The Geese Teach Me a Lesson.

GOOSE, n. A bird that supplies quills for writing. These, by some occult process of nature, are penetrated and suffused with various degrees of the bird's intellectual energies and emotional character...

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One of the loveliest places I ever lived was in a cabin in the bush. It faced north (this is the southern hemisphere) and so especially in winter it was glorious to sit on the veranda and take in the morning sun. The northern view looked like a mountain although it was really a part of a great escarpment. The cabin was on a rise so the northern aspect sloped down with bush on either side and pasture in the centre.

During winter the animals would come up to the top of the rise in front of the cabin to bask and doze in the morning sun. The geese would appoint a lookout and then the others would take their snooze position. One of the most popular was to sit with the head tucked back under a wing. They would remain stationary for about an hour. They also came in the evening.

These were the only time they were not on the move because every day they had their routine which involved wandering about all day over the property. Unfortunately they didn’t have a lake or pond which is their preferred point of safety.

Immediately in front of the cabin there was a small tiled area which retained more warmth than the grass covered earth which would be quite damp in the evening and early morning. Around sunset the warmest place was definitely on the tiles and so that’s where the geese came. And that’s where they pooped. I don’t know if you have ever spent any time around geese but let me tell you they can poop a lot. It didn’t take very long for the tiled area to be totally covered and that didn’t make things very pleasant for me.

 

Now I’ll tell you what I did and what happened as a consequence.

For a couple of days I watched them in the evening and while I thought it was ok for them to seek the warmth of the tiles I was not impressed with the growing pile of poop and thought about what I could do to prevent it. Then on the third day I lost the plot and chased them away. You need to know that geese are not only big birds but they can be quite fierce and brave (that’s why in ancient Rome they were used for the purposes of raising an alarm if strangers arrived. I can assure you that they are very efficient at this task and it is virtually impossible to sneak past them!). So they did not move very far and what’s more the protective males, especially the lead or alpha male, made it clear that they were not very impressed with my behaviour. So I grabbed my broom and chased them some more waving the broom about to demonstrate my message. This time they moved off further and had I known them better, as I would come to later, then I could have heard from their noise that as far as they were concerned this was not the end of it.

The main door to the cabin was half way along the veranda and immediately outside this door, on the wooden deck, was a thick mat. On the morning which followed my chasing the geese, right in the middle of the mat, there was a big poop.

The message was very clear! I was no match for this gaggle. If they so decided they could very quickly take over the entire veranda as well as the tiled area and short of constructing a fence there was really nothing I could do about it. I was at their mercy and I knew it. And so did they as they duly arrived at 10 a.m. which was the time the winter sun was high and warm enough and the grass dry enough for them to snooze. They took up their favourite positions and completely ignoring me, dozed in the warmth of the sun. I sat on the veranda and considered my situation. It didn’t take me too long. By the time they were slowly waking, stretching and beginning to move again my mind was clear. They were owed an apology.

How on earth does one apologise to a gaggle of geese? Not only had I not been around geese before but I didn’t grow up on a farm and was not really that familiar with animals. When I was young I had a beautiful cat I called Goldie because of his colour but he had been my only pet (one day I found Goldie stiff and cold at the edge of the road outside my home so I had to bury him. Even now, decades later, I can smell his smell and feel his fur). So I did the only thing I could think of. I walked out among them (oddly they didn’t move away) and talked out loud telling them how sorry I was, that I did not really mean it, that having a poop covered tiled area made life difficult for me and that I hated myself for chasing them with the broom. This went on for a good while so thank heavens this was not in a town or even having close neighbours. The cabin was utterly private with just the sky, the trees and the grass. Eventually I felt enough had been said so returned to the veranda and left the gaggle to themselves.

Now I need you to understand the point of this story. I know in fiction writers are allowed to make things up, to invent for the sake of a good story and we all have enjoyed that at one time or other. This is not that kind of story. This is not made up. The whole point you see is that this is really as it happened without any exaggerating. If anything the geese are under-described . For example, when I was out among them verbalizing my apology they stopped wandering, picking at grass and stood there listening. How about that for personification but it is not my fault because if you had seen that scene then that is how you would have had to describe it as well.Here comes the really wonderful part and I swear to you that this is absolutely true and without distortion. The geese never once pooped on the tiles (or the mat) again.

Not once!

After that we really started to become friends. When they came up to rest in the morning sun I would make myself a cup of tea and sit out on the veranda and take in the warmth of the sun with them. Gradually I came to know their signals, the sounds they used and the body language of both the alpha male and mother goose (which is what I called the lead female). It was mother goose by the way who made the decisions when there was no threat. She decided who sat where, when to arrive and when to wake up and move off and several times when the most junior geese were not listening she used her strong beak to give them a peck and they quickly fell into line.

Geese have many signals and while the one for alarm is quite obvious (these geese could only fly a couple of hundred metres, they were land animals) what I came to learn were the types of checking in sounds. For example there was the one which sounded like roll call. The alpha male would make a single call and then the rest would answer. If they were not all in sight the call would be different and he would wait till everyone had checked in. Usually this call also brought any goose who was out of sight back into visibility. My favourite sounds were those they made when they were dozing in the sun, dreaming. Little honks of pure pleasure. Over time I became so familiar with their sounds that I could wander with them (and they totally accepted me as another goose) and occasionally get a response to my own imitations. That felt wonderful.

Isn’t that extraordinary, that they never even once pooped again on the tiles!

When the next nesting time arrived mother goose made her nest in the garden, under a bush right in front of the cabin. She was smart and I suppose she knew I would protect her nest. Other females nested in the nearby bush and so most of their eggs were lost to goannas and snakes.

As the season grew warmer a routine became established. First the kookaburras sounded the alarm (and for non Australian friends there is a good reason for calling this iconic bird the laughing kookaburra) calling me out and I would grab my long, stout, staff from the veranda and use it to dissuade the goanna or the big, black snake (red belly black). It wasn’t always easy as it takes a lot to frighten a big goanna but only one egg was lost from mother goose’s nest (the goanna took it in its mouth and ran so quickly up the nearest tree where it took its meal out of reach). The poor old black snake had to find its food elsewhere as it lacked the speed and strength of a goanna so was easier to deal with.

One day the land owner decided to get rid of the geese. He was unable to recognise the role the gaggle played in the overall eco-system (in which they survived goannas, snakes, foxes and wild dogs). Those who look at financial aspects only tend to miss a great deal. Men came with huge nets into which they drove the geese. Oh what flapping and loud crying there was that day. But the men could not capture the alpha male. This beautiful animal was not even the biggest male but he had a powerful focus which was only fully apparent when there was a physical thread present. Watching him then was a privilege I shall never forget for he become quite magnificent with his wings outstretched to make himself look bigger. He had dealt with all the local (animal) predators so was much smarter than the men with their nets.

I heard the racket from the cabin and wondered if a dog pack was attacking the geese. When I went down the hill and discovered what was happening I went and got a large cardboard carton and simply knelt on one knee beside it. Although he had never allowed me within about five feet of him before, the lead male ran in a direct, straight line from where he was to me. No wing flap. He sat between my kneeling knee and the leg at right angle. He didn’t move. I held him and uttered my inadequate thanks and respect for all he had taught me, for keeping the gaggle safe for such a long time. Then I placed him in the box and folded the flaps. He didn’t even flick his wings. I cried then and am doing so again now all this time later when I regard his magnificence and the gifts his gaggle gave me.

Do you know what? The people present did not even notice what had happened!

Since being given this lesson I am no longer surprised, or embarrassed, at communication with all forms of life and note that sentient comes from the Latin 'sentire' meaning to feel. Laurens van der Post said that animals knew when someone was hunting as opposed to walking/travelling.

Not long after this I had a large, half-clydesdale as a neighbour who the owners couldn't control (she was far too strong to be forced to do anything). Everyday she found a way to get around the fences to visit me. She's be rewarded with a brushing and often a warm wash (which she utterly enjoyed yet remained afraid of the hose) and an apple and there was nothing she wouldn't do for me.

 

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