Early spring this year, we put in a new lawn. It lies between the porch and the creek. One morning, from the porch I saw two geese standing on the lawn just by the shoreline. They looked furtive, eyeing me sideways, like shoplifters.
I went to shoo them off. They didn’t retreat an inch, but viewed me with sidelong glances of suspicion, as if to ask just who did I think I was. They honked intermittently, their tones hushed, as if they were grumbling. Then, shamelessly, they began feeding on the grass.
Even as I chased them, they’d move slowly, waddling away with an air of defiance. It was the way pedestrians, who like to stick it to drivers, saunter at a snail’s pace making street crossings.
Geese have no business here. If they were behaving properly like Canada geese should, they’d be long gone along with their kin, off to northern climes. Instead, these two settled for the land of pleasant living, where the green grass grows all around, offering succulent fare to sate their insatiable appetites. Incidentally, this amounts to putting away a staggering 10 percent of their body weight in grass daily. And then, too, when compared to goose poop, human waste smells like Chanel. A muddy field chock full of goose droppings is the stuff of nightmares and even Rotor- Rooter, no stranger to unsavory challenges, wouldn’t touch the stuff with a ten-foot pole.
With regard to a goose’s characteristic ‘honking,’ seasonal changes and numbers can affect their repertoire. In the summer, the population is sparse and so we have mostly solos, a few duets, and occasionally, but rarely, small ensembles. There aren’t that many choristers around. In fall and winter the populations swell so we hear choral extravaganzas, geese performing in casts of hundreds. Just who is on key and who’s off is hard to tell. Individually geese sound binary – as though there were only two tones in their vocal range; a preliminary warm up and then a sort of vocal crescendo, as if successfully expunging a hairball, or in this case, a feather ball. They repeat it over and over again. It’s hardly melodic. Some Shore hunters, even if they can’t hold a tune, may grow remarkably proficient in imitating the ‘honk,’ even snookering some geese into thinking he’s the real McCoy.
Honking is distinctive if not alluring. Oddly, the phenomenon of honking earned recognition as an expression of piety some years ago. I began seeing bumper stickers that read, “Honk if you love Jesus.” This was a strategy of identifying the faithful while driving cars. In the absence of any other identifiable qualities like faith, love, patience, kindness, long suffering, forgiveness and the like, by just leaning on their car’s horn, believers could proclaim their faith. If one driver’s horn became too insistent, his piety could be misconstrued as road rage. Whether for man or beast, a honk is more than just a honk.
But to return to the two geese feeding on my new lawn . . .
The geese presented a moral dilemma for me, a challenge to my core beliefs. I say I believe in the sanctity of the natural world and all its creatures, whether I like them or not. I like to believe I do unto others as I would expect from them and offer hospitality to the stranger. I have helped others in trouble, and, at least on a few occasions loved others as I knew I was loved.
No matter what I tried with the geese, nothing worked; they might waddle off after I fussed at them, but only to return a few hours later and eat the grass. I was furious. My wife and I erected dowel sticks and stretched strings along the shoreline – surely the string would prohibit their huge bodies getting through. They simply flew over it.
I knew of a man in the neighborhood who loves guns. We call him Rambo because he relishes shooting at whatever moves . . . or doesn’t. One day in a snit about the intransigent geese, I caught myself engaged in an imaginary conversation with Rambo about dispatching these geese. I really got onto it; How much per goose? What about the carcasses? What about DNR’s legal restrictions? What if a neighbor saw it? What about anonymity? In this imaginary conversation, not once did I feel shame.
In a moment of truth, my imagination exposed me to the superficiality of my own moral pretentions; an imaginary gun had stripped me of any moral pretensions, and it was still smoking. I was settling for cheap grace, by practicing a morality of my convenience.
I want to make a point: morality is not a sound bite. It’s an inner conviction of value, an innate understanding of what is worthwhile. It’s like a GPS; it shows the way but I still have to make the choice.
Sure, I could contract with Rambo at 100 dollars per goose. If the geese could not be persuaded otherwise, and if I decided to go with Rambo to solve the problem, I’d dodge the expense of planting a new lawn – a formidable sum – for the cost of roughly two hundred dollars.
It is not on earth as it is in heaven. On earth two-hundred dollars is good deal, but in heaven’s exchange, the sum is valued only at thirty pieces of silver.
Making boundary violations for birds and animals an offence punishable by death, is morally bankrupt. It betrays what I ultimately value, the truths I wish live by. It also betrays a failure of imagination. Belief and action aren’t necessarily the same. The exercise of moral courage is never convenient. It’s not popular because when seriously practiced, it comes with personal cost.
Circumstances, not moral courage, got me off the hook. I was not forced to make a decision about the trespassing geese. They had stopped showing up and so I never had to contend directly with my darker side.
Moral concerns like these, in far greater magnitude, are being savaged in today’s political climate. The Environmental Protection Agency has been put in the service of Mammon, not the environment for which it was founded. The agenda is being driven by power and profit and few seem to exhibit shame, and worse yet, even care. ‘Losers’ (the vulnerable, like the environment and its inhabitants) don’t have a voice. I know this will sound naïve, but imagine if we (I) could consider matters of our mutual life together with greater imagination. Imagine we could explore boundaries as ways to include and not alienate or get rid of. Imagine that we could explore gender differences with humility without fear and retribution, all with the ultimate objective of understanding and acting wisely as members of a shared creation.
One of America’s great environmental visionaries, Aldo Leopold, once wrote: “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.”
In the human story, our fatal flaws keep haunting us; we manage to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.