Wood Ducks

There are birds on the water. There are red wing blackbirds, and bluish swallows that dart and wheel crazily in the hard slice of the sun between mountains. Against the treed rim of the far shore, loons offer their wobbly cries. In the reeds there’s a thin gray poke of heron, mute and patient, and a pair of Canada Geese behind him.

It’s spring now, the turn of it out of winter slow and lazy, like the land is a bear, sluggish from sleep and unconvinced about motion. There’s a peacefulness to it that fills me. There’s something in this ballet of motion that kindles in me a fire that first burned a long, long time ago. A tribal fire, even though at first, I didn’t recognize it as that.

I was 11. I’d moved three times in the two years I’d been with my adopted family. I’d been in three schools, lived in three houses, learned to form friendships and lose them three separate times. We were settled in a rented farmhouse on three hundred acres in Bruce County in southwestern Ontario. I ached for permanence.

That first fall and winter I discovered the maple bush in the back forty. I went there to watch the colors change, to sit in the high branches of a big, old maple and see the gold, scarlet and orange emerge against the hard punch of blue through the branches.

When spring came the land was sogged with mud. I waited eagerly so I could get away and wander. I’d found a peacefulness there that filled me and I craved the solitude and the feel of the land around me. Being on the land had eased my fears and it was only there that I felt truly alive and free.

Finally, I was out. I saw woodchuck and fox kits, fawns, calves, and in the trees, the nesting activities of birds. I extended my range to the marsh that reached back from the old dam near the highway and flooded a low lying section of bush.

The water was about a foot and a half deep. With my gumboots on I could wander anywhere in that bayou-like stillness. There were muskrats there, water snakes and swimming creatures of all varieties crossing the marsh on their rounds. I learned to walk without disturbing the water, to sneak through the shadow silently, and that’s how I discovered the wood ducks.

They were the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. The male was all green and purple, deep red, yellow and black. The female was a demure gray with white at her throat and bluish wings. When I first saw them they were sitting on a half submerged log and I stopped and stood stock still in the water. They swam within feet of me and I marveled at them.

They had a nest in the crotch of a rotted tree stump three feet off the water. I climbed a tree about ten yards away and looked down into it. There were eight eggs there and they were as beautiful as the parents, all tan and cream and quiet, and as I stood in that tree watching them I almost felt I could see them move, breathe in that opaque stillness.

I went back to that tree every day to watch those eggs and wait for them to hatch. They knew I was there but I was quiet and non-threatening and they came to accept me. I sat in that neighboring tree and kept vigil over those eggs.

Something happened to me there. Braced in a tree above a flooded bush, peering through shadow and hardly breathing, I came to fully occupy the space I was in for the very first time in my life. There was no need for things and stuff, no need of other people, no need for anything but that nest of eggs, the boggy smell of that place and the feeling that I only know today as perfection.

I watched those eight wood duck chicks hatch. They emerged one day in the late afternoon and I saw all of it. Days later I saw them drop the three feet to the water and begin to swim with their parents, as pure and natural as breathing. When I left them for the last time I didn’t feel the sense of departure I’d learned so well in my life. Instead, I felt joined to them.

Some things in life remain. Some things transcend the losses and leavings of our living. I found the essence of my tribal self in that tree above the nest and it never left me. When the time was right and I was ready, I emerged as a tribal person, as pure and natural as breathing.


About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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