You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, man is born into the natural paradise of Eden. But when Eve the woman, partakes of the forbidden fruit of knowledge, she forever marks the human race with the stain of sin. Expelled from paradise and cursed for eternity to wander imperfect in exile, the progeny of Judeo-Christian Western culture bear the scars of our forbearers’ original sin. We live upon the land but we are not of it. The Earth is not our home. We wander aimlessly in the wilderness, ever searching for the lost paradise we believe can only be restored beyond the grave. Our only salvation is to free ourselves from this world and take solace in another, perfect place, forgiven by a perfect (albeit strikingly similar in His imperfections to humans) God.
Other cultures do not define all of humanity as a fatally-flawed defect of natural order. In Native American cultures, people, and all other organisms, are charged with occupying a sacred space within an integrated whole. Understanding our function within the whole, we become whole. In Buddhism, everything is also a component of an interconnected single reality. Ecology confirms this hypothesis. In fact, most of the Earth’s peoples subscribe to variations of this timeless, self-evident truth.
The Judeo-Christian lives in exile from the place of his creation, always seeking a return to a mythical paradise. The Native American is part of it, seeing his place and time as perfect and whole. Indian tears and blood are the original sin of America.
I once had a beautiful Canada goose friend. One spring, three years ago, a pair of mated geese spent some time on our pond and then they disappeared. I think our potcake Steve, ever earnest in his duty to rid the property of all invaders, might have been responsible for their departure, but I can’t be sure. Certainly the geese intended to stay a while because they left behind a treasure of three gigantic eggs. I left the eggs alone for a couple of weeks, hoping the parents would return, but they never did.
Then, in a typical late April cold snap, urged by my youngest son who feared the eggs would freeze and die, I found myself breaking all my own rules, bringing the eggs into the house and throwing them into the incubator with some light Brahmas I was hatching. ‘They will never hatch,’ I told myself, but exactly 28 days later, I awoke to find two golden downy faces peering up at me through the plastic viewing hole of the incubator. The third egg was infertile.
No baby animal is more dependent than a gosling. Having made the decision to incubate the eggs, I was now utterly responsible for two babies who wanted to spend every second of every waking hour on a lap. To put them down or worse, in their pen, inspired an onslaught of incessant wailing that could bring the house down. If the screaming didn’t get to you, they would dash themselves on the bars of the pen for good measure.
Feeding was another issue. While their incubator mates, the chicks, were happy to peck and scratch at commercial feed, the goslings’ palates tended more towards wild foods, grass, dandelion and especially earthworms. Lulu and Jojo (Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner) were the highest maintenance animals of all time, but the intensity of their bonding was not to be resisted.
Then tragedy struck. Jojo broke his leg and passed away shortly after a surgery to repair it. Lulu became even more dependent without her sibling, but fortunately, Steve, Bruce and Prudence, the dogs, had stepped in by this time to act as surrogates, and Lulu gradually exchanged a permanent position on the lap for one on the porch with the dogs.
My cousin, an ornithologist, told me, “You are stuck with that goose. Since it is imprinted on humans, it will never leave.” Geese have a life expectancy of around 30 years, but by this time Lulu had settled into her place as a beloved member of the family, so this idea was just fine with us. In fact, trained by her friends the dogs to bark at cars entering the driveway, Lulu developed into the only decent guard dog in the family. She was earning her keep. Except for the numerous piles of excrement that now decorated the entrance to our home, life with a goose was good.
The winter came and Lulu did not fly south. The following spring, she seemed oblivious to the happy flocks of geese, returning from their southern holidays and bursting with the lust of the season. She stayed with us throughout a second winter, and we grew to love her more with every day. Then early last spring, our dear friend grew very restless. Instead of passing her days quietly on the porch with the dogs, she took to regular flight, circling the skies above the house. When she was on the land, she would spend her days up at the pond, plaintively honking. Lulu wanted somebody to love. Then one day, she found him, and she was gone.
The worst part was not knowing what had become of her. My mind raced through all the worst case scenarios, but in my heart I hoped beyond hope that she was flying free in the sky with her kin and having a wonderful goose life.
Two weeks ago, almost exactly one year to the day I last set eyes on her, Lulu returned, with friends. I heard her familiar honk, ran across the road to the pasture across the street, and there she was, saying hello. She didn’t stay. Her friends did not appreciate me very much, and they all took off down the field together. But now, every morning, a group of geese fly over the house to the pond where we first found Lulu’s egg. Steve the ancient potcake went back to the Earth last winter, after 13 years of loyal friendship, so Lulu and her new family are left undisturbed to do whatever it is geese like to do this time of year. She is home.
The deer also walk through from time to time and have a drink of water and a nibble of my blueberry bushes. The squirrels are busy, trying to remember where they hid last year’s walnuts and acorns. The goldfinches battle it out on the dried heads that still stand in the pasture and on the birdfeeders outside my window. Lulu returned to the place she is connected to. We do not own the land. They do. But if we walk gently and ask nicely, we can atone for our original sin and be part of paradise.