Living With Geese

Novelist and gozzard Paul Theroux ruminates about avian misconceptions, anthropomorphism and March of the Penguins as “a travesty of science”

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

The gander takes charge in normal surroundings: it is part of his dominance—keeping other ganders away. He rules by intimidation. He is protective, attentive and aggressive in maintaining his superior position among all the other birds, and will attack any creature in sight, and that includes the FedEx deliveryman way up at the front gate. When young ganders grow up, they frequently challenge the older one. The victor dominates the flock, and the goslings have a new protector. The old gander has merely lost that skirmish and has withdrawn, because he is winded and tired and possibly injured. But win or lose they remain with the flock. Defeated ganders go off for a spell to nurse their wounds, but they always return. One of the most interesting aspects of a flock is the way it accommodates so many different geese—breeds, sexes, ages, sizes. Ganders go on contending, and often an old gander will triumph over the seemingly stronger young one. Only after numerous losing battles do they cease to compete, and then a nice thing happens: the older ganders pair up and ramble around together at the back of the flock, usually one protecting the other.

There is a clue to White's self-deception in this part of the essay: "I felt very deeply his sorrow and his defeat." White projects his own age and insecurity onto the gander. "As things go in the animal kingdom, he is about my age, and when he lowered himself to creep under the bar, I could feel in my own bones his pain at bending down so far." This essay was written in 1971, when White was a mere 72, yet this is the key to the consistent anthropomorphism, his seeing the old gander as an extension of himself—a metonymical human, to use French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss' definition of such a pet. The essay is not strictly about geese: it is about E. B. White. He compares the defeated gander to "spent old males, motionless in the glare of the day" on a park bench in Florida. He had shuttled back and forth from Maine to Florida; his anxiety is real. He mentions summer sadness twice in his essay, a melancholy that may sadden a person precisely because the day is sunny.

What saddens me about this confident essay is that White misses so much. Because he locks up his geese at night, he never sees the weird sleeping patterns of geese. They hardly seem to sleep at all. They might crouch and curl their necks and tuck their beaks into their wings, but it is a nap that lasts only minutes. Do geese sleep? is a question that many people have attempted to answer, but always unsatisfactorily. If they are free to ramble at night, geese nap in the day. However domesticated a goose, its wakefulness and its atavistic alertness to danger has not been bred out of it.

Their alliances within a flock, their bouts of aggression and spells of passivity, their concentration, their impulsive, low, skidding flights when they have a whole meadow to use as a runway, the way they stand their ground against dogs or humans—these are all wonders. I find them so remarkable, I would not dream of eating a goose or selling a bird to anyone who would eat it, though I sometimes entertain the fantasy of a goose attacking a gourmet and eating his liver.

There are many more wonders: the way they recognize my voice from anyone else shouting and how they hurry near when called; or follow me because they know I have food in my bulging hand. They will follow me 300 yards, looking eager and hungry. I have mentioned their inexhaustible curiosity—sampling every plant that looks tasty, as well as pecking at objects as though to gauge their weight or their use. Their digestive system is a marvel—almost nonstop eating and they never grow fat (Why Geese Don't Get Obese (And We Do) is a recent book on animal physiology); their ability to drink nothing but muddy water with no obvious ill effects; and with this their conspicuous preference for clean water, especially when washing their heads and beaks, which they do routinely. Their calling out to a mate from a distance, and the mate rushing to their side; or if one becomes trapped under a steepness or enmeshed in a fence, and sounds the faint squawk of helplessness, the other will stay by, until it is released. Their capacity to heal seems to me phenomenal—from a dog bite, in the case of one gander I had that was at death's door for more than a month, or from the bite of another gander in one of their ritual battles for supremacy. Such conflicts often result in blood-smeared breast feathers. Their ability to overcome internal ailments is a wonder to behold.

I had an old, loud China gander that was displaced by a younger gander—his son, as a matter of fact, who ended up with the old goose we named Jocasta. From the time of Adam, we humans have had an urge to name the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field. The old gander may have been defeated by the son, but he remained feisty. Then he became ill, got weak, ate very little, couldn't walk, sat only in shade and moaned. He was immobilized. I dissolved in water some erythromycin I got at the feed store and squirted it down his throat with a turkey baster, and added some more to his water.

Several weeks went by. He lost weight, but I could see that he was sipping from his dish. From time to time I carried him to the pond—he paddled and dipped his head and beak, but he was too weak to crawl out. Still he seemed to respond to this physiotherapy. After a month he began to eat. One morning, going out to give him more medicine, I saw that he was standing and able to walk. I brought him some food, and as I put the food in his dish he took a few steps toward me and bit me hard on the thigh, giving me a purple prune-size bruise. This is not an example of irony or ingratitude. It is goosishness. He was thankfully himself again.

Paul Theroux is working on a new travel book, which retraces the route of his bestselling The Great Railway Bazaar.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus