Honk if you love geese.
I’m not sure I love geese, but I own they are beautiful and fascinating birds and an essential part of the Shore experience.
I’ve seen more geese on the Shore this winter than I ever have before. They appear to occupy almost all the waterways and fallow fields, assembled in incredible numbers. They huddle together, some beak to cheek. They honk incessantly.
It might be simply that what I am observing is indeed the case: that there are more geese now than ever before. It could also be how the confinement in place that the coronavirus has imposed on me keeps me more conscious of what’s immediately around me.
I don’t get around much anymore.
The feeling of being constrained gets to me at times. I notice it affects me the way getting stuck in traffic has. I feel impatient. Then I grow irritable and fidgety and slowly I become aware of who or what’s in the cars on either side of me. I look around. I see one driver chewing gum frenetically and, in another car, a young woman smoking and talking nonstop. I see no one in the car. She must have a cell phone . . . I hope, anyway. There’s a fast food place just off the highway that looks inviting. I wish I could get off the road, drive up and get some coffee. The reality is I am stuck in place.
I slowly resign myself to my circumstances and settle for the long haul.
The world seems very different when I’m always going somewhere from when I’m just hanging around the house. I hang around the house a lot these days. Rituals are now standardized – like my morning routine going to the kitchen.
I look out the kitchen window which overlooks the cove. Geese cover the cove from shore to shore, some huddled together as if they were family, others I suspect trying to conserve body heat.
I put on the kitchen light. The geese closest to the shoreline turn their heads toward the window suspiciously as if to say “What are you doing here so early?” They are protesting my intrusion on their solitude with soft muted honks, not unlike the way you and I might grumble when we’re irked, but can’t do much around it.
I go about the kitchen making breakfast. I move around more and hear the geese honking tentatively as they slowly glide from the shore and away from the light in the kitchen window. By now the sun rises and its soft rays fall on the shore opposite me, evoking and soft orange and ochre pastiche like I’ve seen in Rembrandt paintings. How close I actually live to these geese –– hardly a stone’s throw away from the birds –– yet I probably know more about the stars light-years away than I know about their lives. It’s an uneasy feeling being so close and yet so far away.
The geese have a communal nature; they act in concert with one another. It’s very different from the way significant numbers of residents behave here.
Many people who come to the shore are going to their second home. Like the geese, they show up seasonally, stay for a time and then go back from where they’d come. They are not part of the life of the community, but are here mostly for escape, to get away. These are the part-timers in my immediate neighborhood that I have never met or even seen.
I have read that geese mate for life. There are goose couples that spent time on the shore over the years and like renters who have come to love the Shore’s ambience, they decide to live here permanently. They find the Shore’s temperate climate more hospitable than the harsh northern climes. Some find the long flights back and forth, tedious. There may be older geese, ready to retire here for the same reason their human counterparts do: it’s a land of pleasant living. Geese are transients less and less.
Geese are vociferous. They will get downright raucous for reasons that I don’t understand; they talk (honk) over each other the way people arguing politics do; strident in making their point, and always reluctant to listen.
It was several year ago in October when my wife and I were still sailing. We entered an anchorage off the Miles River called Shaw Bay. The anchorage was literally filled with geese. Some of them gave way as we motored into the bay but, uncharacteristically, didn’t fly away. We were flattered that they stayed . . . but not flattered for long. Just as we had finished dinner they began honking. In fifteen minutes, they were all honking at once, full bore, at once creating a roar of collective sound that was literally deafening. My wife and I, sitting in the cockpit only five feet away, could not hear each other for the din the geese were making. I have no idea what was so urgent and why they were honking so frantically. Maybe it was it because of our presence. We were the only boat in the bay. I did have the thought they might have been frequent fliers telling one another stories of their flights from Canada to the States, the way airline passengers gather at airport bars, relaxing while swapping stories about their flights.
With every bird honking at once, I can’t imagine any one of them heard a thing.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.