Maybe I was at work and someone had a leaf-blower going outside my window. Maybe I was on the bus, the tire noise at highway speeds drowning out their cries. Maybe I’d cranked up the music just moments before. Who’s to say? All I know is that this season I’ve yet to hear waves of geese flighting north.
When I was a child in the ‘50s, those migrating flocks were the only geese we saw. In fall they streamed southward in overlapping Vs, hundreds at a whack. Sometimes their cries drowned out the peepers in the swamp beyond the hayfield or the night train on the far side of the woods. In spring we’d hear them again, Canada-bound, and we’d race outside to catch them before they were gone. Sometimes they cruised easy on a wind out of the south or beat staunchly into a wind from the north. Sometimes they were simply too high to see, masses of unruly gray clouds between us and them.
This was the romance of being a child in that time, that place, beneath the eastern flyway — that geese seemed so many yet so rare, summering way far north or wintering considerably to the south. As for where exactly — the Hudson Bay, maybe, or any of scores of lakes and marshes in Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland in summer? The Chesapeake Bay, the saltwater marshes of Virginia and the Carolinas in winter? I don’t think they covered that sort of detail in science class. Because I’m sure, sure I’d have remembered, though it never crossed my mind to ask; I wasn’t one to speak out of place. I was a child.
Anyway. Those days are gone. Back then, true, some geese didn’t migrate, though I had never heard of them. Had no idea that well before the turn of the 20th century and up through the early 30s, hunters captured injured “decoy geese,” clipping their flight feathers and feeding them as needed through the winter. During the early part of that era, plucked geese were easy to find in neighborhood butcher shops.
But that era was long gone when the 30s rolled around. The largest subspecies — the giant Canada goose — was close to extinction. Its slightly smaller kin weren’t doing so well themselves. Decoy flocks, numbering in the tens of thousands, were among the last Canada geese alive. In 1935 hunting with live decoys was banned. When hunters left the decoys to their own devices, conservationists — fearful of losing the geese forever — began swooping them up and releasing them in marshes and ponds across the country.
And think about it. If all those geese knew was the world around their marsh, their pond — the world they got dumped in — it was like closing the one-room schoolhouse and firing the teacher. You get the picture. Thousands of geese scattered hither and yon and no clue where Canada was. Because … if their parents had their wings clipped, it’s as if they did too.
At first it had to have been pure delight; surely for anyone enchanted by watching geese across the water, their little ones trailing behind. In the 30s through the mid-40s, people could no more conceive of goose poo by the bushelful in parks and playgrounds than they could conceive of suburbs.
Just as it was inconceivable to me as a child in the 50s that someday there’d be a year 2000, not to mention a year 2016; that the hayfield across from our place, with the woods and swamp and train track beyond, would sprout an oddball assortment of boxy houses and factories; that I could see geese (and goose poo) anytime I cared to in nearby parks, ponds, playgrounds and marshes but so rarely high overhead, tracing their ancient flyways each spring and fall; that my childhood would vanish forever.
And that telling you this story on a wild spring day would almost bring it back again.