Essays


 

Geese Come Down


 

A few days ago I traveled up north to a forward operating base near Mosul. Flying north through the lush green agricultural lands bordering the Tigris I watched hundred of egrets along with small flocks of rooks and hooded crows. A large flock of sociable plovers were flushed by our low flying helicopter. We then moved out over the desert.

 

                                                        John, in Iraq

 

When the white Canadian geese come down and land on your field, on your wheat field, do not scare them. Let them eat. Be quiet, because they nourish the soil and that is what the Great Spirit likes because that will help you on your farm.

  

                                                        Wishram Indians

                                                        Washington State, early 1900’s

 

 

I read recently that when they take their lunch breaks the judges in the Serbian war crimes case, the one that goes on and on in far Amsterdam, go off to stare at the Vermeer paintings at the local museum. They take their lunches on the benches and lose themselves in those illuminated rooms where the great painter’s girls bend to the streaming window light forever. This is important to me because I know I would spend all my free time in Amsterdam staring at Vermeers, war crimes or not. Art museums are one of the few places I consider sanctuary that do not contain oaks and free living wildlife. Between the long and detailed descriptions of rape and strangulation, the Hague judges bind their eyes to those golds and reds from three hundred years ago. I want to go over and just watch the judges sit with their finger sandwiches. With the paintings themselves behind me and to the right, I would study the faces of the legal men who sit and seek some solace. Vermeer—I want to see him paint the face of one of those men who sit and stare into these rooms. Put this new painting on the other wall—an intricate face seeking solace. I will glare into the bright girl's lives later—the blue satin folding into those perfect shadows, the tiny hands on the water pitcher—when these other battered men have gone.

 

Geese come down like wired kites just before the lines are broken. The tie line leading to a thousand failures there, already, in the tangled stubble.

 

“I just wanted to put this little wasp in your head.” I cannot now remember where I heard this line this past week. A movie? (Yes—Dirty Pretty Things). Now I am fascinated with the origin of this phrase. And it made me think of the Hague judges again. Their heads full of different wasps. And I also read about a specific wasp just by chance recently in a book full of wasp information. (Granted, I am an odd creature.) Anyway, the wasp is the Ampulex. Or one of the Ampulex. One of the solitary hunting wasps. The venom of the Ampulex wasp is built for the mind of the cockroach only. It is chemically honed—a venom focused by the perfection of eons. It is, of course, applied with a stinger. And the moment of the sting, the presentation itself, may not be that painful. The roach, in fact, is not paralyzed by the act. It is only mesmerized. It sometimes takes this particular wasp two hours to pull its victim across the terrain there in South Africa where the chosen roaches run over the bark of the karoo trees. The doomed roaches live exclusively in the old beetle galleries of the bark there. The wasps are picky, they choose only the large wingless females and then sting them beneath the chin. It is an intricate moment, a joined struggle, a dance that is very brief. Wasp and cockroach move together after this. The cockroaches can still run, neurologically speaking. Someone actually checked this. If prodded after the poisoning the roach can scramble away in its perfect leggy momentum, but still, instead, it walks with the wasp to its last hole. It is led along passively by the antennae like a leashed dog to a chamber of horrors. Sometimes it takes two to three hours from the time of the sting to the time that the cockroach is nestled in this final room where the egg is placed. Darkly, something tickles on the belly of the sleepy beast. (Hunting wasps served as the models for the Aliens in the Alien films.) A day or so passes, this egg hatches very soon afterward (the timing is perfect) and it turns into the larva that will eat the living cockroach carefully until just the chitin shell remains. It is unclear when the roach actually dies in the process but it should not and does not die too fast. The food must stay fresh as long as possible. The shell of the roach will serve as the cocoon wrapping of the new wasp. This is all very Vincent Price, so very very Night Gallery, but the real fact, the one that gets me, the one that requires long consideration (or an injection of Vermeer) is that during that two hours, the time after the sting when the wasp is doing the work of shepherding the cockroach to its grave, the she-Ampulex will sometimes pause to carefully bite off the very fine tip of one of the roach antennae and then it will rest quietly while it feeds on the drops of blood that ooze out.

 

Geese come down like shards of dark light, testing the unknown lines across the local seams of gravity.

 

Vermeer painted many of his stillnesses in times of war. The Thirty Years War raged for much of his early life. And then the English and the Dutch fought again and again even after the official end of that extended conflict. What would make nations fight for thirty years? Boundaries and gold, feathered pillows and flushed cheeks, I guess—the usual. Stupid question. Vermeer’s first painting appeared around the same time that his city of Delft was rocked by a tremendous explosion. One of the local gun powder dumps exploded killing hundreds of people. Indeed, one of the dead was Fabricius, Vermeer’s artistic friend and contemporary. This first painting of the young Vermeer is unlike all the others, though it is definitely his, it is signed by the master, proofed. It is of Christ and Mary and Martha in a room. The colors and the light are, shall we say, Vermeerian but it is not quite up to the same palette and hand as the illuminated later works. He was just 22 years old. He was not a religious man. Or maybe he was. His second painting was completed after he definitely converted to Catholicism. Perhaps it was that funeral of his friend Fabricius that did something to him. Vermeer’s second picture depicts a young female Saint cleaning the blood from a decapitated body. Her face intent, she works like a woman at a Holy task. By his fifth painting he had retreated inside his interiors, favoring much brighter reds than that even of freshly drawn blood. He mixed them himself upstairs, stained and spattered. And there in those rooms, for the rest of his painterly life, he mostly stayed.

 

 

 

Geese come down like beads on the loom of this blue sky. Music trailing, the crackle and eek of falling, falling back to the world once more.

 

Every time I go outside with my dogs in November I hear geese calling. Mostly they are Snow Geese and sometimes if the moon slants just right you can catch the glinting line of the birds going south or southeast in rhythm. Watching, I thought I saw the dog hear one group of the birds and then specifically cock its head in their direction. The greater ear power of the dog at work, perhaps it heard three other distant flocks that I missed—but what it thought the sound might be I am not sure. Surely dogs understand sky and not-sky at least. Supposedly a two-year-old child and a very intelligent dog are on the same intellectual level. I don’t have the proof or the citation for this fact. I do know the landscape of the dog mind is difficult to discern with all the mysterious connections it might make. (Do they understand the concept of clouds?) I have another dog that thought the world was invaded once when a hot air balloon went over our yard making those flashing gas-jet barks of heat. The world is full of fear and fearmakers, at least we agree on that. But then I sometimes think smell, really, takes up most of that doggy attention space. So that dog ears are there most of the time only for the voice of the staggered master, the occasional siren or the baying of another dog. Still I recognized this particular canine’s moment of puzzlement at the goosey goings and in the moonlight I had no way of making the dog know this new thing. I pointed at the ghostly line like this was reassurance and then when this didn’t help I whispered “geese” for my own sense of helpfulness. The dog learned nothing but she did turn to find a good place to squat, her focus returning to the control of the dinosaurian parts of her brain—back to the basics. Humans are the ones who stare at skylights and going geese. We listen every time in the dark like fools tilting towards the message that is getting away.

 

Geese come down like the life that is, the life that falls by.

 

The women out there somewhere stuff the birds with corn. In my goose laden thoughts I found that dark one. Ah me. They use funnels and tubes and they milk the necks of the geese like feathered hoses. They coo at them, pulling their fingers down the tube of bird neck as they squeeze and milk the corn down. They could even say Foie gras, I guess, whispering to the bird—my little fatty liver. They use the geese as complicated processing machines, taking the sweet corn and blowing up the bird liver like a fat balloon. The women squat and hold the birds between their legs like lumpen cellos—beaks toward the sky. The geese murmur muffled burrs and purrings—not knowing the meaning of this soft attention. This activity convinces the bird’s liver that the bird is going places, when, in fact, these birds are grounded forever. It is the seduction of the world’s greatest omnivore, the historical champion and artisan omnivore really, the blue-ribbon eater—that would be us. We take the lives (I hope it is quick) of these geese and spread their creamy overblown livers on a cracker with a sweet wine. There is no guilt; the eaters are no longer connected to the fatteners. We press the buttery liver over the backs of our tongues and think not; do not. We laze upon the grass and buzz in wine-soaked sleep.

 

Geese come down like black flaws in the morning light, like the signal to awaken and go east for as far as this steaming field will take you.

 

Eastern light, sunrise light makes the land steam around the geese. They are several hundreds yards away and they murmur, they chatter like a crowd of gossips or nervous schoolchildren before the bell. Heads come up when I move the right way. I can raise an arm and demand attention. But nobody goes. Instead, they are coming out of the sky. More are coming out of the sky. Hoo-leeek, they say. There are thousands of them. In my scope I see the individual personalities. Squabbles break out that I would not otherwise see from the road. Cars pass by wondering what the idiot with the camera is doing at dawn. He should be at work. (It is not a camera.) It is a glassine trick that brings me next to the birds. Makes me as though I stand in the field with them, unadorned by their fear. I cheat the light. Anser, anser, the geese gabble their own names. And inside the white faces and the bright orange bills a dragonfly mystically goes. It weaves and I watch it making its way down the ranks like a bomber, a magic trick. I want to point and speak. I should stop traffic. It is an October dragonfly. When the geese come the dragonflies should be going, going and gone. I rarely see them overlap.

 

Geese come down like, well, falling geese, the perfect braking fold, the sheer of feather beneath the burning edge of lift.

 

Vermeer painted 35 paintings. That is it. Not a goose among them. Two are landscapes. One of these is a waterfront and even in small reproduction I see how it could save a mad, even a delusional lawyer. A lawyer made to hear tales of the soccer player who had his legs broken—both legs, the larger bones, the femurs, the ones that shatter with a pain that those who have never personally had a net of bony nerves broken can never really understand. “Hey, aren’t you that soccer player?” They asked, like for a moment they might be impressed.  He answered with a ‘yes,’ thinking perhaps his fame might work something out for him. Instead they broke both his legs and tied him up, this Muslim soccer player, and they raped his wife and daughters while he watched. Then they slit the women’s throats. Afterwards, this husband and father begged to die. Instead they let him go. They thought that might be a crueler fate than killing him—the torture of long drawn memory. He told his story later to a judge who promptly went to stare at the paintings of Vermeer.

 

 

 

“The Geographer” is a another work by Vermeer. A man touches at a globe in that slanting light from the window. Vermeer painted these at the time that Newton was tinkering with reflecting telescopes. Like the one I use to slide inside the flocks of geese. Newton would have given one of his index fingers for a scope like the one I have. He would have whistled at the quality of the mirror. He might have wept if he was a weeping man. I don’t know. “Did you make this?” he would ask me. “Yes,” I would say, “yes I did.” And then feel guilty all night. Until I shoved him back in his time machine. I don’t think Vermeer knew Newton personally. But Vermeer lived not far from Leeuwenhoek. The man who was making microscopes, discovering sperm and bacteria. Spermatozoa, I should say. Bacterium. Sky and not-sky, the tools we need.

 

Geese come down like armadas of fine, folded paper. The consequences of someone toying with the wind and the sail.

 

There is a soldier in Iraq who spends his free time watching birds. This is important to me because if I were in Iraq I would spend my free time watching birds. I would probably try to spend all my time watching birds. This soldier has become known as the local “wildlife guy” by the Iraqis and by the other soldiers; people bring him snakes and spiders; they bring him large dead bats. This is important because I would want people to bring me snakes and spiders if I were in Iraq. The soldier’s name is John and he writes down what he sees and thinks about on the days that they let him walk away and look at birds. He has to wear his full battle gear most of the time. He uses his military issue binoculars. This gear does give him some built in camouflage, though perhaps the birds there are now growing used to the shuffle of men in desert fatigues, to the sound of mortars and car bombs. John is probably not fully adapted yet—to mortars I mean. He says he goes and watches the gulls gather at the local dump. He watches these in winter. Possibly now, right now, he watches them. I know, without question, that this is where I would go in winter—to the dump where the gulls fly. I have been to gull-ridden dumps. John even mentions the famous one in Texas that we all seem to travel to at one time or another. Traveling around over there in Iraq, John is excited by the bustards and Rooks. They have bee-eaters there too. Who wouldn’t be excited by bee-eaters? John rousts and frightens and flushes marsh birds with his helicopter prop wash when he runs the lines of the rivers. On one trip a sand grouse died against the glass of the helicopter. It was still inside when the chopper landed, next to the pilot’s feet. Here is its picture from John’s side of the world. It looks like a painted peace dove, thoroughly dead: the peacebird hammered dead by a high speed gunship. The hole it made in the nose of the helicopter looked like a hellish bullet wound.

 

 

 

Geese come down like flakings of char returning to the fire that is the grounded flock.

 

I could hear the continued goings of geese passing overhead while working in my garage recently. I would take breaks in my chair and stare out across the landscape of rooftops and grass. It is a truly unimaginative landscape haunted by few birds. The high tension powerline is always achatter with starlings and bluebirds, the occasional kestrel. A juvenile Cooper’s Hawk now and then hunts the birdbath like a rookie killer that has discovered a weakness in the fabric of the lives of sparrows. In my chair though, I could hear the geese and I could watch the balloon lines of spiders whisking across the air by the thousands. They choose just such perfect weather days to launch themselves into new worlds. They boldly go, trusting the whim of God and the barometer. It is a wonder the whole world does not have spiders in its hair. Come to think of it, it does. At one point in the silk parade I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye and found a fine line glinting across my glasses. I looked down and noted a black dot on my shirt. It resembled errant food—an Oreo frag (though I had not been eating Oreos). It moved. One of the travelers had come down to rest on Mount Me. It was a jumping spider of a species I did not know. It perched on my finger tip. He could have floated from Israel for all I knew. Though, really, most of the spider threads had been floating from the south that day so more likely it was some baby jumper from Little Rock or Baton Rouge. The geese were moving south and the spiders moving north. Criss cross—I wonder now if a jumping spider could ride a goose? Can they hitchhike on a migratory bird? Hmm. I, the grounded soul, was caught in between all the fuss and flux, feeling sometimes lucky and sometimes left behind—I often wavered. I am, by nature, a waverer. I did take the time to carry my spider guest over to a nice bush and let it go. I then looked away and back and could not find it immediately afterward. It was like a wren in a Sequoia tree. Welcome, I thought, to the new world.

 

Geese come down like flaws on the eye, the residual of stitches, the failings of the healing cornea taking light and giving the pretense of bird and bird and bird. Look look look and the looking stays. A dizzy line of birdshape retraced on the back of the skull.

 

In Iraq they can see both Lesser White-fronted Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese. Lessers being a rare and little seen bird of the eastern European and Middle Eastern world. Greaters being, well, I assumed pretty much like the ones going over my head in October and November here in Arkansas. Somewhere John the soldier would be excited by such goings. They have four geese species over there. They do not have Snow Geese. But they have Red-breasted Geese. I have no way of knowing what these sound like. They are truly beautiful though. And searching on the net for some semblance of their sound, I find you can buy them from some guy in Iowa. Somehow this gives me grief. We could stuff them with corn too I suppose and rip out their little livers. But I hope John finds one in Iraq. That is what I thought. I wish him bee-eaters and chiffchaffs, wheatears and bulbuls. I have my chair here and my lawn. It is a bland landscape but it is free of mortars and flack. The sky does not light up unexpectedly with car bombs. I will never complain after listening to the stories of war. I don’t need headgear to go where I please. Certainly, I also hope that this Iraq conflict is no Thirty Year event. Birds and spiders move worldwide. It is a reminder of constancies and similarities. The judges in the Hague listen on to the stories. Outside the Hague I assume they can hear geese going over. Inside the Hague the stories are still spoken like soundtracks from hell, stories to curl the hair, stories to make one spit up bile.

 

Leeuwenhoek, the master microscopist,  was the executor of Vermeer’s will. Vermeer left eleven children and an impoverished widow when he died at the age of 43. And I can almost understand the great Van Gogh’s problems with confused consumers, with his paintings that were way way ahead of his time, some of them like hallucinations we would actually want to have. But good God who wouldn’t want to buy a Vermeer? What is there except astounding light and the detailed faces of humans? Two years after Vermeer’s death 26 of his paintings were auctioned publicly all on the same day to alleviate some debts. None sold for more than 200 guilders. I don’t know what 200 guilders will buy now. Well, excuse me, yes I do. On today’s market this is about 118 US dollars. So I could buy a copy of the new “Study of Insects” by Borror and Delong. Or an eleven foot spruce as a Christmas tree. Two tanks of gas for a Hummer. Hmm. I would trade everything inside the room I am now in to sit with the full Vermeer collection for two weeks. I doubt I have anything worth one of them. I doubt everything I own and ever will own would be enough to buy a single one at auction today.

 

But at least the wars were over when Vermeer died. Or the local Dutch events were over anyway. They burned out. Or lulled in the worst of pessimistic senses. War doesn’t end, it just lapses into temporary silence and rain-filled craters and slightly less jittery birds. I hope I am lying.

 

Geese come down like the reward for good living. I hear them. I look up and back. I look north. Jet trails cut over the ridge. A crow calls.

 

I wonder who the reward is for?

 

I wonder often.

 

 

 

Link to John's soldier birding blog in Iraq

        HR

 

       

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