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Honking While We Sleep

Geese take off from the wetlands of Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge outside of Salem, Ore., Feb. 5, 2010. Rick Bowmer/AP hide caption

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Rick Bowmer/AP

Geese take off from the wetlands of Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge outside of Salem, Ore., Feb. 5, 2010.

Rick Bowmer/AP

It’s goose-getaway time. Time to head south. And they don’t go quietly. Even tucked in your bed at night you can hear them — you know the honk:


What are those geese going on about? And why do so many of us notice? Aldo Leopold, in his classic "A Sand County Almanac" called them free entertainments, a chance for the bored farmer to imagine a trip to somewhere magical and far away, a geometry puzzle for school kids who look up and wonder how that one goose got to be the leader of the pack? But goose conversation, that’s what you hear at night, that’s what thrills some of us.

In a lovely poem called "No Matter What, After All, and That Beautiful Word So," Hayden Carruth described how it feels to hear them.

This was the time of their heaviest migration,
And the wild geese for hours sounded their song
In the night over Syracuse, near and far,
As they circled toward Beaver Lake up beyond
Baldwinsville. We heard them while we lay in bed
Making love and talking, and often we lay still
Just to listen. "What is it about that sound?"

Good question. What IS it?

Purdue University publishes a Guide for Goose Hunters and Goose Watchers which says that geese have nearly two dozen different honks. Some are alarm calls, some pinpoint food. "Apparently voice recognition allows a temporarily lost goose to locate and rejoin family members among a flock of thousands."

But that’s them talking to each other; what about the feeling Hayden Carruth gets listening to them fly over his house? He is touched. He can feel a kind of connection, but he can’t name the connection.

Oh, what is it about that sound? Talking in the sky,
Bell-like words, but only remotely bell-like,
A language of many and strange tones above us
In the night at the change of seasons, talking unseen,
An expressiveness — is that it? Expressiveness
Our minds make an answer, though we cannot
Articulate it. How great the unintelligible
Meaning! Our lost souls flying over. The talk
Of the wild geese in the sky. It is there. It is so.

The scientists can’t explain why those honks nudge something inside us. The poets can’t either. In this poem, Carruth tries a number of explanations, then rejects them all as not quite right.

The poet and teacher Mark Doty analyzed this poem (in his wonderful new book The Art of Description) and made a list of all Carruth’s not-quite-right explanations:

Not: a song, a kind of discourse about something altogether mysterious, talking in the sky, bell-like words, remotely bell-like, a language, many and strange tones, an expressiveness.

Doty goes on:

These efforts at speech are informed by the memory of our ancestors, those cave dwellers who felt the pain of our species’ separation from the rest; a longing for a lost sense of connection lies behind this catalogue of inadequate terms. It cannot be said, what the geese cries “mean,” and yet they provoke us to answer; we can neither understand them nor cease to respond to their presence. The paradox is elegantly expressed here by a line break:

...How great the unintelligible

Or,  how about this? Maybe what geese do to us every fall is they tell us that a bunch of  our summer neighbors are off on some great adventure and from their honking we know  they are all excited, but we can’t go.  We notice when they go because we have to stay behind. Carruth, I’m sure, had goose envy on his list. Still, as Doty says, it’s a long list, so I am going to stop trying to unweave this feeling.  When the geese go by, I’m just going to listen.