“I could love a duck!” the American poet Theodore Roethke wrote hyperbolically, manically, in one of an astonishing series of longish poems usually referred to as “The Lost Son” poems. I’ve always liked ducks myself — for lots of reasons. First of all, it’s a funny word: “duck.” “Quack” is a funny word. I read somewhere that all words with the letter k in them are inherently funny. This doesn't test out 100 percent, however. Ku Klux Klan would be an example. Also, ducks are the long-distance birds, the ones that fly (and they fly so high!) in giant arrowheads each spring and fall. Huey, Dewey, Louie,
Donald, Unca Scrooge, Daffy — ducks who forgot their pants. I left out Daisy deliberately. In duckdom (as in most bird species) it’s a drake’s world; they get the color. There is something about ducks’ feet and ducks’ bills that, frankly, fills me with joy. One of the worst things I’ve ever smelled: rotten duck eggs. A duck’s feces are among the most repellent I’ve seen: green and white and slimy. One of the funniest duck stories I personally witnessed: early ’70s, somebody in my crowd is flush, and we all (five or six) go to a French restaurant. One of our party, never having tasted duck à l’orange, is urged to order it. When it arrives he doesn’t notice the waiter lighting the cognac and, upon seeing the flames, jumps up and begins beating them out with his napkin. This is the class of people I hung around with as a youth. I like ducks because they look a little funny, but I know they are savvy, strong, and indefatigable and make oddly plaintive noises. As a teenager I did some bird-hunting but never got a shot off at a duck except once, when in frustration, about 100 yards out of range, I let go both barrels of my 16-gauge side-by-side. I swear that several of the ducks on the closer side of the V lifted up their tails, as Daffy or Bugs might do if Elmer took a shot at them: their way of flipping me the bird.
I wanted to know more about ducks — wild ducks, waterfowl — and I was interested in the art of taxidermy. Of all the taxidermied creatures I’ve looked at, I think it’s the birds, and particularly waterfowl, that look the most natural or alive. You can get a close and accurate look at their colors, which are spectacular in range and hue and pattern, iridescences found nowhere else, and all contained in the miraculous and primordial invention of nature called feathers.
Very few full-time taxidermists work in San Diego, and probably the only one who specializes in waterfowl is Kevin Moreau, just turned 40, whose taxidermy business is called KWest Taxidermy. When I first talk to him on the phone, I sense that he is passionate not only about his work but about waterfowl in general. We arrange to meet when I get to San Diego a few days later. He calls back the next day to cancel. He’s decided against being interviewed. He says he’s gotten harassing phone calls a few times. People who think he stuffs animals gun-crazed hunters have slaughtered. His first priority is providing for his family (he and his wife have six sons between them), and his second priority is honoring the creatures he loves. His respect for these creatures goes well beyond his taxidermy work, as you will see. He doesn’t want phone calls or even the possibility thereof interfering with his work. It takes some talking, but I talk him out of not talking to me.
I go to see him. Kevin Moreau is a native San Diegan, growing up in Fletcher Hills and graduating from Grossmont High. He tells me he was a decent student and went to college for a few semesters, but in the classroom he was always either looking out the window or wanting to: “to see what birds I could see, which birds they were, and what they were doing.” His father was an art teacher, and it was from him that Kevin learned a great deal of his craft — drafting abilities, drawing and painting skills, a sense of color and line. He’s about 5 feet 11 and built like a bull — his chest and shoulders are solid, and his forearms and hands are massive. He was a drummer in a rock band in his youth, and it’s to that that he attributes his strong forearms. Maybe so, but he works still with great muscular concentration in his hands and arms. Somebody told me once that thoracic surgeons need very strong hands and forearms — to pry open our chests for surgery. I asked a brain surgeon whom I happened to have access to about this. He said that nowadays they have surgical jaws-of-life tools to do that work for them. I wasn’t sure if he was just telling me the facts or if there was a touch of surgeon rivalry involved. Moreau has not only the strong hands of a thoracic surgeon but also the delicate touch of a brain surgeon.
He and his family live in a modest ranch house in a quiet neighborhood. When you walk in the front door, however, you enter another world. What was originally meant to be a living room is now his showroom/office and is filled with many mounted ducks and other birds, some fish, and three or four stunning tableaux/dioramas (as one might see in a natural history museum) combining sculpture and taxidermy. Each creates — simultaneously — under- and above-water scenes: lots of ducks dive and many fish leap. There’s a case filled with ribbons, most of them blue: from competitions he’s entered. To remind one that a large family lives here as well: a huge bucket filled with shoes. To the left is the kitchen, dominated by two huge freezers where all the birds and fish waiting to be mounted are kept. Business is pretty good — he’s about six months behind with his jobs. Off the kitchen is the living room (which was probably meant to be a dining room). It, too, contains elements of his work, in this case a desk in the corner where he does most of the brush (as opposed to airbrush) painting of his show decoys — more about them later. In his dusty back yard he has two other work spaces: a canvas carport structure where he airbrushes and carves his decoys, and a small shack where he mounts birds and fish. It’s a humble operation: he’s not getting rich stuffing dead animals. He does it to preserve creatures he reveres, respects, and protects. He does it to earn a living. He’s one of the blessed: he gets to earn his living doing something he loves.
Moreau got his start in taxidermy when he was about 10, which means he’s been doing it for three-quarters of his life. A friend and neighbor expressed some interest in taxidermy, and that friend’s father offered to pay for a correspondence course for both of them. A different book came each month. The friend lost interest quickly, but Moreau was hooked. W.B. Yeats, the great Irish bard, exhorts, table thumps, in a poem: “Irish poets, learn your trade!” That’s what Moreau did. At 16 he got a job working for Lyons and O’Haver, the top taxidermists in the area. He stayed there a few years, left for a few years, worked for them again for a few years. A job came up as a park ranger at Santee Lakes, and he did that for six years while continuing to work at his taxidermy part-time.
This is an example of what I mean when I say he “protects” these creatures. When he started working at Santee Lakes, he noticed there were only about six wood ducks showing up every year, he figured all from the same family. Allow me to wax rhapsodic about wood ducks for a few sentences. Whether you believe in the genius of Nature or the genius of God, you will have to agree that on the day the wood duck was invented, Nature or God was on a roll, inspired, color-drunk, visionary, feeling giddily generous: “Life is going to be a mess for these humans so let’s give them something to look at to take their minds off their petty, greedy selves for whole moments at a time.” I can imagine God or Nature thinking like that. Oh green-and-white-and-red and red-and-white-and-orange and dots of white on brown-going-to-scarlet! When Moreau noticed the paucity of wood ducks, he got together with some like-minded people, and they began putting up nest boxes for wood ducks. They’re cavity nesters, and there weren’t many places for them to nest around the relatively new (1959) man-made Santee Lakes. Now there are maybe 300 wood ducks who check in there every year — for the whole winter or for a rest on their way to and from Mexico.
We take a ride to the lakes. He is like a kid in a candy store, pointing out ducks — there are several different species here, as well as some grebes. A healthy duck can live 10 to 15 years. I’ve often wondered if an old duck just dies on the wing — flying back from the 14th trip to Mexico, the graybeard duck’s heart stops and down he goes. An appropriate way for a duck to die. A female lays a clutch of 8 to 12 eggs a year, but predators — skunk, fox, coyote, raccoon, opossum, largemouth bass — take a lot of eggs and hatchlings. Only 10 to 20 percent of duck eggs make it to duck adulthood. Moreau notices one female looking a little distressed — she is followed by only two ducklings, still very young. He wants to think she’s stashed a few more in the reeds, but he knows that unlikely. We have binoculars, and he keeps handing them to me and pointing out different species — and several wood ducks.
Want to know another way he honors these birds? He stuffs and mounts them, and this is how it works. A customer brings him a dead duck, frozen, guts and all, as soon as possible after shooting it.
It is okay for the sensitive reader to stop now, so as not to linger too long on the thought of shooting to death an innocent animal. Human beings hunt. For 99 percent of human existence we have been hunters and gatherers, always have been, always will be. Almost all hunters are conservationists. And almost all hunters eat every scrap of meat on everything they kill. Very few hunters own handguns. One doesn’t hunt with a handgun.
The night before Moreau mounts a duck, he thaws it, and it sits in a Tupperware container until morning, soaking in water and a secret chemical: Joy dishwashing soap. He takes a thawed and drenched pintail duck out of the water and holds it up for me. It has already been cleaned. All that is left is the skin, the feathers, the bill, the feet, and five bones: wings, legs (to the first joint), and skull. To do this, he made a shallow incision down its belly and peeled the skin and feathers off the bird in one piece. Didn’t need to open the gut cavity. He uses all the meat, either barbecuing it in a simple recipe I’ll reveal at the end of this, or he makes it into sausage or salami. Duck salami: sounds good to me!
When he holds the dripping duck up by the neck, it is one of the most sorry-looking creatures I’ve seen. I’ve seen better-looking roadkill. Its neck is grossly elongated (when it’s wet, it stretches; when it dries, it shortens up), it is soaked, colorless, like a rung-out dishrag. That will change very quickly. First, Moreau wrings out the duck. (I wonder if the previous six words have appeared in that order before in an English sentence.) Then he dips it in a tub of acetone, which degreases the duck. He removes the duck from the acetone and literally turns the duck inside out while he pats and shakes it dry. Already the duck is starting to look fuller, fluffier. Then he whips out a hair dryer and finishes off most of the drying process, and the duck, though still limp and hollow, has almost all of the life of its feathers back.
He’s precut five pieces of wire: one for each leg, each wing, and another for the neck. He now does something that reminds me again of the work of a doctor or nurse: as if inserting an IV, he threads a wire into the duck’s middle toe’s tendon, which looks a lot like the vein in the back of a human hand, and works the wire up through the foot and leg, with a few inches left over in the chest cavity. Each foot, each wing. The threading of the wire through the wings is less dramatic, like getting a hypodermic through your shirt. He runs another wire through the middle of a piece of “foam-bird necking,” inserts it in the duck’s neck, into the skull. The wires, of course, are there so the taxidermist can position the bird in any way he wants. Doing this realistically is learned the old-fashioned way: by watching thousands of living birds and by studying pictures. Most birds are mounted to show them in flight.
The bird is looking better and better. Moreau works very fast, eyeballs everything (no measuring tools), and makes it look easy, which is why master craftsmen are called master craftsmen. I can see the muscles and tendons in his forearms and hands working hard. In fact, he’s been having problems with tendinitis lately, and he wears a band at the top of his forearms that seems to lessen the pain. He shows me the inside of the bird. The skin is a creamy white dotted with goose bumps: the feathers pressing from the outside. It is the softest skin, I swear, I’ve ever touched. I can see two or three pellet marks from the shotgun that took him down. Boo-hoo.
Next, Moreau stuffs the bird. A great deal of taxidermy is done now with “blanks” — you buy, from a taxidermy supply house, the inner form of a creature. If you look at catalogs, these forms seem very odd. They’re made for virtually every creature on earth. They’re kind of a sickly yellow color and have no (or virtually no) protuberances — antlers, gills, ears, tails, etc. They look naked, impotent, bald, ghosts of the creatures they are. Moreau still mounts his bird the old-fashioned way: he wraps the proper amount of excelsior (wood wool) in twine, presses it here and there to form the right shape, and in it goes. Then he sews the bird’s belly up, seamlessly.
The eyes. The eyes of a creature are crucial. Realistic eyes and facial expression are very important, and how a taxidermist does eyes is one area where the men are separated from the boys. Moreau likes to give his birds “attitude,” and a lot of that is in the eyes. This particular pintail takes a 10-mm dark brown artificial eye. Many companies make just about any eyeball you might want, every creature, and they’ll even make eyes to order on specifications by the taxidermist. Moreau also calls the eyes “the personality” of the duck. He says he makes his pintail eyes (he shapes the eye socket) “more football shape,” avoids the “long-eyed look.” The pintail’s eyes are fairly easy to mount. The eyes of my now-favorite, the wood duck, are another matter. The eye, first of all, is rimmed by a deep but slightly diluted (maybe with a drop of gold) scarlet. Little, evenly spaced ridges or bumps all along the rim, when struck by sunlight, create an effect like a string of red-white-red-white Christmas lights circling the duck’s eye. The eye is teardrop-shaped, tilted on its side, pointy end forward. Next, the iris is a slightly more diluted scarlet but still a rich creamy color. Then a round asteroid belt of light green, the color of the earliest moss to appear in a springtime New England forest, dotted with black specks. It’s a circular falling star, or the head of a comet eating the tail of a comet. Then, then: the black, liquid, perfect ebony pearls, the pupils.
I read a very detailed description of how to mount these eyes. I won’t go into the process at length, but it works best with the old method of taxidermy, using the real skull rather than a blank. The copy promotes this for accuracy: “It is important to note that when skinning and cleaning the head skin that the natural eyelids are kept intact on the skin. There is no need to trim them off, and doing so would cause undue stretching of the opening — leave the lids on!”
There is no minutiae in this business, meaning no detail too small to pay attention to. To do the creature justice, every hair, every feather, every fleck, each subtlety has to be considered. I like looking at specialized catalogs like this — one is reminded over and over again of the power of the human imagination and the drive toward perfection, even as we know that there is no such thing as perfect when it’s made by man.
There is an advertisement in one of the trade catalogs I love: Skulls Unlimited. They’re the largest supplier of skulls and skeletons, and they’re a leading company “in commercial preparation of bone for colleges, taxidermists, and zoos.” They also provide another service. Say you’ve taken an animal, and you want its skeleton, for whatever reason. It’s gotta be clean, very clean. That could take dozens of hours by hand, scraping, boiling, fleshing with special tools. What if you have a whole moose skeleton you want cleaned of all flesh, cartilage, fat, ligaments, everything? You send it to Skulls Unlimited, and they put the subject in a box with several hundred dermestid beetles, which “assure that over-boiled or macerated specimens are a thing of the past.” It’s the same job the beetles do in the wild. The dermestids are the last species of beetle to arrive at a corpse in the woods (rat, squirrel, deer, human, etc.), and they polish off the gristle, etc. They’re gristle-eaters. On days when I believe in reincarnation, I like to think the people in this life who didn’t bat an eye while eating sumptuously in front of starving people come back, in their next life, as dermestid beetles.
Moreau has row upon row of little drawers filled with bird and fish eyes. He’s really zeroing in on the head now. Through this whole process, the only time the duck is out of his hand is when he puts it on his workbench for a few minutes to sew it up. He takes a pair of big tweezers and pokes little bits of excelsior into the bird’s head through the eye socket, and then with a larger pair of homemade wooden tweezers he inserts more right up the duck’s bill, into the skull and cheeks. It looks like a crane putting his beak into a duck’s mouth! He’s doing this very fast, putting minute bits in each side, each spot, constantly turning, gauging. He particularly favors a fuller-cheek look: “I don’t like my birds looking like they flew over from Ethiopia.”
I keep asking him questions, which he mostly accommodates, but every once in a while I can sense that he wishes I weren’t there, so he could be lost in his duck of the day.
Next, the eyes. He puts a dab of modeling clay in the eye socket and presses the eye to it. Next, the wings and feet. He puts the wings in the position he wants and pins them to a cardboard pattern (he uses the paper from manila folders). This helps spread and further dry the feathers and allows him to arrange them more carefully — as they would look in real flight/life. He does a similar thing with the feet — spreads the toes and pins them to backing. He turns the bird around in his hands, adjusting this wing, the arc of the neck, and he hangs the bird on the wall. This pintail is in about a three-quarter profile, ascending. It’s not done yet — more drying, more detail work, but it looks like a real duck to me, a real duck in flight, and incredibly different than the bedraggled, absurdly long-necked dishrag he started with a few hours ago. When I remark upon how he creates a sense of movement in something still, he says, “Hawks and owls have to fly — they make their living doing that — but ducks will fly just because they love to fly.” This seems not to answer my question, but I think he is implying: look at birds long enough, do this long enough, and you just know.
Moreau mounts fish too, most commonly largemouth bass. Nowadays a lot of fishing is catch-and-release, but you can get a mounted fish exactly like the fish you caught — all you have to do is measure it and/or take a quick picture. By the size, a taxidermist can estimate the weight, and companies sell blanks to the quarter of an inch of any fish you want. The company or the taxidermist simply (well, it’s not so simple) paints the blank. I bring up the possibility of shoot-and-release hunting. Perhaps in the future we’ll have shotgun shells filled with little laser pellets to electronically tell you if you made the shot or not. Moreau kind of likes the idea. He thinks of tiny tranquilizer pellets in shotgun shells. I ask him if the duck might then break its neck falling to earth. He says unlikely, since wounded birds almost always land alive. Duck wakes up, flies away. I then think: Does this mean never, never any duck salami again?
Moreau prefers mounting fish the old-fashioned way also, which is called skin-mounting and is much more time-consuming, does take a real fish, but ends up more specific and nongeneric. A trout, for example, has spectacular colors, and each fish is unique. Gerard Manley Hopkins, a great 19th-century poet, a priest in a monastic order, is practically orgasmic when praising the beauty of a trout: “For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim…” Fr. Hopkins didn’t have many outlets — his superiors didn’t allow him to publish in his lifetime — but he sure could get excited about a fish (and lots of other things), for which I am deeply grateful!
One of my favorite dioramas in Moreau’s showroom is a huge largemouth bass crashing upward through the surface of the water, maw wide open and about to swallow a small bluegill in midair. The bluegill’s tail is attached by an invisible wire to the inside of the bass’s mouth. He’s a fraction of a second from being devoured. On my honor, not using any of the techniques, say, a cartoonist can use to create expression in an animal, Moreau has managed to make the little bluegill look as if his short life is passing before his eyes. Moreau’s got this drama frozen, half above water and half below. Below the waterline, you see a river bottom, stones, sand, weed (which he uses to suggest the river’s current), even an old fishing lure treated to look as if it’s been on the river bottom for a long time. In front, hiding behind a rock, is another small bluegill, sometimes called sunfish, or, where I grew up, pumpkin seeds. (People never ate them. Only fish ate them.) This small fish is placed, angled — head slightly tilted down — so its body language gives the impression it’s trying not to look (and by not watching, the monster might go away) at its pal about to be gone forever. There’s another fish with just its head poking out from behind a log in the rear of the diorama. It looks as if it’s getting ready to make a break for it in the opposite direction of the big bass.
Again, I’m astonished by how Moreau has captured so much motion, so much primal eat-or-be-eaten energy, in something absolutely rigid, still. The sides and the surface of the diorama are made of Plexiglas, but he uses another substance, a kind of casting resin, to create the effect of the water following the fish up as he breaks the surface of the water. I say to Moreau that I essentially understand how one can create the sense of water falling down, but how does he create this sense of water falling, or trailing, up? He doesn’t want to go into this in too much detail — secrets of the trade — but tells me that it is a very slow process, very time-consuming, but necessary to “make it look real.” Pressed a little, he says he studied his own hand rising quickly from water — many, many times. He also says if it’s not done right, the water will look like ice, and that’s not acceptable.
“To make it look real” — that’s the nature of this kind of homage, passion, this kind of art. I ask him about hunting. He’s an avid duck hunter, though he reminds me that he can do it only 60 to 90 days a year — that’s the whole season. Maybe he hunts 20 or 30 of those days. Ducks are one of the toughest birds to hunt. First of all, it’s always cold and always wet. You sit, and sometimes lie, in a blind, calling ducks who you hope spot the decoys you’re hunting over and come down to take a look: “This a good place to rest? Good to feed? Is that Uncle Fred, I haven’t seen him in…” A canvasback comes in at about 60 mph, and you better get your shot off from no more than 40 yards away. Nowadays all bird shot is steel, no more lead shot, because of environmental problems with lead in the water. Steel shot is not as effective. It’s a pretty fair fight. Ducks are very smart. The tiniest movement they detect that’s not supposed to be there and they’re gone. They know how to keep out of range but get close enough to take a good look. There are strict limits. Certain ducks are protected.
The King of Ducks, the canvasback, either can’t be hunted at all, or maybe, if their numbers are looking better, a hunter could take one a season. They’re called the King of Ducks because they are mighty fine eating. They feed exclusively on sago pondweed and sweet-water grass. Market hunting is no longer legal — in other words, hunters can’t shoot wild game and then sell it to a market or restaurant. In the 19th Century, when canvasbacks were plentiful, they still sold for exorbitant prices ($5.00 for two as opposed to 50 cents for two mallards) so coveted was their flesh. How a duck tastes has a great deal to do with what it eats. Lots of ducks eat mostly fish — they tend to taste a little fishy. Wild-duck meat is the leanest meat you can get. Most ducks fly thousands of miles; they’re like long-distance runners: great endurance, nearly zero body fat, long muscles.
I want to take you to Kevin Moreau’s other, even more passionate, love. (The love I’m talking about is work-love, not family- or God-love.) It’s taxidermy related but requires neither a gun nor a real creature. He carves, and then paints, show decoys he enters in competitions all over the country. These are not decoys one hunts over. They need to do everything a hunting decoy does, but the only water they enter is in a tank, so that the accuracy of how they float can be judged — by being looked at at all angles, including via a mirror above the decoy on the ceiling. These decoys are art objects, requiring skills in carving, sculpture, woodworking, painting. Being really good at one of these things after a lifetime of work is hard enough, but to be able to do all of them at a high level: tip of the hat! When Moreau paints a duck, he paints a duck on a duck; it’s a three-dimensional object.
I have a friend. He’s a highly successful physician, an accomplished writer. He (and his wife) are also internationally known art collectors. Almost all modern and contemporary art. I love to go to his house. He has astonishing paintings and sculptures, many by the most famous artists working today or major 20th-century artists. He has things I’ve seen pictures of in books. He also has things — which he’s paid many thousands of dollars for — that make me want to dope-slap him on the head and say, “What were you thinking when you bought this?” For example, he has one sculpture that consists of a basketball floating in a rectangular fish tank. (I notice a fish tank exactly like it in Moreau’s back yard. It cost $9.99.) The sculpture sits on a table. That’s it, that’s all. A five-minute job. A concept…re what? A metaphor…re what? My friend owned the sculpture for a few months, and the basketball was starting to develop a little scrim of green scum around its waterline. My friend couldn’t figure out if this was supposed to be a part of the sculpture, its meaning. But he didn’t like the green scum. He considered asking the artist if the scum was part of the point, but in the end he scrubbed the basketball clean with a toothbrush. Maybe he thought his action was part of the point: man’s endless task of trying to clean what occurs in the biological world but is distasteful to him, blah, blah. Give me a break! I’ll bet my child’s college fund that the possibility of scum on the basketball never even occurred to the artist! I imagine him looking at the check my friend gave him and thinking sucker, sucker, sucker and then thinking, “I hope I don’t get cancer [my friend is an oncologist] and need this sucker after he wakes up and whiffs the Postum.” I repeat: my friend is smart, knowledgeable. Go figure.
But this is what I figure: I don’t trust art that just happens; I don’t trust five-minute art. I trust made art. Horace, the great Latin poet, said poems (which are art objects) are made things. There’s a contemporary artist named Chuck Close who’s known mostly for huge portraits of friends. Each one takes hundreds of hours of work to make and consists of hundreds of thousands of brushstrokes — he works in a manner entirely his own but which seems to have some of its origins in impressionism and pointillism. He was asked at the end of an interview what he would most like to be remembered for. He said: for making paintings “by hand.”
That’s what Kevin Moreau will be remembered for as an artist: he “makes things by hand.”
This is how he makes a decorative, or show, decoy. He starts by showing me a decoy he’s already carved (more of this process later), a hooded merganser. The wood duck and the hooded merganser are way up there on his list of favorite ducks. “Woodies and hoodies,” he calls them. There are three kinds of mergansers — the common merganser, the red-breasted merganser, and the hooded. Moreau tells me that sometimes a merganser will lay a few of her eggs in a wood duck’s nest, and the wood duck will hatch and raise them as her own, thus slightly increasing the chances of the merganser’s keeping more of her brood alive. Clever duck. The male hooded merganser has a hood, which he can make stand up to display his colors and to look bigger, tougher. To whom he’s displaying them is, of course, lady ducks. He’s a little stumpy, a fish-eater, and has a blue-green iridescent face that runs into the ultrawhite of the back of his head just beyond his rather beady yellow eyes.
Moreau’s already done some of the painting and all of the carving of this bird, including attaching a black walnut keel to keep the bird upright and balanced on the water. To get him to displace just the right amount of water, Moreau drills little holes in the keel and inserts small dollops of lead. He says it’s the same principle as when a mechanic helps to align your wheels by inserting lead weights in certain places between the tire and the rim.
Moreau has a large library of reference books, thousands of pictures of different waterfowl. He has several of these books open on his desk. He knows ducks. There’s not one duck he can’t identify at less than a hundred yards away. There’s not a duck’s sound he doesn’t know. He asks me, “What kind of sound does a duck make?” I say, “I’ll have to think about that for a while.” He says: “They don’t all quack. Only about half quack — they whistle, squeal, tweet. A pintail makes a sound almost like a cricket. The widgeon whistles, the teal peeps…” He imitates most of the sounds as he continues to paint the merganser.
I notice what looks like a piece of ordinary pocket comb on his desk. That’s what it is. He uses it to put the slight grooves in the wood to help bring out the vermiculation — the little parallel lines throughout so much of a duck’s plumage. At one point he uses a brush so tiny it has only a few bristles. I tell him I read about a man who paints incredibly tiny objects and sometimes uses a brush with only one bristle, and he makes the brushstrokes in between his own heartbeats. Moreau’s work is almost as delicate: “I hold my breath on each stroke.” He also uses magnifying goggles. The basketball/fish-tank sculptor I mentioned earlier probably was wearing goggles too when he did his “sculpture”: beer goggles.
It’s hard to describe the array and subtleties of the colors, the shadings, the sense of light where it’s called for (the duck is painted as if in daytime under sun), the thousands of strokes and re-strokes, the palimpsests, the do-overs. As in mounting a duck, Moreau does all this holding the duck in his left hand and painting with his right. Constantly moving it, eyeballing for symmetry. I say that I thought most people did this kind of painting with the duck in a vice or fixed to something. He says, “Some guys do it that way.” Meaning most guys, meaning not him. The final stage in the decoy-painting is airbrushing. Even though 98 percent of the duck is hand-painted, the airbrush painting is crucial: it creates a softness to the duck’s feathers that’s much harder to get with a brush, and this softness brings out the detail. “To make wood look soft is the challenge.”
A little later, Moreau shows me the earlier stages of making competition decoys. He starts with a solid block of basswood (or, sometimes, tupelo). He cuts a rough shape with a band saw, working fast (in fact, pushing the wood hard and straining the blade), and that sweet, sharp smell of friction-scorched wood rises into the air. After he gets the rough shape, he sits at the bench, and using a sander with a large round-headed carbide bit, he brings the duck out of the wood. As usual: duck in one hand, tool in the other. He says, “I can see the duck in the wood.” He doesn’t know that Michelangelo said a similar thing about the figure being inside the block and all he had to do was get rid of the marble around it. Within an hour, hour and a half, he has a pretty smooth but still not close to being painted merganser.
I look down after Moreau has been sanding for quite a while and notice that his big friendly black Lab retriever is lying under the blizzard of sawdust. He is almost completely covered but unfazed. His name is Zephyr. Moreau says only two things get him excited: in a bad way if a bug lands on him and in a good way when he sees Moreau take one of his shotguns from the rack and Zephyr knows he’s going hunting, which he was born to do.
What do we call Moreau? A painter, a taxidermist, a sculptor, a carver? All of those. I’d call him an artist and — I’ve put my eyeballs on his work — a damn good one.
I want to talk to him a little bit more about hunting. As I said, I hunted as a teenager, and although not good at it, I liked tramping around in the woods. I’ve recently moved to Georgia and bought a few long guns: a Winchester .30-30 carbine (the rifle the cowboys carry in the movies) and a 20-gauge side-by-side double barrel. The few times I shot the rifle, it made too much noise. I did shoot a baseball with it just to see what happens. Answer: it blows a big hole in it. But the .30-30’s gonna stay on the rack. I’ve taken up skeet shooting and am thinking it might be the sport of my dotage. I might try some bird hunting, pheasant maybe, or quail. I don’t think I want to hunt ducks. Not because I now have more reverence for them — it’s too cold and wet.
I ask Moreau how often he hunts. Anything else but ducks? He goes as often as possible during the 60- to 90-day season and hardly ever hunts anything else. He doesn’t have any macho hunting stories. Instead, he wants to tell me about a solo duck-hunting trip he took to the Salton Sea, the primary duck-hunting area in Southern California. The Salton Sea is about 75 miles northeast of San Diego and is less than a hundred years old — it was formed when the Colorado River knocked out irrigation dikes and flooded a part of the desert called the Salton Sink. It’s in trouble now, drying up and getting saltier. It’s already about 25 percent saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Studies have shown, however, that the water meets federal standards for drinking. This sounds a little odd to me, since it’s 25 percent saltier than the Pacific, and we don’t drink the Pacific. But I got this news from the New York Times, and as we all know, the Gray Lady never gets it wrong.
The Salton Sea is a major stopover and wintering place along the Pacific Flyway, which 15 to 30 million birds travel each year. If the Salton dies, there will be big-time problems for migrating waterfowl.
Moreau got to the sea in the middle of the night and slept for a few hours in the back of his truck. He was up about 4:30. He’d planned to hunt from a rowboat, but the water was too choppy, spray blowing off the tops of the waves. There was a full moon, and it hung just over the sea and was “the biggest I’ve ever seen.” Instead of the boat, Moreau walked out on a long rock jetty. He was awestruck and a little sad that he was experiencing this alone. The wind, the water, the moonlight, and walking out on the rocks made him feel he was becoming more a part of the landscape, made him understand how small we humans are next to the grandeur of Nature (or God). He was thrilled, he felt blessed to be a part of this.
He tells me this story a few times, each time his eyes lighting with the memory, each time struggling to find the words to describe what he felt — it was spiritual, epiphanic, deeply moving. Later, he wrote one of the two poems he has written in his life. The other was a love poem to his wife. He recites the poem to me from memory. Here are a few lines: “So I turned and faced the restless wind. / It took more strength to stand therein / but the effort was worth the magnificent sight. / Stars danced and played on troubled seas / I felt so alone but privileged to be…” It is unlikely that Moreau will be among the American poets after his death, but honestly, just as I’d much prefer to look at one of his ducks — either mounted or painted — than look at the basketball in the fish tank, I find more pleasure in his poem than in the literary equivalent (oh, there are many, tedious and pretentious, beyond imaging) of the basketball/fish tank.
I had asked him for a hunting story but didn’t get it. I don’t know if he even saw a duck that day, let alone took one. About the only specific hunting comment I later found in all my notes and tapes of our time together was “The mergansers, they come in like F-14s and will make a fool out of a hunter.”
On our last day together I tell him I know something about ducks that I bet he doesn’t know. He gives me an “Oh, yeah?” look. I tell him a duck’s quack doesn’t echo. Sound technicians, audio experts, scientists, etc., have no idea why this is true. Tests are ongoing. He didn’t know that. Somehow that has never come up in his work.
Here’s his recipe for barbecued duck: Cut duck meat into about one-inch squares. Marinate in Italian salad dressing for a few hours. Wrap each piece in a half piece of bacon (duck meat, as mentioned, is very lean and will dry out quickly). Cook it fast over a hot fire. Cook only long enough that the “bacon looks edible.” I tried it: tasty, tasty, tasty. I had to use store-bought duck. But someday, someday, somewhere, there will be a taste of canvasback for me.