Monday, October 15, 2007
Blog Action Day -- Geese and My Memoir
It's interesting to see all the personal takes for today's event (I will join in on my first garden bloom day tomorrow, I hope, including a list of all the first year plants for my new space). Here is a section from my environmental memoir, in progress, about gardening with my mother when I was a young lad, though this section is more about discovering a new place--what will become the garden for my mother and I.
Even now, in early December, the Canada Geese are still making their way south. Early in the morning, just before sunrise, my foggy senses catch their calls and direction to one another. There must not be very many of them, because the chorus seems too ordered and collected.
When my family moved from semi-arid Oklahoma to abundantly moist Minnesota when I was ten, there were immediate physical, natural sensations that washed over me and planted themselves into my psyche. I suppose this is the same sort of event that happens to babies; I’ve heard of psychologists who say that our first impressions of everything happen then, and last for the rest of our lives in the subconscious.
In any case, when we moved it was August. In Minnesota, this month can veer into two distinct moods—god-awful muggy and ravaged by the last batch of mosquitos, or crisp and brisk in preparation for a long fall. In 1986, it was the latter. We moved into a moldy duplex for a few months, unsure of our final locale, and outside were many clumps of pine and spruce. The fall needle drop already began to litter the ground, and the moist shade of those conifers was a musk I’d never experienced before—this scent is almost unexplainable. It is a decomposition and a composition, a rest and a feverish action, a fear and liberation, trepidation and soul-deep discovery. It was cool in these shadows, the sweetness of the sharp aroma was allowed an accent on my young senses, just as the sudden calls of passing birds overhead who were the size of pteradactyls.
I’d never seen birds so large, so uniform, like an army pacing the sky. Their first calls made me rush out from the tree’s shadows into the low light of early autumn and feel something charge within me. As those geese slid south, my heart was still racing to head north and catch up to my body in this strange place. My mother had grown up in Wisconsin, just next door, and explained to me what these birds were, as much as she knew about them—but what was sure in her voice was that she was closer to home than she’d been for a long time, and I was further, like a distant planet or moon loosely holding on to the warm center of a galaxy.
This distant, disconnected sensation was wonderful. It was liberating. It would take months, even years, for me to realize how horrible that can be at the same time, though. Distance—either physical or psychological—is an almost impenetrable state of being. It’s next to impossible to inhabit one’s self from a distance. And yet, each spring, and especially each fall, the geese came ordered in their appearance, chaotic in their calling. Sometimes they’d fly so low I could hear their wings, the combined catching of their feathers like leaves in the breeze, pulling and pushing upon the air. They were just out of reach, moving at a pace I felt I could catch up to, a pace that in my sudden migration north I’d appreciate having.
The Canada goose has been clocked as fast as 60-70 miles per hour, but rarely keeps that speed up. They are exceedingly efficient as the lead bird breaks the wind and reduces drag for the birds behind; I’ve always thought the V-shape was an ingenious adaptation or discovery, and to see it in nature, not discovered by man first, made it even more so. Each bird down the line on both sides is basically riding the slipstream caused by the bird just ahead and next to it. This allows them to expend much less energy, thus being able to cover as many as 650 miles a day with little food or rest, and allowing them to be strong and healthy on their arrival down south. Most geese in the Midwest and plains follow the Mississippi, whose banks are full of shelter and food and open landing spaces. Since the Mississippi begins in northern Minnesota, at Lake Itasca, I’ve come to feel that the geese begin here as well, as if I let them go, and with the geese some part of me that never could have been nurtured in another place.
My parents took a huge risk moving north. My dad had built homes with his own since he was a boy, along with farming wheat. After they sold the tractors and combines, and the housing market cooled in Oklahoma, they ventured north. My dad arrived several months ahead to make contacts and scout the market, then to begin building his first home for sale. I celebrated my tenth birthday without him, and a few weeks later preceded the Mayflower moving van into a former prairie called Eden Prairie.
I was full of the air around me—heavy and damp, cautious and rich with potential, full of a hidden diversity only seasons would unravel and develop. In Oklahoma there are two seasons—hot and brown. Here, though, there were four that blended into one another, were built from each other, borrowed body parts to begin new lives. It was a seamless and efficient flowing. My parents had spent all their money on the move and financing the first spec house, so we were grounded in a purgatory of a temporary and shabby little house until the new one was done and we could move in until it sold. Then we’d move into another house, also for sale, and so on until we had enough money to buy our own home.
In the summer, just after hatching, several types of adult geese molt and lose their feathers. As they and their goslings bobble about on the ground evading predators, they are pretty much stuck in the same boat. By the time the goslings get their flight feathers, the parents have regrown theirs. This explains a mid summer line of geese that walked through a very busy local highway. Cars normally going 60mph stopped in each direction for five minutes as seemingly defiant parents led their families across the asphalt from one catch pond to the other—no one in our car had ever seen anything like it. This wasn’t a country road, waiting for a lone and disinterested cow to move to the side, there was purpose, even dignity in this parade.
For me, looking back, I can see my parents in this. We were all stuck in the process of our lives, grounded in our move, made stagnate by the newness of place and perception, almost blindly going forth. Whenever I wake up cold in the mornings I smell the damp pine needles of those first months, and when in my hazy pre waking I hear the geese call, I am at once comforted and frozen in trepidation of the new day. Their call is a call south, hungry and driven by some hormone deep inside them that is triggered perhaps by the waning summer sun. Parents mate for life, teach their children the way south and back again. Children nest where they were born, and their lives and their purposes form complete circles, perfect in shape and efficiency of being. Even now, years later and having just woken on a cold fall morning, their chaotic calls break the air around me, ease me into my life and a new day I remember having intensely lived before. In leaving, they’ve brought me closer to my home.