Our geese won’t go.
The robins were gone by the time the ash tree outside my window turned gold, and with them the grackles and blackbirds, egrets and hummingbirds, warblers, buntings, more songbirds than I know. The fruit has nearly ceased to fall. A hush drapes over the pond across the street from our house. Leggy insects no longer skate on the surface of the waters, and thigh-sized carp no longer mosh to the music in their heads. Everything is almost still.
Except that our geese won’t go.
They will not migrate this winter, or any winter. At our latitude just west of Denver, temperatures won’t dip quite below unbearable, and in this suburban landscape, they will find food enough. They will stay, and drive everyone batty by clogging traffic, wandering aimlessly down the middle of the street once the pond has frozen over.
I keep thinking that if those geese had thumbs, in winter they’d be twiddling them. They mill around, constantly picking at the lawn, occasionally hissing at one another. They loiter, like the teenagers I’ve seen at the playground, swinging and smoking cigarettes. They peck at one another’s tails and make noise seemingly for the sole purpose of hearing their own voices ringing in the air.
Unaccountably, I’m annoyed by their life choices. I want to take them by the shoulders and shake them. What are you still doing here? I want to know. Don’t you have someplace better to be?
Of course they do. The warm wintering grounds of Mexico await. But the point is that they’ll survive right here, no problem. Most creatures are wired to put forth minimal effort to pass from one season into the next; we do what it takes to survive, and that’s all.
Overhead, I’ve seen geese in their V-formations appear from behind rooftops and pass over our pond. I do not know for sure, but I always imagine the geese in the sky are strangers from the north passing through on a long flight south. The conditions in Canada force a move; staying there all winter is not an option. But what these geese must do is epic: migration may require up to 1,800 miles of flight.
The mystery is how a bird can find her way. She strikes out on a wing and a prayer, aiming at an abstraction, or a distant memory. A baby goose may follow its mother; a goose once grown must remember the way.
How is it possible? I have driven a dozen times a mere 1,300 miles from Colorado to Michigan, where my in-laws live. I have five senses and a considerably larger brain than that of a bird. More crucially, I have a satellite-linked GPS, upon which I am completely reliant to find my route.
What sort of guidance system does a bird have on board? There are many theories. Perhaps she really does keep a map in her head, keeping a photographic record of the terrain in her memory. Later, she pulls it up, like Google maps’ satellite view. Or maybe she follows her sense of smell, like a hound dog. Perhaps she orients, like ancient seafarers, by sun and stars.
My favorite theory is this: A bird carries in its beak a compound called magnetite. Just as it can see or hear, a goose can sense the south. The earth’s magnetic poles attract the magnetite as they attract the needle of a compass, and a goose pivots, following her nose. She jumps on the magnetic field and rides it like an ocean current. The south pulls on her, drawing her down.
As I have said, our geese won’t go.
The geese on my pond are not lacking instincts. A goose is not made to paddle one pond; a goose is made to go south. A migrating goose has no particular talent or resources that our geese would find unavailable. Every year, all geese put on weight and sprout flight feathers in preparation for a journey that may or may not ever take place.
Who knows what a goose feels, after her body has prepared itself, after her instincts have called and she has made the decision to keep to familiar waters rather than risk following that magnetic draw. Is it possible she feels longing? Does it tug like a crochet hook at her breastbone? Does she ever see the geese passing her by, and wonder at what might have been? Does she believe she’s capable? And when she tucks her head beneath her wing on the coldest winter nights—when the pond’s frozen over and the food is its most scarce—does she dream wistful dreams of the south?
Nowadays I wonder: Where shall I winter, and how? For like the geese, I tend to default to bare-minimum exertion. At my life’s latitude, conditions won’t force me into extra effort.
Unlike the geese, however, I would like my life to count for more than basic survival and production of offspring.
It’s easy to get wrapped up there. Especially when said offspring are so young and demanding of time. Most projects that require extra energy output—landscaping the front yard, for instance, or putting my pictures into actual scrapbooks instead of stuffing them into shoeboxes—have been postponed, indefinitely.
These examples are trivial. But then there are the other things that are definitely not trivial—dreams I have for making an impact on the world beyond raising two fabulous (and they are) tiny people.
The tiny people are my priority, but I don’t want them to be the only one. I know how large this world is. And I would like to make ripples in it that go beyond my own little pond.
There are stories and ideas that draw me like a magnet. Who doesn’t occasionally have a conversation or read a news story that makes them ache with a kind of desperation? Because something here just isn’t right. The world is a creaking, groaning place full of need.
The world turns on its axis independent of my action, but the universe as a whole bends ever so slightly, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, toward justice. I would like to put my shoulder beneath the lever that bends it so, and to push.
I do not believe I am lacking in the substance or ability to do so. And I am even lucky enough that, instinctively, I know which way my magnet pulls. But I am like the geese that frustrate and confound me. For them, there was a season when they stopped keying in to the magnet, and started thinking, “What is my bare minimum?” And that was the year they didn’t fly.
Isn’t it tempting to do so? Many days, I tell myself that this is the season for survival, not south. My little ones are so very, very little. Some days it’s all I can do to keep everyone’s tummy full and bottom wiped. I haven’t slept through the night in over a year—if that’s not a bare season, a survival-only season, I don’t know what is. Better to keep to the pond. I could tuck my head up under my wing, and winter through.
Still, there is the undisputed fact: A goose is made to go south. It would be silly to think that I was not made for anything, in particular.
I believe that somewhere, at some point, you know what it is you are supposed to do. You follow your nose. You sense a quivering, a tugging, so you follow it down, south, hand-beneath-hand into the warmer world of your heart. Your magnet spins, stops.
As blood-and-bone creatures in the world, that’s all you get. A crochet hook tugging at your breastbone, an uncomfortable lurching, a wistful dream. You can stay on your little pond. Or you can lift your head from under your wing, and go.