I dropped out of university halfway through my first year. I had set my sights on a life in the country, so I left London for my late grandfather’s farm in Kent, secured a place at the Royal Agricultural College for October, and went to work in a farm office for the intervening months. I moved into the old farmhouse, heated by log fires and a temperamental Aga, with the kitchen tended by a family of enterprising mice who must have moved in when the owl took up residence in the barn. Sitting alone by the fire, I’d hear that owl hoot in the silence of long evenings after work, his call only thickening the stillness that crept in over dark fields to the little blaze of light in which I read.
The books that I chose were resolutely factual. I was determined to leave behind the pretensions of the English Lit. student in me, the one who might casually let Paradise Lost or The Prelude or even the later works of St Augustine drop from his bag as he surfed into a café after lectures. This would not do for my new life of practicality and outdoor earthiness. Skipping over anything with footnotes, I found company among the fading spines and yellowing pages of books so untouched as to have thick ditches of dust along their tops. In the old farmhouse there was plenty of James Herriot, a bit of Edward Thomas, a natural history of hedgerows and various guides to the birds of England, Scotland and, rather ambitiously, Africa. Then I found Dillon Ripley’s A Paddling of Ducks. The title set me thinking of a pushy mother duck leading a splash of little squeaks across a pond, which was rather comforting, so I settled down to read it.
A Paddling of Ducks (1957) is a memoir filtered through the trials and tribulations of an aviculturalist, and its author’s bright enthusiasm for waterfowl glows in every sentence. We follow him from his first experiments with a duck pond to his adventures through Southeast Asia, India and England. Rip
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