Following the Greater Snow Geese
by Sue HollowayPrelude The Greater Snow Goose, anser caerulescens atlanticus., is one of three species of Snow Goose, including the Lesser Snow Goose and Rosss Goose. With a unique migratory path along the Atlantic corridor, or flyway, this species has historically traveled together as one flock. But in 1999, several hundred thousand geese staged in mid-April at another site along the St. Lawrence River.
I first saw the flocks in 1996, when five waves of the white birds passed over Stony Creek. Witnessing them with awe, I watched their dark wing tips melt into sapphire light. The vision was so intensely beautiful, I wept until I found myself shaking. It was an unusual response on the bodily level, and it got my attention; inspired me to inquire on the geese behalf. Where would they go, so many? Where would they feed?
The search began; the responses, both heartening and devastating. The geese, it turns out, were quite close to Jamaica Bay, a national wildlife refuge on Long Island, which may be why they were flying unusually low over this area of Connecticut. Or perhaps they were heading for a refuge near the Brigantine Peninsula of New Jersey.
The birding expert who shared this information added that the snow geese were targeted for a reduction in population. They were allegedly destroying the rhizomes of the grass spartina alterniflora in refuge marshes. The official referred to a "formula" for determining the number of geese to be killed. Projections, estimates, shifting bag limits
I was not easily seduced by such terminology, having literally been shaken up with the mystical vision from the sky. Unbelieving, I needed to see this so-called "devastation." A few weeks later, preceding a November storm front, I traveled to Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, in southern New Jersey. There, thousands of snow geese fed and rested.
There were no indications of great destruction of grasses in this refuge. The small proportion still feeding late in the day worked a long time, with the entire head stuck in the muck, to remove even one root. Rather than seeing "voracious" birds, I found them to be enchanting in an unexpected way. As the storm grew in force, the geese gathered in a safe nook. Some played on the turbulent currents of the wind.
I was more in love than ever with the snow geese.
Quebec, CAN, 1999
A gift from Parker Huber, publisher of Writing Nature, made it possible for me to join a Maine Audubon trip to a Quebec staging ground for Greater Snow Geese. Cap Tourmente, Cape of Storms, is a national park located about an hours drive outside the City of Quebec. There, the Greater Snow Geese stage, resting and replenishing, before continuing on to Baffin Island or Greenland.
The last weekend of April, we boarded a bus at the old Ghislead farmhouse, a Portland, Maine Audubon center. The two seasoned leaders were enthusiastic about both the natural spectacle and cultural /epicurean opportunities in the UNESCO exemplary metropolis.
Wheels swirled past pines and fir, frozen lakes, scrub dogwood, and maples with a hint of red. Moose appeared among bare trees, as we viewed videos of Canadian landscapes. One ended with an image of a young girl looking in the distance before a pristine, remote mountain lake. The childs profile, haloed in white light, hinted of a deep spirituality in the human connection with wilderness and wildness.
In landscapes of snow geese, a mother goose sat on the nest, attuning to her eggs. Several days before hatching, the eggs hummed with life; the chicks talked with the exhausted mother, who had seldom eaten during brooding. She responded constantly in a litany of love.
Over the short arctic summer, the snow goslings would learn to swim and walk and fly in synchrony, until movement-as-one seemed effortless. What magical creatures! On a screen inside the bus, white geese with black primaries formed wavy lines across the land, beckoning.
Meanwhile, our leader dispersed information from the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), preparing us for unanticipated aspects of our visit. So many geese had dispersed beyond the park reserves to farmers fields, that the government was offering financial compensation to farmers. But that was not enough; there would be hunting in Quebec and other provinces -- even though the geese needed to recuperate from a thousand-mile, nonstop journey, and prepare for another up to 2,700 miles.
The unprecedented spring hunt would be situated in fields along the highway and even in parts of Cap Tourmente. The situation was presented with the language of economics and mathematics and management, referring to estimates, statistics, strategies. But it was a tragedy for the geese.
Inside, I wailed. The white geese were under attack during their arduous journey. Even the ancestral breeding colonies might be violated Could there ever again on this earth, I wondered, be such a thing as unmitigated joy -- like that of the flocks, the haloed child, the "untouched" wilderness?
* * *
Within the stone walls of the Old City, steep streets led to the hotel overlooking the St. Lawrence. On past trips, one leader confided, geese were heard flying over at night. I skipped the cocktail hour and listened for winged passage.
Next morning, on route to Cap Tourmente, we passed a waterfall haloed in a violet and sapphire rainbow. The trip was imbued with ironies and paradoxes. The rushing, roaring stream cascaded from a suburban hilltop setting. Beyond this, fields grew green with young shoots, tender promise of spring, marred with an aberration of plastic disposable diapers draped on random branches. The fragments supposedly simulated descending wings in various postures: hunters design for ambushing the geese.
The bizarre spectacle highlighted the strange pact between the government and the people, with the shooting condoned in proximity to the highway. Even humans could be in peril with this management "strategy." It was a relief not to see any armed men or any dead geese. But the possibility was a strong presence.
* * *
At the parks entrance, near an old farmhouse, flocks greeted us gregariously. Everywhere, white birds with rust-colored heads stood among dry grasses, nibbling shoots. Approaching within several feet of the birds, we witnessed the flock consciousness for which these birds are revered. One rose, then another; families took to the air, one after another, stringing the sky. Soon the entire flock had dispersed.
We followed on a trail of planks through marshes to a pavilion beside the St. Lawrence. Birds stretched across muck flats at low tide, feeding on bulrush roots. The throng shifted, in constant motion, as more geese interwove themselves among those standing. Like thoughts of a fertile mind, they settled in, as if one impulse connected all movement.
Then one bird rose, and another, and more, airborne white flames lacing blue-hazed hills. Trailing them, we returned to the educational facility. Stripping off layers of wool and fleece, feeling the suns warmth, welcome in late April, we paused for box lunches drawn out of the belly of the bus; mine, a salad plate with radish roses. We sipped on Cokes, nibbled cookies, and snapped photos, absorbed in the wonder of flock unity.
Dreamily perched along the walkway, near dozens of feeding geese, whose murmurs resembled a buzzing hive, I recalled a dream after seeing the flocks pass over Stony Creek. The message was clear: "The earth weeps for her snow geese." I realized, to slaughter the geese is to bring grief to the earth. Instead of an internationally-sanctioned slaughter, we could -- in deference to the joy of the earth -- seek ways to receive them graciously and to support their needs.
Yet, as we nourished ourselves with food and beauty, beyond the Laurentian hills, shots punctuated the joy. Nearby, a barrage of bullets shattered bones and fragmented families who flew as one.
Heading for Quebec, we arrived at St. Annes Cathedral, a major site of pilgrimage similar to Lourdes or Fatima, in Europe. Here, people petition miracles. Some of our group entered the massive stone structure, reporting that crutches and even wheelchairs were lying around, apparently abandoned after supplicants were granted the gift of movement.
Some of us found our way down a long pier, seeking further visions of the white-feathered extravaganza dotting the black muddy shoreline of the St. Lawrence at low tide. Then came the tolling of the great bells. It lasted over ten minutes, the air vibrant with movement, filling us all. Someone had died.
Our trip was, itself, a pilgrimage, a prayer, a petition to the Canadian government to sustain the geese.
What if the bells tolled for each goose shot during staging? Could it jar people out of forgetfulness? Accounts in birding books abound with accolades about the magnificent flocks of snow geese. For some people, seeing the flocks becomes the thrill of a lifetime. Why do we not also ask what the snow geese mean to the earth?
A dream implied that the movement of these geese -- the river of feathered, light-filled exuberance -- resembles a hormonal surge for the earth-as-organism. It is akin to a feeling of being in love, or the uplifting, hopeful sweeping sense of spring; a rejuvenating element of earths psyche, transcending counts and formulas. I pray we will protect and nurture this energizing element streaming over the continent.
Sue Holloway, Ph.D., is an environmental journalist for several Connecticut shoreline newspapers.
Adapted from "Nested Realities," published in "Writing Nature," a fine nature journal, Brattleboro, VT, Summer, 2000. Permission to reprint by J. Parker Huber, Editor/Publisher.
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