Old Men Ducks

The old men ducks come back every spring.

Locking up the chickens one evening, as I secure the coop door and collect the eggs, I’ll hear a man’s voice: clear, firm, yet unintelligible resonate across the hollow. I pause. It’s an odd hour of the day for someone to be out in the neighbor’s pasture. A wet snow is falling. It’s nearly dark. If I squint, I still can’t make out the outlines of the pond that I know is there.

The voice rings out again. Just as clearly. Just as unintelligibly.

“Mrrrrrbwak.”

I smile. 

It used to drive me nuts, this small mystery. Who was down in the depths of the hollow at all hours of the day making small talk? Why couldn’t I see lawn chairs? It sounded for all the world like a couple of old men, shooting the shit and smoking cigars. But none of the old men in our neighborhood hung out around the edges of our pasture. I caught no waft of cigar smoke, nor sight of the bright vinyl lines of picnicking lawn chairs. But I did finally catch the waggle of an upside down tail in the pond. The slow cruising of a tiny avian figure an acre away, paddling happily through mucky water.

“I think we have some ducks in the pasture that sound like old men,” I told Mike.

“I knew it!” he said. “I kept wondering who kept trying to talk to me while I was doing chores!”

……

 We’ve been locked in the house for over four weeks, now. 

Mostly locked, to be honest. An occasional trip to the grocery store, the gas station, and a few (more than a few?) panic-buying trips to stock up on alcohol. One can’t be expected to shelter in place indefinitely with a husband, a handful of talking ducks, and no wine. 

One can’t be expected to shelter in place indefinitely, period. 

Yet, that is what we are doing. Waking, day to day, whenever we feel like waking. Working remotely, those of us who can work. Worrying about work, those of us whose jobs are on hold. Whose jobs are cancelled. In limbo. Working, worrying, wondering. 

And slowly slowing down. 

Suddenly, I find that all the effort I had been making to maintain balance, to not burn out, to keep my sanity, my footing, some shred of equilibrium…

All that has been done for me.

I’ve been given a clean slate. A chance to do nothing. To relax, a rarity for me, between a job in public education, a side hustle in farming, a husband with a chronic illness, and a genetic aversion to sitting still.

I’ve been given the gift of time. Glorious, wonderful time, and the opportunity to enjoy it. I cannot schedule a date with friends. I cannot go have a beer. I cannot stay at work later than I should, or run urgent errands on my way home from the office. And the strangest thing is that it’s not just me that’s been given the gift of time, it’s everyone around me. We aren’t rushing to be somewhere. We aren’t over extended with commitments. Other people’s sense of urgency, sense of busy, has also evaporated. All the commitments have been cancelled. All the social obligations have vanished. All the rushing has ceased. 

We have time. All the time in the world. 

……

The ducks are usually back by the first week in April. The winter geese are usually gone by the last week in March, minus a few stragglers who decide that our hollow is a reasonably northern-enough destination to spend the summer. The thunderstorms that produce hail usually start by late May. The grasshoppers are unbearable by July. First frost is nearly guaranteed by mid-October and an early one in September, hard enough to wipe out most of the garden, is not unheard of. 

Over the six years we’ve been on this property, we’ve learned to mark time by the season of planting, of harvesting, the animals that come and go, and the weather which somehow manages to be consistent albeit with notoriously dramatic exceptions to keep one on one’s toes. We’ve started spreadsheets, trackers, trying to understand the seasons of nature, of pests, of critters, of disease so we can adjust better, grow more, understand how things work.

But one can’t predict everything. Understand everything. The best we can try to do is roll with the punches. Replant what the grasshoppers eat. Fix the hoophouse the hail destroys. Hide out in our house with hand sanitizer and masks in the hopes that we’ll stay healthy.

And settle into the rhythms of the world around us.

We work, remotely. Mike occasionally goes out for a field job, acceptable for social isolation as he tromps around the side of a mountain or an eastern plains field with his survey gear, a one-man act outdoors. But our time is much less harried, our pace what we choose it to be. We alternate weeks cooking meals for each other. We tackle chores that have fallen way down the list. We take the dog for a walk. Then, since there’s nothing to do we take the dog for another walk. We look at each other, the dog and us, and we realize that for the first time in our lives, this is it. This is all we have. This is all we can do.

This is all we need to do.

The weather has been all over the place, making this a questionable year for a successful garlic harvest. But the other day when it snowed, Mike built a fire. Laid down on the couch to read. I snuck away from the computer and joined him and we fell asleep, me wrapped up in his arms dozing as the flames danced behind the cast iron stove door.

I will never get this time back. 

And I am so grateful to have it. 

I woke up from that nap with a clear understanding that this time is precious. I am here, I am home, with Mike, living our lives. We have had our fair share of challenges over the last four years, and we always live with an undercurrent of worry – about health, about money, about the disappearance of both.

But I have been gifted extra time with him. Right now. Without distraction. While he is as healthy as he is. While we are as well as we are, in mind, body, spirit, and material things. The freezer is full. The pantry is stocked. We’ll get the next round of spring vegetables planted if this snow ever ends. We’ll be alright. For now, at least. 

And now is all we have.

……

The ducks keep their distance from us humans. They never really venture out of the water in the neighbor’s pond, unless it’s to fly somewhere directly, taking to the air and bypassing our dry and uninteresting property completely, cruising along overhead, giving us barely a passing glance. I used to think of them as typical of our neighborhood, all of us hanging out in our own little patch of space unless an errand warranted firing up the car (or one’s wings) and taking off for a bit, passing everyone else casually, only to later return in the same manner and take up residence back in the same little patch of space.

But lately that seems to be changing. There are people I’ve never seen before walking down our street. Dogs I’ve never met sniffing our mailbox. Entire families out for a stroll, kids riding bikes and dragging scooters. Like the ducks a few weeks back, they simply appeared, moving through the neighborhood, engaging in unintelligible chatter I could hear from the yard.

It’s our first season on our property observing this unusual herd of humans. This many family flocks spending time together, loitering in the neighborhood rather than bypassing it for bigger and better pastures. One season does not indicate a pattern, but we’re already wondering if they’ll be back next year with the ducks, or if, once the world opens back up, they will scatter their separate ways.

We hope they’ll stay. Settle in. Engage in regular chatter with the ducks and gossip with the geese. Realize that after this all, we’ll still have time. We’ll just have to be better about taking it.

But for now, for what it is, we all have time. Time to be with family, time to cook a meal. Time to clean the house and more than enough time to realize that the reason the house is never clean has nothing to do with time, but desire. So the house stays dirty, but the dogs get walks, the kids get playtime, the adults call happy hour on a Tuesday night, and we all slow down, and spend our time. Doing things. Doing nothing. Being. 

Watching ducks. 

And feeling grateful.

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