Winter in San Francisco that year was astonishingly cold. By the end of December, thick plates of ice sealed the shallow carp ponds in the arboretum. The eucalyptus trees lining the freeways were seared by frost. Many succulents, from the low-spreading ice plants to towering agave, wilted into mush as they froze from the inside out.
As the winter days mellowed and lengthened, I did not yet expect ducklings on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. Early spring arrived with the sprouting of pussy willows from their peeling sheaths. I continued my routine walks around the lake, always with the central island to my right - clockwise, my "circum-ambulation." After the willows were fully leafed and the blue iris spears were unfurling, I began to eagerly look for the ducklings.
At first, I commented to my occasional walking companions, "Where are the baby ducks?" Pairs of mallards calmly floated past. Streams of light-yellow pollen eddied in their slow wakes. The energetic sparring and mating dances had long passed. Blackberry brambles were opening their fragile, pale-pink buds. After the plums had whitened the paths and the surface of the lake with their falling petals, I became increasingly concerned. I stopped questioning my friends, who had begun to patiently ignore me, and began to ask the mallards themselves, "Where are the baby ducks?"
The adult mallards seemed no more concerned than my bored friends. They busied themselves with bread crumbs and preening. With the days growing longer, a few more weeks went by, and still no sign of ducklings. A profusion of yellow irises rimmed the lake. On warm afternoons, a long row of turtles topped the sunning log. The pigeons, who winter in San Francisco, had all flown away. Joggers sported lighter jackets, and still no ducklings. My questioning became more pointed. Squatting on the bank, I looked a female mallard right in the eye. "Where are the baby ducks?" As I had no bread to offer, she leisurely drifted away with her mate.
Several times a week I walked around Stow Lake. Spring was swiftly passing. Easter had come and gone, and not a single duckling had arrived to celebrate the season of rebirth. I worried that there were raccoons raiding the nests, or worse, that the unseasonably cold winter had realigned or misaligned the internal clocks of the duck clan. The green hills beyond the city were slowly losing their emerald brilliance. Spring was almost gone.
In San Francisco, the subtle seasonal shifts have to be sought out, but they are there - quieter, smaller. I know when the plums bloom. I know that their petals will be mostly gone before the cherries burst forth in their brief glory. I watch the changes that indicate the natural flow that does go on. The arrival of the ducklings means spring just as surely as the blossoming of plums and cherries. In fact, more so. An especially warm spell in the late fall can entice a plum into bloom. Even with the bright-green leaves of willows and plums, spring seemed reluctant to fully arrive on the lake. The ducks had yet to announce the re-birth of the year. I continued to ask and to look.
The sun was warm that certain afternoon, though the sidewalk was still damp in the shade. I had just passed the blackberry brambles and the fully leafed plum trees and was heading for my favorite spot where a long pine bough leans over the lake into its own reflection. Suddenly, I strongly sensed something. I stopped and peered across the narrow stretch of water into the blades of irises that rose from the island's bank. Yes! There they were! I called out to them. "Baby ducks!"
FROM between the blades a cluster of four, five tiny balls of golden down scooted forth. I quickly knelt and reached out across the water with my eyes, my heart. As one creature, they furiously paddled toward me. Two were swimming so hard that their little bodies actually lifted out of the water and left a wake. They exploded toward me as if all the life in them was joy itself.
They did not slow or hesitate until they were brushing and bobbing against the rocks at my toes. I could have reached down and scooped them up. Their bright, piercing eyes - heads turning, craning - looked up at me. They peeped softly, reassuringly. "We're here, we're here." I stayed very still, touching them with my eyes, which blurred with tears. The ducklings seemed as glad to see me as I was to see them.
For that brief moment, I felt we were one: We recognized one another. Their exalted rush to meet me fulfilled all my questioning and waiting. Spring, indeed, had arrived - for Stow Lake, for the city with all its hurry and indifference, and for my awakened heart. I rose and watched the ducklings slowly paddle back to rejoin their parents near the sheltering irises. Then I, too, turned and silently continued my walk, my circum-ambulation, around the brimming lake.