One of the surest signs of spring here in the Northwoods is the arrival of flocks of Canada geese. You may not have given it much thought, this year or any year, but Aldo Leopold did.
I thought I heard geese honking recently. Above the din of the noisy road outside, and the noisy family inside, I strained my ears to make sure. One of my boys saw me concentrating, appearing puzzled. “I think I hear geese” I told him. He replied that he had heard geese the day before.
He attends Rhinelander High school, and last semester he had Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac as assigned reading for part of his virtual learning. I always make myself available to discuss any of his learning that he wished, but he had never really talked about the book. Until that day. He said “geese must have meant something important to Aldo Leopold. He mentions them a lot in his book.” I smiled and nodded. “Aldo Leopold focused intently on geese, in fact. He considered them the heralds of true spring.”
Then my son asked me what was the special word that he used. I wasn’t sure—was he referring to the quote “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving its way through the murk of March thaw, is the spring.” In fact, a skein in this case refers specifically to the habit of migrating waterfowl to form a v-formation from their flock, strongest fliers in the front, more tired birds in the back.
Another quote from the same book is less used, but still rings true. “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot. ... For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” Rather dramatic, isn’t it? The opportunity to see geese is more important than television? It was even more dramatic in 1949, when Almanac was first published. According to the early television museum, as recently as 1946, only a few stations were on the air, and broadcasting hours were very limited. By 1949, almost all major cities had at least one station. At the end of 1946, only 44,000 homes had a TV set; by the end of 1949, when Leopold’s book hit the stores, there were 4.2 million TV homes.
It is clear from Sand County Almanac that Aldo rejoiced every spring at the arrival of geese on his farm in fabled sand county. I worked down there one spring—not on the Leopold land, but very close by at the Pine Island state wildlife area outside of Portage, WI, along the same Wisconsin river that flows through Oneida County. I was working a part time starter job, pulling down obsolete regulatory signs. I watched so many flocks of sandhill cranes and Canada geese fly overhead, they seemed endless. It was not always so, not for Aldo Leopold. He had seen the numbers of geese dwindle, the near disappearance of whooping and sandhill cranes, and the complete loss of the passenger pigeon. I am sure it seemed bleak for a while.
Aldo was a genuine phenologist—in other words, he tracked occurrences in nature on a regular basis. He tracked when living things went dormant in the fall and awoke in spring. He tracked what, when, where, and how many of everything, and that included birds—and birds included geese. He said “on our farm we measure the amplitude of spring by two yardsticks—the number of pines we planted and the number of geese that stop.” While one yardstick, planting trees, was at least partly in his control, the other was not. The floodplain and adjacent fields of the Wisconsin River corridor are ideal for migration routes and stops. But only live birds could stop on their way north, after being shot at almost continuously for six months, to stake out their nesting grounds with their mates. The first birds of spring are typically the most dedicated breeders, so their arrival is reassurance that there will be broods that follow. How happy he must have been as he saw in his notes that the numbers each year were continually on the rise.
I read in an excellent essay by Curt Meine that “the final entries in Leopold’s field journals include his careful tallies of the numbers of geese. It was springtime—he died on April 21, 1948—and the geese were returning…The day before he died Leopold actually counted more geese than he had ever counted on any single day of his life—more than 400.” The geese were to him a last glimpse of a wildness otherwise lost in Wisconsin and around the country.
Today, we have so many geese that at times we might forget what a wild treasure they are. Try taking a look at them, a skein high in the sky, through Leopold’s lens, as the welcome heralds of spring.