Most people pick the colleges they go to for normal reasons. For example: "Terrific science department" would be a normal reason. So would, "Small class sizes," "Lots of Princeton Review superlatives," "Far away from my parents' house," and "The girls seem hot there." I picked my college, however, primarily because of its duck population.
Yes, duck; as in, duck. Like, duck: animal that swims and flies. Like, adorably serious-seeming waterfowl. That kind of duck.
Whitman (where I went to college) had ponds and creeks everywhere, and the climate was just right for ducks. When I visited in April, there were not only adult ducks going about their adult duck lives; there were also duckLINGs, and I was sold. I literally could not care about anything else. This was a place where ducks were a major part of campus life, and that mattered to me. Whitman it was.
I've always been into ducks. Here are things I have liked about them in the past: 1) They are mostly vegetarian. (In diet; not, like, to eat. By definition, they are NOT vegetarian to eat.) 2) They are mostly monogamous, which was really cool to me when I was growing up as a hopeless romantic little girl cliche. 3) They were birds and I liked birds. But they walked around like funny little humans! 4) When I couldn't think of a good date to go on with a boy, I would invite him to feed bread to ducks with me. Which I now understand is really bad for ducks. It makes them sick and keeps them from being able to fly. I say, "Ducks, you should know your body chemistry enough to know that bread is poison to you." Then they say, "Sophie, we could say the same thing about basically everything humans choose to put in their bodies when they are stressed out." Then I'm like, "It's cool how ducks talk to me. I'm a duck whisperer."
Actually, most of the things I liked about ducks in the past were basically false. Ducks are only vegetarian by necessity; there's not a lot of available meat that they can get to, but it's not like they'd reject it if they were given some. They're also rapists by nature, and female ducks are annoyingly prudent, not really wanting to have sex until they're forced to have it. Ducks are sometimes monogamous, but scientists are puzzled by their love lives and can't draw any absolutes about it.
I learned this over time, reading books and bragging about my duck obsession to ornithologists who knew more about ducks than I did. By any measure, ducks should have lost their footing as "Favorite Animal" once I learned their myriad dark secrets. But the ducklings kept them in the game. Ducklings are just so impossibly cute. Put a duckling by a kitten and just forget it. Nothing else on earth matters after that.
One day, after I moved to New Orleans, I was watching the ducklings parade around the bayou with adorable seriousness. The mom was quacking steadily and looking calmly alarmed while she floated near the edge of the water. The ducklings were marching around peeping and eating bits of slime with their tiny thumbnail beaks. I was the happiest person on earth, as I fantasized about cuddling with the ducklings the way other people fantasize about three-ways.
Everyone was doing fine. And then a big crow came down, swooped up a duckling, and flew away.
The mom duck was PISSED and quacked LOUDLY. The other ducklings were kind of ignorant -- they didn't seem to really notice, and they kept eating the slime. Personally, I was shocked and traumatized. I thought about this cute little duckling, happily eating slime one minute, the next minute being violently murdered by a giant black bird with talons and a mean bird-smile. WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THE WORLD.
Then I started thinking about this crow, and how happy she probably was. I'm sure seeing a pile of ducklings by the water was sort of like seeing a free pizza in the staff lounge. Kind of like, "YEAH. That is EXACTLY the thing I wanted."
This is the nature of the universe: some animals eat other animals. And it suddenly made me embarrassed for my species: a group of living things too afraid to look its food in the face. We don't acknowledge what we're eating, ever. That's why we react so viscerally when a charismatic megafauna like a duckling gets scooped up by a crow, but don't bat an eyelash at a veal parmesan: we are so distanced from our food that we don't even know our own violence.
The simplicity of the crow's meal became a symbol for me. I think about it whenever I'm consuming mindlessly; opening packages and driving cars. I take a second a remember that every day, as a human, I essentially murder hundreds of ducklings -- I just don't have to live with the ignominy of it, because my species has prioritized my comfort.
It's duckling season again, and I'm excited for the new lessons I'll learn from them this year. I am pretty sure that ducks are just Buddha, but ducks.