On Monday I returned from a week’s holiday in Mallorca to a different season. The trees are turning, the first dusting of snow has been sighted on the tops of the Munros, and the greylag are on the move.
It’s one of my favourite times of year, although the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo has probably stripped off enough leaves to temper the best of the autumn fire we sometimes witness around here. Even so, Birnam Hill, facing my house, looks good in its coat of many colours, a patchwork of deep rust, copper and pale gold.
But more than this, it’s the geese that stir something in me at this season – and this year more than any perhaps, because of all the qualities they embody it’s independence that springs most readily to mind. The greylag are beholden to no one and nothing except an ancient and elemental pull to the arctic with the arrival of spring, and another back to the relatively warmer climes of northern Europe at the onset of winter.
There’s a wildness and grace about them that never fails to thrill me. I hear them when I’m walking, usually along the tree-lined river bank near my house, so that I have to crane my neck to spot them through gaps in the branches, sailing steadily and stately in their formations, high up, so much higher than any other bird. Sometimes, if it’s still, I hear the creaking of their wings. I know they’ve crossed tracts of unimaginable wilderness to get here.
On a frosty, starlit evening the call of the geese as they seek the safety of their night-time roost has a haunting, melancholy beauty unlike any other sound I know. I first came to love it as a teenager, when my father took me wildfowling on the River Earn. We would drive to a nearby farm and park in the darkened yard, breathing in the smell of cattle and neaps on the sharp air. Guns under our arms, cracking puddle-ice as we went, we’d set off across the carse towards the river.
In the darkness we’d follow the vague line of a fence, starting sometimes as a shadow turned itself into an old sheep and stumbled away from us. Eventually, the far side of two large fields, we’d climb a flood embankment and there the river would glint before us. We’d take up positions by bushes, fifty or so yards apart, and settle down to wait, blowing on mittened fingers.
The river would mutter to itself. Teal, mallard and widgeon would whirr over our heads, speeding shadows in the dark. Maybe the moon would rise. And then we’d hear them, faintly at first but growing in volume until we knew from the clamour that a throng was approaching. Still we couldn’t see them, but we would tense and crouch down behind our cover, almost feeling the disturbance in the air caused by their wingbeats, the vibrations of their throats in song.
And then, suddenly, a sliver of deeper darkness would materialise, moving fast, just on the edge of vision, and another and another. The throaty calling would cease, replaced by the sound of wind swooshing and roaring through pinions as they tumbled out of the night sky, jinking and twisting down towards the ice-rimmed spits of shingle, out in the shallow stream.
At the last moment we’d stand, select a target from among the dark, corkscrewing shapes, and fire. Sometimes the corkscrew would become a deadweight collapse. More often than not it wouldn’t. Then disappointment would be tinged with relief.
We only ever shot for the pot. And as I grew older and came to a fuller understanding of what it meant that geese mate for life, I stopped shooting them altogether.
But to those few that did fall to my gun, I offer this writing in respect and thanksgiving; not merely that of a hunter for his quarry, but of a teenage boy for moments of shared intensity with his father, for the awakening of a lifelong connection with the natural world, and for an appreciation of what independence of spirit really means. While wild geese fly we can always dream of freedom.