by William Fiennes
Random House, New York, 2002
At the age of twenty-five William Fiennes fell ill. His parents welcomed him home to recuperate. He hoped to be back at work in three weeks but it took much longer. In the hospital, out again, in again, always returning home, back to his childhood room.
As a change of scenery his mother suggested a stay at hotel on the Welsh border. There, in the library, he found a copy of Paul Gallico’s “The Snow Goose”. He remembered hearing the story in school at age ten. He remembered the classroom with high windows and his teacher, Mr. Faulkner.
Fiennes’s father had always loved birds but William had never had the patience to learn about them. When they came back from the hotel he couldn’t get “The Snow Goose” out of his head. Gaining strength he grew restless. After seeing a map of bird migration routes he decided to undertake a journey. He would follow snow geese from their wintering ground in Texas to their breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic.
The day before I left for Texas, I took the train home from London. In the afternoon, my father and I went for a walk. A pink kite was snarled in the churchyard yew tree; there were clumps of moss like berets on the corners of the headstones. We climbed a gate and strode out across Danvers Meadow, heading westward, leaning into the slope, last year,s sere beech leaves strewn through the grass. My father was wearing tan corduroy trousers and an old battered green waxed jacket; in one pocket he kept a matching green waxed hat in case of rain. We walked at a steady pace, talking about the journey ahead of me, the rhythm of the walk going on under the words like a tempo. Page 16
Thus begins a magical story of migration and homecoming. The Snow Geese is a record of a very personal journey filled with precise observations of birds and of people. Fiennes writes wonderfully about bird migration, behavior and physiology.
The swifts come back each year, in the last week of May. These were common swifts, Apus apus, sooty black all over save for a pale chin, known variously as skeer devils, swing devils, jack squealers, screech martins, shriek owls, or screeks–names that alluded to the bird’s fiendish screaming fight and diabolic black appearance. Swifts like to nest in the nooks in the stonework of high walls, under eaves, even among rafters, and show a high degree of philopatry (from the Greek words philein, “to love”, and patria, “homeland”), with generation after generation returning to favored nesting sites. The advantage of this behavior are clear: if a bird is familiar with its environment, it is likely to be less susceptible to predators and more efficient at finding food. Philopatry tends to develop in species that nest in stable, reliable sites such as cliffs or buildings, rather than in species that use unstable sites like river sandbars. There’s no point in returning to a place if you can’t rely upon its qualities. Pages141/142
His descriptions of visits with people along the route are perfect snapshots of North American culture as well as of human nature. He does not hesitate to turn the spotlight on himself.
I lay awake, thinking of home. Not just of the ironstone house–my mother’s evening viola scales coming up the stairs–but also of the London flat in which I had been living, the streets around it, the faces and voices of friends, the things we laughed about. Such images had occupied my mind with increasing frequency ever since my stay in the white motel in Aberdeen. In that room my curiosity, my appetite for the new seemed to tire or slacken, perhaps because I was lonely, or because I felt for the first time that my journey north with the snow geese was not quite the shout of freedom I had presupposed. I was aware of another impulse that, if not the opposite of curiosity, was certainly resistant to the new or the strange and sympathetic to everything I could remember and understand. This wasn’t the acute longing I remembered from the hospital, that desperate nostalgic desire to return to the circumstances of childhood. Lying awake on the train, what I felt was no more than a mild ache, bittersweet, an awareness of separation from the things I loved, an almost corporeal inclination towards familiar ground. It was as if I existed between two poles, the known and the new, and found myself drawn alternately from one to the other. Page 176/177
The Snow Geese is a delightful book, lively and bright, filled with wonderful facts about birds. I love Fiennes’s writing, it is clean, vivid and intensely detailed. I can not wait to read his new book, The Music Room.