I was starting to get worried, but finally the Canada Geese are back. Thousands, maybe millions settling in for winter upon what I call our “bends.” The Otter Tail River spreads out across the street from our house and continues to loop into substantial estuaries for the next three blocks, which means that in these wide spots the water is still and unfrozen.
That was the big surprise last year, which was our first winter in Minnesota. I assumed that the geese would continue south after a quick stop at the Avian Motel 6 for a meal and a quick rest before heading out for Arizona like the other snowbirds. But their numbers only increased with the cold, as flock after flock soared in and settled.
I’ve seen the flyway maps. By all accounts it appears that they should be complying with the mass exodus. But something else is afoot. Or a-swim. And whatever the reason, they seem to like it here. And I like them here.
I have heard grumblings from certain locals who complain about the goose poop on the wide lawn next to the high school. Obviously the geese, who prefer a light lunch of grass, dressed with sprinklings of bug, take advantage of the culinary fixings not understanding that their preferred comestible venue just happens to coincide with the football property of young boys and their cheering anxious parents.
Who wins here? I understand something of the community attitude and concern, but it also hints of deeper issues of Minnesota provenance. Not unlike the Lakota Nation and the new Norwegian settlers. Who comes first? Ask yourself that question.
I only know that this time of year is thrilling. The geese settle down in our bends, hunker in and hopefully, celebrate winter.
My friend Susan gave me a book when we first moved to Minnesota – “Winter World” by Bernd Heinrich. It has led to wonderful reading adventures because Mr. Heinrich is prolific and brilliant. “Mind of the Raven,” because of my personal experience, (See “Nevermore”) was an affirmation which left me speechless. Now, just as I was contemplating my geese friends, I came across “The Geese of Beaver Bog. ”
In the first chapter Mr. Heinrich describes the day when Peep, his home-raised gosling, flew besides his car – “The speed limit on the highway a mile from my home in Vermont is 45 miles an hour, and Peep was pushing it. She was winging along a foot or two behind and just to the left of the cab of my Toyota pickup truck. Another truck roared by from the other direction but she kept her place. She didn’t miss a wing-beat. You might think she knew all about flying, road vehicles, and the right-of-way convention when barreling down the highway. Fact is, this was her maiden flight.”
And then – “She started to lag a bit and I knew she was pushing, approaching her limits, because her bill opened and as I glanced sideways I saw her pink tongue exposed while she panted from exertion and overheating. She didn’t turn the corner too well. Tongue still out and chest heaving, she landed in a ditch and waddled out onto the dirt road. I stopped to see if she was all right. After giving her a couple of minutes to catch her breath, I got back into the truck. As I drove off and looked into the rearview mirror I saw her running behind me, then flapping her wings and again becoming airborne. And so we came back home.”
As the story goes, Peep disappears for two years after the family leaves home for a time, but resurfaces with a mate and then the saga begins in earnest. Check your local library for anything by Bernd Heinrich.
The Canada Goose (which is not named for the country, but for a man named John Canada- do not call them “Canadian Geese” – thank you Matt) – is respected for it’s fidelity. They mate for life, always return to the same home sites, and represent in the greater mythological scheme, the sanctity of cycles.
When they fly in the familiar Vee formation, as each bird flaps his wings, it creates uplift for the bird behind. And when the leader tires and drops back, he is replaced by another who takes his turn. They have a communal interchange and understanding that proffers wisdom to the world.
One school of thought proclaims that when one bird is wounded and falls out of the pattern, two leave the flight and sit and minister until he recovers or dies. Some hunters proclaim this as nonsense, but it’s a good and lovely story.
I find it hard to imagine just how the flock remembers where in the vast continent to set down for their winter. “Oh look! There’s that three block spot on the Otter Tail where that lady comes out and checks on us every day and takes our picture. Remember her? She must have albums full of photographs. Guess we don’t need to saunter on down to San Antonio.”
And for months now, I will not only marvel at their numbers, but thrill to the ecstatic flights above as they take to the skies once or twice a day. Circling, flourishing, honking, gliding in a sky ballet which encompasses the entire spectrum, east to west, north to south, not a potion of the horizon untouched.
“Look! There’s that crazy lady again. Pointing up and – is she honking?”
It is grand in a manner hard to describe. It is memorable and thrilling and not yet capturable by my trusty Nikon. Yet when the skies are full it is a sight to savor and behold.
At the end of the book, Heinrich writes – “To my surprise, I saw the group of twelve geese flying directly up toward and just beyond the house after having come up the hill over the woods. Only Peep, and her previous mate Pop, had ever taken that route before. I yelled, ‘Peep!’ The lead goose made a U-turn, the others followed, and then in a wild loud clamor they came in my direction. The group made another turn, and then she set her wings and lowered her feet and started gliding down through the air directly towards me. She came right by my head and was about to land just beyond me, but the rest of the flock behind her then banked up and out over the trees. Then she backpedaled as well and I heard the heavy pounding of her wings as she barely missed hitting the wall of trees on the other side. The exertion of her over-weighted wing-beats while turning sharply and trying to regain altitude in coming out of the clearing dislodged a wing feather. As Peep rejoined the flock, the feather drifted down and settled practically at my feet.”
Enough said. No. One more thing. In his introduction Bernd Heinrich says it well – “There is something in the ceaseless chatter of migrating geese that stirs me. Perhaps it touches something wild, remote, and mysterious that I share with them, for it is almost with longing that I look up every fall and spring when the scraggly formations wing their way overhead in the sky. Perhaps it is the tenor of their haunting cries, their mastery of the sky and distance, their commitment and single-mindedness in striving to reach far-off goals that enchant.”
That’s it. The enchantment of the passages of each year and the sanctity of cycles.