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The Mallard’s Song

by Anna Mallikarjunan

The natural world of birds, trees, and skies has always been my sanctuary. It stills my restless heart and brings a sense of inner sanity and clarity. This feeling is best described by the Sanskrit word satsangam, which translates to “in the company of the true or the wise.” I have come to see that when our minds are open and sensitive, even vulnerable, the universe reveals glimpses of a primordial,  timeless love. This love cannot be practiced and is neither sentimental nor emotional. It is hidden in the deep recesses of oneself and surfaces only when we release our obsession with habitual thoughts and our deathly grip on illusions we nurture out of fear. When we recognize this love, we realize it has always been there. But although we may know it intimately, it is not personal and cannot be held or given continuity through our thoughts and emotions. We also begin to see that this love is not separate from beauty. It is in the dark, pleated barks of a tree, the sweet crunch of grapes, the delicate petals of a wild dandelion, the footprints of a squirrel in the snow, and the quiet, upward gaze of a robin.

In the heart of Montreal is a small green oasis, officially home to an independent high school. But during the height of the pandemic, it was transformed into a haven for many who reside in its vicinity. Within this space flows a rectangular pond embanked on all sides by a low stone wall. The pond is surrounded by a variety of the most beautiful trees, including ancient maples and evergreen pines. On some days when the water is placid, their reflection in it brings a sense of peace and awe. For several years now, I have seen mallards inhabit this pond for brief interludes along their migratory journeys. But early in April 2020, amidst lockdown, a male and female arrived to make it their home for the summer. I would see them— the male with his iridescent green head and the female with her mottled brown body—on my daily walks as they drifted slowly on the water or rested on its banks. One evening, a few weeks after their arrival, I noticed the male wading alone. The sound of a quack came from somewhere above the pond. I looked up at an apartment building, about five storeys high. There was the female, perched on its rooftop. She received an answering call from the male and slowly hopped back from the ledge toward the roof of the building. I gathered she must be nesting there.

For although not entirely a surprise, it was incredible to see two little ducklings appear on the pond a few days later. I marvelled at how the parents had accomplished this seemingly impossible feat. The little ones seemed so tender. They must have been barely a day old but swam rapidly through the water, fully connected with their new surroundings. In watching their vulnerability, my feelings of protectiveness combined with a certain apprehension at how they would survive the lingering effects of the Canadian winter. It was something I didn’t want to ponder over, especially since it turned chilly that night, although not unusual for early April in Montreal. The following morning, the twittering of sparrows and the songs of the robin trickled in with the rays of the sun. Near the pond, however, the air was filled with a different sound—the call of ravens. Several were circling, calling out loudly to each other. My heart sank as I saw the parents wading alone. And my worst fears were confirmed when I spotted a pair of ravens hovering over the bank further down from where I stood. I returned to where the parents were swimming. The male appeared unsure and a little lost, but he stayed close to his mate, never losing sight of her, even for a moment. The mother swam about busily, eating and drinking what the pond’s surface provided her with. But underneath the activities of her body, her presence was palpably serene. I stood there, weeping, unable to bear what appeared to be her stoic grief. The following days felt quiet and solemn, and the silence of the pandemic seemed to hold the mourning of all creation. During this time, I discovered that grief is not painful when I remain with it, when I don’t translate or avoid it through my beliefs, ideas, and memories. Grief, then, is not very different from love; in it is a wholeness of the heart and mind being in complete harmony with each other and the world. In the words of the great sage and teacher, J. Krishnamurti:

“Sorrow is perhaps one of the greatest challenges, greatest demand on the human mind, on the human quality, and if you merely escape from it, run away, rationalize, then sorrow is your shadow. But with the ending of that there is passion, not lust but the passion that is the very essence of energy.”

Life on the pond returned to some semblance of normal. The days started to get warmer as Spring took hold, and more birds began to arrive. A month later, a new mother appeared with her ducklings. Unfortunately, the mallards in residence, particularly the male, were territorial and hostile. I was nervous and agitated, distressed by nature’s plan. I pleaded with the universe for harmony. And as if in answer to my entreaties, the situation changed dramatically within days. The two took on what can only be compared to the roles of uncle and aunt to the five new ducklings, and an idyll settled in the ensuing days. A robin splashed about in the water while the mother sat on the bank, her little ones snoozing in a corner along the inner edge of the pond. The aunt and uncle waded nearby, keeping, so it seemed, watch over their family. On some afternoons, robins sang lullabies to the little ones as they slept on the porch of a little birdhouse in the middle of the pond. There are no words to describe such miracles in nature. Only a deep affection for life itself and faith in existence.

About a week later, the two avuncular ducks disappeared, leaving the pond entirely to the young family. And with time, the surroundings changed too: grass grew greener, the trees lusher, hedgerows burgeoned, and a small wood near the pond turned lusciously dark as the foliage within flourished. A cluster of beautiful flowering trees blossomed in a little grove behind the eastern wall of the school grounds. Magenta flowers, which appeared around mid-May, turned light pink; then a week later, the trees shed all their flowers. During this short flowering window, several birds flocked to the trees throughout the day. Finches, chickadees, sparrows, cardinals, robins, and even a rare scarlet tanager hopped from branch to branch, flower to flower. A chipmunk, a resident of these parts, would

often run across the paths with his tail in the air. The chirping, flitting, and constant activity sent bursts of joy all around. All of nature bloomed uninhibited.

The ducklings grew with each passing day, their mother guided them gently and unobtrusively. When a Doberman Pinscher trotted free on the banks, peering at the family in the water, she gathered her young, and they all stayed calm, watching alertly. Her every action was full of dignity, so humbling to watch. Come torrential rain or bright sunshine, the family of mallards took it in their stride without a trace of disharmony. As I continued my daily walks, sometimes more than once a day, I noticed that occasionally, the mother left her ducklings on their own. Sometimes they slept, seemingly oblivious to her absence. Or they swam, ate, and preened their feathers. But once, although it may have just been my imagination, they seemed to miss her and greeted her with a little peck on the beak when she returned. After three relatively tranquil months, the pace of life quickened. One day in late August, I noticed the mother was away. She didn’t reappear in the next two days, and I knew she had left. After all the caring attention she had provided, she was gone with such finality, with no expectations. Animals and birds may not have the vast expanse of expressions we do, but the depth of love and intelligence in their daily lives never ceases to amaze me.

Miracles continued at the pond. One early September evening, as I stood on the bank looking at the eastern sky, the young ones appeared suddenly from behind, only this time at an altitude above pond level. They flew about half the pond’s perimeter and landed with a flourish. It was as thrilling as watching a baby one adores walk for the first time. And about a week after that first flight, I found that four of the siblings had departed. It was gut-wrenching to watch the lone young duck left behind; she was pensive, a little morose, but alert. While my identification may have been inaccurate—for both male and female juvenile mallards resemble the adult female with their mottled brown bodies—it also appeared to me that she was the youngest, for she still paddled backward with ease. I sat with her for a long time, stumped by nature’s manoeuvre, feeling rather useless, yet I felt an overpowering tenderness for the young one. By the following morning, she had also left. Emotions raced through me in rapid succession, but mostly I was relieved and happy. That evening I looked up at the sky and spotted a lone duck flying west. Perhaps it was her, sailing forth on a voyage of adventure. “Godspeed, dear one,” I said to the winged traveller.

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