Reflections on the Death of a Goose

Hello all, Robert here.

D. H. Lawrence writes a beautiful and disturbing essay on killing his first sentient creature: a porcupine. It was when he was roughing it out in Taos, New Mexico – where the dry weather offered less encouragement to his tuberculosis than did drizzly England. After describing the weird primeval beauty of the porcupine, Lawrence recounts the bloody and painful consequences of the local farmer’s dog biting one of the beasts; of the festering quills, the dog at once lying still while Lawrence yanked another quill out from deep in the creature’s lips and snout, and the dog funking it as it lost courage and whimpered under the Lawrence’s cabin. Everyone had said you had to kill porcupines when you saw them: farmer, Navajo, hunter. Depressed by his experience of de-quilling the dog, Lawrence reluctantly concludes the locals were right, and loading an old .22 that was lying about the place, dispatches his first porcupine.

The experience, for Lawrence, became a metaphor for doing the difficult thing, the tough thing, but the thing that had to be done. You had to quash your rising feelings of liberal squeamishness, and do what you knew deep in your heart was right. The disturbing aspect of the essay begins with the philosophy Lawrence hangs on to his metaphor. He makes a distinction between in-time, and out-of-time.

Every creature, out-of-time, is a thing of unique and exquisite beauty. Out-of-time is where each creature manifests the miracle of life immanent in all things. But in-time there is a cycle of life, a cycle driven by the imbalance of higher and lower things. Higher things devour lower things. That is the survival of the fittest. And higher things that funk their duty in the cycle of life exhibit a weakness that betrays their transcendent, out-of-time nature. All this is all well and good, except among Lawrence’s list of higher and lower things, of higher things rightly imposing their will on lower things, is Lawrence and his Mexican farm hand. Guess which one is which! You can find a link to the essay here..

Still, the essay stuck with me because shortly after first reading it I was working as a student warden in Glacier National Park, a jagged mountain fastness straddling the Trans-Canada highway as it bisects Roger’s Pass. As student wardens we were often sent out to inspect the back-country cabins the Park Service used for maintenance, thus sparing the real wardens the task. I remember being kept up all night as I tried to sleep in one of these cabins as a porcupine gnawed through a plywood sheet about six inches from my head. Someone had foolishly used it to shore up part of the cabin. Foolish, because porcupines are fiends for glue, plastics, or other synthetic substances. Porcupines regard plywood much as our eldest boy regards a beefsteak. If you park your car overnight in porcupine country you have to guard the underside with wire or the creatures will come and decimate any exposed wires or tubing. So as I lay there tormented by the gnawing (shooing away was a very temporary solution) I remembered Lawrence’s essay, wishing I had a .22 of my own. Cursing the creature, I was all too ready to embrace Lawrence’s metaphor, literally.

The essay came back to me this year as I killed two of our geese. Regenerative farming is mixed farming. To get the nutrients back into the earth, feeding the microbiome, you need animals to work the soil as they feed and defecate. Apart from two little drawbacks, geese are just about perfect for vineyards. They keep the grass down, and they do a fantastic job of supplying the plants with safely-scoured nitrogen (unlike the chemical stuff you add that pollutes the local waterways).

Just how effective Geese are is marvelously illustrated in a corner of our vineyard we call ‘goose-poop central’. This is where the first drawback comes in. Like any other bird geese will eat the ripe grapes; but unlike starlings, say, they’ll use their intelligence and long necks to tuck themselves up under the netting in order to satisfy their craving for sweet fruit. Of course you can prevent this by spending several weeks using ten times the number of clips you might otherwise use to secure the underside of the netting, but then, the labour / return balance becomes seriously out of whack. Before we doubled our vineyard size (securing summer pasture for our sheep and geese) I solved the problem by putting up three hundred feet of chicken wire along our rows of Marechal Foch, with netting along the bottom of the rows, to form a huge pen, in which to secure the geese, of which there were, then, seven. The Foch is trained up high, around six feet, with the canes falling downwards, largely out of reach of even big, stretching geese.

Naturally the geese need water. Not thinking the matter through I left in place, all summer, the blue kids’ swimming pool that I used as a watering trough. By the time I came to move it, the area around the ‘trough’ was several inches deep in goose poop. The next year nothing grew there: it was blasted, as if something terrible had happened. But the vines didn’t appear bothered. The following summer the grass grew back, and the vines in that area were a lush, dark, dark green, and super-abundant with fruit, as they have remained, ever since. Even now goose poop central stands out from the surrounding area.

Encouraged by this three years ago we more than doubled the size of our flock, from seven to sixteen. I also built a permanent pool for the geese in the seam between the old and new vineyards, where the water runs off, forming a natural water supply, at least while it rains. This solved another problem we didn’t know we had, at least, to start. Our geese would nest, and sit heroically, stubbornly, maniacally on their eggs, that would never hatch. We didn’t know that geese need a sizeable water source to mate in, something they can get in and really splash around. They also need to periodically dampen themselves, so the eggshells remain supple, allowing the goslings to fight their way out. Last year we had geese laying all over the place, from the little house we built for them, for the purpose, to nooks and crannies they found among the rock wall I built as a heat sink, or where blackberries still grew, thus providing protection. And of course there was Frankie, our Maremma, champion livestock guard dog, ever alert to chase away the ravens wheeling overhead, looking to snap up any unconsidered goose eggs.

Nature dutifully ran its course, and our flock doubled again, to thirty-two. The goslings were, as Tilar likes to say, ‘damn stinking cute’. We mourned when a couple fell into a freshly dug hole, a foot deep and six inches wide, that had filled up with water from the drip irrigation as it waited for a new vine to be fitted into it, and drowned. Who knew that goslings could drown in a few inches of water? Despite the setback, the flock flourished, and, naturally, the goslings grew, and were soon indistinguishable from their parents.

This brings me to the second downside to geese in the vineyard. In the summer, especially, they love to strip the ‘bark’ off young vines. If uninterrupted, they’ll soon kill a vine, which they have successfully done, on several occasions. I cannot express to you exactly how terrible that feels when each mature vine represents at least a five year investment, and where each plump, successful, flourishing vine, is the apple of one’s eye. Once they get a taste for it, geese won’t stop at young plants, but will turn to mature ones as well, and not just in summer. They have done a wonderful job in nourishing the vineyard, but thirty-two is too many.

So Lawrence’s essay came to mind, as I readied two of the geese for the pot. I remain uncomfortable with Lawrence's treatment of farm workers, but the idea of in- and out-of time has never been more with us than in these recent weeks, both on the farm and in our world, which is both smaller and more expansive than we had expected this spring. Despite their gormless, Charles-de-Gaulle style trooping about the place, beaks held high, I do not regard our geese as lower creatures, even as the cycle-of-life and vineyard balance requires that many more will have to find their way into our freezer.

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