Letter to Kippy
23 September 2015
When I first met you, twenty years ago, it was this time of year. The season was turning; ducks were beginning to migrate from the coast of Maine to wherever they go in the winter. When I entered your workshop, you were clipping the wings of a few wild ducks that you wanted to keep on your pond by Deer Acres so that they would be there in Spring. I had never seen an operation like that before, and didn’t know what to make of it. It looked harmful, but it felt protective. This was long before I understood how much more comfortable you were around animals than around us. This was before I understood how hard it is to maintain control and balance when reference points start to vanish.
I didn’t even know we had met when we first met. You were wearing sneakers and jeans, and a dirty apron covered with blood and feathers. You wielded a pair of tin snips in one hand, a flapping duck in the other. Assuming you were one of the people who worked for Kippy, I asked if you knew where Kippy was. You answered me, not according to my question, but according to what you thought I should know: “It’s only necessary to clip the feathers of one wing off each bird; they can’t fly unbalanced.”
That was the first of many moments I experienced over the years when I saw you meeting people and immediately disorienting them. It wasn’t just ducks you kept off balance, but everyone around you. You were good at clipping wings in need of trimming, but your clippers sometimes got carried away. These gestures were often misunderstood, or taken unkindly, even when your cuts had reasons, and were gifts (as they usually were, although the recipient rarely understood them as such at the time). Sometimes you saved people from themselves, sometimes you saved yourself from others, or from something we couldn’t see. You had your reasons.
What a challenge you were. Often you changed your mind about things, or needed to undo a plan that you had carefully made. You drove your staff and guests crazy, and made us all want to return. The day before I left Deer Acres on that first visit, you asked me if I had a pond at my home in Cumberland County. I said yes, I do have a pond. To which you responded: “Then you should have ducks.” I couldn’t have imagined what followed.
The next morning, when I opened the door to my Jeep to drive back home I encountered what looked like the aftermath of the world’s most violent down pillow-fight—and a stench of duck shit beyond belief. Somewhere in that hazard of feathers were four black ducks audibly complaining about their quarters, where you had stuffed them the night before. Your flightless birds were now mine to deal with. You later explained to me that the ducks would never survive the winter on the pond at Deer Acres, and since they could no longer fly, they needed a place where they could be looked after. And that place, in your imposing and generous imagination, was my pond in Maine.
By spring, the ducks had grown their feathers back, and flew away—perhaps back to Deer Acres. That was long ago, but I still think of you and your unpredictable ways every time I go down to the pond. I imagine you getting your wings back, and soaring high up into the air, unfettered. I think of you finding the right pond, from your new perspective.
ROGER CONOVER is the executive editor of the MIT Press, where he acquires books on art, architecture, and visual culture.