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The Wild Goose

( Originally Published 1918 )



WHEN we say of some one, 'He is as silly as a goose,' we think we have applied the strongest term indicative of foolishness that our language furnishes. Is the goose then so silly? That is what I am about to discuss with you, my friends.

"I agree at the outset that its appearance is not such as to give a high idea of its intellectual faculties. Its head is too small for its body, its diminutive and expressionless eyes, its enormous beak hiding its whole face, its waddling walk made still more awkward by the fatty protuberance that hangs down under its stomach and strikes its feet, its neck sometimes awkwardly outstretched, sometimes sharply bent as if broken, its cry surpassing in hoarseness the note of the hoarsest clarion, its angry or frightened whistle resembling the hiss of the snake when surprised—all that, I hasten to acknowledge, does not prepossess one in favor of the bird. But how often, under a rude exterior, is hidden a re-fined nature ! Let us not judge the goose by its appearance, but let us go deeper before forming a fixed opinion."

I see what you are up to, Uncle," interrupted Jules; "you are taking up your favorite refrain, the praise of the slandered. A while ago you extolled the two ugliest of. creatures, the bat and the toad; now you are going to undertake the defense of the goose and clear it of the slander it suffers in being called silly."

"Why should I deny it, my child? Yes, my favorite occupation is pleading the cause of the weak, the miserable, the traduced, the outlawed. The strong and the powerful are not wanting in admirers, so I can pass them over very quickly; but I should reproach myself all my life were I to forget the forsaken and not bring to light their good qualities, unrecognized and, indeed, too often shamefully misrepresented as they are. As to its treatment, the goose needs no pleading of mine : it is too valuable to us not to be taken care of as it deserves. The only reproach I have to bring has to do with the reputation for stupidity it has been made to bear. I am well aware that the goose, as a sensible creature, is superbly indifferent to this calumny, and I offer it my congratulations; but, after all, this false repute is an instance of error, and wherever I find error I give it battle.

"First, I will show you the goose as an adept in geography. In spite of our books, maps, and atlases, how the reputedly silly bird would surpass all of us and many others ! Know that in its wild state the goose is an impassioned traveler, even more so than its companion, the duck. Influenced by considerations of convenience, the latter often nests in our latitudes; the goose is more given to mistrust and passes us by. For the laying of its eggs it must seek regions as near the Pole as possible, regions of never-melting ice. The desolate wastes of Greenland and Spitzbergen, and, still farther north, the islands lost in the fogs of the polar ocean, are the regions whither they feel bound to return every summer. The point of departure, where the bird has passed the winter in the midst of plenty when its native country was plunged in continual night and buried under fathomless depths of snow and ice —the point of departure is far south, in central Africa perhaps, so that the distance to be covered measures almost a quarter-circumference of the earth. Now, my friends, let us put ourselves in the place of the wild goose just about to take its flight for the long expedition, and see which of the two parties will be the more perplexed, the more stupid. I leave out of the account means of transportation : however good a mount we might have, we should cut a pitiable figure beside the goose, which with powerful wing soars above the clouds and conquers space. I pass by the means of transportation and ask only what direction is to be taken. I appeal to your knowledge of geography."

"Since it is only necessary to go north," answered Jules, "I should first make sure of the points of the compass. I should turn toward the sun, and if it is rising, the north would be on the left; if setting, the north would be on the right. This direction fixed, I should set out accordingly."

"In the supposed case that method is inapplicable. As an experienced traveler husbanding its strength and hence making the most of the cooler hours, the goose travels only at night."

"Then I would turn toward the constellation of the Bear, toward the polar star. The north is in that direction."

"Very good: you would find the north in that way if the night were clear; but if the night were dark and you could not see the stars, what would you do?"

"I should use a compass, the needle of which always points nearly northward."

"But if you did not have that precious instrument, the traveler's guide in the midst of the waste solitudes of land and sea—if you had no compass, how would you find your way, my friend?"

In that case, Uncle, I should be very much perplexed. Perplexed is not the word; on the contrary, I should see very clearly that there was no possibility of my finding my way. I should not budge from the spot, for I might as well try to guide myself blindfolded."

"Here, my dear child, the bird reputed to be so stupid, so foolish, towers above us all by a thousand cubits. Without consulting the rising or setting sun, paying no heed to the constellations, for which it has no use, availing itself of no compass but its instinct, which says, `This is the way'—in darkness as well as in light, the goose plunges into space and flies northward.

"But that is only the beginning of the problem. A simple northern direction leads, according to the point of departure, to very different regions, sometimes to Siberia, sometimes to Spitzbergen and Lapland, sometimes to the northern islands of Iceland, Greenland, and what others shall I say? But no such vague destination will do for 'the goose. The bird must return to its native country, of which it retains an ineffaceable remembrance, just as a man, through all the shifts and changes of his stirring life, preserves the cherished memory of his own village. The goose, then, must again find the sea whose murmur it listened to in youth. In that sea is a certain islet, on that islet a certain moor, and on that moor a certain hidden retreat covered with rushes and sheltered from the wind by a rock. That is its birth-place; it must find its way.

`Propose such an undertaking to a navigator provided with first-rate charts and versed in all the special lore of his calling, and he would finally succeed, it is true, but would encounter difficulties due to the inhospitable seas of those parts. Propose it to one of us, who have none of the requisite nautical knowledge, and it would put our geography to the test without any chance of ultimate success. But this task which man, with all his reasoning powers, would in the great majority of instances be incapable of performing, the goose accomplishes without the slightest hesitation. As though the desired spot were right before its. eyes, it goes straight forward. The featureless expanse of ocean and the confusing details of the landscape, the halts on the margins of lakes, the damp and obscurity of clouds that have to be traversed, the emotions of terror excited when the ambushed hunter discharges his leaden hail—none of these things diverts it from its course. If detours must be made in order to avoid danger or find food, it makes them, however long they may be, and then resumes the right direction without a moment's hesitation. It calculates its speed and regulates its halts so as to arrive neither too early nor too late; for it knows perfectly the order of the seasons, when the snow melts and when the grass turns green. At last, on a fine day when the first little flowers are just peeping through their snowy shrouds, it reaches its ocean inlet, its little island, its native heath, its cherished nesting-place.

I have finished. Now, my friends, which one of you would like to engage in a geography match—not with a veteran goose experienced in such voyages ; you would be too hopelessly outclassed—but with the youngest gosling, the merest novice of them all l"

"On that subject," Jules made answer, "I admit that the youngest gosling knows more than I."

"And than I," chimed in Louis, and Emile added : "If the goose knew that I can't even find my bearings yet on the map, how it would make fun of poor Emile ! You will tell us so much about its cleverness, Uncle, that after this I shan't be able to meet a goose without blushing."

It is very praiseworthy to blush at one's ignorance," his uncle assured him, "especially on a subject as necessary as geography; for it is a sign that in future one will do one's best ; but none may expect to rival the goose. We acquire our knowledge by reflection, study, observation, experience; an animal does not acquire knowledge, it possesses knowledge from its birth. Without ever having learned it, without ever having seen it done, it does everything belonging to its manner of living, and does it admirably well. A feeling not reasoned, a secret impulse proper to its nature, guides it in its acts; it is instinct, the marvels of which I have often related to you. If, to accomplish its astonishing journeys, the goose had to learn geography as we do, it would never see its beloved native land again; but it has as guide the infallible inspiration of instinct, and with this inner compass it wings its unerring way straight toward its natal islet, however hidden by polar fogs that islet may be.

`Its manner of traveling is not less remarkable. I have already told you something about the duck; I come back to the subject in order to emphasize the high degree of mechanical science possessed by the goose. A bird on the wing is held up by the air which its wings strike ; it is also impeded in its progress by the air, the resistance of which it must conquer. To overcome this obstacle with the least possible fatigue what does the bird do, especially the crane, heron, stork, and other wading birds encumbered with long legs and a long neck? They bring the neck back on the breast, point their sharp beak forward, and, holding their outstretched legs close together, trail them behind. With form thus trimmed to extreme slimness, and with beak acting as the point of a spear-head, they cleave the air as a ship plows the wave with its sharp prow. No bird is wanting in this elementary principle of mechanics : to gather the members together and taper the body in the direction of motion, so as to encounter the least resistance. By undertaking these very long flights in large flocks the duck and the goose improve upon this general method.

"Before going further let us draw a comparison. I will suppose that you are a company of playmates running across lots, and you come to a tract all covered with thick brushwood that has to be parted with feet and hands before you can get through. If each one goes about it in his own way, one here and another there just as it happens, is it not true that the sum total of fatigue for the whole company will be the greatest possible, since each one will have spent his strength in opening a way for himself through the thicket? But now let us suppose, on the other hand, that one of you, the most vigorous of the company, walks at the head, parting the underbrush, and that the others follow him, step by step, taking advantage of the path opened by the leader of the file. Is it not true that under these conditions the sum total of fatigue will be the least possible?"

"All that is obvious," Emile replied. "They could even, if it were a long way through the brushwood, take turns in going ahead, and then no one would be really tired out."

"This device of Emile's has, as you already know, been put in practice from time immemorial by ducks on their long flights. Nor is the goose less happily inspired. If the flock is a small one, the birds composing it range themselves in a continuous single file, each following bird touching with its beak the tail of the preceding one, in order that the way opened through the air may not have time to close again. If the flock is numerous, two files of equal length are formed, and they join each other at an acute angle, advancing point first. This angular arrangement, which we find imitated in the ship's prow, in the farmer's plowshare, in the thin edge' of a wedge, and in any number of utensils fashioned for penetrating a dense mass by overcoming resistance, is the one best suited for cleaving the air with the least possible fatigue. If, to arrange its flying squadron, the goose had taken counsel of the most consummate science of our engineers, it could not have done better. But the goose has no need of others; advised by its instinct, it knew long before us, who call it stupid, one of the great secrets of mechanics, the principle of the wedge.

"Moreover, to divide among all the members of the flock the excess of fatigue felt by the leader of the file in being the first to cleave with a stroke of his wing the resisting atmosphere, each one in its turn occupies the post of honor, the forward end of the single file, or the apex of the two joining files. It is a repetition of Emile's expedient for penetrating a considerable extent of brushwood. After its turn of service at the front the leading goose retires for rest to the rear of one or other of the branches of the angle, while a new leader takes its place. By this means of equitable rotation excessive fatigue on the part of any one of the migrating flock is avoided, and no stragglers are left behind."

"And no goose has to be urged to take what you call the post of honor, the arduous post at the front?" queried Emile.

"None has to be urged. It is their duty, and they all fulfil it with a zeal that in, many instances man might take as a model. To the recusant slacker the smallest gosling would give a lesson in what is owing to the common welfare. As soon as the leader feels its strength weakening, the next one in order takes its place without having to be told."

"Decidedly," interposed Jules, "those geese, with Their cleverness in geography and their skill in the Art of flying in flocks and in devising means for mutual assistance, are not so silly as they are said o be."

"The flight of a flock of geese is generally very high; they do not come near the ground except in foggy weather. If on such an occasion some farm chances to be near, it occasionally happens that resounding clarion calls answer each other from sky to earth and earth to sky. That is the interchange of greetings between wild and tame geese. The wild ones invite the captives to come and join them in their pilgrimage to the promised land of the North. The proposal puts the poultry-yard all in a turmoil, so compelling is the call of instinct. The farm geese become excited, scream, beat their sides with their large wings; but the plumpness of captivity prevents their flight. One less impeded takes wing, rises in the air, and is gone."

"To Spitzbergen ?" asked Emile.

"Yes, to Spitzbergen, if strength does not fail it, but it is very doubtful whether it will be able to follow its wild companions to the end.

"The goose feeds chiefly on herbage. With its wide beak furnished at the edges with little scales resembling sharp teeth, it browses the turf very much as does the sheep. A field of green wheat particularly delights it. If a rather large flock alights there the harvest is seriously injured. During the devastation sentries keep a look-out, some here, others there, motionless, neck outstretched, eye and ear on the alert. Let danger approach, and immediately the trumpet sounds. At the warning the flock ceases grazing, runs with wings open to get a start, then takes flight and mounts obliquely to heights above the reach of a shot. The same precautions are taken in the hours of repose; furthermore, actuated by an excess of prudence, they refuse to trust entirely to the sentinels, but each sleeps with one eye open, as we say. Thus are the ruses of the hunter nearly always baffled when he tries to get near them.

I will stop here for today. I hope that, without going into other details that would carry us too far, I have reinstated the slandered bird in your esteem. The goose is not silly; on the contrary, it possesses to a high degree the wiles, the talents, in fact everything necessary for the admirable fulfilment of its mission as a goose."



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