Bushwhacking in the age of Lyme

Aug 30 2017 | 12:58 PM

I have a small library devoted to the keeping of chickens and goats, underlined and dog-eared. But ducks seemed straightforward enough. We’d just throw ‘em in with the chickens.

The ducklings were a party. They rushed back and forth wagging their bums, doing what looked like a keg stand when they submerged their rounded beaks in the waterer. But they seemed to be on steroids. And their habit of splashing their water turned their temporary shelter into a primordial stew. They needed to be out in the sun and fresh air, and pronto. So I got up early one morning, hastily unfurled a length of knee-high fence, and let them out into their new “run.”

Wait a sec, husband Joe was calling to me, just wait a sec and I’ll rig something up.

I’ll stand here and guard them, I said. So there I stood, full of the courage of my convictions, and watched them wedge themselves through the squares of my dinky fence, and waddle straight for the woods. A few splinter groups went off in different directions, peeping a shrill peep I would come to know well by day’s end.

Maybe they would come back...

I rounded up the few that had stuck nearby – an awkward task when carrying a baby – and popped them into a crate. They immediately squeezed right out of that, too. I had opened Pandora’s box.

It was 8am on Sunday – our Sabbath, our day to chill in our underwear and have a big brunch and dance around to this great reggae show on the radio. And did I mention it was Father’s Day?

I thought of the pictures I’d see later on Facebook: picnics, fishing trips, restaurants with dad. What would I post? Here’s Joe, prying rocks the size of small people from the hillside, drenched in sweat, thin as Jesus Christ from the illness he hadn’t quite gotten over. Best dad ever!

For the next hour, we spoke only to exchange information necessary for the task at hand: moving and upgrading duckworld. (With the ducks out of the way, we might as well go ahead and do it.) By 9am, we were ravenous and sad, but new duckworld was good to go. Now all we needed were the ducks.

It would have been easier to work in tandem for Operation Duck Round-Up. But when Joe said, “Do you need me for anything else,” I understood it was not a question. We needed to feed the children. He needed to not be doing this all day on Father’s Day. Joe disappeared inside, taking the baby with him.

Now I was alone. I could focus. I snagged the ducklings that had stuck around: six down, 15 to go. But the big clutch had dodged through the pasture fence, into Lyme Disease central. The temperature was in the nineties and climbing. I hadn’t had my coffee. But the longer I waited, the lower the chances of getting them back alive. We’d spotted a fox just yesterday. Sitting ducks.

I was wearing shorts and Crocks – not the recommended get-up these days, with Lyme proliferating by 300,000 new cases a year. But desperation was my suit of armor. I hopped the pasture fence and crashed into the bush after the terrified ducklings, ripping through vines while speaking in my most soothing, maternal voice. I scooped up the ducklings that got tripped up in the tangle of sticks and brambles. Hugging six writhing necks to my chest, I hustled home to deposit my quarry into duckworld.

Joe whistled at me from the kitchen window, so I knew our marriage was not over.

Twelve ducks in hand, 9 at large, I headed back out, this time taking my neighbor’s driveway to surprise the ducks by bursting into the brambles from a different point of entry.

They knew exactly where I was. These ones were the fastest and wiliest, the Navy Seals. The best I could do now was pick them off one at a time. By the time I had 16 down, they had pushed into such a deep brambly mess that I would have needed shears to penetrate. I couldn’t see more than a couple inches into the mat of foliage.

So I closed my eyes and listened. The chatter of birds was like a language I’d studied in high school, and might remember just enough of if I listened hard. The indignation at my intrusion died down, replaced by contented sing-song. I waited, eyes closed, listening for the nasally “I’m-here-where-are-you-guys?” peep, a rustle in the underbrush. Dappled sun played across my skin. Nobody in the world knew exactly where I was.

Could it be that I was having the time of my life?

Zigging and zagging, I spotted the red head of a pileated woodpecker and – gasp – a mulberry tree dripping with yellow fruit on its way to ripening. I saw a snake sunning itself on a rock, and did not jump at the sight. I noted it more like a creature of the forest might, than a person with a silly snake phobia. I was tromping 15 feet from the road, in perfect hearing distance of kids on bikes, a Bruderhof family out on a walk, none of whom had any idea I was there.

I felt ecstatic as John Muir in the Sierras. Give me a stale loaf of bread and I’ll see you in a week.

After traipsing around for the better part of the morning, it was time. Time to return to civilization, otherwise known as Sunday brunch. Coffee cup in hand, eggs in my belly, I slipped into a cool bath with the kids, slathering myself with dish soap to cut through the poison ivy oil,¬ checking for ticks. None. I would get off easy, developing just a couple itchy patches on my legs, nothing that some lake swimming wouldn’t cure.

The best news? The next morning, we four more ducklings that had made it back to the pasture, hungry but unharmed. 20 down, one lost. We were lucky. Lucky ducky.

We lost a duckling, but I gained something, too. Since my Sunday bushwhack, I’ve been daydreaming about those shady, silent spaces, that mulberry tree, the cathedral of a maple tree canopy, the wind working its way through its leaves in a slow wave. It had been so long.

I’m not recommending you roll around in long grass; I’ve had Lyme and know as well as anyone that the concerns are legit. And yet the woods are where most of us grew up, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed them. Now I can feel it on my skin again, what it’s like to just wander, not on a hike, but as a forest creature, or a child.