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Mothers and their Broods

Deep in the northwest woods on our holiday we watched a mother duck and her brood of eight ducklings in a salmon stream.  They appeared suddenly, violently swept down a small cataract from upstream as if surprised by the rapid acceleration.  Gathered together in a relatively calm pool, the mother surveyed the scene, conscious that the next set of falls was even more perilous.  Several times she tried to take them back upstream, fighting the current like the salmon who come there to spawn every year.  But while she could manage the watery climb, her ducklings weren’t all able to climb the rapids; each time a few were swept back half way up, deposited roughly into the pool below.  Each time mother duck reversed course to gather her brood, regrouping before trying again. 

Eventually she jettisoned that solution and began looking for an exit out of the stream.   But the rocks on each side were high, the banks offering no escape.  They rested in a quiet eddy as we watched, wondering about the mother’s next move.  Finally, taking them back into the current, they surrendered to the falls, mother duck vainly attempting to stabilize them in the turbulent water with her outstretched wings.  Down they went, each fending for him or herself, dropping eight or ten feet in the raging current to another pool below, lost in the rapids for a moment and then bobbing up like corks, quacking in disarray.  We quickly counted – eight – all were safe though no doubt disoriented.  We felt like applauding this amazing performance staged for no one save two fortunate hikers who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Back in Chicago, far from the natural dramas played out in the forest, other mothers also worry over their broods, valiantly trying to protect them in the dangerous currents of urban living where little ones can be swept away as quickly by violence as those ducklings in the salmon stream.  Here, not every child bobs to the surface like those ducklings.  The same weekend we were hiking in the National Park seven people were killed by gun violence in Chicago, one of them a sixteen year old girl, and more than three dozen were injured.  Years spent protecting little ones from the violent cataracts of bullets can be squandered in an instant, a child’s life lost to gangs wielding the ready supply of guns that adults in this country show no interest in controlling.  Mothers keep their children inside in the hot summer, away from the parks.  Security guards protect them at school.  Parents are no less vigilant than that mother duck, no less persistent in seeking out the safest path for their children, no less aware of the potential dangers their babies face.  But amid the rushing current on which guns flow into our city, some of even the most protective and careful parents will lose their babies.

Today let us remember those mothers and fathers who are trapped with their children in the treacherous rapids of dangerous city neighborhoods.  Let us consider what it takes to watch their children constantly, aware of the perils coming from passing cars or ominous groups of youth.  Let us ponder the fear that lurks from the time children leave the house until they are once more safe at home.  These parents ought to evoke the same wonder and awe we felt watching that mother duck in the relentless management and protection of her threatened brood.  Sadly, these mothers know that survival for their children today only means new perils tomorrow as long as the flow of guns continues unabated into their neighborhoods. 

One day the little ducklings we watched may be endangered by members of the National Rifle Association out for a morning of hunting.  But today that same NRA – which describes itself on its website as “America’s longest standing civil rights organization”! – imperils children across our land with its grip on a timid and impotent political system that is either deaf or indifferent to the cries of mothers whose babies are being swept under.  The natural drama we saw  in the woods on our vacation is a drama played out every day in our city streets.  Sadly, for many, the ending is not so happy.

John H. Thomas
August 8, 2013

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