‘A morning, a week later. The first skein comes, shaped like the nib of a fountain pen, drawing a northbound line through the sky.’
Extract taken from Wintering: A Season with Geese
By Stephen Rutt
Published by Elliott & Thompson
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 are making 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.
These pink-footed geese know Dumfries better than we do. The skeins we see scoring the sky are following regular routes. Well-travelled sky paths. Geese can be long-lived, if they avoid foxes, polar bears, powerlines and men with guns: the average life expectancy is eight years, but the oldest recorded bird was thirty-eight when it died. The Solway has seen pink-feet live through to their twenties. These are just the ringed birds that we know about, that have been found again. In the thousand-strong flocks there could be some that are older. I wonder at the generations of geese contained in each skein.
A morning, a week later. The first skein comes, shaped like the nib of a fountain pen, drawing a northbound line through the sky. I am walking northeast through the town, to the station, on an early golden morning. The third skein skips across, between the roofs of the shops, just off the high street. The fifth veers off eastward, into the sun. The sixth is the vanguard of the two-coach rattling train to Glasgow, ploughing its slow way through the hills to the city. I look up the word ‘skein’ on slow mobile internet from the train. It’s from the old, obscure French word ‘escaigne’, meaning an amount of yarn. The word makes a sort of sense. Although it is the only use of the word ‘skein’ that does not have a textile meaning, I like the way it suggests threads. Threads of geese in the sky, sometimes unravelling, sometimes like a ball of string, trailing a loose end. The skeins we see are stringy strands of the geese. It is only roughly, only occasionally, the precise V-shape of the classic imagined geese skein. Each flock is social. It seems mildly ironic that we should move to a place where I know nobody, and for the birds to be obviously together, benefiting each other. These skeins are social forms of flying. Each goose reduces drag for the one behind it. Each goose helps another.
It is possible to think these skeins ancient, that they have been scoring the sky since time beyond memory. It’s not true. British pink-footed geese come almost entirely from Iceland and Greenland. The rest of Europe’s come from Svalbard, the archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The Icelandic population increased spectacularly during the twentieth century. I start reading. The Birds of Dumfriesshire, compiled in 1910 by Hugh S. Gladstone, suggests that the bean goose was more common but was being displaced by the pink-footed goose.2 But all grey goose species look similar to some degree and even now, with modern knowledge and modern optics, identification is not easy. Early accounts are mired in confusion and misidentification. What is clear is that over the twentieth century the pink-footed goose became exceptionally common on the Solway Firth, where once it had been either irregular or unknown. The bean goose is now so rare in Dumfries and Galloway that if you see one you have to write a description of it for a panel of four men to adjudicate on whether you are correct.
I was dimly aware that pink-footed geese were supposed to be here in Dumfries, in the way that one is dimly aware of gravity or local politics: I know of the existence of these things and vaguely how they work and affect me, but that is it. Although I can’t imagine a time when I become obsessed with the machinations of councils or the essentials of physics, as necessary as they may be. I was not anticipating how frequently my thoughts would return to the geese, how my eye would be scanning the horizon for the smudge that betrays a skein on the horizon. I was not anticipating how much I would become obsessed with the geese. I was not aware how much they were becoming part of my life.
This is not unique to me.
Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt is published by Elliott & Thompson, priced £12.99