Even on dry days, you don't dare sit on the grass.
A small flock of Canada geese has chosen to winter at our office park in Massachusetts. It's been warm this year and we've had very little snow. They seem fat enough, but it's hard to say. It's only late February. They should have been on their way south long since. The geese waddle around the buildings, pulling at the grass with their bills and looking for something to eat. They wander back and forth across the parking lot between the buildings and the woods. Sometimes when I'm driving in or out, I have to stop and let them pass. They're in no hurry. In the summer, we have chipmunks and squirrels. I worry more about hitting the mammals because they're harder to spot, but at least they keep up the pace and get out of your way.
Lately the geese have been spending their time in front of the building, under a pair of sizable oak trees and some ratty bushes. When I go outside to smoke, the geese look at me sideways. Once or twice I've had one come over and try to stare me down.
Canada geese have a wingspread of about three or four feet. Their bodies are gray with barred wings. Their feet, tails, and necks are black, with a white splash under their chins, like the chin-strap of a helmet. They have beady little eyes, harsh voices, and tiny brains. Like all waterfowl they're slow and ungainly on the ground and stately in the water. Like all waterfowl, they become a different animal in the air. When they migrate in flocks, they travel in a great ragged V formation, calling to each other and announcing that they're on their way. They carry no baggage, no pocket change, no wallets, no keys. They don't worry about leaving the oven on. They never worry if the neighbor's kid will remember to feed the cat. Geese travel in a straight line under their own power, with their necks out and wings beating like a metronome. What is round and ungainly on foot becomes streamlined on the wing, in their element.
This evening, in the twilight, I smoked a cigarette behind the building. I heard a goose honking not far off. The back of our building faces another building about thirty yards away across a lawn; the honks echoed between the two. The voices of geese carry well. In this quiet spot out past the loop highway and off the main road, there's nothing else to hear. The goose would honk and then pause while the echoes died down. The echoes were choppy and rapid: Thirty yards is not a long way for sound to travel. If it hadn't been for the unnatural regularity it would have sounded like a small flock of geese all talking on top of each other. In the semi-darkness it took a moment to spot the soloist. He, or she, was standing with another goose by the other building, both facing the parking lot to my left.
The geese began shuffling around restlessly and then the first goose, the loud one, spread his wings and shook them. He walked in my direction, and then away, and then towards the parking lot. The other goose followed, and the first began honking madly. The second joined in the honking and they made a dash for the lot, flapping like hell. They got off the ground, cleared the first line of cars, and settled into a gentle linear climb. They flew as steadily as jet liners, as if they were pulling themselves forward into the air along invisible wires tethered firmly to some nothing above the trees. They lifted themselves up out of reach, still honking, grabbing great wingfuls of air and pushing it back behind them.
Wild geese have a poetic and metaphorical significance that you can't misunderstand if you've seen them in flight. To "follow the wild geese" is to leave home, to wander, to see what you can see. In the fall, as the weather turns cold and we button up and batten down the hatches for winter, we see them overhead, migrating southward. They are powerful, graceful, and absolutely free. They're everything that won't have to sit down here in the muck and dig in to wait out the gray months of the year. They fly on out of sight and leave you there, nailed to the ground.