Nearly every evening in winter just before dusk bends to night, in those moments after twilight when I have to let my eyes adjust to the lack of light, a few hundred geese land in the pond, some on the river, and a few in the field nearby.
I can hear them for quite some time before they actually fly into sight from beyond the trees to the west. The air is so clear this time of year I can hear them honking in groups, joining in like a chorus which starts with just a few voices and adds another rafter until they reach some crescendo. At first it might be only a flight of a dozen or so based upon the muted sound from the distance. But over the course of five minutes or ten I hear another group, then another, and more. They fly in a “V” to be able to see each other clearly for protection and create just a little draft, but the closer they come to landing, the faster the formation falls apart.
Eventually the first group is already in the pond when the last group crests the bare branches of the oaks and hundreds settle into the field or onto the river. One time some years ago a bit earlier in the evening thousands of geese, no kidding—thousands—landed on the plowed cornfield just down river. Their honking continued for an hour that night, and just as the sounds of these geese slowly softens and, finally, quiets, so did theirs so that from my porch I could tell they had all landed safely.
But every single time awhile after the large group arrives, two or three geese come in late, alone, as if they stopped at another farm over near the bay and had to regroup and find their flock.
I don’t want to disturb them, but I always want to watch. So when I walk along the river at that hour and the skin on my face is tight from the cold, and my nose runs a little, and the muscles in my back are also tight from the cold, I keep my hands thrust into the pockets of my coat and walk along the soft shoulder of the tiny dead end street so that my feet make no noise. I can usually get to the narrow strip of sand at the river from where I can see both it and the pond, but not the field so well. Their call increases in a burst of warnings to the rest that I’m around. It quiets quickly though as I remain absolutely still and sit on the cold rip rap running along the river and blend into the rocks and am no longer a threat.
On winter nights the water is almost always calm, a slow methodic lap at the rocks and sand. The sky is all stars, and sometimes just after dark in January you can still find the center of the Milky Way in the southwest. With no unnatural lights for more than twenty-miles in any direction except from the scattered farmhouses or buoys, the sky is a carpet of constellations.
It isn’t by chance my Canada friends find respite here. They need grass for food, they need water, and they need to be able to see great distances to anticipate danger. That’s why they’re here on the edge of the bay with open fields and ponds. It also explains why they love airports and golf courses. The abundance of geese isn’t an accident either; they travel in gangs, often the younger geese are forced into the gang, so that traveling is safer and they can better dominate areas like this.
But their coolest trait is their honk. They keep that up as a form of encouragement so the lead geese will maintain their speed and not give out so easily. Basically, the ones in the back are telling the ones up front to “Go! Go! Go! Go!” and move their asses. And when the lead gets tired, she moves to the back and gets to badger the others for a while. And they do this their whole lives—about twenty-seven years.
And just after twilight when dusk is making its brief appearance, and the water is like a mirror, the call of the geese from well across the treetops is musical, somehow eternal. When this land was unbroken, Canada geese called to each other, rushing for the open fields and waterways, settling down here. Powhatan heard geese here, and John Smith, and Washington just to the north at his birthplace on the Potomac, and Jefferson not far from there. Through the centuries the flyway from the St. Lawrence down across the Adirondacks and Catskills to the Susquehanna south into Virginia to the mouths of these five fair rivers spilling into the Chesapeake has been their home.
And they love dusk, just before dark, as it is the best time of day for them to recalibrate their internal magnetic compass to cross continents; to come here year after year.
We have something in common; we’re both very migratory.
I guess that’s what also attracts me to the passing flocks of geese. The peace in such sounds late on a winter’s evening definitely touches my soul, settles me somehow beyond my ability to explain. But also I sit on the rip rap and blend into the rocks and watch them in the water and contemplate their distance from the central regions of Ontario and Quebec, across Hudson Bay. My entire life I’ve been drawn to migration, to some sense of movement from one place to another, particularly the seeming randomness of such order. They know where they are going every time, and yet they move south without boundaries, schedules, or maps.
When I was young my father bought me Robin Lee Graham’s The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone. It was the first book I remember inciting in me a sense of adventure, travel and exploration. The sea seemed to have no borders or barriers. Graham’s goal was circumnavigation, but his schedule was wide open. Peter Jenkins, too, in his A Walk Across America, knew where he would end up, he just didn’t know when or how; and along the way the adventure was in the places he paused for food and water, with an open view of life around him. Ironically, I like the consistency of this migration; the predictable return, surrounded by friends, a quiet night.
I suppose all dreams are migratory, both in hopeful destinations and their transience with the changes in our responsibilities and circumstances. At times I take flight, abandon my flock and push off for awhile. But I look forward to coming home to settle into some sense of domesticity, which I can accommodate briefly at best, because eventually I think about the dreams of my youth as I fly toward my twilight years. They call to me to “Go Go Go Go” as my life moves further along, pushing at the edges of dusk.
And now in winter when night falls completely I walk back to the house and always a few more geese find their way to the flock long after dark. Only once did I experience the return to the sky of so many all at once. I was walking from the river to the house past the field where hundreds that evening had settled, and either something or me or the ground disturbed them, or it was simply time to move on, but in great waves they took off, honking. I heard them calling, waves of them into the sky, honking, great waves of honking geese calling ahead to the ones already in flight, as those behind fell in line and they swept from horizon to horizon blocking out the moon and headed out over the trees running down the bay, and I stood and watched them until the last honking geese were gone.
And everything was silent and I found myself, oddly, alone, like a young man left on the sand while his friends all pushed off to sea to head for distant lands.