The thing about geese is that they have dignity. Or at least they think they have -- which is not necessarily, of course, quite the same thing. The thing about dignity is that it depends upon taking oneself very seriously, and geese, or my geese at any rate, certainly do take themselves very seriously. This may explain why, the other morning, when I was standing in the farmyard laughing and laughing, the geese did not seem particularly amused. Instead they eyed me beadily.
Still -- I was laughing directly at them, so perhaps it's understandable they didn't see the joke. It isn't often one laughs out loud when no one else is around to join in (tears are more often a private matter), but on this occasion I simply couldn't stop myself. The reason was that the goose (as differentiated from the two ganders from which she has been kept separate for the past five weeks) has at last hatched her brood. Of one. She usually does better than that, but in spite of great concentration on the job, only one of her eggs this year has produced a youngster.
So the time arrives for her to be let ceremoniously out of her confinement so that she may introduce her newcomer to the large world, and, at the same time, to its two fathers. I give them both this title because both are sure, to put it legally, of their paternity. They advance together across the yard and greet the mother and child with long necks and great eclat. And then -- the cause of my laughter -- they, the Family Goose, proceed in formation towards the gate which opens onto the field which they consider their rightful domain.
The farmer describes this slow moving formation as "the Protection Racket." The three adults surround the gosling. This small item of yellow-brown fluff on two legs, apparently unaware that it is no larger than one of its parents' heads , scutters along with its own innate brand of dignity, like some diminutive president or leader threatened with assassination and therefore flanked on every available side by enormous, thuglike bodyguards.
I cannot imagine where the term "goose step" originated, to describe that strange marching routine favored by the armies of dictators. Nothing could be further from the actual way in which geese move. For one thing their legs are far too short in relation to the rest of their bodies for them to try any such energetic sky-kicking. The truth is that they walk ponderously, their general weight lurching from one side to the other, slow- rhythmically, with every burdensome and flatfooted step. To each of these steps the gosling does six or seven to keep pace. And it squeaks anxiously all the time, while its elders attack the air with every lamellirostral imprecation imaginable: they hiss and honk and shout and squawk and yell and scream. The fact that no one has the least intention of attacking them or their baby is entirely beside the point. Much noise in the goose world is the best means of defense, and defense (in the goose world) is de rigueur.m
The gosling is fortunate in being remarkably robust, because, in their almost competitive efforts to protect it, the adults don't alwayw watch where they are putting their feet. A sudden crescendo of squeaks usually means that one of them is standing on it. But it doesn't take any hurt, waits for the great insensible foot to move off, rolls over a couple of times, and then races to catch up with its parents, who are making such a fuss that they have no apparent idea that they have almost done in the object of their overcaring.
The hatching time of year is like weather -- variable in mood. The farmyard seems literally to drip with fresh life. This season the bantams (never very strong on family planning) have once again escaped my periodic searches and produced large crowds of chicks in the most unexpected quarters -- an old plastic bucket in the workshop, ten feet above the entrance to the barn (I had to help them down with a ladder); and one lot appeared, fully hatched, in a rainstorm one morning, and I still don't know where the hen had been hiding. But all this delighted production is rather grimly punctuated by disasters: abandonments, confusions, inadvertent losses, desperate squeakings, dismaying silences. I always question myself: why is it that I feel this interplay of light and dark, of loss and gain, so piercingly? Why is it that the birds themselves -- for the most part -- do not? How is it that the fierce mothering instinct of the hen-birds is so concentrated on the strong and able and is so comparatively indifferent to the fate of the weak or disabled?
The senseless/sensible geese probe no such enigmas, and finally their procession reaches the field, I swing the gate shut, and they can relax. The gosling loses no time in learning that it is a goose and that geese eat grass (not insects or snails), and it can be seen out there in the meadow tugging away at juicy blade after juicy blade, never far from its triumverate of guardians, never for a moment questioning the perfectly natural fact that it -- this year's star attraction -- is the very centerm of the universe: and that this is indeed no laughing matter!