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12 november 2011
Via the long trains of association that prevail in the clues to British cryptic crossword puzzles, the word "duck" equals the letter "O." To be "bowled for a duck" in cricket is to come to bat and leave again having produced no runs: a score of zero, and therefore a "duck egg," or "duck," and because the zero looks like "O" . . . well, you get the drift. Much of Victoria de Rijke's wonderful book Duck is taken up with the chains of meaning that link ducks to any and every phenomenon humans have been able to plausibly or implausibly connect to these quacky little waterfowl.
The "chain of associations in imagery" (151) leads De Rijke from the anatomical bird to its countless manifestations in everything from rubber to stone, and to its extremely polysemous traces in the world's languages. Ducks are everywhere. De Rijke argues that "duck proliferates all culture and all modes of culture" (162), and is "the finest use-metaphor on the planet" (164). Given that she's writing for the Reaktion Books Animal series, which has offered some very heady accounts of the saturation of human culture with certain key animal representations, this is an overweening claim. But after a few chapters of Duck, one is inclined to accept it.
Ducks move among air, land, and water; they move among wild, domesticated, captive, and feral states. Humans nuture them and hunt them. They are cute, crazy, at times comforting, at times ominous. As much as any other animal, they are us, seen in a cartoonish light. De Rijke prints a photo of a chalcedony amulet with images of duck-headed gods, 1700 to 1800 years old, provenance uncertain; it looks like it could have been designed by a 21st-century comic-book artist. At times, it seems as if rubber duckies could stand for any human tendency or foible; indeed, Donovan Hohn's book Moby-Duck (2011) is about that, exactly.
Many duck species are endangered (the old story, habitat encroachment), but mallards, increasingly the default duck, are in no danger at all. They will be one of the last animals to go as world biodiversity decreases. Among other things, ducks are delicious, and humans have a way of preserving good food creatures, one way or another. In American cuisine, ducks (once the standard over-common game bird) are now as delicate as they are delicious. There's no KFD in American strip malls; ducks are eaten as duck à l'orange, as Peking duck, as upscale game-restaurant roasts. They have mostly escaped the fate of chickens and turkeys, bred into helplessness and confined for life to feed our mass-production culinary desires.
And as Donald, Daffy, and Howard have shown in famous cartoon uses, ducks remain tricksters in our imagination. If often exasperated, they are always persistent. One of my favorite jokes – funny, sweet, clean, yet psychologically profound – is about just such a persistent duck:
A duck walks into a bar. He says to the bartender, "Got any duck food?" The bartender says no. The duck walks out.
Next day, the duck walks into the bar. He says to the bartender, "Got any duck food?" The bartender says "NO! Get out of here!" The duck walks out.
Next day, the duck walks into the bar. He says to the bartender, "Got any duck food?" The bartender says "NO! And furthermore, if you come in here tomorrow and ask for duck food, I'll nail your stupid little webbed feet to the floor!" The duck walks out.
Next day, the duck walks into the bar. He says to the bartender, "Got any nails?" The bartender says no. The duck says, "Got any duck food?"
De Rijke, Victoria. Duck. London: Reaktion, 2008.