Monday, November 12, 2012

In Case You Wondered About The Duck...

I posted a YouTube video featuring some attempts I made over the weekend to capture/ rescue a redhead duck. Figured I’d best say something about what’s going on here...

A pair of redheads nested at the pond where I feed birds and work out every morning. As winter came close, they had to depart. Redheads are shallow diving ducks who inhabit ponds and lakes, and feed off aquatic plants and associated invertebrates. Since all the ponds and lakes here freeze over for winter, the redheads can’t access their food, and this is what prompts them to migrate (not really the cold itself). Unfortunately, for this particular family, one of the ducklings was unable to fly. I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, where a family feels they’re forced to depart, and must leave a child behind. I can’t imagine the anguish they must feel (and having witnessed such trauma at goose adoptions, I am absolutely sure they do sense such emotional pain). Usually, when a young bird is abandoned by his or her family for migration, it’s a developmental thing, and the duckling or gosling eventually matures enough to head out, joining another flock. But this particular redhead had been here on her own for six weeks now, and we’re entering the moon when everything freezes over and stays that way

So… as you may have seen from my other videos, we had a serious cold blast here at the end of last week, with an associated blizzard. The pond froze over, and there was the duckling, alone on the ice, unable to secure food, presumably in grave danger...

Now me, when I come across so much as an injured pigeon in the city, I take it home and either nurse it back to health, or do everything in my power to keep it living until it absolutely can’t last another breath. I’m not good at ignoring animal suffering, and so I kind of figured a day would come when I would have to attend to this redhead duck

The storm did eventually arrive, and I got to work. Almost all weekend, I pursued this bird, in temperatures no higher than twenty degrees below zero, and as cold as thirty below.  I was able to get a very good look at the problem, and it’s not developmental; this duckling is missing half a wing, and won’t be able to fly, ever. As you can see from my video, some of my work in attempt to capture her took place in the water, very dangerous at these temperatures. By late afternoon of the first day, both of us were exhausted. I went home to nap for a couple hours, she fell asleep on the ice. When I returned to the pond, it was after dark, and I found the redhead holed-up in a nearby culvert, a small drainage tunnel running under a neighboring boulevard for about thirty meters. This tunnel was too small for me to move through, I tried. But the good thing was, it was warmer than above ground, and the water in the middle of the tunnel never froze, so the duckling had access to some food. I returned at dawn the next morning, and she was still there, very alert and doing well. At that point, I decided to change my assistance strategy. As long as the water in the culvert stays open – which it should, if it didn’t freeze up at thirty below that night – then it seems possible the redhead could survive here all winter. My best bet for helping her might be to just bring her supplemental food, and to try to keep a pool of open water available at the pond. So that’s my plan at this point

I am very curious to find out what will develop from this. Will she survive the winter? If so, will she and I bond in this process? Is it possible she could have a semi-normal summer life at least? Find a seasonal mate, someone no doubt nearly as odd as her? Raise a family? Watch them leave, as she prepares to hunker down for a second winter? Or will the water in the culvert eventually freeze, forcing my hand, so that I have to catch the redhead, and bring her into the strange indoor world of contemporary humans? What will I learn from her about the art of survival? The near future will tell. For now, I’m looking forward to conducting my iron-hand strike training breaking ice on the pond


  1. You have very much compassion not just for humans of course but for all animals. The efforts you are putting in saving the life of this duck is something that I have not heard of before. Some things it gets me to think about…

    There is a Chinese restaurant near where I live that makes a killing off of selling roasted duck. They sell them by the thousands per month. So they have to slaughter thousands of ducks to feed the humans. Many vegetarians and vegans have chosen to stop eating meat in order to lessen the slaughter of animals. The compassion we have is meant to spread towards the humans, then the animals, then nature, and the world at large. Some people actually have more compassion for animals than they do for humans. Like the people who support cage fighting but do not support dog fighting. But I see that compassion should start at the human level, even though us so-called humans are considered animals as well.

    But even dealing with humans, we see so much suffering in this world. We see so much poverty. We see drug and alcohol addiction. We see abandoned youth standing on the corners that end up doing something stupid to land in jail. We see so much homicides and suicides. People are begging for money all the time. People are robbing and stealing. When you have this compassion within, how are you as an individual supposed to help the situation?

    If you are a monk it will be a different approach. But if you have a family, a job, and children to care for, how can you help the situation without putting undue stress onto yourself and your family? Yes you can feed your family before you feed others, but even if you feed your family and things on your side are going well, there still is so much suffering around you. If you attempt to feed the others, they may not fully appreciate and the act of you “helping” can actually damage their development towards becoming independent.

    As individuals, we can only do so much. As a whole we can do so much more. That is when the government steps in and provides government assistance for the disadvantaged and poor. But then we step into the realm of politics and there comes the constant debates about what is the best approach to managing this society, and the answers are not that clear cut. It is extremely difficult to manage an entire nation, seeing and observing the decisions they make; we can see what is good and what is not. We can then use those observations as experience in which to enhance the management of our kwoon. I see that this is all interconnected, the problems we see within society, we have the power to make a change, but that change first starts at the most basic level, which is within ourselves, and then out towards the kwoon “family,” and then to the community, and then finally to the world at large.

    1. I do have a lot of compassion for living beings, human or otherwise. Most of my life has been spent in human service of one sort or another. Only in maybe the last five or six years have I begun to go really out of my way to help animals like this redhead duck, or the snow goose my wife and I saved last year, or Keira the crow who now lives with us. A big part of what brought me around to feeling the same degree of concern for animals that I do for people was a shift in spiritual practice associated, not ironically, with the adoption of another human service. Adrienne and I were transferred the responsibility of caretaking for a very important sacred item belonging to our community. It’s called the Beaver Medicine Bundle, and it’s the embodiment of the original treaty made between human beings and other animals here in Blackfoot Territory, defining our relationships with them. In the context of this treaty, which took place many thousands of years ago, at the origin of the first domestic dog, it was made clear that humans, being the most recent species to arrive in this area, are dependent on the other animals, not only for food, but to learn how to adapt to life in this place, how to fit into the wider system. We need to respect the animals for the potential they have to teach us very useful skills, and inspire us with their abilities. If we demonstrate true respect for them, they in turn will feed us as necessary, and we’ll be able to coexist harmoniously. On the other hand, if we neglect to respect the animals as the elders they are, if we fail to learn from them, diminish the significance of their lives, and begin killing them greedily, for purposes other than food (as we have begun to do now), then there will be disharmony in the system, and nature will be forced to turn against us

      For the last six years, as caretakers of the Beaver Medicine Bundle, Adrienne and I have been training in the knowledge that animals transferred to Blackfoot people over these many millennia. There is no end to this learning, but we are responsible for using what knowledge we do acquire to help people who might come to us with illnesses or other problems in their lives, and eventually we’ll be responsible for transferring this tradition (along with the bundle) to another couple, a new set of caretakers. Aspects of our training have put us on very familiar terms with a host of animals who live at the pond we call Sspopiikimi, where I’ve made a few videos for FMK. Some of the animals there have literally become our mentors, showing us the true meanings behind many aspects of the ceremonies associated with our bundle. These relationships, along with the philosophical learning we get from our human elders, have brought us more and more to identify with animals. This identification is so strong that on several occasions, human children have confused Adrienne and I for the animals we work with. I know this sounds bizarre, but it’s true. Small children will occasionally stop in their tracks when they see us and ask their parents what kind of animal we are. They can see something adults can’t. In the long run, the increasing strength of the relationality between ourselves and the animals has become such that, when I come across a situation like I have with the redhead duck, I can’t just turn a blind eye. Yes… life is harsh, and death can be found all around us every day. But if we witness a human being injured and in a dangerous situation, we attempt to help. Why shouldn’t we extend the same assistance to non-human animals?

    2. The way I see it, we have a very limited set of true gifts that can be utilized toward enhancing our level of adaptation within the life system, enabling us to fit in and be of some benefit to the whole. One of the few gifts we have is the potential to help those who have been injured. Other animals can warn one another of dangers, and even assist in physical defense against some of those dangers. But once the danger is realized, and an injury occurs, they have very little power to help one another. The wounded are eventually abandoned, even by their closest relatives, and face an incredible ordeal, where they need to heal themselves, yet at the same time continue to procure food using their injured faculties. In their condition, they often fall victim to predators, or simply die of exposure or starvation. That’s natural. However, if there’s a human witness to their condition, we may have the potential to intercede and extend their lives indefinitely. And if we manage to do so in a skillful way, they might very well repay us with the transfer of further knowledge and inspiration. Certainly that has been the case in Blackfoot traditions. There are many stories of people here who have, for instance, gone out of their way to feed orphaned baby animals, raise them to adulthood, and later receive important knowledge from them. Sometimes it may be a practice that is transferred, something to use socially. On other occasions, it may be medicines or therapies. The ingredients or design of many of our most important medicines and technologies, even in contemporary mainstream society, were originally inspired by observing animals

      Another aspect of my expression of compassion for animals in cases like this redhead duck is simply the practice of what we call “aatsimihka’ssin” – creating a balance. In my way of thinking, there should be reciprocation in all of our relationships. Take the example of the restaurant that sells thousands of roasted ducks. Truth is, people do have to eat. If we didn’t eat animals, then we’d have to engage in more agriculture, and that detracts from the habitats of animals and inadvertently kills them anyway. So the death of some animals is required in order for us to have food. That’s the reality. And our economy is one of the exchange of Sun energy, this is the life system. But, just because we must kill animals in order to eat, to consume Sun energy, that doesn’t mean we have to disrespect their lives, diminish their significance, tell ourselves little stories about how much more important we are, or about how the animals don’t have the same emotions and intelligence as we do, or what have you. When we kill animals, we should use techniques that cause the least fear, trauma, and physical suffering. Moreover, we shouldn’t hide this killing. It shouldn’t be a specialized thing that only a small group of people do in a secluded building where nobody can see. Doing things that way just helps strengthen the fictions about how animals don’t have emotions, fear of death, etc. Anyone who actually engages in killing animals sees with his own eyes that animals have every emotion we do, that they know what death is, and that they will struggle – at times to incomprehensible ends – to fight it. Everyone who wants to eat should have to kill, that’s how I feel. But beyond these measures, if we truly concede that animals’ lives are significant, then we should try to balance out the act of taking lives with that of feeding them. I’m betting the restaurant owners do not engage in any charitable assistance for ducks, like supporting waterfowl habitats, that kind of thing. What they’re involved in is unsustainable. Just like with cage fighting… even if it’s the norm, it doesn’t mean it’s right. I don’t see myself as swimming against the current. I see myself as aligned more with reality, which is the true current, and therefore against the fictions that are misleading the masses

    3. The mainstream culture we all know too well is a mining culture. Theirs (ours) is a way of extraction, a taking, one way, totally unrealistic, unsustainable. There’s no reciprocation. The Sun energy moves in just one direction, toward humans. And we who are colonized by this culture are bound by law not to give any of our accumulated energy back. What I’m doing in helping the redhead duck is illegal, unfortunately. But what can you expect from a culture that’s anti-life. In this culture, even our own bodies are considered bio-hazardous, poisonous, such that every part, including our waste products, are carefully collected and treated to ensure that they never feed back into the living system. All of our energies are supposed to be tapped, as much as possible, while we’re living, to feed our industrial mining machines. Those Matrix movies were not far off the mark. When I fly in airplanes, I can see that we humans are being grown in the suburbs, in the same patterns, the same grids used when growing crops. Our whole planet has become a giant mine. When I help the redhead duck, I’m actively resisting this culture. I’m giving some of my Sun energy back to the life system. I’m reciprocating. This is what’s meant by aatsimihka’ssin. In Blackfoot language, aatsimihka’ssin is the action of creating balance, while aatsimoyihkaan is the spoken version of the same, usually called prayer. Notice that they both have the same prefix, aatsim- balance, harmony, yin and yang. When I help the duck, I am engaging in an active, applied prayer, enacting aatsima’pii. If that’s criminal or weird, so be it

      Now, how does this all translate toward understanding and/or practicing martial arts, or for benefiting our kwoon? I see it as applicable in myriad ways. First of all, it’s clear from several recent events, including my redhead situation, that our physical training is enabling us to escape dangers ourselves and help others who are caught in potentially traumatic and deadly situations. Shunyuan had a collision with a car and came out unblemished. I heard that another Todai recently helped save someone who’d fallen in the lake in Chicago. Clearly, being fit is aiding us in these scenarios. In my particular case with the duck, not only has my prior fitness training proved helpful, but I’ve also approached this work as an opportunity for different kinds of practice. Every second morning, I’ve been breaking up some of the ice for this bird, training in strength, cardio, and striking power. The underlying message here is that martial arts prepares us for more than fighting other human beings. Far more often, it becomes useful in fighting and/or negotiating other dangers. We can apply our training to successfully negotiating physically taxing situations that other people might not be able to deal with. Recognizing this, we might consider adding some medical and rescue curriculum in the future, because I think we’re going to continue encountering traumatic situations where we may be the only ones physically able and willing to really help those in need

    4. This brings me to a second and related point… Being older now, I have a different perspective on martial arts than I did as a young man. Growing up, my main concern was to be able to defend myself in fights. And the martial arts have served that purpose for me on a few occasions. But it’s now been almost twenty years since I was in a fight. And the truth is, most fights occur because people are either outright prompting them, or because they’re putting themselves in situations where they’re going to encounter others who are prompting them. The vast majority of fights are completely avoidable. So why spend so much time training in martial arts? To me, now, at my age, I see the ‘fight’ as largely metaphorical. Through martial arts, you can fight debilitating disease. You can hold some ground against old age. You can fight many detrimental aspects of your ego, for your own spiritual development. In as much as they are about combat, martial arts are also about the human potential for movement. And I want to continue trying to meet that potential, to be able to move, and to be able to use my capacity for movement in ways that can assist others in times of extreme need, particularly in cases of injury, which (as I’ve explained) is one of the few unique contributions I think we as human beings have to offer to both one another, and to the animals we co-exist with

      The pursuit of greater movement potential is something I now recognize as extremely important for balancing out, or completing, my overall development as a human being. As expressed in some of my thought videos, I’ve worked very hard to become familiar with my natural environment, and all the other organisms living here with me. My diet, too, is increasingly linked to this familiarity, and the natural abundance. But one crucial aspect of ‘being human’ I’ve been missing is the capacity for mobility. I should be able to move gracefully, swiftly, quietly, and (when necessary) defensively through all my environments. Though I’m better at this than most people I know, I’m nowhere near as adept as the other animals. When I watch them though, I notice that they all practice movement, and that they all train in martial arts… they spar, and they play. They do it every day. Just like Keira, my crow. Every day, she exercises her wings and legs, she performs jumps that test her abilities, and this despite the fact that she’ll never fly again. It’s just her nature, to practice diligently what movement she can

    5. We can learn from Keira. She can teach us about the benefits and joys of daily training. We can also learn from the redhead duck I’m working with. I’m sure of it. Like Keira, this duck is not going to fly again. He’s missing a whole section of his wing, a self-amputation. I figure, as a diving duck in this neighborhood, he probably got hung up on someone’s lost fishing line. Now he’s permanently disabled. But there’s a high likelihood, if closely observed, he’ll show me some natural medicines that he uses on his wounds. More significantly, he’ll teach me survival strategies. I’m already learning from him. And I will, of course, share what I learn, not only from this bird, but from all the animals I engage with. They will no doubt also influence my own martial arts expressions in the future, my own techniques or forms, which I will also share with this kwoon. There are, I believe, many potential benefits

      Most significantly, I hope that what I’m demonstrating with the redhead is that we can expand on our normal sense of social responsibility. Look around. Don’t look too far. Look near. Find something you can do to make a difference, right where you are. Every time you make a positive difference in someone’s life, no matter if it’s a human life or not, that’s when you are really alive

    6. Thank you for sharing these posts, you are bringing the kwoon closer to nature. There is much we can learn from animals, I see that is how the Shaolin Kung Fu techniques of combat developed, from the study of animals. It is a very good idea that the curriculum should incorporate medical healing & things of that nature in the future. I see that Martial Artists should eventually lead up to becoming doctor’s as well, they should know how to heal the body not just how to defend the body from great danger. You are bringing the kwoon in the right direction with the knowledge and wisdom you share, it’s a contribution that I cannot do myself as my areas of focus naturally do not extend towards your natural areas of interest. The more experienced Martial Artists that gather together within FMK that work towards sharing their experiences towards the Way, the greater value that will be added to the kwoon. It’s like instead of having just one professor that is available to teach in a University, there are 100 professors available to teach in different subject areas of focus, that will place added value to the University and serve to better enhance the development of the students.

  2. Thank you, Sifu. I'm glad that FMK is a place where I'm welcome to share these thoughts and experiences. Like you, I don't really compartmentalize or consider my martial arts practice as something separate from the other aspects of my life. To me, it's all one whole that comprises the way I live. And like you say, each of us will have something beneficial to bring to the kwoon in this manner, adding value


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