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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Snow Geese

Air Date: Week of

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One way the changing season is marked is by the migration of birds north. Author William Fiennes decided to make a personal quest of the annual snow geese migration, and spent four months following a flock from Texas to northern Canada. He writes of his travels in his first book, The Snow Geese: A Story of Home, and talks with host Steve Curwood about a journey that ultimately led him to the very place he was trying to escape.


CURWOOD: From time to time, most of us feel the need to escape, to stray from the comfort of home and venture into the unknown. When William Fiennes caught the wandering bug, he decided to take wing – literally. For four months, he followed snow geese over a three-thousand-mile path as they made their way from Texas to Canada on their spring migration. He'’s written about the places he visited and the people he met along the way in his first book, The Snow Geese: A Story of Home. The journey, he says, was a way to escape home and the effects of a serious illness.

FIENNES: It really came out of a fairly difficult period of my life. I fell ill when I was 25 and really found myself pretty struck down. And I went to convalesce at my childhood home, where my mother and father still lived. And it was while I was there that I found this book by Paul Gallico called "The Snow Goose," which was a story I remembered from childhood. This very charming, rather touching story about a snow goose that gets blown across the Atlantic by a storm as it’s migrating south from Canada. And it’s shot down by a hunter over a coastal marsh in England. And it’s cared for and looked after by a man called Rhayader, who’s living as a hunchback and a hermit in this abandoned lighthouse.

And I suppose in this story, with all these images of birds migrating to and from their native place, and getting restless at a certain time of year, and finding their way back to their winter grounds, or breeding grounds, it really moved me. And it was a kind of a quest that I would find snow geese in Texas, and when they started heading north with the spring, I would go with them. And I’d go up to Canada if I had to and up to their breeding grounds.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk a bit about the geese here. How do snow geese find their way home?

FIENNES: In waterfowl, it’s suspected that, to some degree, experienced birds guide younger birds. But, at the same time, it’s known that there are whole series of compasses, inherited compasses, that birds use to find their way from one place to another. And these include a sun compass. And because they have an internal clock, they can compensate for the sun’s movement during the day. They have a star compass so they can migrate by the positions of the constellations and particularly the way they relate to the axis of the earth’s rotation. Birds also use a magnetic compass, responsive to the field lines of the earth’s magnetic field. So there’s a sort of whole set of navigational mechanisms with a built-in redundancy so that some will become useful when others aren’t applicable.

CURWOOD: William, there’s a point in your journey where you’re standing on the edge of Sand Lake. It’s in South Dakota. And you’re watching the snow geese fly in. Could you read a little from this, please?

FIENNES: Sure. "The ice was covered with snow geese, a thick sewn crop of white necks right across the lake. Suddenly, the flock took wing, an audience breaking into applause. It was as if the ice itself had exploded. The flock seethed, rolling back and forth on itself, its shadow roiling like a turbulence on the ice below. The applause deepened to the sound of trains thundering through tunnels. Scarves of glitter fell through the flock when drifts of birds turned their backs and white wings to the sun. And sometimes the entire sky was lit with shimmer, as if a silver sequined dress were rippling beneath a mirror ball. The sounds of goose calls and beating wings pounding the ice below.

I witnessed collisions, caroms and buffetings of blue face and white face snows, one bird’s heft glancing off another’s; the "O" of my binoculars, a frenzy of black tipped wings. Then, as before, the first bird settled on the ice, followed by others, each goose taking its place, the gaggle reforming bird by bird, the roar diminishing, until the whole flock was spread before us on Sand Lake."

CURWOOD: It’s just amazing. How could you breathe and see something like that?

FIENNES: Well, in fact, there’s a description a few pages before when I do say, "For a moment, I had forgotten to breathe." Because it was so extraordinary. And these were particularly large flocks they were getting – 200 to 250,000. And this was one thing I learned on the way, that there’s no extinction danger for snow geese. Their numbers have been burgeoning. And this is all to do with the agricultural development of the Great Plains. They’ve got a constant supply of waste grain and rice all on their way north.

They’ve been incredibly successful. And almost too successful, in that now they’re destroying a lot of their habitat along the edge of Hudson Bay. And that’s having a big knock-on effect on other species that rely on those habitats. But it was extraordinary to me.

CURWOOD: At one point in this book, you write that you were at the mercy of snow geese throughout their migration. Can you explain what you mean by this?

FIENNES: Well, I suppose when I started, I’d imagined that it would be quite a smooth flight from Texas to Foxe Landing in Baffin Island. But in fact, it’s a sort of edgy, stage-by-stage thing. I hadn’t realized the extent to which the geese would be sensitive to the weather. And they really fly on the leading edge of spring, and try and sort of push up as far north as they can go.

But if it’s wintry and cold, and the lakes are still frozen ahead of them, they’ll hang back. So sometimes I’d actually see them flying southwards, and think, "No. That’s the wrong way." So this meant that sometimes I’d just have to sit and wait. And often this happened for sort of two weeks, three weeks. So I did feel sort of shackled to them. And you know, I felt at the beck and call of geese and often wondered if that was a particularly healthy thing to be.

CURWOOD: I have to wonder if there was a point that you felt that you just should pack it all in, that maybe this thing was for the birds.

FIENNES: Yes. There were some really down moments. I mean, I was traveling alone for almost four months, and traveling increasingly in quite sort of remote and lonely places. I had moments thinking that all quests were, in some way, futile. But I was incredibly lucky in that whenever I had one of those moments, something would happen. Some person would be kind. Or, some amazing little tributary adventure would take place. And somehow, my spirits would be lifted.

CURWOOD: Tell me about some of these people you met along the way, some of the folks who took you in, or helped you out, and their relationship to the geese.

FIENNES: Well there was a wonderful biologist in South Dakota who’d been at this wildlife refuge for 20 or 30 years. And I used to drive around in his pickup. And he’d test me on the names of the ducks. And there were some people who weren’t really interested in birds, particularly. I remember sitting on a Greyhound bus, next to a former nun. And she talked my ear off and told me wonderful stories about life in the convent. And once she broke a statue of St. Joseph, and this was Mother Superior’s favorite statue. And if they broke anything, they were forced to sleep with it. And so this nun, Jean, was forced to sleep with her statue of St. Joseph. And a lot of people told her that she was lucky just to have a man in her bed.


And then there was a wonderful guy who’d run away from home, and had lived as a hobo, jumping the freight trains from one side of Canada to the other. And he really talked my ear off. He said that, when he was at school during the war, when they’d been doing the vaccination programs, they jabbed everyone with a vaccination needle. But when they got to him, they had run out of needles. So they jabbed him with a gramophone needle instead. And since then, he never stopped talking.


And there was just this great outpouring of life in story. And I’ve tried to introduce certain characters as vividly as I could. Because their stories amplify the theme of the book and this sense of longing for home that runs through it.

CURWOOD: In a sense, you talk a lot about homesickness being a disease. Tell me about those ancient theories and what was the basis for them?

FIENNES: Well that, again, I found just so interesting. And the more I looked into it, the more interesting it became, just as a sort of medical phenomenon. And I had no idea that in the 16th and 17th centuries, people were actually dying of homesickness. It was a medically recognized condition.

And at the beginning, it was thought that homesickness particularly afflicted the Swiss. It was known as the ‘Swiss disease.’ And the reason for this was that it was thought that the Swiss, because they live in the mountains, that they’re subject to less atmospheric pressure weighing down on them up in the mountains. And that when they leave Switzerland, and they go to the low countries, the pressure would be much more intense and then they’d start showing these symptoms. And the cure would be to get them up as high as you could as quickly as possible. They were told to go and climb a hill or climb a tower or something.

And there are amazing stories. A lot of them coming from the military doctors in the 17th and 18th centuries about how really nostalgia, or homesickness, was about the kind of biggest problem facing military doctors. And I suppose one of the things I wanted to get into the book is the idea of a sort of healthy nostalgia as well as an unhealthy nostalgia.

CURWOOD: I want to take you back to the moment when, towards the end of this trip, you wind up in this Inuit community in northern Canada and you go out hunting. Can you tell us the story of this hunting trip?

FIENNES: Well I got to Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. And I went to see the Hunters and Trappers Association. And, each of the Inuit communities will have one of these HTAs. I wondered if there was some way somebody who might be prepared to take me out of the community into the tundra where the geese would be coming down and landing as they really came into their breeding range.

And eventually – well, the next day – they came back to me and said that a lady, Paula, and her son, Natsiq, were going hunting and they’d be happy for me to go with them. So I set out with these two, with this strange pair, for about three days. And then, when we started shooting geese, I realized that that was what we were going to eat, that was what we were going to live on for the three days. And Paula plucked the goose and rolled out its innards onto the snow, and boiled it, and seasoned it with a sachet of Lipton’s Onion Soup. That was the essential ingredient.

And I had this strange kind of communion of feeling a sense of sort of total immersion with the object of my quest. And although that was not what I’d expected, it felt sort of right somehow, that that’s how it had all ended. And then I knew it was time for me to go home. And that had been exerting a kind of constant pull, just as the pull of the excitement and the freshness of these amazing landscapes and scenes had been exciting me before. And I suppose that transition was definitely part of a kind of getting well and a part of a growing up that was all wrapped up in the kind of rite of passage this migration turned out to be.

[MUSIC: Kate Rusby, "The Wild Goose," SLEEPLESS (Compass – 1999)]

CURWOOD: William Fiennes is author of "The Snow Geese: A Story of Home." William, congratulations on your first book and thanks for speaking with me today.

FIENNES: Thanks, Steve. Thanks for having me.



Buy William Fiennes The Snow Geese

Buy the book that inspired William’s journey, The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico


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