Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wild Wildlife: A Blizzard of Snow Geese

Over President’s Day weekend, Annie and I went to the beach.

Even in the DC region, even in a winter as freakishly mild as this one, late February may not seem like the best time for a seaside jaunt. This is certainly a fair assessment if your plan is to get in a lot of sun-bathing (although Annie did manage some of that anyway, as evidenced below).

If, however, you’re simply obsessed with the look, sound, and smell of the ocean, then even a beach day with face-flaying wind can be a satisfying one.

The wind wasn’t really at the face-flaying stage anyway—most of the time—and we spent many happy hours walking the shores of Lewes, DE, and visiting the nearby Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge.

On the Sunday we visited the refuge, the sky was overcast but not dark; instead, the high masses of clouds caught the light, deepening the rich browns and reds and greys of the grasses and reeds and giving the smooth surface of the marshes a luminous, iridescent radiance like the nacre of a pearl.

We knew we were in for a good day, because before we had even left the parking area we looked up to see skeins of snow geese flying overhead, long overlapping strands and Vs gliding through the air with the grace and speed of skaters skimming over ice. We couldn’t tell quite where they were going, but we knew it had to be close.

Later in the day, as we stopped at a beach near the refuge, we found out where they had all been going. In a marsh along the road right before the beach, there were thousands—possibly hundreds of thousands—of geese, settled like a drift of snow over the water and flying down in vast flocks, as myriad as snowflakes.

Seeing them I felt the same exhilaration that I feel during a snowstorm, watching the fat flakes spilling and spiraling out of the sky—only in this case the flakes had agency, and they spiraled up as well as down, rising from the water in a blizzard of wings or coming in from the west in wave upon wave to float down to the marsh’s surface.

There’s something about the flight of geese—any geese, even a small half-arrow of them darting overhead—that pulls me out of myself as if my soul has been swept up in the rush of wings, drawn to the plangent calls, speeding on high currents of air. I’ve never in my life seen so many birds in one place, never heard such a melodious cacophony of sounds—some honks, some piercing, piping calls, all mixed together in a babble accompanied by the beating of countless wings.

[view large to get a sense of
just how many geese are in that photo]

I hear a lot about the need to translate the value of environmental protection into human terms—public-health benefits, protection from erosion, better crop yields, national security, water availability—and all of that is important and true. And yet there is an infinite value in the privilege of witnessing nature, a value that is perhaps so great precisely because it is intangible and yet all-pervasive. To dismiss that as mere tree-hugging sappiness is to ignore its profound ability to lift us up, to grace us with a sense of beauty and majesty vaster and more glorious than any cathedral’s.

Of course we need the environment for all of the necessary and practical reasons I mentioned above (and many more). But if we ignore the other reasons we need safe, wild places, as a refuge for both other species and our own capacity for wonder, then we run the risk of impoverishing ourselves. We humans are always trying to define what sets us apart from other animals—if we don’t cherish the appreciation for the world around us that, if not unique to humans, is at least best articulated by us, then we don’t have any right to claim superiority to begin with.

All these reflections came to me later, of course. At the time, my thoughts were fully expressed in my exclamation to Annie: “There’re just so many geese!!”

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}

1 comment:

Anca said...

Beautiful post, and wish I were there to experience what used to be commonplace: the great darkening of the skies by movements of birds from one zone to another, harbingers of seasons and new life.

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