The Velveteen Duck

Photography, for me, began ostensibly as a means to discover the world around me. But the world around me, if I look closely, is a reflection of myself. Often, it is the unexpected discovery that leads me to a deeper understanding of who I am in the moment. What I’m looking for is not what I will ultimately find.

Take for example this beautiful duck.

Limantour Beach, Point Reyes, California. I arrive early in the day. My objective, as always, is nature – trees, grass, dunes. The earth speaks. I listen. There are messages abound in the patterns of sand and water. But here is this thing made not by wind but by hands.

It sat on a dumpster. There was no one around, but there was a crow in a nearby tree watching me as I approached. At first I didn’t know what I was seeing. A crazy-looking duck about the size of a toddler, slumped over and staring at me, as if awaiting my arrival. Upon closer inspection I found it to be saturated with water. It was likely washed up by the waves after having been tossed in the ocean. What I would have given to have been the one to find it there on the beach. But that was not my destiny. The duck was waiting for me where it was meant for me to see and it seemed that the crow was waiting too. He watched me take my photographs, curiously rubbing his beak back and forth across the branch he was sitting on in that strange way that crows do.

So, here were two birds, one real and living, watching my reaction to another, stuffed and perched on a trash receptacle where it was bound for some landfill. What was it thinking, this crow? Did it recognize itself in the form of this effigy? Could it somehow perceive that it was a likeness of something living? I’ve read that crows possess the mental capacity of a 3-year old child.

But I wasn’t thinking about the crow in this moment. I was focused on the duck. How did it get here? What journey did it take in order to arrive right here in this moment before my eyes? From some poorly lit factory in a land far across oceans, fabricated by cheap labor, a wiry Chinese lad with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, or maybe a young mother in Vietnam earning her daily fifty cents, sewing, absently, stitching together a plaything for a wealthy child, some carnival prize for a sinewy teenager hanging from the arm of a slouching boy in low-slung jeans with a wisp of a mustache who flung a ball into a stack of pop-bottles to win his girl a token of his prowess, the big prize fabricated by ghosts and shipped across the sea in a dark container stacked like cordwood on the decks of one of those behemoth ships from the Han-Sing line, bound for a side show where it hung for months above some rigged game of chance, waiting amid the smoke and calliope, coveted by thousands of young girls before it was won on that sultry evening by a rangy young half-man half-drunk on watered down PBR’s yet still deadly with his fastball, and how she carried it in triumph all that night beneath her skinny arm, and then took it home where  it sat atop her nightstand staring back at her through the dark of a thousand lonely nights in some Velveteen dream that was never quite fulfilled, and of course he had a name, she gave it to him, and spoke it aluf before he was forgotten and abandoned and tossed away, flung back into the ocean from which he came, the castaway duck riding pelagic on the ocean currents, face down, buoyant, but not as a duck should be, because of course he’s not really a duck but only a facsimile fashioned out of polyester to appear duck-like to simpletons who are so easily deceived.

But that’s just a story I made up in order to endure the agony of its creation and abandonment, in order to justify and explain its existence, its look of bewildered resignation. That’s why I write stories, to endure the pain and feel the joy of this mystery I call living. I took hundreds of photographs that day – trees and sand dunes and objects that were not representations, but true – yet this, this first photograph of the day was the most meaningful, the most lasting, the most surreal. I could have turned around and went home without taking another and called the day good. But the duck and I, we had ourselves a little conversation. Me with my feeble words and surrogate eye, and he with that knowing look in his eyes, a look that says: Who’s the fool now kid?

He was on his way to the dump to rot, forgotten. But I was there to remember him one last time, to recognize that a human being created him and a human being held him and gave him a name, and it’s true, what the Velveteen Rabbit said, that all we need is someone to believe in us in order to live. It is love that grants us eternal life and somewhere someone loved this crazy duck, even if that someone was only me in the last moment of its physical life.

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