Over the last couple of years I’ve got into the habit of taking a walk through my neighborhood each evening. On weekends I go for longer walks in a large park a few miles from my home. I suppose it’s a COVID coping mechanism.
I’ve gradually become more attuned to the seasonal changes in the trees, the flowers, and the birds. Especially the geese. There are hundreds of them in the park. Mainly Canada geese. They seem to be year-round residents. In the spring you can often see then escorting their newborn goslings in straight lines across the park road, bringing traffic to a standstill, one adult in front, one trailing behind, heads held high as proud as any human parent. In autumn, they’re joined by hundreds more, probably thousands. Migrants passing through, stopping at the park to rest and feed on the plentiful grass.
I’m not a bird watcher – my glasses are too thick for that – but ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved watching geese fly in their V-formations across the skies. There’s something magical about it. I understand it’s just physics, reduced drag making it easier for the geese to fly long distances. But that doesn’t detract from the wonder I feel watching them. Besides, not many other birds fly this way, so that makes geese special.
All this got me intrigued by Stephen Rutt’s book Wintering: A Season With Geese.
Wintering: A Season With Geese
By Stephen Rutt
Elliott and Thompson Limited, London, 2019
Stephen Rutt is a British writer and naturalist. He moved one autumn from Essex in the southeast of England to Dumfries, a small town in the west corner of Scotland, just across the English border. Wintering is his memoir of the winter he spent traipsing around Dumfries and other parts of England in search of geese.
As Rutt tells it, there are six species of geese that winter in Britain: pink footed, white fronted, barnacle, bean, brent and graylag. Theyr’e distinguished by their size, the colors of their beaks, bodies, and feet, and by the patterns of spots, stripes and lines on their feathers.
They migrate to Britain from Russia, Scandinavia, Iceland, and a few occasional strays fly in from North America. In the spring they head back north.
Rutt devotes a chapter to each species, to describing their appearance, history, and habits, and his outings trying to find them and observe them.
I wasn’t familiar with any of the species of geese he described. I grew up in Canada and now live in the Pacific Northwest part of the US, so for me, “geese” means “Canada geese.” They’re the proper geese: black heads, black beaks, black necks, black feet, white “chin strap,” white or beige fronts and brown backs and wings.
Rutt’s description of geese migration is completely opposite my own experience too. Autumn isn’t marked by the arrival of geese; it’s marked by their departure. They winter in the southern US or northern Mexico.
Still it was interesting to learn a little about these other kinds of geese.
Wintering is a small book. Not especially insightful or though-provoking.
But it’s beautifully written. For me the best parts of the book are about the connection that Rutt’s goose chases help him to form with his new home, the surrounding environment, and the changing seasons. Here he uses the word “skein” to describe geese flying in a V:
“I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis. Although I am told the winter won’t always be like this – they are wild geese after all, predictably unpredictable – the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me. It is new for me. In a new place they make me feel, tentatively, at home. Connected to the world, while it just happens around me, daily and unadorned. It is not a famous spectacle, these passing skeins of geese, not the top billing on wildlife TV. These geese just quietly go about their daily movements, as I go about mine. I am one insignificant human to them but they are reminding me that I am a part of the world that stretches as far away as Iceland, part of the running rhythm of winter.” [p. 15]
I doubt that Wintering would appeal to a wide audience. And Rutt’s descriptions of the bleak, cold and rainswept marshes of England and Scotland in winter are unlikely to attract any tourists. They sound bloody awful in fact.
But if you like books about nature and especially birds, you’ll probably find this one an interesting and relaxing read.
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Thanks to Erin @ Still Life, With Cracker Crumbs and Liz @ Adventures in reading, running and working from home for recommending this book.