Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews

The Snow Geese

William Fiennes
Picador, PanMacmillan, (April 2002) 250 pages
ISBN: 0 330 37578 4

reviewed by Ann Skea

"This guy's come from England to watch geese," Ken said.
"Is that so?" Jack replied absently, smoothing his hair back, gazing out over the lake and flat fields.
"He's going to follow them from Eagle Lake to Canada, Hudson Bay, maybe even the Arctic Ocean."
"Each to his own," said Jack.
"He just flew in. Hasn't ever seen a snow goose."
"Is that right? Sometimes I wish I'd never seen a snow goose."

William Fiennes passion for snow geese began by accident. Convalescing from an unexpected and frightening illness, he found a familiar book amongst the pristine volumes in the pseudo library of his hotel--The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. Outside the hotel, professional women golfers with "tanned calves [that] resembled fresh tench attached to the backs of their shins" practised their golf strokes: inside, Fiennes lost himself in this book. It haunted him, and inspired him with a new passion for birds and bird-watching. In particular, migratory birds, and especially snow geese, became an obsession and he started planning to follow their migratory routes across America.

The Snow Geese records Fiennes journey, but it is a very quirky record in which science is entangled with Fiennes unique perception of the people he meets along the way, and his meditative observations on the homing instinct in birds and humans. He not only has an ornithologist's eye for the oddities of our own species, he has a wonderfully vivid and unexpected way of recording them:

The spherical man was first up, grabbing the handles of a leatherette overnight bag with his left hand, wielding the orthopaedic stick in his right, and walking briskly with the rolling gait of a goose towards the uniformed VIA ticket collector at the gate.

Unexpectedly, this elderly man turned out to have run away from home at the age of fifteen just to ride the freight trains. His tales of jumping rattlers, and of the wino's and hobo's he met up with along the way, amused Fiennes from Winnipeg to Hudson Bay, but Fiennes own account of the problems which faced the men who built the Hudson Bay Railway is equally fascinating.

And although Fiennes' tracking of the migrating snow geese was not as smooth as he expected, he certainly saw geese. On the front cover of the book is a picture which looks like a random pattern of grey, white and blue. On closer inspection, it resolves itself into an Escher-like picture of geese. It is, in fact, a photograph of snow geese in flight--huge flocks of birds, just as Fiennes first saw them in Texas. There, from faint drifts of specks on the horizon, the birds flew closer until each speck became a goose and finally

whole flocks circled over the roost, thousands of geese swirling round and round, as if the pond were the mouth of a drain and these geese the whirlpool turning above it. Nothing had prepared me for the sound, this dense, boisterous din, the clamour of a playground at breaktime...

From Texas, Fiennes followed the geese north, travelling by Greyhound bus, by car and by train. Sometimes he had to wait for the geese to catch up, but each wait had its own character and interest. Each was full of surprises. Eventually, he reached the breeding ground of the snow geese in Foxe Land, on the edge of the Hudson Strait. There, in a landscape so strange to him that he felt dazed and disorientated, he borrowed a Snow Goose parka patched with grey masking tape, pocketed a can of CounterAttack bear-repellent gas and accompanied an Inuit elder and her chain-smoking son on a hunting expedition. To his distress, he ended up eating snow-goose stew.

Fiennes own journey, like that of the geese, was one of migration and return, and of discovery. As well as describing his journey, he describes the earliest medical recognition of nostalgia (homesickness) as a clinical condition in humans; he explains the strange experiments scientists have devised to discover why and how birds migrate; and he notes, in passing, the migratory and homing instincts of the people he meets and finds the same impulses in himself.

This is an unusual and very enjoyable book. It shares something of the spirit of Peter Matthiesson's The Snow Leopard, but Fiennes has his own distinctive way of seeing the world and he writes about it beautifully.


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