Essay

Our small corners

By March 29, 2019 3 Comments
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“Why are they called Canada geese?” our third-grade grandson asked us last week. It seems no one really knows; after all, they show up in every state of the union and don’t necessarily make pilgrimages up north to watch hockey. They just are Canada geese, and the OED claims they have been called such since the early 18th century.

Mary Oliver’s justly famous poem “Wild Geese” begins with contrition and aims for absolution by reminding us that there is saving power in the world all around. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you about mine,” she says.

Then, through a series of “Meanwhiles,” she shows us a natural world that continues apace through any and all of our adversity: “Meanwhile, the world goes on.”

That’s when she picks up the wild geese: “Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,/ are heading home again,” she says.

Experts say they used to migrate more and farther than many do today. Even as far north as northwest Iowa, some families set up a homestead. No one is sure of the origins of this change in behavior, but it’s meant an increase in population. Today, they number between four and six million.

They’re here now and in abundance. Yesterday, outside cleaning up the winter mess, I heard them for most of the afternoon as if no more than a wheelbarrow ride away. But they keep their distance. Even if they’re along the river, they’ll spot you the minute you shut the back door, then grouse amongst each other about that lousy humanoid across the field.

Mary Oliver says to think about them, so pardon my rambling.

You may have heard it on the street, but apparently, it’s true. Canada geese mate for life, and their divorce rate is almost non-existent. Just about this time of year, couples break away from the flock and look for a place to have kids. Anyone who lives around them knows it’s not unusual for them to choose a spot brazenly out in the open. Sometimes, year after year, they do the whole family thing in the very same place.

They’re nice to have around, but I don’t mind them keeping their distance. They litter with abandon, and their scat is more than droppings. Who hasn’t walked among them in some city park and not tippy-toed through the muddy do-do?

They’re unerringly conservative. When her eggs appear, Mom only keeps the nest while Dad guards the nursery but never changes a diaper. They’re fastidious at parenting. Our bald eagles have been known to kick eaglets out of the nest; geese keep the kiddos around for a year as if parting is, in fact, sweet sorrow.

But before you buy them MAGA caps, understand that they greatly like Hillary’s notion that “it takes a village.” When goslings arrive at adolescence, families often join up as flocks.

Says Mary Oliver,

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

The world offers itself to your imagination,

Calls to you like the wild geese. . .”

I like that, in great part because I like them. If you overlook their fecal matter, they make good neighbors. Out back of our house, they meal on grains and what remains from last fall’s harvest, harm no one nor anything, and never get in the way.

However, they’re known to be crabby, even hostile. I don’t know anyone who’s ever petted one. Thank goodness they don’t Twitter.

Our world, Oliver says, calls to you like the wild geese, “harsh and exciting.”

Sorry to say, they’re not particularly good singers. Right now, they’re flying over the house, and I’m reminded again of what manner of blessing it is that human voices are not designed to honk. Can you imagine a pot luck if we were they?

Here’s Mary Oliver, the last few lines:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

It’s just plain wonderful to have them around, on the ground or in the air in these impressive triangles way up near heaven. As long as I don’t have to clean up their dirt, they’re a blessing and a wonder. I’m thankful they’re here, even if, as Frost would have us believe, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

All of which reminds me of an old Sunday School ditty:

Jesus bids us shine,
With a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, we must shine,
You in your small corner,
And I in mine.

When I was a boy the age of my grandson, we used to belt that one out, but I guarantee I wasn’t once thinking of Canada geese.

Sixty years later, I’m more a fool, I guess. Those honkers flying over, even now as we speak, I honestly think He wants them to shine too. And they do, like the rest of us, in each of our small corners.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

3 Comments

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Um, when Frost said “Good fences make good neighbors he was arguing against that maxim. “There is something that doesn’t love a wall,” he wrote, “that wants it down.” Frost disagrees with his neighbor that “good fences make good neighbors” and advocates tearing fences down.
    Here where I live (central Jersey) the Canada geese seem to flock nowhere but on the large lawns of elementary schools where our little children inevitably are overexposed to their droppings. Are the geese lovely? Yes. Are they a health hazard? Yes. But you offer a solution. We will send all ours to Iowa! They will find a welcome there!

  • Marlene VandenBos says:

    The geese inhabiting New Jersey have a soft life. Would make good dinners.

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