Essay: Merganser Math

May 25, 2018

On a morning in late spring, my husband and I canoe a section of the Manistee River. Close to shore a merganser duck is swimming with ten ducklings in a row behind her. Ten.

So I start to wonder, “Can mergansers count?” How would she know if one of her babies was missing if she can’t count? Yet, as we glide past her, Mother Merganser doesn’t even turn her handsome brown head to check on her brood. She trusts that they are right there—all ten of them. And they are, in one long undulating line.

I realize I’m asking the wrong question. What I want to know is whether the merganser can take care of her babies and clearly, the answer is yes.

For all I know, she might be wondering why I need a big aluminum tub and a wooden stick to navigate this river. Why can’t I just slide into the water and paddle with my feet?

After all, a human being is only one way of being. My worldview is so narrow, and the world is so wide. Wide and mysterious and utterly beyond my reckoning, even with numbers.