“Please tell me that geese do mate for life.” I chased down my good friend Melissa Groo, who is an expert in birds as well as an excellent photographer, and texted her in a big hurry.
She immediately said, “Yes, but why did you ask?”
I slowly sat down, my eyes fixed on this one particular paragraph of a Chinese history book (that I opened purely by accident) in disbelief, and my mind once again flew back to Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, where I recently spent 3 days seeing hundreds of thousands of snow geese.
Here’s the translation of that paragraph.
(In ancient China, students had to walk for miles from their home town to the city where they took their public exam, which would determine their future occupation. That walk could take weeks to months depending on where they lived.)
About 800 years ago, or Year 1206 to be exact, a young scholar named Yuan was on his way to attend one of these public exams when he came upon a goose hunter.
The hunter told Yuan that he was trying to catch a pair of geese earlier that day. One escaped and took flight while the other one he killed instantly and put in his hunting net.
The hunter said the escaped goose kept calling desperately while circling high above him and wouldn’t leave.
The call from the goose was full of sorrow, penetrating the sky.
At the end, that goose dive-bombed onto a rock next to the net and died.
Yuan was deeply moved. He purchased both of the geese from the hunter and buried them together at a river bank. He collected some rocks and built a small mound in front of the grave, and named it “The Geese Mound”.
He also wrote a poem dedicated to this pair of geese, titled “The poem of the Geese Mound”.
(Here’s Yuan’s Wiki. He was a child prodigy and a famous poet yet had a tough life in Politics.)
Little did he know what would happen to that poem 800 years later.
Fast forward to 1955.
An aspiring writer picked up this poem once again and used it as the main theme to write a series of Chinese Wuxia (Martial Hero) Novels. The series would later become the most popular and successful Chinese novels ever in history. The writer became the best-selling Chinese author alive, with over 100 million copies sold. His work has been adapted numerous times into movies, TV series, comic books and video games. He is like the JK Rowling of China except he was famous way earlier.
His name is Dr. Jin Yong.
The poem became so famous that very few Chinese had not heard of it. However, probably not many knew the original story of the geese. I don’t know if it’s karma or what. I just flipped open a random book from my bookshelf after the trip and that’s what I saw.
The first few lines of Yuan’s original poem:
Roughly translated as:
Tell me, dear lord, what is love? That one would dedicate to someone their own life?
The pair flew side by side from north to south. Looking at their aged feathers, how many summers and winters has the couples migrated?
Being together was sweet but parting was painful. In this moment, I witnessed that the love between this pair of wild birds was even deeper than human’s.
The escaped goose knew it better. Even though he escaped, his life would mean nothing when he had to fly through the million miles of clouds and snowy mountains all by himself from then on. Where could his lonely shadow go with?
I forgot how I first heard about Bosque. It’s probably because of the immortal “Fire in the Mist” shot of Arthur Morris.
Every Winter morning at predawn (one year it was 7F), hundreds of thousands of snow geese that roosted overnight in the frigid water would start to “call” each other. All of a sudden, the dead silence would turn into loud thunders as if the earth was rocking. As the first ray of morning light shined on the water, the snow geese took off at the same direction at the same time, and the colorful morning sky would be filled up by them.
When I first learned about this special nature phenomena, I had a special feeling. It sounded so familiar. I must have seen it somewhere before. Yet I couldn’t recall.
It took me a few years to finally remembered. Not completely. But at least a bit.
When I was a kid, I used to love an animation deeply. I forgot the name of the program but remembered the story vividly. It’s about a mischievous kid who found joy hurting animals in his parent’s farm. One day a wizard shrunk him to punish him. Running for life from those tortured animals who tried to take revenge now that he’s tiny, he jumped on the neck of a domestic goose who had always been longing for freedom and had just attempted to join the migration of wild geese. And the kid started his adventures.
There was a scene in the anime that was exactly like the snow geese early morning blast off.
I kept relentlessly (Did I tell you I was obsessive) searching, and finally I found out the name of the animation, which was actually an adaptation from a Sweden Novel called “The Wonderful Adventures of Nils”, written by Selma Lagerlof, the first female writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s also the only Children’s book that has won a Nobel Prize. Boy did I have good taste.
For so long I dreamed about riding on a flying geese in my childhood.
I never knew that the love of wildlife photography would lead me to so many discoveries from my long lost childhood memory. At the same time, learning the background of the poem allowed me to look at snow geese in a brand new way. I am sure I will approach them differently in terms of photography next time at Bosque.
I had been to Bosque a few times. This time I just wanted to show my parents the Blast Off. It turned out that Bosque moved me even deeper and I discovered myself even more.
More about this in the next post.