There’s nothing like a period of enforced bed-rest to stoke the fires of wanderlust. Grounded by a bad back and an even more painfully low bank balance, the only travelling I’ve been able to do recently is of the armchair variety. Thankfully, I had a book on hand that proved the perfect vehicle for this static flight of fancy.
The long, slow convalescence from an illness, which had confined him to his childhood room for several months, resulted in William Fiennes’s decision, as soon as he was up and about, to set off on a migration of his own, following flocks of lesser snow geese from the Texas prairies northward on their breeding grounds off the coast of Siberia. The book that resulted shares its title with the book that inspired it, but whereas Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose is an unabashed tear-jerker, oozing with anthropomorphic sentimentality, The Snow Geese is a remarkable piece of nature writing – cool, clear, as graceful a swift and peppered with delicious terminology.
I particularly loved learning that the restlessness exhibited by migratory birds at certain times of the year is called Zugunruhe (from Zug – to move, and Unruhe meaning anxiety or restlessness). The term was coined by German naturalist Johann Andreas Naumann at the beginning of the nineteenth century although it was only in the 1960s that this was established to be an innate behaviour. Scientists observed that caged garden warblers, for example, became restless not just at the same time as their wild counterparts, but in the same direction: hopping towards the south-west, as their fellows headed down the Straits of Gibraltar, turning south and south-east as the free birds wheeled towards Morocco.
Who knows what the turning of the seasons, the fluctuations of the daylight and night-time hours, the subtle pull of the waxing and waning moon, does to our inner tides? A whole sub-branch of science – chronobiology – is devoted to the mysterious workings of the circadian and circannual clock, the daily and annual rhythms of life: sleeping and waking, feeding and migrating. The longing to be somewhere else that seizes us at certain times of the day or the year is, perhaps, only partially explained by our quotidian exigencies of life.
As I lay there, immobilized by pinched sciatic nerves, I felt the pull of my own seasonal Zugunruhe, my thoughts listing westwards but, caged by circumstance, unable to join the flocks of departing firangs as they fled the impending Delhi summer for cooler northern climes…
According to his friend and fellow-writer Mark Haddon, Fiennes often kick-starts creative writing classes by asking students to write about an animal – or bird – that they’ve encountered at some point in their lives. Invariably, the animal (or bird) represents some unspoken aspect of themselves. We can’t, says Haddon, look at animals objectively. “Put an animal in a story and it is never just an animal. The faithful dog who waits for Odysseus’s return. The dove that brings the olive branch back to Noah… Moby-Dick, War Horse.” One might add snow geese to the list: for in them, Fiennes seems to see find feathered soulmates, echoing and shaping his own quest for the wide open spaces of the sky, for freedom.
But can we ever really know what another creature is thinking? The philosopher Wittgenstein summed up the conundrum neatly: “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him” – simultaneously suggesting that animals are profoundly different from us (we cannot understand them) and rather similar to us (they say stuff). Reading William Fiennes’s marvellous book, you cannot help wondering what the geese are thinking as they line up in that undulating V in the sky. If we could see the world from up there – a genuine birds’-eye view – what would it look like, how would it feel? Perhaps the best we can do is to simply bear witness, as closely and as accurately as we can to our non-human co-habitees of this extraordinary, fragile and changing planet. And write down, with a full heart and a clear head, what it is that we see.
Hindu Business Line Supplement, April 2014