Ear Cocked for Geese

A March morning is only as drab as he who walks in it without a glance skyward, ear cocked for geese.   – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

sunset geese march 2016
I like the geese. I don’t like to get too close, because they’re big and they hiss when they’re being pushy, and I don’t like walking through grass littered with goose poop. But I love to see them gathered on the banks of the Huron River, and I am comforted by the reliability of their presence down in Ann Arbor’s Riverside Park, just east of the bridge that crosses the train tracks and the river.

I remember the jokes my Grandpa Bob, my father’s father, used to tell. One of my favorite early memories is of standing on the bridge to Belle Isle in Detroit with him and my brother on a cold, grey day. He pointed toward the river and said our cousins were out there. Maybe he said they were ice skating. I was little, and I wondered which of my eleven cousins he was talking about. But soon I knew he meant the geese, those big birds who fly in Vs, honking, above the land. It’s a real grandpa joke, because our last name is pronounced GEESE, and so those birds, found all over Michigan—all over the world, although I didn’t know it as a child—could have been members of the family, should have attended our yearly reunion.

Instead, the geese keep tight together every year on the same paths, from warm winter days in the south to long summer days in the north.

I remember the geese we saw one fall at my mom’s parents’ place, an apartment in a senior community in Flint. It was October, I think, shortly before my grandma was moved to hospice. That would have been my senior year of high school. We went outside, where the trees were red and yellow and bright, the colors popping against the grey of the sky. We must have walked around the little pseudo-neighborhood, then visited the pond. I remember this because I had my camera with me, and I took picture after picture of the geese, grey and black and white against the green grass, below the colorful trees. There were many geese on the pond that evening, more than the few who had lived there for the summer. Then, as we stood there, the geese took wing and flew off in flocks of four, six, eight. My final photo was just four birds—I like to think they were the four that had lived there all summer—and then they were gone. Heading south for winter.

Nature is a thing we talk about all the time with children, something that makes a big impression. Birds fly south, bears hibernate, bugs mysteriously persist and reappear the next season. As an adult, focus flitting among computer screens of varying sizes, expected to work so many hours, not always in places that grant an easy view of daylight, or any outdoor experience at all, nose to the grindstone to get ahead and have it all, I’ve realized the smaller details of the changing seasons can get left by the wayside. My dad, designated dog walker, notices the opossums in his suburban neighborhood sometimes, and he enjoys them. I’ve never come across one, there or here. My neighborhood now seems even more isolated from wildlife. Transient college students, late nights, litter, rushed mornings. But I’ve been paying attention, and I’m delighted when I see a rabbit on the road to the university hospital and robins hopping up into trees away from me, when a memory of nature lore is brought back for me—when I feel that I have participated in the natural world, even if it’s only the act of observing, of trying to understand.

Cooper gave me Aldo Leopold’s wonderful A Sand County Almanac for Christmas, and so I’ve read a lot about migratory birds this year. It reminded me that yes, birds fly south in winter—something I hadn’t thought about in a while. When I looked out a train window in January and saw on the river fifteen, maybe twenty geese, I was surprised that they were there.

It was a warm winter—maybe the geese knew, and decided to stay?—but I wondered when they usually head south. Wikipedia told me many have stopped migrating, choosing instead to grow fat on city parks and golf courses and prosper in a world that has removed their natural predators and built them decorative ponds in areas where they cannot be hunted. There are those who consider the geese, like the deer that abound in areas of Ann Arbor, overpopulated pests, hissing at children and contaminating our parks with their waste. As if every patch of appealing grass is for humans, and humans alone. I don’t mind that they prosper in our recreation areas; I’m always happy to see a flock of geese, animals big enough to seem wilder, more improbable, than sparrows and squirrels. But I’m sad that Leopold’s epic lines about their long journeys—“Every March since the Pleistocene, the geese have honked unity from Currituck to Labrador, Matumuskeet to Ungava, Horseshoe Lake to Hudson’s Bay”—don’t hold up to life in 2016.

Now I wonder, do the storks of Europe still all head down to Africa in the fall?

Leopold’s almanac entry for March is a beautiful essay about welcoming the geese back to his Wisconsin marsh, where their return announces with gusto the arrival of spring. They stay a while, he writes, reveling in his marsh, but ultimately move farther north to their tundra breeding grounds, where they raise the next generation in the sun and safety of the arctic summer.

One morning in March this year, when I got off the bus I take to work, I was greeted to the campus by a cacophony of honking, and I remembered his charming sketch. The geese had returned. For about a week, sitting in my fourth-floor office, I could hear their honking outdoors. Were they on the building’s roof? Was I hearing them on the other side of campus, congregating around the pond? One afternoon, I looked out my wall of windows to see two geese flying toward me, just above, before shooting upwards to cross over the building. I see them flying at my eye level sometimes—hawks too, and starlings, and the occasional high-altitude bumblebee—and when I look out at those long-necked, beautiful birds, I am so amazed that they can propel themselves through the air like that, amazed again at the wonder of flight.

geese flying distance 2005 croppedTerry Pindell’s description of the mythological wonder Canada holds for the North struck me hard when I reread it last month.

The migrations of birds, buffalo, and caribou seem to confirm an instinct in all life to return in the warm season to its northern roots…Canadians of all races are touched by this notion as we who live in more southerly climes can never be. It’s one thing to live in Pennsylvania and see Canadian geese winging north; it’s quite another to live in Winnipeg or Kapuskasing and see them headed resolutely farther north.

I never thought much, before this year, about where the geese flew when they flew north. Did I think they flew up to Oscoda and Petoskey for the summer, like we did for a week in the summer when I was little? I wasn’t that ridiculous, but I must have just thought that geese settled at home, in Michigan and places like it, and then south they flew in autumn, like my grandparents who hid away in Arizona half the year. To me, where I was already was the north, the default, the normal place to be. My focus, migration-wise, was southward. It didn’t occur to me that some birds might migrate so much farther, up into the tundra. But that’s what Leopold invokes in this poetic piece.

By this international commerce of geese, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds to Arctic tundras, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a nightless June to grow goslings for all the lands between. And in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.

Thank you, geese, for that wild poem. We love the changes of the seasons, recognizing age-old truths in this same-different world. We need all the wildness we can get.

Quotes are from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac unless otherwise noted. 

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