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Geese: An Appreciation and Memory

One November evening, in the neighbourhood of Lyndhurst, I saw a flock of geese marching in a long procession, led, as their custom is, by a majestical gander; they were coming home from their feeding-ground in the forest, and when I spied them were approaching their owner's cottage. Arrived at the wooden gate of the garden in front of the cottage, the leading bird drew up square before it, and with repeated loud screams demanded admittance. Pretty soon, in response to the summons, a man came out of the cottage, walked briskly down the garden path and opened the gate, but only wide enough to put his right leg through; then, placing his foot and knee against the leading bird, he thrust him roughly back; as he did so three young geese pressed forward and were allowed to pass in; then the gate was slammed in the face of the gander and the rest of his followers, and the man went back to the cottage. The gander's indignation was fine to see, though he had most probably experienced the same rude treatment on many previous occasions. Drawing up to the gate again he called more loudly than before; then deliberately lifted a leg, and placing his broad webbed foot like an open hand against the gate actually tried to push it open! His strength was not sufficient; but he continued to push and to call until the man returned to open the gate and let the birds go in.

It was an amusing scene, and the behaviour of the bird struck me as characteristic. It was this lofty spirit of the goose and strict adhesion to his rights, as well as his noble appearance and the stately formality and deliberation of his conduct, that caused me very long ago to respect and admire him above all our domestic birds. Doubtless from the ęsthetic point of view other domesticated species are his superiors in some things: the mute swan, "floating double," graceful and majestical, with arched neck and ruffled scapulars; the oriental pea-fowl in his glittering mantle; the helmeted guinea-fowl, powdered with stars, and the red cock with his military bearing—a shining Elizabethan knight of the feathered world, singer, lover, and fighter. It is hardly to be doubted that, mentally, the goose is above all these; and to my mind his, too, is the nobler figure; but it is a very familiar figure, and we have not forgotten the reason of its presence among us. He satisfies a material want only too generously, and on this account is too much associated in the mind with mere flavours. We keep a swan or a peacock for ornament; a goose for the table—he is the Michaelmas and Christmas bird. A somewhat similar debasement has fallen on the sheep in Australia. To the man in the bush he is nothing but a tallow-elaborating organism, whose destiny it is to be cast, at maturity, into the melting vat, and whose chief use it is to lubricate the machinery of civilisation. It a little shocks, and at the same time amuses, our Colonial to find that great artists in the parent country admire this most unpoetic beast, and waste their time and talents in painting it.

Some five or six years ago, in the Alpine Journal, Sir Martin Conway gave a lively and amusing account of his first meeting with A. D. M'Cormick, the artist who subsequently accompanied him to the Karakoram Himalayas. "A friend," he wrote, "came to me bringing in his pocket a crumpled-up water sketch or impression of a lot of geese. I was struck by the breadth of the treatment, and I remember saying that the man who could see such monumental magnificence in a flock of geese ought to be the kind of man to paint mountains, and render somewhat of their majesty."

I will venture to say that he looked at the sketch or impression with the artist's clear eye, but had not previously so looked at the living creature; or had not seen it clearly, owing to the mist of images—if that be a permissible word—that floated between it and his vision—remembered flavours and fragrances, of rich meats, and of sage and onions and sweet apple sauce. When this interposing mist is not present, who can fail to admire the goose—that stately bird-shaped monument of clouded grey or crystal white marble, to be seen standing conspicuous on any village green or common in England? For albeit a conquered bird, something of the ancient wild and independent spirit survives to give him a prouder bearing than we see in his fellow feathered servants. He is the least timid of our domestic birds, yet even at a distance he regards your approach in an attitude distinctly reminiscent of the grey-lag goose, the wariest of wild fowl, stretching up his neck and standing motionless and watchful, a sentinel on duty. Seeing him thus, if you deliberately go near him he does not slink or scuttle away, as other domestic birds of meaner spirits do, but boldly advances to meet and challenge you. How keen his senses are, how undimmed by ages of captivity the ancient instinct of watchfulness is in him, every one must know who has slept in lonely country houses. At some late hour of the night the sleeper was suddenly awakened by the loud screaming of the geese; they had discovered the approach of some secret prowler, a fox perhaps, or a thievish tramp or gipsy, before a dog barked. In many a lonely farmhouse throughout the land you will be told that the goose is the better watch-dog.

When we consider this bird purely from the ęsthetic point of view—and here I am speaking of geese generally, all of the thirty species of the sub-family Anserinę, distributed over the cold and temperate regions of the globe—we find that several of them possess a rich and beautiful colouring, and, if not so proud, often a more graceful carriage than our domestic bird, or its original, the wild grey-lag goose. To know these birds is to greatly admire them, and we may now add that this admiration is no new thing on the earth. It is the belief of distinguished Egyptologists that a fragmentary fresco, discovered at Medum, dates back to a time at least four thousand years before the Christian era, and is probably the oldest picture in the world. It is a representation of six geese, of three different species, depicted with marvellous fidelity, and a thorough appreciation of form and colouring.

Among the most distinguished in appearance and carriage of the handsome exotic species is the Magellanic goose, one of the five or six species of the Antarctic genus Chloėphaga, found in Patagonia and the Magellan Islands. One peculiarity of this bird is that the sexes differ in colouring, the male being white, with grey mottlings, whereas the prevailing colour of the female is a ruddy brown,—a fine rich colour set off with some white, grey, intense cinnamon, and beautiful black mottlings. Seen on the wing the flock presents a somewhat singular appearance, as of two distinct species associating together, as we may see when by chance gulls and rooks, or sheldrakes and black scoters, mix in one flock.

This fine bird has long been introduced into this country, and as it breeds freely it promises to become quite common. I can see it any day; but these exiles, pinioned and imprisoned in parks, are not quite like the Magellanic geese I was intimate with in former years, in Patagonia and in the southern pampas of Buenos Ayres, where they wintered every year in incredible numbers, and were called "bustards" by the natives. To see them again, as I have seen them, by day and all day long in their thousands, and to listen again by night to their wild cries, I would willingly give up, in exchange, all the invitations to dine which I shall receive, all the novels I shall read, all the plays I shall witness, in the next three years; and some other miserable pleasures might be thrown in. Listening to the birds when, during migration, on a still frosty night, they flew low, following the course of some river, flock succeeding flock all night long; or heard from a herdsman's hut on the pampas, when thousands of the birds had encamped for the night on the plain hard by, the effect of their many voices (like that of their appearance when seen flying) was singular, as well as beautiful, on account of the striking contrasts in the various sounds they uttered. On clear frosty nights they are most loquacious, and their voices may be heard by the hour, rising and falling, now few, and now many taking part in the endless confabulation—a talkee-talkee and concert in one; a chatter as of many magpies; the solemn deep, honk-honk, the long, grave note changing to a shuddering sound; and, most wonderful, the fine silvery whistle of the male, steady or tremulous, now long and now short, modulated a hundred ways—wilder and more beautiful than the night-cry of the widgeon, brighter than the voice of any shore bird, or any warbler, thrush or wren, or the sound of any wind instrument.

It is probable that those who have never known the Magellanic goose in a state of nature are best able to appreciate its fine qualities in its present semi-domestic state in England. At all events the enthusiasm with which a Londoner spoke of this bird in my presence some time ago came to me rather as a surprise. It was at the studio in St John's Wood of our greatest animal painter, one Sunday evening, and the talk was partly about birds, when an elderly gentleman said that he was pleased to meet some one who would be able to tell him the name of a wonderful bird he had lately seen in St James's Park. His description was vague; he could not say what its colour was, nor what sort of beak it had, nor whether its feet were webbed or not; but it was a large tall bird, and there were two of them. It was the way this bird had comported itself towards him that had so taken him. As he went through the park at the side of the enclosure, he caught sight of the pair some distance away on the grass, and the birds, observing that he had stopped in his walk to regard them, left off feeding, or whatever they were doing, and came to him. Not to be fed—it was impossible to believe that they had any such motive; it was solely and purely a friendly feeling towards him which caused them immediately to respond to his look, and to approach him, to salute him, in their way. And when they had approached to within three or four yards of where he stood, advancing with a quiet dignity, and had then uttered a few soft low sounds, accompanied with certain graceful gestures, they turned and left him; but not abruptly, with their backs towards him—oh, no, they did nothing so common; they were not like other birds—they were perfect in everything; and, moving from him, half paused at intervals, half turning first to one side then the other, inclining their heads as they went. Here our old friend rose and paced up and down the floor, bowing to this side and that and making other suitable gestures, to try to give us some faint idea of the birds' gentle courtesy and exquisite grace. It was, he assured us, most astonishing; the birds' gestures and motions were those of a human being, but in their perfection immeasurably superior to anything of the kind to be seen in any Court in Europe or the world.

The birds he had described, I told him, were no doubt Upland Geese.

"Geese!" he exclaimed, in a tone of surprise, and disgust. "Are you speaking seriously? Geese! Oh, no, nothing like geese—a sort of ostrich!"

It was plain that he had no accurate knowledge of birds; if he had caught sight of a kingfisher or green woodpecker, he would probably have described it as a sort of peacock. Of the goose, he only knew that it is a ridiculous, awkward creature, proverbial for its stupidity, although very good to eat; and it wounded him to find that any one could think so meanly of his intelligence and taste as to imagine him capable of greatly admiring any bird called a goose, or any bird in any way related to a goose.

I will now leave the subject of the beautiful antarctic goose, the "bustard" of the horsemen of the pampas, and "sort of ostrich" of our Londoner, to relate a memory of my early years, and of how I first became an admirer of the familiar domestic goose. Never since have I looked on it in such favourable conditions.

Two miles from my home there stood an old mud-built house, thatched with rushes, and shaded by a few ancient half-dead trees. Here lived a very old woman with her two unmarried daughters, both withered and grey as their mother; indeed, in appearance, they were three amiable sister witches, all very very old. The high ground on which the house stood sloped down to an extensive reed- and rush-grown marsh, the source of an important stream; it was a paradise of wild fowl, swan, roseate spoonbill, herons white and herons grey, ducks of half a dozen species, snipe and painted snipe, and stilt, plover and godwit; the glossy ibis, and the great crested blue ibis with a powerful voice. All these interested, I might say fascinated, me less than the tame geese that spent most of their time in or on the borders of the marsh in the company of the wild birds. The three old women were so fond of their geese that they would not part with one for love or money; the most they would ever do would be to present an egg, in the laying season, to some visitor as a special mark of esteem.

It was a grand spectacle, when the entire flock, numbering upwards of a thousand, stood up on the marsh and raised their necks on a person's approach. It was grand to hear them, too, when, as often happened, they all burst out in a great screaming concert. I can hear that mighty uproar now!

With regard to the character of the sound: we have seen in a former chapter that the poet Cowper thought not meanly of the domestic grey goose as a vocalist, when heard on a common or even in a farmyard. But there is a vast difference in the effect produced on the mind when the sound is heard amid its natural surroundings in silent desert places. Even hearing them as I did, from a distance, on that great marsh, where they existed almost in a state of nature, the sound was not comparable to that of the perfectly wild bird in his native haunts. The cry of the wild grey-lag was described by Robert Gray in his Birds of the West of Scotland. Of the bird's voice he writes: "My most recent experiences (August 1870) in the Outer Hebrides remind me of a curious effect which I noted in connection with the call-note of this bird in these quiet solitudes. I had reached South Uist, and taken up my quarters under the hospitable roof of Mr Birnie, at Grogarry ... and in the stillness of the Sabbath morning following my arrival was aroused from sleep by the cries of the grey-lags as they flew past the house. Their voices, softened by distance, sounded not unpleasantly, reminding me of the clanging of church bells in the heart of a large town."

It is a fact, I think, that to many minds the mere wildness represented by the voice of a great wild bird in his lonely haunts is so grateful, that the sound itself, whatever its quality may be, delights, and is more than the most beautiful music. A certain distinguished man of letters and Church dignitary was once asked, a friend tells me, why he lived away from society, buried in the loneliest village on the dreary East coast; at that spot where, standing on the flat desolate shore you look over the North Sea, and have no land between you and far Spitzbergen. He answered, that he made his home there because it was the only spot in England in which, sitting in his own room, he could listen to the cry of the pink-footed goose. Only those who have lost their souls will fail to understand.

The geese I have described, belonging to the three old women, could fly remarkably well, and eventually some of them, during their flights down stream, discovered at a distance of about eight miles from home the immense, low, marshy plain bordering the sea-like Plata River. There were no houses and no people in that endless green, wet land, and they liked it so well that they visited it more and more often, in small flocks of a dozen to twenty birds, going and coming all day long, until all knew the road. It was observed that when a man on foot or on horseback appeared in sight of one of these flocks, the birds at this distance from home were as wary as really wild birds, and watched the stranger's approach in alarm, and when he was still at a considerable distance rose and flew away beyond sight.

The old dames grieved at this wandering spirit in their beloved birds, and became more and more anxious for their safety. But by this time the aged mother was fading visibly into the tomb, though so slowly that long months went by while she lay on her bed, a weird-looking object—I remember her well—leaner, greyer, more ghost-like, than the silent, lean, grey heron on the marsh hard by. And at last she faded out of life, aged, it was said by her descendants, a hundred and ten years; and, after she was dead, it was found that of that great company of noble birds there remained only a small remnant of about forty, and these were probably incapable of sustained flight. The others returned no more; but whether they met their death from duck and swan shooters in the marshes, or had followed the great river down to the sea, forgetting their home, was never known. For about a year after they had ceased going back, small flocks were occasionally seen in the marshes, very wild and strong on the wing, but even these, too, vanished at last.

It is probable that, but for powder and shot, the domestic goose of Europe, by occasionally taking to a feral life in thinly-settled countries, would ere this have become widely distributed over the earth.

And one wonders if in the long centuries running to thousands of years, of tame flightless existence, the strongest impulse of the wild migrant has been wholly extinguished in the domestic goose? We regard him as a comparatively unchangeable species, and it is probable that the unexercised faculty is not dead but sleeping, and would wake again in favourable circumstances. The strength of the wild bird's passion has been aptly described by Miss Dora Sigerson in her little poem, "The Flight of the Wild Geese." The poem, oddly enough, is not about geese but about men—wild Irishmen who were called Wild Geese; but the bird's powerful impulse and homing faculty are employed as an illustration, and admirably described:—

Flinging the salt from their wings, and despair from their hearts
They arise on the breast of the storm with a cry and are gone.
When will you come home, wild geese, in your thousand strong?...
Not the fierce wind can stay your return or tumultuous sea,...
Only death in his reaping could make you return no more.

Now arctic and antarctic geese are alike in this their devotion to their distant breeding-ground, the cradle and true home of the species or race; and I will conclude this chapter with an incident related to me many years ago by a brother who was sheep-farming in a wild and lonely district on the southern frontier of Buenos Ayres. Immense numbers of upland geese in great flocks used to spend the cold months on the plains where he had his lonely hut; and one morning in August in the early spring of that southern country, some days after all the flocks had taken their departure to the south, he was out riding, and saw at a distance before him on the plain a pair of geese. They were male and female—a white and a brown bird. Their movements attracted his attention and he rode to them. The female was walking steadily on in a southerly direction, while the male, greatly excited, and calling loudly from time to time, walked at a distance ahead, and constantly turned back to see and call to his mate, and at intervals of a few minutes he would rise up and fly, screaming, to a distance of some hundreds of yards; then finding that he had not been followed, he would return and alight at a distance of forty or fifty yards in advance of the other bird, and begin walking on as before. The female had one wing broken, and, unable to fly, had set out on her long journey to the Magellanic Islands on her feet; and her mate, though called to by that mysterious imperative voice in his breast, yet would not forsake her; but flying a little distance to show her the way, and returning again and again, and calling to her with his wildest and most piercing cries, urged her still to spread her wings and fly with him to their distant home.

And in that sad, anxious way they would journey on to the inevitable end, when a pair or family of carrion eagles would spy them from a great distance—the two travellers left far behind by their fellows, one flying, the other walking; and the first would be left to continue the journey alone.

Since this appreciation was written a good many years ago I have seen much of geese, or, as it might be put, have continued my relations with them and have written about them too in my Adventures among Birds (1913). In recent years it has become a custom of mine to frequent Wells-next-the-Sea in October and November just to welcome the wild geese that come in numbers annually to winter at that favoured spot. Among the incidents related in that last book of mine about the wild geese, there were two or three about the bird's noble and dignified bearing and its extraordinary intelligence, and I wish here to return to that subject just to tell yet one more goose story: only in this instance it was about the domestic bird.

It happened that among the numerous letters I received from readers of Birds and Man on its first appearance there was one which particularly interested me, from an old gentleman, a retired schoolmaster in the cathedral city of Wells. He was a delightful letter-writer, but by-and-bye our correspondence ceased and I heard no more of him for three or four years. Then I was at Wells, spending a few days looking up and inquiring after old friends in the place, and remembering my pleasant letter-writer I went to call on him. During our conversation he told me that the chapter which had impressed him most in my book was the one on the goose, especially all that related to the lofty dignified bearing of the bird, its independent spirit and fearlessness of its human masters, in which it differs so greatly from all other domestic birds. He knew it well; he had been feelingly persuaded of that proud spirit in the bird, and had greatly desired to tell me of an adventure he had met with, but the incident reflected so unfavourably on himself, as a humane and fair-minded or sportsmanlike person, that he had refrained. However, now that I had come to see him he would make a clean breast of it.

It happened that in January some winters ago, there was a very great fall of snow in England, especially in the south and west. The snow fell without intermission all day and all night, and on the following morning Wells appeared half buried in it. He was then living with a daughter who kept house for him in a cottage standing in its own grounds on the outskirts of the town. On attempting to leave the house he found they were shut in by the snow, which had banked itself against the walls to the height of the eaves. Half an hour's vigorous spade work enabled him to get out from the kitchen door into the open, and the sun in a blue sky shining on a dazzling white and silent world. But no milkman was going his rounds, and there would be no baker nor butcher nor any other tradesman to call for orders. And there were no provisions in the house! But the milk for breakfast was the first thing needed, and so with a jug in his hand he went bravely out to try and make his way to the milk shop which was not far off.

A wall and hedge bounded his front garden on one side, and this was now entirely covered by an immense snowdrift, sloping up to a height of about seven feet. It was only when he paused to look at this vast snow heap in his garden that he caught sight of a goose, a very big snow-white bird without a grey spot in its plumage, standing within a few yards of him, about four feet from the ground. Its entire snowy whiteness with snow for a background had prevented him from seeing it until he looked directly at it. He stood still gazing in astonishment and admiration at this noble bird, standing so motionless with its head raised high that it was like the figure of a goose carved out of some crystalline white stone and set up at that spot on the glittering snowdrift. But it was no statue; it had living eyes which without the least turning of the head watched him and every motion he made. Then all at once the thought came into his head that here was something, very good succulent food in fact, sent, he almost thought providentially, to provision his house; for how easy it would be for him as he passed the bird to throw himself suddenly upon and capture it! It had belonged to some one, no doubt, but that great snowstorm and the furious north-east wind had blown it far far from its native place and it was lost to its owner for ever. Practically it was now a wild bird free for him to take without any qualms and to nourish himself on its flesh while the snow siege lasted. Standing there, jug in hand, he thought it out, and then took a few steps towards the bird in order to see if there was any sign of suspicion in it; but there was none, only he could see that the goose without turning its head was all the time regarding him out of the corner of one eye. Finally he came to the conclusion that his best plan was to go for the milk and on his return to set the jug down by the gate when coming in, then to walk in a careless, unconcerned manner towards the door, taking no notice of the goose until he got abreast of it, and then turn suddenly and hurl himself upon it. Nothing could be easier; so away he went and in about twenty minutes was back again with the milk, to find the bird in the same place standing as before motionless in the same attitude. It was not disturbed at his coming in at the gate, nor did it show the slightest disposition to move when he walked towards it in his studied careless manner. Then, when within three yards of it, came the supreme moment, and wheeling suddenly round he hurled himself with violence upon his victim, throwing out his arms to capture it, and so great was the impulse he had given himself that he was buried to the ankles in the drift. But before going into it, in that brief moment, the fraction of a second, he saw what happened; just as his hands were about to touch it the wings opened and the bird was lifted from its stand and out of his reach as if by a miracle. In the drift he was like a drowning man, swallowing snow into his lungs for water. For a few dreadful moments he thought it was all over with him; then he succeeded in struggling out and stood trembling and gasping and choking, blinded with snow. By-and-bye he recovered and had a look round, and lo! there stood his goose on the summit of the snow bank about three yards from the spot where it had been! It was standing as before, perfectly motionless, its long neck and head raised, and was still in appearance the snow-white figure of a carved bird, only it was more conspicuous and impressive now, being outlined against the blue sky, and as before it was regarding him out of the corner of one eye. He had never, he said, felt so ashamed of himself in his life! If the bird had screamed and fled from him it would not have been so bad, but there it had chosen to remain, as if despising his attempt at harming it too much even to feel resentment. A most uncanny bird! it seemed to him that it had divined his intention from the first and had been prepared for his every movement; and now it appeared to him to be saying mentally: "Have you got no more plans to capture me in your clever brain, or have you quite given it up?"

Yes, he had quite, quite given it up!

And then the goose, seeing there were no more plans, quietly unfolded its wings and rose from the snowdrift and flew away over the town and the cathedral away on the further side, and towards the snow-covered Mendips; he standing there watching it until it was lost to sight in the pale sky.

W. H. Hudson