I like running in Sugarhouse park for a number of reasons. I know that two laps plus the interior driveway into the parking lot equals one 5k. I also appreciate the difficulty. There are two good hills in the circuit – four total. It hurts but it is a good workout. I love it. Especially in spring when the baby ducks are out. The cuteness is a good distraction from the burning calves. Usually.
Recently, however, as I approached the first hill I noticed a… what? A cluck of ducks? That’s probably not right. But there were five mallards off to the right on the grassy hill, which is the wrong side of the road. The pond is in the center of the park, off to my left as I run counter-clockwise around the loop.
Something about their behavior seemed strange and I turned to watch them. There were four males and one female. If you are wondering how I know a male mallard from a female mallard, they are easy to differentiate. They are similar in shape but the males have bright green heads and with white collars where the throat starts to widen into the body. Females are slightly smaller and are mostly spotty brown but with bright blue patches on their wings.
One of the males had a splotch of white on his mostly green neck and another white blob on his body, like someone had thrown bleach on him. Or like a watercolor painting that is nearly complete but not quite. This means he is a mixed species duck – part mallard and part white duck. There is a duck like this that lives in my boyfriend’s neighborhood. We saw him one morning and I said, “We should call mutt ducks ‘mucks.’” He didn’t laugh. I reminded him that it was still early and I hadn’t had any coffee yet. “I mean I’m not saying it’s an A plus joke,” I pressed him at the time. “Clearly it’s B work. But seriously… nothing?”
I was rethinking my evaluation as I ran in the park and decide he was right. I was downgrading the joke to a C plus – B minus at best – but before I could finish the thought, the one female in the cluck made a sudden turn and darted out into the road with the three males chasing closely behind.
There was a car but it was able to stop just in time. The female kept running and crossed the road in front of me with the males closing in on her. The fastest one caught up with her as she stumbled over the curb on the pond side of the road. Before she could pull herself up onto the grass, he clamped his beak on her thin neck and twisted it awkwardly to the side as he scaled her back. The muck and the other two males gathered around, waiting their turn.
I can’t claim to have had a clear impulse to do anything in the moment. And yet I had many impulses – layers and layers of considerations that lodged in my gut like an onion swallowed whole. I spent the rest of the run peeling it and contemplating the pungent concerns as I carved deeper into it.
It certainly occurred to me – maybe a few paces down the path – that I should go back and rescue her. I could chase the males off, couldn’t I? Or would I just scatter them temporarily? Then they would resume as soon as I got back on my way, with that female or the next one they saw.
I remembered what I’ve read about duck copulation before. Specifically, I recall reading about the roughness of the males. Witnessing it was certainly more brutal than I imagined while reading about it. Still… this was “natural,” right?
Then I remembered my friend Meg telling a story about a pair of ducks rogering around the grass on the day of her wedding. I remember she was disturbed by it, but her sister had said, “no, ducks fucking are good luck!”
“Duck fuck, good luck, duck fuck, good luck…” I repeated to the rhythm of my running pace as I fought my way up hill number one. This helped for a moment, but I kept picturing the awkward angle of the ducks neck as the drake held her down, pushing her throat into the grass. And then I remembered something else that I read about ducks as I crested the hill. “What was it?” I asked my brain. “Something about the fact that the penis is corkscrew shaped? For some gawdawful reason?”
As my shoes slapped down the declining side of the hill the shock wore off and I suddenly realized that I had witnessed something intense and violent. “What is wrong with me!? Why didn’t I help her?” I yelled at myself. “What about SISTERHOOD?”
With a pang I remembered that one of the reasons I run in this park was the baby ducks. “Is there anything cuter than a baby mallard? Now I know where they come from. I guess it’s evolved that way for a reason? Corkscrew cocks and all? Otherwise, no more mallards.”
The trail was leveling out and I realized that I was justifying my inaction using the old ‘means to an ends’ trope. “Who am I? I sound like Rick Santorum, telling rape victims to ‘make the best of a bad situation.’”
I tried to banish the image of the other drakes – the slower ones – forming a jumbled and impatient line as I approached the steep raise of hill number two. That article I read didn’t say anything about gang rape. I was not prepared for that.
“I’m not heartless,” I told myself as I fought the gravity asserting its full force on my calves. “I am impartial. Like a documentary film maker. I am here to observe and learn, not to judge or intervene.” On the steepest part of the hill, my pace slowed to a run just slower than a walk and I started to lose track of where my legs ended and where the sidewalk began. “I am Sigournie Weaver,” I declared. “Narrating with my soft as suede voice as an arctic wolf gnaws on the leg of a still struggling baby caribou.”
I crested the hill but continue walking, trying to catch my breath. “Except Sigournie Weaver wasn’t actually there,” I remembered. “I am the dude who keeps filming when the shit goes down. The one I always scream at. ‘Put the camera down and throw the polar bear a damned fish! Don’t you know what climate change is doing to them?!’” I picked up speed and made my way toward the downward slope on the West side of the park.
I told myself that if the ducks were still there when I made it back to the scene of the crime I would intervene. I rounded the corner and searched the grass and the shore of the pond, but they were gone. “Maybe she got away?” I thought about her waddling at full speed out in front of the car. Was that intentional? Escape through frantic suicide?
Slogging up hill number three it occurred to me that she ran, but she didn’t fly. “Why didn’t she fly? Maybe it is all part of the mating ritual. Play hard to get but not too hard to get.” I was starting to feel better and I repeated the mantra from the previous trudge up this hill. “Duck fuck, good luck, duck fuck, good luck…” I played through the scene in my head again. “She certainly looked like she was desperate to get away, but it must not have been with a full heart, or she would have flown. Right?”
“Oh Christ,” I thought as I crested the hill. “Did I just make the duck equivalent of the ‘look what she’s wearing’ argument?” I was flying down the back of the hill, hating myself with every step.
I remembered then that I had been driving passed this same park the week before when all the traffic came to a stop for no apparent reason. Once I was close enough I saw that there was a pair of mallards in the center of the six lane street, herding a half dozen babies up the median with the female leading the parade and the male bringing up the rear. This is one of the things I love about mallards. They always seem to make such cute couples.
Another time, years ago, I was driving through another part of Sugarhouse and I saw the carcass of a female mallard to the side of the road and a male standing watch over her lifeless body. You will see this from time to time. They seem to be very devoted. I used to think monogamous, “or at least they stay partnered for the mating season?” Suddenly I wasn’t sure. “I’ll have to look that up, I guess.”
It was the last hill and I could see where this was going. I told myself to skip the scene which was obviously coming. The one where I berate myself for letting the male off the hook” because they make such cute dads, after all.”
Utah was in the news that same week because a judge had praised a former LDS bishop as a “good man” as he sentenced him to life in prison while his victims sat in the courtroom. “Great men do bad things,” he said. I was outraged when I read it in the paper.
“Not going there,” I thought. “Just, not even going to do it.” But it was too late. I felt no better – no more ‘woke’ – than that judge. I used my self-loathing as fuel to get me up the last hill and onto the flat stretch along the north side of the park. Just one more downhill and then the turn into the center of the park where my car was parked.
I finished the last stretch and I asked myself if my real problem is that I’m too disconnected from the natural world. The real one, not the artificial landscaped park meant to look something like nature that I conveniently touch base with on my lunch breaks. It isn’t the same thing, despite the occasional wild encounter. “Has urban living made me so soft that I cannot bear witness the brutality of the real world? Or has it made me too hard in some way? Has my voracious consumption of liberal punditry turned me into a habitual moralizer, constantly monitoring of my thoughts for traces of ignorance, and leaving me unable to make sense of what is around me without anthropomorphizing?”
I dug the key to my Toyota out of my sweaty sports bra and I flopped down into the driver’s seat. It was the most exhausting three miles I have ever run.
“I am a bad person, a bad feminist, and I will never look at a baby duck the same way again. Fuzzy little fuckers.”
I turned the key and steered my car onto the park road. There was one thing I did feel I understood as I worked my way back around the loop toward the exit. “The next time I am yelling at a nature show because the photographer is so cold hearted as to just stand there and film while the wild dogs surround the limpy gazelle, I will remember this outing in the park and I will tell myself to go to hell.”