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Monday, December 2, 2013

Reminiscing Among Swans…

swan fieldThe swans have returned to their Valley wintering grounds. I’ve heard them and observed their twilight flyovers for a month at least. Just recently, though, they’ve been foraging in the Valley cornfields. Because of our current stretch of cold weather, I’m footing it in the Valley these days: the wind chill factor and Gladys’s blistering pace would spell frostbite for sure. The other day I was delighted to see a congregation of swans, two hundred at least, in Johnny Deck’s cornfield. As unobtrusively as possible, I strutted briskly along the road past Swiss Hall, hoping my lumbering pace wouldn’t spook them. The nearest swan contingent immediately up-periscoped and began their swan gabble (where the phrase “swan’s song” came from is a mystery to me). Some of the closest began a slow waddle toward the middle of the field; distance is safety. Soon the entire host was protesting my presence, the lot of them sounding like an ensemble of first year clarinet students. As I continued along, most shut off their klaxons and resumed grubbing up the roots of the cornstalks. On my return leg, the swans replayed their earlier scenario.swans on alert

Somewhere between the “Beware of Dog” sign and the Barrell Man’s house an unfamiliar cry overhead made me look up just in time to see three geese gliding south. Geese, not swans…and not honking bandit-faced Canadian geese either, the cry of these three more like the bark of a small dog than a honk. “Must be snow geese,” I thought, remembering a conversation with my environmentally-sensitive friend Nancy L the other day. She had seen a flock of snow geese down valley, a surprise to her. “I could tell by their black wingtips,” she said. The trio flyover was my first sighting of snow geese. They are plentiful in the Skagit Valley, but I had yet to see them here. Birders I’ve talked to say it’s not uncommon for trumpeter swans and snow geese to forage together. This may be so, but distinguishing between the two species from a cluster of white birds at a distance makes identification difficult without a spotting scope .

As the three geese sail down Valley, my mind wanders with them to the south-east coast of Essex, England, to the “Great Marsh, the saltings, mudflats and tidal pools,” a wild and desolate place where the fresh water estuaries mingle with the brackish waters of the cruel North Sea. A world teetering on the brink of war has yet to reach this remote outpost. Thus the setting of The Snow Goose, a poignant little story by Paul Gallico. The snow geese sighting reminds me it’s been years since I read this wonderful little book.swan commute

I pull the slim volume, not much thicker than a large pamphlet, from the shelf. It is a gem of a book, Gallico’s, noteworthy if for no other reason than it is a masterpiece of word economy…each and every word works to a purpose; to leave a word out would be a noticeable oversight; to add one more, an obvious excess. The Snow Goose is the story of Philip Rhayader, a man whose physical deformities have alienated him humankind, a recluse by circumstance and choice. Women are repelled by him; men are uncomfortable in his presence and avoid him. A lover of wildlife, especially waterfowl, Rhayader purchases an abandoned lighthouse and many surrounding acres of marsh and saltings which he turns into a refuge for numerous species of migrating waterfowl.flight of swans The lighthouse becomes his home; the sanctuary, a source of subject matter for his paintings of migrating birds. Village folk know him as that strange chap who lives alone and paints pictures of birds. Hunters detest him because he interferes with their sport. When he’s not tending his tame birds or painting, he sets sail in a tiny sixteen foot sailboat and sails the coast sometimes for days, frequently venturing into the open sea.

It is a snow goose that forms a bond between Philip and the young girl Frith who lives among the village fisherfolk. One day Rhayader answers a knock at the door and finds the girl standing on the stoop. She holds in her arms an injured snow goose and knowing his reputation as a protector of wildlife, especially waterfowl, has come seeking aid for the wounded bird. Philip readily recognizes the goose as a snow goose and shares his amazement with Frith: the snow goose is a native of Canada, he tells her, a species not found among the flocks of local migratory birds. A great storm, he continues, has driven the bird before it, across the Atlantic, east across England to the marshes of Essex where local hunters shot and wounded it. Frith stands by while Rhayader clips and binds the injured wing and splints the broken leg. “In a few days she will be feeling much better,” he tells the girl.

From time to time Frith returns to the lighthouse to check on the goose’s progress. A day comes when the bird is whole, and heeding the call of other migrating birds, takes flight with them and disappears. The snow goose is gone; the bond between Frith and Rhayader is broken but resumes anew the next fall when surprisingly the goose returns to the lighthouse with other migrating flocks. The ritual continues over the years. Frith is now a young woman with a young woman’s sentiments and has ambivalent feelings about the nature of her friendship with a man such as Philip. The snow goose, however, buffers their relationship. Meanwhile the rest of the world has erupted in war.

One day Frith visits the lighthouse and is alarmed to discover a frantic Rhayader loading his little sailboat with provisions. Hundreds of British troops, he tells her, have been pushed to the sea at Dunkirk. Every available fishing boat, freighter, barge has set sail to rescue the doomed troops. Frith pleads to go with him, but Philip gently refuses her request; her presence would mean room for one less soldier in the small boat. Frith protests she’ll never see him again and then realizes her bond with him goes beyond their common love of the snow goose. Nevertheless, Philip sets sail, heads out to open sea. But Rhayader is not alone. The snow goose, like a guardian spirit, circles the small craft as it sails off into danger.

Gallico’s story is rich in symbolic pathos--both the snow goose and Rhayader are outlanders, outsiders, outcasts, freaks of nature, so to speak. The Snow Goose is a wonderful story for readers young and old. It’s a short book. You can read it in less than an hour. I did. However, if you are a sensitive reader, you might allow yourself some extra time in case you have to round up a box of tissues.The Snow Goose

(NOTE: In 1971 Gallico’s story was adapted to film starring the late Richard Harris who plays a very credible Philip Rhayader. The film stays true to the book and the cinematography does a masterful job capturing the windswept desolation of the story’s setting and the chaos and panic among the besieged troops in the harbor and on the beaches at Dunkirk.)

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  1. Thank you for the wonderful book review. Your "Snow Geese" may been another species of swan. I learned from a bee store customer a year or two back that we have two similar species of swans wintering in the Snohomish Valley. The Trumpeter Swans are the larger and more numerous birds and the Whistling Swans the smaller. He was a professional waterfowl biologist and said it is hard to distinguish between the two species from a distance. I looked in my bird books for more information. One book listed both Trumpeter and Whistling Swans as wintering in our area. A second book listed Trumpeter Swans and Tundra Swans, which may be an alternate name for Whistling Swans. Whatever the name of the smaller swan species that winters in our valley, both books indicated that they have a goose-like call. I didn't mean to ruin the lead-in to the book review, but I know you are a stickler for accuracy.

    1. The Valley is a favorite haunt of birders. I met two gentlemen a couple years back who were observing the Valley swans and talked a bit with them. You are correct about the two species of swans: trumpeters and tundras (aka "whistler/Bewick's swan" swan). The birders told me the two species often feed together but an observer would need a spotting scope to distinguish between the two (apparently the tundra swan has a yellow "beauty mark" at the base of its beak).

      Interestingly, my Birds of Washington pictorial field guide does not include the trumpeter swan, either in photo or checklist. The snow goose, however, is featured in both. Trumpeters and tundras look pretty much the same in flight...long necks (a bit excessive, in my opinion) and the black legs and feet. Neither swan species has black wing tips--a distinct marking in the snow goose. The three strangers I saw had the black wingtips and were definitely not swans.

      The wintering swans are quite an attraction in the Valley; folks are amazed to see so many big, white birds just roaming around in the cornfields. Because of the large numbers of wintering swans, the PUD has installed avian diverters on the highline wires in the Valley to make the lines more visible to the commuting swans. Thanks for reading, Mr. T. TMJ