Birdies of America

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How about ducks? They still exist! Have a look. One nice thing about ducks is that it’s the females that are called “ducks”; the males are “drakes.” In duck land the female is, for once, Simone de Beauvoir’s Absolute, the representative of the species, while the male is the Other, the outsider, the second sex, the weirdo. Unfortunately, drakes make the most of their rogue male status: every spring they gang up on (female) ducks and rape them. This can lead to fatal injuries, as a wounded duck is literally a sitting duck, at the mercy not only of squads of unfeeling drakes but dogs, cats, and foxes too.

I once lived beside a river and have had qualms about mallards ever since. Much of my time was spent running outside to rescue ducklings from a millrace right below my window: the drop was too steep for them (despite their impressive climbing claws) and the plaintive peeping, once they surfaced downstream, was unignorable. Equipped with a shrimp net, and sometimes wading into the freezing river fully clothed, I saved a good many ducklings from watery deaths or execution by water rat. Shunned by adults, I was popular with children—they liked emptying the net and witnessing the ducklings’ touching reunions with their fretful mamas. Peep peep peep.

It was harder to know what to do about all the rapes. Even if I went out several times a day to yell or clap my hands together, or vehemently squash drink cans (a sound that does temporarily give drakes pause), I knew the same sexual assaults were simultaneously being played out across the globe, making a nonsense of my efforts to raise the consciousnesses of ducks and drakes in my vicinity.

Not all ducklings are born of rape, but many must be. There’s evidently no choosing going on (by the ducks anyway), no allowance for one drake’s more appealing green or blue head, or a well-turned curlicue in the tail. A duck’s life is simply about evading as many drakes as possible. Ducks pair off eventually with a male partner and protector, but they clearly have less say about which drake that is than you might like to think. These are marriages of convenience. There’s no sign of the ERA in a duck pond.

Ducks move on. After all the squawking and the squabbling, the fleeing and the flying, the ducking and the fucking, eggs are laid, ducklings hatched, and from then on the mothers have plenty of new stuff to think about. But their air of contentment is a joke. They may look placid, gliding about on a glassy stream with a parade of ducklings behind them, or nibbling on pondweed, or napping in the sun, their chest feathers agleam, but female ducks must harbor near-gothic amounts of dread and resentment. Duck lives are hell! To be chased on land, air, and sea by mates who grab you by the neck with their beaks, stand on you, pin you to the ground, insert penises shaped like elongated corkscrews into you, and then skedaddle? They never write, they never phone . . .

Do all birds lead such stressful sex lives? What happened to courtship and pair-bonding and all the other avian ideals humans strive so painfully to imitate? Male swans help build the nest, guard the joint progeny, even train them up. It takes two parents over a year to get a single cygnet off to college.

There’s no sign of the ERA in a duck pond.

You see pigeons billing and cooing nicely too. Male pigeons behave more like impotent roués than serious suitors: the eagerness is all show. Bird brains. You certainly don’t see marauding gangs of male pigeons leaving behind them distraught female pigeons with bent feathers and broken wings. In pigeon society, it’s clearly female passion that counts, not male, and flirtatious male pigeons seem resigned to this.

Sex is supposed to be fun, not a misogynistic free-for-all. At the very least, most animals try to avoid the counterproductive strategy of injuring the female in the process of impregnating her. Male animals may fight amongst themselves (harmlessly, in general—though I recently saw an epic battle between two moorhens on a riverbank and don’t know how it turned out). But to acquire mates, males need to be good listeners, good serenaders, and good at grooming: get the plumage right, the mane, the antlers, the pecs, the abs . . . Human society has all this ass-backward, with women exhausting themselves (for up to a century each!) trying to please men. What a shambles. The gallons of wasted hairspray and intellect, the lipo deaths, the lingerie expenses, and all those deeply regretted refusals of pie!

Courtship is not about rape, and there’s no rape on the microscopic level either. The ovum magnanimously—and rather optimistically—selects a sperm cell. Spermatozoa do not force themselves on the egg, they do not aggressively penetrate it, they do not pierce it or poke it, they certainly do not conquer it, they don’t even try to coax it out for dinner and a movie. They hang around like dopes waiting for ticket returns to a hit show, and it’s up to the egg to decide if a single one of them gets to go to the Fun Home.

Animals (apart from ducks, I guess) would laugh their heads off if you tried to describe patriarchy to them, its violence and imbecility. Anti-female, anti-life, anti-nature patriarchy cuddles up for warmth to destruction, death, and money—the favorite baubles, not coincidentally, of Donald Trump, or Donald Duck, as he’s known in Europe. Trump may well be some kind of drake . . . This would explain the iridescent coiffure, the ungentlemanly manners, his familiarity with golf courses, and why he’s so fond of bread.

When you’re good and tired of duck society, try goosanders! They’re a kind of merganser: sleek, rare, and secretive. I’ve never seen their mating behavior, but I assume it’s polite, if a bit fast. Goosanders do everything fast. According to A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, they’re also mostly silent, and can stay underwater for up to a minute at a time. Wow, if only Trump would quit his quacking and stay underwater for a minute. Or more.

The salient features of a goosander are its long, narrow body (perfect for diving) and the brown crested head, white breast, and silvery-gray plumage of the female. In Birds of America, or my crummy copy anyway, Audubon messes up on the color, making the female brown all over, with no gray; he blows the sleekness too, making them more ducklike. But T. A. Coward emphasizes the goosander’s “elongated, cigar-shaped body.” In his Birds of the British Isles and their Eggs, Coward says: “With neck awash and head well forward it slides through the water, its rounded back just showing like a small submarine.” Goosanders are streamlined for velocity—because their lives are not spent lazing around with their asses in the air like mallards and a few people I could mention.

When diving, goosanders do dolphin flips. The water boils with their antics. They sweep to the bottom, zoom around down there like sharks, and turn up far from where they started. Nervous types, mother goosanders are always in a hurry. In order to keep things speeding along, the mother bird will let her young ride on her back. Three or four goosanderlings can fit on at a time. Any left behind have to paddle fast to keep up.

The male goosander is a chiaroscuro masterpiece, with a magnolia-white body and an intense black back. Trump’s wisps of hair might be sort of magnolia, if he didn’t dye them. And he’s fishy . . . But any talk of similarity between the (allegedly) second-rate, nasty, terrible, sick, lowly, lying, truly pathetic, reckless, sad, weak, lazy, wacko, big-eared, incompetent, third-rate, clueless, not smart, all talk, dumb as a rock, fourth-rate, zero-chance liar, nut job, clown, loser, fraud, con man, phony, lightweight, hypocrite, goofball, low-life disgrace, and boring guy[*] that is Donald Trump, and a goosander, debases goosanders. Obviously, it’s Bernie “Birdie” Sanders who qualifies as a goosander: he’s got the white shirt and black jacket, cares about the environment, and dives deep.

Reading old bird books can be enough to put you off birds. It’s a world unto itself, and you feel more and more excluded—like Stan Laurel at a Sons of the Desert meeting, listening to the edicts of the “Exhausted Ruler” (an emaciated 1930s businessman in a keffiyeh). But I gather goosanders are saw-billed, lay large, long, pale creamy-gray eggs with no peak at either end, and are as rare a find as socialist presidents. European goosanders “reach Britain in October, but few appear in Cheshire before December; even then their visits are irregular.”

The Common Loon gets many a bird book off to a good start. It is not dissimilar to the goosander in shape and manner, but the loon’s markings are a real work of genius, and unisex. Both the male and the female have the same long black head and black beak, tiny red eyes, and stylish azure bands around the neck. To top it off, they sport a kimono of delicate op-art black-and-white checks flung across their backs.

Like goosanders, loons dive with great efficiency, though their technique is more discreet: loons just tuck their heads under the water and surge forward, hardly disturbing the surface at all. Roger Tory Peterson, in A Field Guide to the Birds, says a loon “is a long-bodied, low-lying bird, a sort of avian submarine.” Again with the submarine analogy. Isn’t a submarine more likely to resemble a loon than the other way around? (The submarine concept came later: they carry nuclear bombs. Loons carry only loonlings.)

Loons are much admired by Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond. Loons are all she talks about. She’s a loon goon. They’re symbolic of something or other in the film, I don’t know what and don’t want to know. It’s not much of a movie. The schmaltz, combined with the aquatic angle, make it more like an episode of Flipper. But it did provide Hepburn with a last big role, and also offered a rare sighting of old age connubiality on screen. For a long time Katharine Hepburn was the old woman in the movies, the only one anybody could bear to see. She seemed invincible—leading Howard Nemerov to say of old age, “If this can happen to Hepburn / No one is safe.”

Hepburn has one big heroic moment in On Golden Pond, when she has to dive into the water to save Henry Fonda and their dull grandson from drowning (which is when Flipper should have appeared). No sweat for Hepburn—she couldn’t resist jumping into water in almost every movie she made. She horses around with Cary Grant in the stream in Bringing Up Baby. She splashes in the weeds with Bogart and the leeches in The African Queen. She gave herself a permanent eye infection by dunking herself in a Venetian canal to film Summertime.

In The Philadelphia Story she executes a perfect Olympian dive into the pool in order to fondle Cary Grant’s toy boat, and later on has a risqué midnight swim (offstage) with Jimmy Stewart. In Desk Set she and Spencer Tracy are romantically drenched by rain. Throughout Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she’s awash in lachrymosity (perhaps caused by the embarrassing script). Even in Song of Love, playing the long-suffering Clara Schumann, Hepburn gets down and dirty on the kitchen floor in between sonatas, to bathe a lively child in a wooden tub. Water is Hepburn’s element. She is the human equivalent of a loon: so taut, so angular, so resilient, so athletic, a jittery assemblage of dynamic energy.

But in On Golden Pond (what is that annoying “on” doing there?), we’re supposed to be watching Jane Fonda have several tense moments with her dad. Hepburn probably got an Oscar just for putting up with two Fondas in one movie. (It couldn’t have been for her singing, which is atrocious.) She finally cuts to the chase and tells Jane to quit dwelling on her unhappy childhood already. At last somebody said it! But it’s the loons who really deserved an Academy Award.

While making the movie, Kate and Jane reportedly didn’t hit it off. Well, one can act and the other can’t. Jane Fonda is just as happy making an aerobics video, so why not stick with that? But no, she’s always reinventing herself, and acts as if we’re just agog to see her transmogrify each fresh disaster in her life into a positive experience from which we all can learn.

One minute she’s playing Barbarella and participating in Roger Vadim orgies, the next she’s washing Tom Hayden’s dirty underpants and saving us from the Vietnam war. Next, she’s the queen of the workout (though she’s never worked anything out in her life), or convincing herself she can be married to Ted Turner and remain left-wing. To her credit, Fonda (unlike, say, Hillary Clinton) has been consistently anti-war. But you don’t back off from political action into self-improvement if you really want to help anybody.

Having repeatedly retired from acting, Fonda keeps bobbing up again like a half-drowned duckling, most recently in a disconcerting cameo caricature in Youth, an otherwise subtle and admirable movie about old age. But what does Jane Fonda know about youth or old age? When she discovered feminism she had some kind of vaginal hallway installed in her apartment and started effervescing about universal womanhood—while still narcissistically telling everyone to be more like her (thin, kooky, terrific).

She and Trump could hit the road together, pooling their disdainful entrepreneurial pizzazz, and teach us all how to suck in our guts and bring America back in line. No pain, no gain! . . . They’d have so much to talk about: his dumb ideas versus her dumb ideas. Quack, quack! But I was forgetting how much Trump hates women, especially aging ones. He doesn’t like menstruating ones either, nor breastfeeding ones (all those alien fluids, eeuchh!), nor women who have abortions, nor women who don’t have abortions. He . . . just . . . hates . . . women. They are the Other, they are second-class citizens (or even third?), they are “disgusting.”

Why let these bullyboys boss us around anyway? Do we really want a world full of lunky junky clunky skyscrapers, golf balls, goof balls, Sharper Image steaks, nuclear war, and more and more books and videos on the joys of jumping up and down? In America’s stagnant duckpond, is there no drop of culture left?

Trump probably can’t wait to implement a new Cultural Revolution, complete with roundups of the intelligentsia, purges, forced ideological confessions, waterboarding, shouting, and massive barbecues. I’ll stick with Kate Hepburn, slowly dissolving into a puddle of goo in every movie she made, from Stage Door and Holiday to Long Day’s Journey into Night. Boy, did she know how to crumble. That, along with tenderness, was her great discovery. Existence itself is a slow dissolve, and to cope with it we need Hepburn and loons, Sanders and goosanders—not a bunch of loud-mouthed, feather-brained never-wuzzers.

[*] Appraisals issued by Trump about various people and public bodies (he eats lawsuits for breakfast).

Lucy Ellmann’s novel Mimi contains The Odalisque Manifesto, which proposes a peaceful revolution leading to worldwide matriarchy.

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