As Brave as Ducklings

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The other morning, as I waited for the bus beneath one of those forty-degree drizzles that herald the arrival of November here in southeastern Michigan, I spotted the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk, a ball of russet and cream wired to a branch high in a shedding oak on the other side of the block. I know this bird well; he haunts this particular corner of northwest Ann Arbor as regularly as I do. Last summer, perched atop the garden trellis in my front yard, he spent twenty minutes patiently plucking, beheading, and devouring a sparrow. Afterward, the old wood of the trellis was dotted with blood and bits of down.

I kept my eye on the hawk now, welcoming any small distraction from the miserable weather. So when a red squirrel emerged from its knothole in the trunk of the maple in my front yard, I noticed that the hawk noticed. His broad wedge of a head immediately swiveled to stare.

The squirrel noticed, too. Clambering out onto a branch, it faced the hawk, flashed the white underside of its tail, and produced the distinctive rattling call—almost like flipping the pages of a heavy book—by which red squirrels identify a threat.

Now, I have a soft spot for red squirrels. They’re smaller than your typical gray or fox squirrel, with jug ears and an undeniably puckish demeanor. My father calls them “boomers,” in part because of their incessant barking chatter and in part because they are fearlessly territorial. They will chase much larger squirrels right out of a tree. They will send crows and starlings shrieking from their perches. They will scold dogs, cats, people, even hawks, flashing their tails to deliberately call attention to themselves as they stare down the threat, clicking and squeaking out a brave warning to all the other small, vulnerable critters within earshot.

And this red squirrel, in particular, was a favorite of mine. I saw it most mornings from the bus stop or from the windows by my writing desk as it dashed back and forth in its maple or else performed feats of derring-do around the neighbors’ house—scaling the drainpipe to dig seeds from the planters on the second-story balcony, for example, before making its escape, nimbly leaping from gutter to power line to branch. Sharing your yard with a red squirrel means never lacking for entertainment.

Naturally, then, I was concerned: here was my boomer—pint-sized acrobat, furry jester—fixed on the point of a hawk’s glare. Are you crazy? I would have asked him if I could. Go back to your den! What are you thinking?

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“Who knows what a weasel thinks?” Annie Dillard has famously observed. “He won’t say. His journal is tracks in clay, a spray of feathers, mouse blood and bone: uncollected, unconnected, loose-leaf and blown.” This kind of “mindlessness,” as Dillard puts it, this “mute and uncomprehending” existence, is foreign to most human experience, saturated as our lives are with consciousness, with mind, with thought. Meanwhile, to think is not even a verb that can be properly applied to the weasel. There are species that we’ve domesticated, impressing their outward behaviors with the stamp of our human patterns of thought—but, as Dillard notes, “A weasel is wild.”

So, too, even the most common of our non-human neighbors, right down to the lowly squirrel.

It’s so easy to forget this, though—to instead peer at the natural world through the clouded lens of the human ego. Not long ago, I noticed a nature photograph making the rounds on Facebook: a pair of ducklings leaping from their nesting box for the first time to make the long descent to the water. Their webbed feet are outstretched; their little wings paddle uselessly at air. It is an image of tremendous vulnerability and, in the face of that vulnerability, what looks like astounding bravery.

But—in the sense that we typically use the word, at least—it’s not.

I’ve written against anthropomorphism before. It’s a subject to which I often return, in both my fiction and my nonfiction. In part, this is because I spend a good portion of my spare time outdoors, yet still find myself as prone to this particular habit of mind as anyone. This troubles me. Anthropomorphism isn’t merely lazy thinking—the superimposition of human characteristics upon the non-human as a means of circumventing the difficulties of even imagining, let alone actually engaging with, the non-human—it’s also, for many of us, nearly automatic. What’s more, it’s dangerous, both to us and to the Nature whose nature we efface.

“A weasel is wild,” and, like all things wild, it represents a mode of engagement with experience that lies outside normal human bounds. Indeed, this otherness is, in and of itself, valuable. To envision the weasel, the hawk, and the squirrel in human terms, then, is to seal shut one of the essential wellsprings of their value.

Dillard recognizes these points. “I would like to learn, or remember, how to live,” she writes. From weasels, she continues, “I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons.” What is needed, then, is not to search for human characteristics in the natural world—describing animals in human terms as if that were the only way to value them, as if our particular (and peculiar) modern conception of humanity provided the only language in which value might be spoken of—but rather to silence a bit of our own human clamor in order to locate the natural world within ourselves.

This is not a new thought. Literature resounds with it. Marianne Moore’s pangolin, that “night miniature artist engineer . . . made graceful by adversities,” reveals a path to “fragile grace,” hinting at “a splendor / which man in all his vileness cannot / set aside.” Meanwhile, Ezra Pound’s fish, who “swim in the lake / and do not even own clothing,” reprove the “generation of the thoroughly smug / and thoroughly uncomfortable.”

Consider both Wendell Berry’s geese—

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

—and Walt Whitman’s:

The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation,
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listening close,
Find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky.

The sharp hoof’d moose of the north, the cat on the house-sill, the chickadee, the prairie-dog,
The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats,
The brood of the turkey hen and she with her half-spread wings,
I see in them and myself the same old law.

The ancient faith. The same old law. This is the strange, gnomic Jesus of the apocryphal gospel of Thomas critiquing our unnatural way of life: “[Foxes have] their dens and birds have their nests, but the child of humankind has no place to lay his head and rest.” This is Yahweh thundering to Job out of the storm, shrinking the whole of human endeavor to a mote within the natural world:

Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder; To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man; To satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth? Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew? . . . Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons? Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven? canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth?

This is Virgil, in his Eclogues, locating in Greek Arcadia the shepherds and shepherdesses whose life among nature places them, as the philologist Bruno Snell has it, “in close contact, and on equal footing, with divine beings.” This is Gilgamesh, “the king who knew the countries of the world,” demigod tyrant of the city of Uruk, left incomplete, imperfect, until he meets Enkidu, of whom the epic says, “He was innocent of mankind; he knew nothing of the cultivated land.”

If we haven’t gotten the message, it’s not because we haven’t been told.

What would happen, though, if we listened? What if, looking at those ducklings, we saw not some reflection of human bravery, some mental state for which we already have the words, here and now, in our gas-guzzling postindustrial lives? What if, instead, we recognized the ducklings’ abandon, as Wendell Berry calls it—the wordless, mindless, absolute passion with which the need to leave the nest has been not merely accepted, but embraced? These ducklings are not brave, as we usually mean it; the word brave pales in comparison. Considering those two small, feathered bodies in freefall, we ought to be stunned to silence, as in silence the ducklings have leapt. This is, as Dillard says, “choosing the given”—the necessary—“with a fierce and pointed will.”

If only we were so brave, what might we be able to accomplish, having first found it necessary?

We might reject patterns of thought that extend human dominion over the natural world. We might stop distorting our perceptions of wildlife to suit our opinions about human life. In order to save the natural world that our behavior has so imperiled—and, by extension, in order to save ourselves—we might seek what wild still remains in the recesses of our id and “hold on,” as Annie Dillard, one last time, puts it, “for a dearer life.”

*               *               *

Day after day, I lose sight of this. In the course of a typical humdrum morning, the human and animal worlds rarely intersect for long. My bus came. The squirrel was still scolding, the hawk was still watchful, and I had classes to teach. That evening, when I returned home, they were both, of course, gone. For several days, the maple in my front yard was empty every time I looked. Walking to and from the bus stop, crossing the yard to the mailbox, I checked the grass for evidence—bits of fur, bone, and blood—but found nothing.

My boomer was back this morning, digging in the dirt beneath the holly hedge for the pinecones he’d buried there weeks before. And when I spotted him, I’ll admit, I breathed a very human sigh of relief.

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