A starred review of Canada Geese

Hannah Wehrung


Behind my house, there’s a long field that becomes a pond after heavy rain, and a marsh a few days later. Ahead of it are two more retention ponds. This is effectively a gallery for Canada Geese. I’ve seen their graceful V’s in the sky and their elegant heads and necks, and I’ve seen the fragrant droppings over clumped grass that they leave behind in their honking wake. I sympathize both with the malicious image of the goose contained in Untitled Goose Game and the aspirational image in the Mary Oliver poem.

The most I’ve counted bumbling about on the field at once is a little less than 60, but I’ve seen crowds of them in the city, too— the ratio of city geese to country geese at any given moment is 75 percent. For context, the same ratio for humans is 80 percent. Like humans, Canada Geese are great colonizers, readily overwhelming an environment and wreaking small havocs, like unsustainable levels of e. coli in small ponds (each Canada Goose can produce up to 100 pounds of waste per year) and disruptive noise pollution.

The Canada Goose has smugly successfully hacked the civilized world; there is nothing to be done with it. The goose seems defined by its ubiquity to me, just like nature: its being present, inescapable no matter where I find myself to be. So despite their urbanite sensibilities and penchant for manicured golf courses, geese still feel wild to me in a way that pigeons do not.

Could I take a Canada Goose in a fight? I do not know.

Before we move on, I need to make it clear that my impression of the eternal-and-unchanging-nature-of-the-Canada-Goose-Amen is a false one. National Geographic says that as recently as the beginning of the last century, the Canada Goose was believed to be extinct due to near-completely unrestricted hunting. Canada Geese were particularly susceptible to the use of live decoys: a hunter finds one or a few geese, renders them flightless, and then lets the captured geese lure whole flocks that could then be shot one after the other. In 1935, using live decoys became a crime, and the population slowly, then boomingly, recovered, leaving us with a current population of seven million in North America.

When not actively being shot, they seem perfectly indifferent to all human activity, including to me walking from my dad’s office to the JU Chick-fil-A, or to the student bicyclist on my left, and to the stretch of clanging construction work on my right. But the story of these little jerks as we know it is deeply entwined with the human story.

If I were only rating geese purely for their functionality as a metaphor, or some symbol for a larger trend, my verdict would be that Canada Geese are the worst, mostly for their current successes. My own backyard is great (or adequate) for the geese, but it absolutely isn’t for most species that lived here before the woods were stripped to make room for my family’s new suburban house, a few years ago, and I must resist the temptation to let the Canada Goose represent my mental image of the habitat I’ve intruded. Because unlike the Canada Goose, these woods are not thriving just as well as they would be if my neighborhood and I were not here. But trying to use the geese to understand something about humanity doesn’t work either, because as much as they crap, I cannot in good conscience hold the Canada Goose responsible for anything on the level of urbanization, nor globalization, nor global climate catastrophe (not yet, at least).

So what am I supposed to give you as a take-away? I guess I may as well walk away with a new appreciation for the power of the collective, because even if I’m not playing God of the Geese, the Anthropocene is doing that with the earth. I guess that it’s good to have an example of public policy directly impacting the natural world on a scale that’s less intimidating than melting Arctic glaciers. And I guess I’m reminded of the changing of time and that what feels like a given and natural truth to me is not always, as I am formed by my experiences of the world, and those experiences are formed by decisions that predate me.

Because judging geese is a surprisingly disempowering experience, I almost gave one star as a kind of retaliation, or a joke to test whether, as I stated is uncertain, I could take the Canada Goose in a fight.

But I am reminded once again that, although our lives are annoyingly interconnected, the Canada goose does not give one damn. It flies away in its militaristic V formation, honking as though it has a clown’s nose stuck halfway down its admittedly graceful neck. And now that I’ve typecast geese as something between an existential menace, the embodiment of the post-industrial era in the United States, and the man in the mirror, there is no rating I could possibly give that would not be justly humiliating. 

Four and a half stars.

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