by David Brooks
At the Animal Liberation NSW ‘Animals and Art’ fund-raising event I wrote of in my second blog my wife Teja Pribac exhibited some of her photographs, each of which was available for purchase through silent auction. The most popular was of six ducklings in a pond, a striking, Monet-like image of intersecting ripples of green pond-water and the lightness of first feathers, the sharpness and already-fine features of beak and face. Several viewers spoke of their love for ducklings, and not surprisingly that photograph (not the one I reproduce here, but very like it) was almost the first to sell. But there’s a back-story. The photograph, simply called ‘Ducklings’, could just as readily have been called ‘Survivors’.
At the place where we live there’s an old swimming-pool which, being of little use to us, and reluctant as we are to pump chemicals year-round into something we are unlikely, given the mountain cold, to use more than a handful of times each year, we’ve turned into a duck pond. The ducks – wild wood ducks, though there are also Pacific black ducks, and an occasional mallard – seem in any case to have made the decision for us, using it as they do so day in and day out, and decorating its perimeters with their droppings (although strangely, now that we’ve ceded it to them, and stopped using the chemicals, they’re keeping it much cleaner). And where there are ducks there are, each spring, very likely to be ducklings. Three last year, to a couple who lived in the forest next door (wood ducks nest in trees, though I imagine come to ground when they have a brood – at least until the ducklings can fly) – a three that was quickly reduced, by a particularly cold night, to two. We watched these two learn to swim, and eventually learn to fly. The family went elsewhere then. Sometimes it came back, with what we took to be uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, though in truth it wasn’t long before we could no longer tell who from whom – except the mother, who had been aggressively protective, and who continued to utter distinct warning/anger call we’d come to recognise.
And this year ducklings again, in the third week of September. To a different pair, quieter, timid even, whom we took (but what would we know?) to be first-time parents. Four ducklings, I saw at first, at the edge of the pond, but then saw more, five, six, eight. They seemed very young to bring to the pond – too small, as if just hatched, whereas last year’s ducklings had been brought a week or so older and larger. Not wanting to scare them we watched enthralled from the house, thirty meters away, as they were herded into the pond, and then, with mounting alarm, watched them struggling to get out, and those who couldn’t manage it swimming around and around. Surely the duck or the drake would help them to get out, up the two or three inches from the water to the pool’s edge. Last year’s duck and drake had helped their brood, when they had had the same difficulty. But no, no help. And then we saw, suddenly, something floating in the water, a bunch of leaves it looked like at first, but then we realised and went down as quickly as we could. Not one, but three, lifeless in the water – there had been eleven, not eight! – and two others exhausted, struggling.
My wife scooped them out and we took them up to the house. One of them died in her hand before she got to the door. The other we placed in a box on some soft rags, prepared some food for, got water for, though it far preferred to be held close to my wife’s chest, and indeed did so well there that within twenty minutes seemed to have recovered enough for us to try to reintroduce it to its family. Only to find that while we had been attending to it the duck had taken her remaining brood swimming again and a fifth had died.
Thankfully by this the pool had filled to the very brim – I had put a hose in the moment I realised what was happening – and all a tired duckling needed to do was to step out. But we watched, in any case, until there was no light left. And the duck and drake, with their remaining brood, sat there until pitch dark – no moon that night – as if stunned by what had happened.
I was gutted. And so many things ran through my head. It seemed to me that I had been witness to – a participant in – a tragedy, and I didn’t know how or why. I felt somehow responsible, for not realising that duckling-season was almost upon us and, remembering the struggling of last year’s ducklings, having the pool brimming in constant readiness. And I felt anger at the duck and the drake for not helping the ducklings to get out, for bringing them there too early, for swimming them around and around so irresponsibly, as if purposefully to exhaust them. It even crossed my mind that, alarmed at the size of her brood and perhaps knowing that she would not be able to care for them all, she was deliberately thinning it down to a manageable number. I thought of Darwin, of survival of the fittest. Of “nature red in tooth and claw”, those horrid, misleading lines of Tennyson’s. I went on-line to find stories of similar incidents, to see whether this was a regular occurrence (and yes, apparently it is not so uncommon [though few animals top humans for filicide]). I thought, with sorrow and sudden sympathy, that the duck and drake had simply been overwhelmed by what was happening, desperate to have it stop but not knowing what to do, their minds numb with the horror of it, unable to think. But who knows what combination of these things it was, or if it was any of them at all.
And I too took photographs. Picked up the camera and framed at first the duckling that had died in my wife’s hand – lying on some of the soft-toy stuffing that a previous tenant had left in the shed– and then, the next morning, of all five of the drowned ducklings, in the dust-pan I’d lined them up in while I worked out where to bury them. Not beautiful photographs, I guess, and I’m not entirely sure why I took them. I’m a photographer myself, and have always half an eye for an affective/effective image, but that – affect – can be deeply personal, arise from within, from things that have been driven there. It just felt at the time as if these deaths should not go unregistered, and that a photograph might keep something of them about, even if only about me, to make me think further. Nor am I entirely sure why I write about them here, though at least a part of it is that I feel that these photos are somehow a necessary supplement to the other, of the happy ducklings swimming in the pond, in the image that reminds me of Monet’s waterlilies, those iconic paintings of calm beauty. That these photos – or what these photos represent – is/are somehow a trace, a hidden, abjected part of the other. And that one without the other is somehow a distortion, an incompleteness.
What I know is that I wanted – as I have, above – to call these small duckling deaths tragic. It was a tragedy. More than just sad, for example. Many things can be sad, but when there’s a sense of overwhelming unfairness, an abyssal failure or short-fall of ethics, massive blunder or fatal error of judgement, it seems something else. I wanted to call these deaths tragic, if only to that perpetual interlocutor in one’s own mind, but I also felt strange about using the word, as if some sort of category error or error of scale would be involved. As if – in a kind of intrusion into the realm of the non-human of that Shakespearean sense of tragedy as a term reserved not just for humans, but for humans at the top end of some very human ideas of hierarchy (kings, caesars, generals) – the term tragedy should be reserved for larger, more powerful creatures. In my first blog in this sequence I wrote of a cicada I had seen still in its larval shell, trapped there because blown, by the previous night’s high wind, from the tree bark it needed as purchase to be able to pull itself free. A tiny body in the grass. And later, after I’d submitted that blog, I came across, under the letter-box, a cicada half-out of its shell – an exciting moment for me, since I’d never seen this before. But as I looked more closely I realised that something had gone wrong, and that the cicada had been trapped and died there, half-way through its metamorphosis.
These things seem tragic to me too. Why then did I have such conversations about the term with my internal interlocutor? Surely and clearly because a vast weight of cultural discourse, so engrained as to effect our choice of words, the metaphors we feel are available to us, had engrained me. The cultural discourse is speciesist, the very language is speciesist (the Word program, for example, is at this very moment telling me that ‘speciesist’ doesn’t exist: no point in asking it about anti-speciesism, then, or counter-speciesism, trans-speciesism), in ways that contain and constrain one just as a cicada’s shell must constrain the larva – except that they, the cicadas, seem to have worked out a way to get out.
But then, and not surprisingly, a whole range of our concepts of value when it comes to animals seems deeply anthropocentric, as in all about us and not much about them. We value the larger above the smaller, we value the fierce and powerful above the gentle (it’s the lion who is ‘king of the beasts’), we value the native above the exotic (especially when the exotic are more numerous than we’d like: i.e. are out of our control), we value the rare above the common (as if non-human animals were like stamps or coins: the white rhino a Cape of Good Hope Triangle, the tiger quoll a Penny Black, the Plains Wanderer a 1930 Australian penny…), the sentient over the non-sentient (but define sentience in our own terms), the vertebrate over the invertebrate (animal over insect), the pet over the farm animal, etc., in a way that sees us prepared to do immense damage (usually called culling) in the attempt to repair the damage we human animals have done – a vast if largely unexamined topic that I will not take on here, beyond the one simple assertion that, in all our ethical confusion when it comes to animals, we seem to have lost sight of what, elsewhere on our ethical map, we’re incline to assert as if it were a truism (if only it was!): that a life is a life. It is we who have the concept of rarity, of on the verge of extinction. It is we who, out of the great weight of our own guilt, are prepared to sacrifice the lives of thousands upon thousands of a ‘common’ species in order to preserve the lives of a handful of a creature driven to the point of disappearance by our own thoughtlessness and malpractice. How is it in any way defensible to call, as we are wont to do, the latter (the near extinction) a tragedy, and not the loss of any one of the thousands of lives taken in the attempt to preserve it? Is tragedy a matter of number? And is our compassion so feeble?
So much of our approach to the animal is a matter of opening, extending to, allowing in. If the word tragedy cannot accommodate a drowned duckling or a cicada trapped in its own larval shell then we must ask not only how much of its use to us is as a tool for the defence of our own species’ self-centredness and misguided mastery, but how many other of our implicit, unquestioned and seemingly innocent assumptions might be the same. And if the word tragedy trembles like this, buckles under the weight of the animal, how many other of our terms of value and classification, how many of our ethical and philosophical assumptions, are vulnerable in the same way?
As to the ducklings, I’m sorry to say that the story does not end there. The day after the Animals and Art event, back in Katoomba, I was down at the bottom of the yard checking some old timber for a possible fence-post. As, driven by some impulse I could not at the time have explained, I went behind the wood-shed to a small clearing there, I felt eerily – a feeling apprehended before it was comprehended – as if I had strayed into a place, a pool, of great sadness. The ducks and their ducklings were there – huddled together so that I could not count the latter – and the drake lay strangely on the ground, flat, on his belly, or so it seemed to me. It was a glimpse, a glance only, but I had a sense of intrusion, trespass. I thought, inexplicably, of homeless people, refugees.
The explanation did not come until the next day. The night before the Animal Liberation event had been a cold night in the mountains, one-point-two degrees. And the next morning we had been busy preparing to leave for Sydney, and had not seen the ducks and ducklings. It wasn’t until two days later – the day after my encounter above – that we saw them by the pond and were able to count. Four ducklings, not six, and no amount of counting or waiting would make up the number. It might have been a fox, for certainly they’re about, but I’m fairly sure it was the cold. And the family there, like that, seemingly homeless, seemingly refugees, could quite well have been just that. If the ducklings had died of cold then they – their bodies – would most likely still be in the nest. And what choices did the family then have? Move house? Make a new nest? Go back the next night to sleep with the dead?
What to take from this? They say that we humans are language creatures – at least, as a long-time teacher of literature, I was wont to say so, repeatedly. But we are also creatures, before, and under language. Language is indispensable to us, but it’s not all there is. When I walked into that pool of sadness behind the woodshed I experienced something much older than language – and, I suspect, much more useful, potentially, to the beings we share our spaces with.
And where do the ducklings fit in, in all our strange, confused and human-centred systems of ethics and value? Well, for a start, they’re wild (wood) ducks, and native, and aside from treading on the occasional seedling (and eating all my radicchio…), not much of an impediment to human endeavour. Three points in their favour, one would hope, though clearly not in the state of Victoria, where many thousands of ducks, wild wood ducks amongst them, are slaughtered every year in the name of sport (see http://www.animalsaustralia.org/factsheets/duck_shooting.php ).
Our local council has a policy of forced removal of non-native ducks from waterways in its jurisdiction. See a mallard and you’re supposed to report it. For a time, two summers ago, a lone mallard drake – a refugee of some kind, and probably a widower – came to a large local pond in the park where we walked our dog. He seemed to appoint himself guardian/baby-sitter for the many native ducklings there, and for weeks as far as we could tell did an exceptional job. And then I guess someone reported him and he disappeared. A loss, it seemed to me, to an environmentalism too narrowly, too humanly, too selfishly defined.
I was going to end there but just opened the window to let out a fly and caught again the whiff of smoke. Two weeks ago an irresponsible action of the Australian Defence Forces (they have apologised: what help is that?) started, near the town of Lithgow, a bushfire which has since destroyed numerous properties – a ‘tragedy’, as this has since and of course been described (the word has been used far more liberally concerning the loss of nearly two hundred homes in a second fire started on the same day, near the town of Springwood), and over 58,000 hectares of bushland, much of it in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. I don’t dispute that the loss of one’s house and belongings is tragic – we’ve spent much of this same period trying to protect our own – but cannot (I have been sitting here trying) find words for the impact upon non-human animals. The bushfires here in the mountains caused no loss of human life that I know of, but if we allow for only one non-human animal per hectare we are speaking of 58,000, and of course there are many many more than that living in each ten thousand square metres of bushland. The deaths of marsupials alone must be in the hundreds of thousands. A tragedy beyond reckoning. Unwept, unburied, the countless injured and traumatised survivors generally un-looked-for. No state, no government, will give them a moment’s silence, and not many within them will give this situation much thought. Perhaps the readers of Southerly might.