Monday, March 02, 2009

What's Good For The Goose

The honking startled me as I started out the back door. Over the field just east of the house, two Canada geese were gliding just a few feet above the ground. They were so close I could see the white chinstraps that made them look as though they were recovering from cosmetic surgery.

It was about 7:30, bright and chilly, and the geese were the only noise in the early morning landscape. They had risen from the pond and, in just a few moments, would head back that way, would settle down in the water side by side. For the moment, though, they were dancing – swooping and diving and curving in identical patterns, the kind I used to make in grade school by holding two pencils in one hand.

And they were singing to each other. Loud and nasal, the male's deep notes were instantly repeated by the female's slightly higher ones. Their voices were the only sound in the early morning landscape and the carport created an echo chamber that turned their song into a repeating refrain. I stood there for a long time, unconcerned about the cold that was making my fingers stiff and mesmerized by their nearness, their naturalness, their nonchalance. All of it – the flying, the honking, the staying together – seemed so easy.

The next week I read that Geoffrey Chaucer, master of Middle English storytelling, but not one generally known for his knowledge of ornithology, wrote that birds choose their mates on February 14. My geese had been frolicking just a couple days before Valentine's Day and I decided they must have been engaging in an early anniversary celebration.

I am accustomed to seeing flocks of geese slicing through the sky over Sandhill during the winter. At least once every year I find myself standing in the front yard with my neck bent back, hoping to see one of them break formation, leave a gap in the vee and veer off to find a life of nonconformity.

That, of course, is not going to happen. Canada geese, like most animals, are predictable, their habits certain, their conduct sure. They fly south in winter, back north in spring. They travel in groups. They mate for life.

Our culture doesn't value predictability and conformity very much. Entertainers, politicians, artists, all those in the public forum proclaim the value of being a maverick. Even athletes, whose very notoriety arises from an activity that requires a concerted effort by a number of people (something called a team), get more attention for individual behavior that is outrageous and shocking.

Having watched my geese for those few moments that morning, though, I figured out that it is the predictability, the certainty, the unvarying nature of their lives that draws our attention, that creates the beauty for those of us who watch. I realized that I don't really want one of them to break the symmetry of the vee.

It is comforting, when the stock market falls 600 points in one day, to know that the cardinals will still be hopping around the edges of the fields picking up seeds with their yellow beaks. It is reassuring, when the unemployment statistics are at their highest level in 20 years, to know that the daffodils will soon be breaking the skin of the earth and waving in the breeze. It is soothing, when the newspaper prints six pages of foreclosure notices, to watch two geese, sweethearts through and through, dance like nobody's watching.

Copyright 2009

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