David James Duncan

Several years ago, a friend suggested I read David James Duncan's masterpiece The River Why.  Not only did I read it, I reached the last page one night, flipped to the front, and read it again.  The book contains one of my all-time favorite chapters in fiction (Eddy), and - along with The Earth is Enough - is half-responsible for my abandoning fly fishing.  I figured, if I can't do it with the passion and enthusiasm that these guys had, what's the point?

A couple years ago, AJG passed along an essay by Duncan that was originally published in The Sun, but which I think went on to be included in Best American Essays 2009.  The essay, alas, is unavailable online; however I did find this excerpt, which gives a sense of the story:
The peregrine falcon was brought back from the brink of extinction by a ban on DDT, but also by a peregrine falcon mating hat invented by an ornithologist at Cornell University. If you cannot buy this, Google it. Female falcons had grown dangerously scarce. A few wistful males nevertheless maintained a sort of sexual loitering ground. The hat was imagined, constructed, and then forthrightly worn by the ornithologist as he patrolled this loitering ground, singing, Chee-up! Chee-up! and bowing like an overpolite Japanese Buddhist. For reasons neither scientists nor fashion designers entirely understand, this inspired the occasional male falcon to dive onto the ornithologist’s head, fuck the hat, and fire endangered sperm into the hat’s hidden rubber receptacle. The last few females were then artificially inseminated so that their chicks could be raised in DDT-free captivity. The young produced in this way saved the peregrine from extinction – a success story from the annals of human meddling, one as rare as debacles like DDT are common.
AJG and I had the following exchange soon after he sent the essay.  I record here for posterity.  (All indentations from here on represent his comments.)

*   *   *

The essay is incredible...the density of words and images makes it nearly poetic.

Two thoughts:

1.  I would have liked it more without the DDT references.  Like the complaints I leveled against a lot of the essays in God Laughs and Plays..., it's too "inside" and he's either unaware of the controversy surrounding the worldwide ban on DDT or he doesn't care because he knows he's writing for the choir and they're all on his side.  Gratuitous.  It makes the essay no better at all, in fact I'd say it weakens it...if you're going to write a sentence with the proposition:  "a success story from the annals of human meddling, one as rare as debacles like DDT are common" then you'd better be writing an essay about DDT.  Otherwise, choose another metaphor.  That said, I was over it halfway into the very next paragraph, and probably only held onto this train of thought so that I could be sure to write what I just wrote.  I guess that's the triumph of great over good, in a nutshell.

2.  There is no way in hell that bird came up through a single solitary hole in the ice.  You might as well tell me it went on to do a little dance, make a little love, and get down tonight...very poetic, but it had to be fabricated.  Too perfect.
Right!  So dense I had to read a few times.  Beauty.  
Your complaint is valid.  I am researching the possibility of the ouzel emerging through a hole.
You do that.  Between ouzels and "light" your research schedule should be pretty well full for awhile.

[He had recently written an e-mail consisting only of the following - "we never see light, correct?  we have never ever seen light itself, but only its effect?  -- thus, outer space appears black even though light is travelling through it." then, not much later - "So I guess then the question is 'what is light?' I will research."]
I just read this and wondered why we are all not naturalists, scientists, biologists, explorers.  These seem to be the only reasonable and sane "professions."
"The Water Ouzel, also known as the American Dipper (scientific name: Cinclus Mexicanus), is found in hilly and mountainous regions across North America where there are clear, fast-flowing streams. With the benefit of several unique adaptations such as an inner protective eyelid and an extra layer of downy feathers, the ouzel dives into cold, often turbulent rivers and streams, swimming, and walking along the bottom of the river. It uses the pressure of water on its wings and tail to help keep it down while it searches for insect larvae and other small animals on which to feed. Both the wings and tail are short, the beak is fairly short and straight, and the general color of the bird is a slate gray. When on shore, it has a custom of “dipping” that easily distinguishes it from any other bird along the river. The Ouzel is most often found by itself; rarely in pairs, except during the breeding season, and very rarely in threes or fours.
"The Ouzel's nest is one of the most extraordinary pieces of bird architecture. It is typically large, made of moss and ferns, and usually found under or beneath a waterfall, or upon a slick rock face where it is almost impossible for anything to reach it. The moss continues to grow as it is continually sprinkled with water, and provides a comfortable, cushy place for the bird to nest.
 "As North America's only aquatic songbird, the Ouzel possesses a strong sweet song, composed of a variety of trills and flute-like notes that sometimes abruptly end as the bird enters the river to feed. Upon returning to the surface, the Ouzel seemingly picks up right where it left off without so much as skipping a beat."
Fascinating, but utterly untrue.  Everything you read about this bird is made up by creative people trying to temp lawyers and IT guys out of their offices and into the wild.  These creative people have one simple goal:  to snare us by the ankle in the woods of Oregon, and leave us hanging upside-down from a tree, exposed to their ridicule and the ouzels themselves - who will no-doubt peck our eyes out and feast on our delicious brains.

And this concludes my walk down memory lane for the week.