The company of geese
The first animal that ever made a person happy simply by existing was a goose.
In book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelope makes a small confession to the stranger that’s come to her house. ‘I keep a flock of twenty geese here,’ she tells him. ‘They come in from the pond to pick up their grain and I delight in watching them.’ As far as I can tell, this is the first time in literature that an animal is honoured not for being beautiful, or loyal, or strong, but for the sheer pleasure you get from seeing another living creature going about its day. Penelope’s days are not happy. She’s spent twenty years waiting for something to happen, and nothing does. Every time we meet her, she’s either on the point of bursting into tears or curling into a depressive sleep. She doesn’t get any joy from her palace, or her treasures, or even her son. She suffers. But watching her geese, just sitting idly and looking at them as they come in from the pond, gives her delight.
It’s weird to feel such a kinship with someone who lived three thousand years ago, and who didn’t even exist to boot – but I get it. Whatever your miseries, it’s delightful to be around geese.
For months now the weather’s been balmy and the pubs have been shut; I’ve been spending a lot of time around geese. Like a somewhat thinner Tony Soprano, with marginally more hair, in the middle of a catastrophe, getting sentimental about waterfowl. In Regent’s Park, my favourite are a family of Egyptian geese that’s taken to lazing around near the Hanover Gate. The goslings are nearly grown now – only a few scruffs of down around their necks, their bodies breaking out in dappled ochre – but they still like to huddle close to each other, and they still sing in delicate cheeps. Further along the lake, Canada geese honk and plod out of the water in big genial gangs. There are a few greylags too, with their handsome dented faces. They seem to breed later; their goslings are still tiny and yellowish, little marzipan figurines.
I find geese beautiful. But I have no illusions. These are supremely ridiculous birds, and they know it. Their big, heavy, jellied walk on splayed and silly feet. The way they wag their stumpy tails. The constant laughter of their honks. The grand implausibility of their flight. Geese are slapstick creatures. They’re perfectly capable of being graceful, when they want to: watch them preen their feathers, see how that long neck dips and glides. When they dive to snatch something underwater, it’s with oiled precision; when they fly high overhead, it’s in a perfect V. But most of the time, they choose not to care. Geese are ironical birds, always mocking themselves. It’s there in the eyes, the most expressive eyes of any bird. I know some chickens, emotionally complex and surprisingly playful animals, but a chicken looks at you through hard-rimmed jewels. The eyes of a goose, on the other hand, are black and very deep. They will meet your gaze, and it’s impossible not to know that something is in there, inquisitive and alive, looking out at you. The gleam of a primordial chuckle at the world.
But sometimes, when it’s grazing, or drinking, or in a confrontation, a goose will walk with its shoulders hunched and its neck stretched out straight, held parallel to the ground. You know this stance. You’ve seen it huge, in bones, at the museum. Make no mistake, this thing is a dinosaur. Other birds never let you forget their ancestry. Ted Hughes saw it: ‘Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn, more coiled steel than living…’ The lizard shines through in tilted heads and predatory stabs. With geese it works the other way. What are we missing, when we reassemble all those enormous bones? When we draw dinosaurs, we give them monstrous skeletal grins – but we lose the way they might have skittered over the water, their happy waddle, and the laughter of their song.
Birds have always been signs and portents; the ancient Greeks had the same word, ὄρνις, for bird and omen. Hence Aristophanes: ‘A word can be a bird for you.’ In prophecy or poetry, all language leaps to flight; it becomes avian. ‘Turn your minds to our words, our ethereal words, for the words of birds last forever!’ (In the same play, we’re reminded that the birds are ‘older far than Kronos and the Titans, and even Earth;’ the true gods and kings of creation.) Geese, too, are symbols; Penelope’s geese appear in a prophetic dream. Like all good symbols, they’re contradictory. First, geese stand for loyalty. They mate for life, and raise their young together. Pairs dance together when they reunite. They return to the same nesting grounds. They mourn when an egg or a gosling is lost; if one partner dies, the widow is inconsolable. Konrad Lorenz, who virtually founded the discipline of ethology – the study of animal behaviour – on his studies with geese, writes that ‘a greylag goose that has lost its partner shows all the symptoms described in young human children… the eyes sink deep in their sockets, and the individual has an overall drooping experience, literally letting the head hang.’ Lonely poets have always seen themselves mirrored in the mourning goose. Du Fu’s The Solitary Goose, written during the Tang Era: 谁联一片影, 相失万重云 – or, in Burton Watson’s translation, ‘Who pities his lonely form, lost from the others in ten-thousand-layered clouds?’ But geese strive to help their lonely. If a goose is tired or injured during flight, a few others from the flock will drop out of formation with it and stand guard until it’s recovered. And at the same time, geese also represent transience. They migrate: these heavy, fickle birds brighten the world for a season, and then the leaves change and they’re gone.
Geese don’t just signify; they also talk to us, specifically to us. Studies have shown that humans are capable of understanding geese signals intuitively, without any special knowledge of the animals. You can tell, without even thinking, when a goose is honking contentedly, when it’s searching for something, when it’s warning you away, or when it’s raising the alarm. Their sadness is bodily, viscerally the same as ours. So is their dancing, clucking, foot-stomping joy. The only other animal that shares so much of our semiotic space is a dog, and dogs are our own creations. And geese sometimes have the upper hand. In 390 BC, when an army of Gauls scaled the Capitoline Hill, the guard dogs slept, but the Romans were warned by the clamour of Juno’s sacred geese. Their ability to pass on meaningful messages has been understood for a very long time. It’s why geese are still used as guard animals today.
Like dogs, geese understand our language. They can learn their own names; flying geese will come to land if you call out for them. Even wild geese will quickly come to recognise individual humans, and can form strong friendships with us. But they also include us in their own speech. If you try to miaow at a cat, you’ll only get a blank look in return; cats have developed a one-way signalling system for humans. It’s not a medium of conversation, it’s a way of getting what they want. But geese want to chat. They know we can understand them. When they graze in groups, geese make soft reassuring noises to each other, in a complex social call and response – and when humans imitate their noises, they respond.
In all their relations with humans, geese start with an assumption of equality. These are profoundly democratic birds. They certainly have nothing like a pecking order, and their monogamy guards against harems, dominance displays, or the greasy pole of hierarchy. (It’s not that these things don’t exist in geese, but they’re far less significant in their social behaviour than in other gregarious animals – like seals, for instance, or ourselves.) But this is not the same as being docile. A goose will calmly stand its ground against much larger animals. This extends to humans too. A few high-profile pecks and a defamatory video game have given geese a reputation for aggression, even malice, which is entirely undeserved. They don’t dislike us; nothing could be further from the truth. They’re simply not afraid of us. (Foxes, which I also admire, are the same. If you catch a fox loping across the road late a night, it will usually slow down, pause to study you with a slow, deft, mocking glance.) Lying down in the park, I once felt a slight tap on my head, and looked up to find a herd munching grass around me. If they trust you, they’ll even let you hang out with their goslings. These creatures are equally at home on land, on the water, and in the air: all of creation is theirs; they can slip from one realm to another whenever they choose. An animal with such majestic sovereignty can afford to be gentle, and unflappable, and brave.
Geese are territorial. They know which patches of land have been set aside by other geese, and also which territories are claimed by humans. If you see a group of geese genially and noisily going where they’re not supposed to be, it’s not because they don’t understand; they’re contesting our claim. This is more a game than an invasion; geese have a good ironic attitude towards the institution of private property. Anywhere that isn’t physically occupied is assumed to be up for grabs – and then the geese await our response. As always, they’d like to talk to us, to engage with us, because they believe they can. Sometimes we can annoy them, and sometimes we need a good sharp peck to keep the peace, but for the most part we’re good-natured, gregarious, and faintly silly animals, with occasional glints of intelligence, waddling lopsidedly over the earth.
We would be a far better species, and this would be a far better world, if we were more like the creatures the geese think we are.
(All goose photos mine.)