We don’t usually hear or see geese on the bay this late in spring, but the other day they were there. Canada geese fly over my house every night in winter. From late afternoon until after midnight flocks of geese pass or land or take off from the wealth of local waterways. Some settle in small ponds, but most gather in the harvested fields. Usually they commute in groups of fifteen or twenty, but I’ve heard their honking and stepped onto the porch to see upwards of two hundred fly by. One time they were so loud in the field I went out to find thousands of geese settling in before continuing to who-knows-where. Their stay is swift, albeit perennial.
And last week they uncharacteristically crossed the twilight sky. It is that sound, though, the whoosh of wings in a methodical push along with their familiar call, which remains as true and consistent in my life as the sounds of birds in the morning. Here along the Chesapeake some geese nest all year, but it is in winter when migration routes from the St. Lawrence Seaway to all points south steer them into the area after dusk. I have laid in bed well into the evening and listened to them move past in the cold, clear sky. Sometimes I sit on the porch expecting, hoping, knowing they’ll be back.
But the migration of geese in and of itself is not what keeps my attention in this narrative, even in June when they’re more abundant in January. It is their sound and the way it always calls to me, like so many sounds in our lives.
When I was young the foghorns in the early hours called out from the boats on the Great South Bay. I remember waking to their long, singular tone, warning other fishing vessels headed out or coming in across the reach. Foghorns will always remind me of my adolescence and riding bikes out on early spring weekend mornings with my friends, a band of twelve-year-olds biking it to the bay through the fog and up to the docks. On clear days we could see Fire Island, but some mornings we couldn’t even see each other, and being that close to the water so early meant feeling the booming vibrations from foghorns. I can still smell the marsh on the nearby river and feel the cool wetness of the salty air on my skin.
And I know as long as I find my way to the water in winter I can count on the geese overhead, calling across the river. I am not sure why they honk as they do but I like to think it is the same reason as the boat’s foghorns on the bay: they don’t want to bang into each other. If I was to head back to the Island and one night went to the docks at Timber Point, I am certain I’d not recognize the area for how much has changed. There might be more traffic nearby, and the number of leisure boats has most likely increased. But all these decades later I am equally certain the sound of foghorns would drift toward shore in the morning as certain as a flock of geese migrate through these local fields, even now on the front edge of summer.
Twenty years ago I built this house frequented by hawks, the occasional eagle, countless osprey, and on winter evenings, geese. In recent years the number of bald eagles has increased. I have never been complacent watching such majestic birds of prey in flight. One move of her wings and an eagle can glide on a draft clear across the river before turning east across the bay. Still, they make no sounds. Oh, sometimes hawks call out to each other in a very distinct high pitch caw. But mostly they perch in silence. Their lack of sound creates a distance between us like strangers in a waiting room. Once I walked back from the river and saw an adult bald eagle atop the house. But because of the raptor’s silence and blank stare, we lacked connection, some sort of shared space.
Despite my own random migrations, I find comfort in the familiar. The sounds of those I have loved and lost talk to me sometimes when I sit at night on the porch and recall long-ago conversations.
We can be haunted by sound.
In a world where we often seek silence to escape the noise, it is the laughter of friends and companions that call to us through the fog of daily life and steer us home. Pavlov wasn’t far off, but the bells which I respond to are the sounds of friends laughing, family telling stories, a football game on television on Thanksgiving Day with the smell of turkey filling the house, an old western on a rainy summer Saturday afternoon. I love the daily calls of life, the drifting sounds on a summer evening, the persistence of the ocean waves, the relentless ranting of house wrens in the morning.
Wine glasses. Dice on a game board in the other room. The quiet wisp of golf on television. Steaks on a hot grill.
Bacon in a pan in the morning. New friends drinking wine, laughing.