White Geese and Wallace Stevens

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I.

A flock of white geese live on a couple of acres bordered by Cambridge’s Memorial Drive, the Boston University Bridge, the Charles River, and an abandoned cross-river rail bridge. These white geese, being domesticated, don’t migrate like the Canada geese that sometimes share the space with them. In fact, they tend not to travel far at all; aside from short dips into the Charles and traffic-stopping pilgrimages to a patch of grass near the rotary, they stay put.

Their sedentary behavior is both hereditary and circumstantial. The original flock of whites were brought to Cambridge to act as sentinels for a water pumping station located on the other side of the bridge. Now the city considers them a nuisance. Environmental groups have advocated for the preservation of their nesting habitat, a site already degraded by overuse due to deliberate blocked access to larger swaths of land along the river.

The last time I passed by, an orange plastic fence had been placed along the length of sidewalk separating the habitat from the rotary. Beyond it was the grass. The flock gathered at the fence; as they looked out, a photographer snapped their picture.

II.

…Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

Years back, so the story goes, a Cambridge man dumped an unwanted female Toulouse goose with the flock of whites. She seems to have integrated seamlessly. Toulouse and white geese come from the same ancient stock of wild goose and share orange beaks, thick necks and heavy, ground-skirting bodies. The Toulouse looks like a cross between a white and a Canada, but she is not. Although possible, wilds tend not to mate with the domestics; the offspring of wild-domestic pairs, called mongrels, tend to be sterile.

Individuals in the flock have a variety of hybrid markings: gray wings and spotted wings, neck patches and back patches. Who knows where the spots and flecks of this year’s goslings will land.

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III.

Despite bitter winter weather that stretched into spring, in late March or early April the geese began their mating rituals. As I walked across the bridge each day, I watched their open-winged stalking, the competitive flaps and charges. Soon a few nests materialized, all in vulnerable, open spaces. I tracked one goose in particular the entire spring. Her nest seemed to grow by the week, a near-perfect orb of sticks, rocks, trash, and feathers. Sometimes, still in the cold, she would leave the nest. From my vantage point on the bridge above her I could see six eggs.

Week by week the weather warmed. The ice broke up on the river and the snow melted to patches. In late April, two goslings from another nest hatched; she watched them join the flock from her distance.

Another week went by, and another. Once I saw her stand up and turn; she looked at her eggs and preened the edges of her nest a bit before she settled down again. Alone, she sat as the flock made its rounds and dipped into the water.

Finally, in mid-May, she abandoned her nest. For weeks a few eggs remained in and around the nest, as though they had been kicked out of place.

IV.

The orange plastic fence that bars the geese from their patch of grass also keeps them out of traffic. But even with the fence, geese are routinely hit on Memorial Drive. These two stanzas, just metrical exercises, are my own:

Dead geese retain
a form for weeks
if left to mild weather;

a grounded thought
keeps shape, preserved
within a mat of feathers.

If geese need to feel a sense of freedom, they’ve got, at least, the river.

V.

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The imperfect is our paradise.

The geese live in a mysterious sphere. To encounter them in their element is to feel free and tense and maybe a bit lost. Beyond the orange fence, their habitat slopes down at a steep grade. Two strips of weedy brush, the only vegetation, flank a wide space of dirt and rock. Near the water, the smell of shit overwhelms. Down litters the brush. Here the slope flattens, and the few trees that line the water’s edge spread their limbs toward the ground.

A step beneath the branches leads to a bower, confined, quiet, dark, secret, like the recesses of a garage where mechanics work with little light or conversation. The birds seem little concerned with their visitor and go on to wherever they’re going.

Calm descends as a terrific blank. It is so quiet here, here on one edge of the world.