Next book on my essays bookshelf:
“Geese” is a perfect example of what E.B. White does like no other. It is difficult to pinpoint from where the magic emanates. It is difficult to actually label what he is DOING and why it is so damn effective. For all intents and purposes, this is a story about some geese he owns on his property in Maine. He is so good at observing animal behavior, and we’ve seen that before, it comes up repeatedly in his essays (and also in his books for children). So that is delightful. I love animals and it’s fun to “get to know them” through the eyes of someone so in tune with who they are and how they behave. But what isn’t so easily discussed is how an essay about geese manages to erupt a little volcano of sadness and mourning in me (and in others, I am sure). E.B. White does not anthropomorphize. But he does understand that animals have motivations, a reason why they do the things they do, and he unpacks that for us in the small family drama that occurs among the geese. So there’s that. But by the end of the story, I am feeling so melancholy and mournful, for some reason, and so the final line of the essay “I don’t know anything sadder than a summer’s day” comes as a great affirmation of what I am feeling, an acknowledgement that yes, this is sad, and yes, E.B. White feels sad too.
But all along, at each step of the way, you are “merely” reading about the events in the Goose World. E.B. White does not make comparisons, does not try to widen the microscope into a telescope. He keeps his eye on the barnyard for the whole entire time.
It’s magic what he does.
The story is simple and tragic. A mother goose lays three eggs. Then one day, eggs not yet hatched, she falls down dead. E.B. White wanted to save the three eggs, and so he did a quick search to see if he could put the eggs under another hen in the district. Then he bought an incubator, but it was too high-maintenance for him and he thought, “Well, I’ll just buy three new goslings” – basically to give to the gander, who, in one day, was deprived of his mate and his offspring. He brings the goslings home and introduces them to their foster father. What then unfolds, as the makeshift family gels, makes up the majority of the essay. You cannot put it down. You wonder, “Oh God, I hope the gander likes the goslings” and “I hope the gander is okay with this turn of events” and “I hope the goslings thrive …” It’s a little cliffhanger. You care about these damn geese.
And the way it all turns out is perfect, and yet … and yet … there’s that last line to consider. Sadness is unleashed through the telling of the story … somehow … expertly … by E.B. White. I don’t know how he does it.
Excerpt from Essays of E. B. White, “The Geese”
My next concern was how to introduce these small creatures to their foster father, the old gander. I thought about that all the way home. I’ve had just enough experience with domesticated animals and birds to know that they are a bundle of eccentricities and crotchets, and I was not at all sure what sort of reception three strange youngsters would get from a gander who was full of sorrows and suspicions. (I once saw a gander, taken by surprise, seize a newly hatched gosling and hurl it the length of the barn floor.) I had an uneasy feeling that my three little charges might be dead within the hour, victims of a grief-crazed old fool. I decided to go slow. I fixed a makeshift pen for the goslings in the barn, arranged so that they would be separated from the gander but visible to him, and he would be visible to them. The old fellow, when he heard youthful voices, bustled right in to find out what was going on. He studied the scene in silence and with the greatest attention. I could not tell whether the look in his eye was one of malice or affection – a goose-s eye is a small round enigma. After observing this introductory scene for a while, I left and went into the house.
Half an hour later, I heard a commotion in the barnyard: the gander was in full cry. I hustled out. The goslings, impatient with life indoors, had escaped from their hastily constructed enclosure in the barn and had joined their foster father in the barnyard. The cries I had heard were his screams of welcome – the old bird was delighted with the turn that events had taken. His period of mourning was over, he now had interesting and useful work to do, and he threw himself into the role of father with immense satisfaction and zeal, hissing at me with renewed malevolence, shepherding the three children here and there, and running interference against real and imaginary enemies. My fears were laid to rest. In the rush of emotion that seized him at finding himself the head of a family, his thoughts turned immediately to the pond, and I watched admiringly as he guided the goslings down the long, tortuous course through the weedy lane and on down across the rough pasture between blueberry knolls and granite boulders. It was a sight to see him hold the heifers at bay so the procession could pass safely. Summer was upon us, the pond was alive again. I brought the three eggs up from the cellar and dispatched them to the town dump.
At first, I did not know the sex of my three goslings. But nothing on two legs grows any faster than a young goose, and by early fall it was obvious that I had drawn one male and two females. You tell the sex of a goose by its demeanor and its stance – the way it holds itself, its general approach to life. A gander carries his head high and affects a threatening attitude. Females go about with necks in a graceful arch and are less aggressive. My two young females looked like their mother, parti-colored. The young male was quite different. He feathered out white all over except for his wings, which were a very light, pearly gray. Afloat on the pond, he looked almost like a swan, with his tall, thin white neck and his cocked-up white tail – a real dandy, full of pompous thoughts and surly gestures.