Duck decoys are severely abused. During hunting season they are crushed, ground together, stepped on, kicked around, accidentally shot, mistreated by humans, disrespected by dogs, dragged through the mud, left out in sleet, thrown around in huge net bags, and bounced around in boats and the back beds of old pickup trucks. At the end of each season it’s common to throw them in the corner of some run down shed vowing to work them over soon, only to have them lay there for a year and to be pulled out the day before the next season, taken to the field, and be made subject to the same abuse they’ve endured for the past decade or two. And of course they are expected to perform. But they don’t. So breaking rank, and after probably twenty years, I spent the last few days fully reworking my decoys.
The greatest transformation came in a threesome that I discovered in a marsh thirty years ago. Broken free from someone else’s moorings they had obviously been in the rushes for years, tangled together, paint missing. I dragged them home and carted them with me ever since. How can you get rid of so rich a find!?
Yesterday I sprayed them down to this base colour…
They went through this…
And became this, a decoy of a redhead duck…a beautiful northern diver…
The real bird looks like this…
I really enjoy this type of artistic work more than most other forms of work. But I have never enjoyed the deception. It comes with subsistence living; it becomes insidious when it entails other humans.
Decoying has played a long history in the success of human survival. We aren’t the most dangerous creature on the planet without reason. In order for lures to work well they need to be a reasonable facsimile of that to which they are pretending, although what a red and white striped teaspoon being erratically dragged through the water represents to to a northern pike is anyone’s guess (…although my inclination is that it just pisses them off!). ;)
I don’t know when I first realized the role that contrived social distinction played in building people’s identities, but I think it started with a girl named Diane on the grade three playground. She formed a club. And the club allowed you access to various pieces of playground equipment. Without being a member of the club there was no access to the merry-go-round or slides. She meant it; she’d slug you. And her verbal lashings were yet more severe. (Last thing I heard she was a Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian church…at the time I thought to myself, Holy crap…poor kids!)
These layers of social climbing are never named openly. Humans learn through mimicry…this is just a natural, narcissistic next-step in survival. Self-promotion. And without broader experience people have nothing with which to compare their social context, so for most people without critical thinking opportunities it’s natural to become insular. Social conscience remains unchallenged and unformed. And all of these deceptions that people contrive to make themselves acceptable to one another make them unrecognizable. And the worst part is that in this process we even become unrecognizable to God, and when that happens we are entirely too anonymous. Of course the church – any church – is one of the greatest propagators of pomp. It used this throughout the millennia to lure people in. And time and again people have fallen for the bait. Social work and education are most often no more than teaching and affirming people’s adaptation to the same game-playing. And many schools of psychology also pander to this in spite of what they claim to the contrary.
But at root in the Christian life is the question of whether you want to be yourself or not? This requires a stripping away…a descending from our self-contrived penthouses of accomplishments to the ground floor of life…meeting one another person-to-person. But in order to actually do this you will have to sell everything you own and to actually live that way. No metaphor or analogy can substitute for reality.
It’s funny how painting decoys – doing something that is tangibly in touch with deception – can bring about revelation that is non-verbal…more powerful than words. Sometimes over these days I actually did use words to clarify what I was doing. But mostly the words just got in the way. The painting itself was the means.
A RITUAL TO READ TO EACH OTHER – William Stafford
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.