No real game birds had come, just three coots that passed low over the marsh as they headed toward the oak ridge at its edge. The sun was all light and no heat, a cold January sun. Remnants of morning fog hugged the low places among the tall, brown grasses like patches of lace. It was a fine morning. My grandfather had taken our small boat and had gone back to the ridge to look for deer sign. An old friend who'd been with us on many a shoot hunkered down with me in a tiny blind woven from dried willow and oak saplings, bulrushes, grasses and pieces of dark twine. The old man sipped coffee slowly: I watched the sky, clutching my shotgun.
"Look at these here," whispered the old man, holding out an ancient brown wallet, its leather worn and cracked. With the relish of someone showing off photographs of his wife and children, he began displaying his collection of duck stamps. He smiled as he flipped through them.
"Ain't they somethin'," he said, more to himself than to me, pausing at each stamp he came to, looking at it for long moments, almost as though he were seeing it for the first time. His gray-blue eyes shone. The stamps clearly meant more to him than just an assemblage of old hunting licenses. They seemed to be a record of the old man's life, each stamp a story, a winter in the marsh he so loved, a season of ducks hunted, talked about, admired.
"Nineteen thirty-four," he said. "Darling's mallards. A good year. So many big greenheads I thought the sky itself would turn green. Got my Winchester that year. It is a fine gun, one that has spent the years with me.
"Nineteen fifty-six," he said. "Bierly's mergansers. Good gumbo. Fine cold mornings. Ducks as thick as robins in a bitter pecan tree. Fell asleep in my blind that January and missed some of the best huntin' of the year.
"Nineteen fifty-nine," he said. "That would've been Reece's beautiful black Lab with the mallard tucked gently in her mouth. I recall that Ruth, my dog, died that year. Not far from here, in the winter marsh, ducks overhead. The way it should be for a duck dog."
The old man talked on and I let go of my shotgun, fished out my wallet and looked at the bright new duck stamp pressed in plastic: 1963. Bierly's brant. A good year, I said to myself. Cold mornings. The sky a chilly blue. The marsh. The new shotgun. The whistle of wood ducks. And the old man.
This year the 50th anniversary of the duck stamp is being celebrated. In the 1930s the nation faced the loss of millions of acres of irreplaceable wetlands, prime waterfowl habitat, the result of a disastrous drought that had begun in 1929. The situation worsened, peaking in 1934 and continuing for another four years. Something had to be done. The idea of a national revenue stamp, to be used to raise money for purchasing and preserving waterfowl wetlands, had been around for some time, championed by a small but determined group of men, including Ray Holland, one of the best-known outdoor writers of his day, who later became editor of Field & Stream magazine; George Lawyer of the U.S. Biological Survey, forerunner of the Fish and Wildlife Service; and Jay N. (Ding) Darling, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist of the Des Moines Register, a skilled and much respected outdoorsman and founder of what would eventually become the National Wildlife Federation. The efforts of these men and others and the continued deterioration of waterfowl habitat throughout North America led Congress to pass the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act on March 16, 1934. It required every waterfowl hunter 16 or older to buy, sign and carry with him a federal duck stamp while in the field.
Revenue generated by stamp sales was to be used for the purchase of unspoiled wetlands. Darling designed the first stamp, a pair of mallards settling down on a marsh, which sold for a dollar. By the end of 1934,635,001 stamps had been sold. Sales topped a million by 1938, three million by 1970.
Alan Levitt, public affairs officer for the Department of the Interior, is the coordinator of the 50th anniversary duck stamp program. Duck stamps take up virtually all his time, but Levitt never tires of talking about the program and its success. This year, in particular, he anticipates great interest in the stamps on the part of the public. The stamps, he says, are the "oldest and most successful of the federal government's wildlife programs. And they really work. We're going to make sure people realize that."