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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Farewell to a Drake

Air Date: Week of November 21, 2003

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A death on the farm that belongs to commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg gets him thinking about the transience of the seasons and life.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: “We are such stuff that dreams are made on…” wrote Shakespeare about the transient nature of life. For commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg, the death of an animal on his farm recalls the rest of the quote, that “our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

KLINKENBORG: One of the Saxony drakes in our flock died last Sunday, on a bright fall afternoon. Why he died, I don’t know. Not a feather had been ruffled. No blood or broken bones or signs of distress. The only thing unusual was death itself which always lies invisible, on the other side of each of the creatures on our small farm, and of us, too, of course.

The ducks have never liked being picked up, not even when they were a day old and living under warm lights in the basement this spring. They have a sense of personal autonomy and flock coherence that is much stronger than it is in chickens, who are wily individuals in comparison. So I took the opportunity to hold the Saxony under one arm and look him over closely. It made me think of the days, long ago, when being a serious ornithologist also meant being a good shot.

I opened the webs on the Saxony’s feet which had relaxed in death – as if on the fore-stroke while paddling – and ran my fingers over his covert feathers and through his deep down. I could see the horn-like reinforcement on the prow of his bill, called the bean, and the fringing inside the back of the bill that allowed him to filter water through. I could feel the sudden, mournful density of his weight. His massive bluff gray head and neck had lost its arch in death, but some strange new dignity had come to him, too. The inherent comedy of his everyday manner – the way he waddled around his keel, his depth of body – had been replaced by the staggering intricacy and beauty of his feathering seen up close.

We often think of stone as the great revealer of time, the preserver of geological patterns and fossils that teach us how ancient this world really is. But even something as ephemeral as the finger-thick down on this drake’s belly, and the feel of thick fat beneath it, seemed utterly suffused with time, the evolutionary time needed to create them. In our lives, we make steady, categorical distinctions between the present moment and the past, as if the two could never meet. And yet, the beautiful brown cape on this Saxony’s shoulders, each feather tipped with a band of white, carried the deep past of evolution directly into the present, where I stood with the drake under my arm, watching the leaves whirl away from summer into fall, while the rest of the flock grazed nearby as if this were just another good day to be a duck.

GELLERMAN: Verlyn Klinkenborg writes about the rural life for The New York Times.

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