with great care, keeping them warm in a small box with a red heat lamp and feeding them medicated chick feed to ensure their health.
As the summer warmed, we met our organic foes. The pale green cabbage worms turned our broccoli leaves into swiss cheese. Yellowjackets bore holes in the young peaches. Voles hollowed out the insides of melons just as their flesh turned tender. And catbirds somehow knew precisely the moment when each berry would ripen, taking a juicy bite from center of each and leaving the rest to rot.
Alan quickly learned he couldn’t compete with them all, and he was firm in his dislike of chemicals. He kept his garden diverse so as not to attract too formidable an opposition of any single enemy. He decided the best way to keep them at bay was to simply plant enough for all – a farmer’s tithe to nature.
But as the rains fell and the summer waned, the slugs arrived, and nearly demolished the garden. Alan researched organic ways to deter them, and tried everything from buried copper to beer traps to salt solutions sprayed on the leaves. It was a losing battle. Every time a new tendril of growth would emerge, it was munched down by the end of the day. He might as well have been spraying them with condiments. He bitterly remarked that this must be what they mean when they say the meek shall inherit the earth. A grown man was losing a battle of wit and will to such disgusting little creatures.
I poked around the internet that winter and discovered that, much to our surprise, ducks love slugs. Like, a slimy squishy delicacy. They were cared for much like chickens; we already had the supplies and a bit of experience under our belts. We bought a handful of baby ducklings and deemed them our garden ducks. They would have a job to do on the farm, just as we did. When we set them loose the next spring, they became a machine – an army of munching mumbling feathered creatures systematically mowing through the rows, their heads down in focused determination. It worked like a charm, and we declared ourselves victorious.
The following spring, the ducks did what ducks do. They call it the birds and the bees for a reason, I’ve learned. During a visit to the farm my stepmom witnessed this, and asked quizzically Are they wrestling? No, I replied. Are they playing?? Nooo……. My dad stepped in to help. Are they fighting?? Is he gonna kill him?!? Noooooooooooo……. The lightbulb went off and his eyes got wide. Ooooooohhh. They’re making more DUCKS!
Later that spring two of the girl ducks took to sitting on nests, tucked inside a small hut with piles full of cream and green-colored eggs beneath them. Each day the nest would grow bigger until they were sitting atop a pyramid of eggs, cartoon-style. We didn’t think much of it, as we’d seen them try before and nothing had come of it. But then one day the darndest thing happened, and out popped a fluffy little duckling! The next day, there was another. We squealed with delight and took pictures like proud new grandparents.
The duck mom, who had not been out of the hut in over a month, regarded her accomplishments and went back to an outside life, the two lumpy fluffballs trailing behind her. They went on field walks of acres at a time, and we marveled at how such young beings could even keep up. Human babies take months to even sit up on their own, but these creatures had seen half of their new world in just their first few days. The mom munched on plantain leaves and greens, and the ducklings tasted everything they could reach with great enthusiasm.
We started to question our methods. How was it that we had insisted on taking such care to raise our ducklings in such an unnatural environment, stuffed in a small box filled with heating lamps and powdered food? While ducks raised their own young by wandering everywhere, eating a diet of everything? We had tried our best to care for them, smothering good practice in the process.
We cleared out the old unhatched eggs from the hut and watched the second broody duck with interest. Maybe we’d get another duckling, we hoped, but we didn’t hold our breath. It had been long enough that surely something would have happened by now. A few days later, Alan called to me in a hurried voice. There in the hut were a dozen tiny yellow lumps, bobbing up and down like a perpetual whack-a-mole. He counted them twice. I counted them three more times to be sure. A dozen. We sat down, a bit stunned. We weren’t really sure how excited to be. We hadn’t quite banked on becoming duck farmers, but there we were. We took it in slowly over dinner. The next morning, eight more popped out. We quintupled our flock, just like that.
Over the next few days, we took to saving ducklings from every form of disaster. They weren’t the brightest bulbs in a bunch. Given acres to roam across, they would find the every gap and crevice on the property, at which point I’d hear their PEEPPEEPPEEP distress calls and run to fish them out of whatever they’d gotten into while their mothers hissed at me angrily. We lost one to drowning in a drywell that had filled with rain, and another who got somehow stuck under a small log. It proved nearly impossible to protect them from themselves, but we tried.
A week later they entered their teenage phase, doubling in size and lightening to a creamy color, tiny pin feathers poking out from their bottoms. Alan was weeding the garden one afternoon when he called me over in a weird voice. He pointed in their general direction. Do you see anything unusual? he asked, not wanting to bias my answer. I stared for a second. I didn’t. Then suddenly, it jumped out at me. There, winding through the growing duckling bodies, was the tiniest butter yellow duckling.
I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Where did THAT come from? I asked in surprise. The broody ducks had abandoned the hut ages ago, and we had cleared out the remaining eggs. This was not possible. But there he was, poking at his siblings’ heads and trying to taste anything that might be food – and mostly annoying them, as any kid brother would. I named him Pipsqueak.
The weather was hot that day, above 90 and painfully humid. The older ducklings were capable of even longer walks now, and the mothers were far ahead. Tiny Pipsqueak just couldn’t keep up, his day-old legs betraying him. We found him behind an outbuilding, hiding in the shade. It was as if he knew he wouldn’t make it, and went off on his own to quietly die. I scooped him up and put him in a bin in my studio. Perhaps nature doesn’t always get it right. I pulled out the old food and water dishes and decided if his mother wouldn’t care for him, I would.
I checked on him in the evening before turning in to bed. When I looked in the box, he was gone. I searched my whole studio, behind tables and bins, and he was nowhere to be found. In desperation, I whistled a PEEPPEEPPEEP sound between my teeth, and heard a muffled peeppeeppeep in response. I looked around again, trying to determine the direction of the sound. I called again, and he responded. After a bit of echolocation, I found him under the flap of a cardboard box, standing up tall on his tiny orange legs and looking at me.
I scooped him up and held him in my hand, stroking his tiny fuzzy body as he fell asleep. I suppose he just wanted his mother, like any young creature would – and I had taken her place. I held him for a while, then set him back in the bin. He let out a tiny sigh, snuggled down, and then slid his legs out to one side and went to sleep. I bid him good night and headed off to bed.
When I found him the next morning, he was in the same position – he must have died shortly after I’d set him there. My heart sank – I felt like I’d failed him, taking him out of his element and confining him to a box. I had tried my best to care for him, but had only smothered him in the process. Maladaptive indeed.
But then I thought back to the duck mothers which I’d raised from young, and their eighteen ducklings, so many of which I’d saved on multiple occasions. They surely wouldn’t have made it through without intervention, and a couple of them hadn’t. Perhaps a mother duck does as a farmer does, when he plants enough to lose a portion to the elements. She sits on a surplus of eggs, knowing full well most of her efforts will never amount to anything. And perhaps she hatches a few extras as well, knowing that not all will last the night. A feathered tithe to Mother Nature.