´We tend towards home. Migrant birds don´t travel for the sake of it…In any species, an individual that remains within a familiar environment has more chance of finding food and water, more chance of avoiding predators and exposure, than an individual that strays into unknown territory. Homesickness may simply have evolved as a way of telling an ape to go home.´
On one level this is a fresh and personal travelogue, a journey that follows thousands of snow geese from their winter home in Texas to Baffin Island, their summer nesting home. Fiennes a young student, convalescing in his home in rural England, becomes interested in birds for the first time and his father encourages his interest. He remembers the famous story by Paul Gallico about a lost snow goose in WW2. As he recovers he decides to travel to North America and follow the annual migration of the eastern flocks of Snow Geese.
He does follow the birds and marvels at their amazing numbers, their terrier like cries, their ability to travel home unerringly for thousands of kilometres. He also meets and closely observes and describes many people along the way who help him, inform him, house him and open his eyes to human variety. His descriptions are colourful and detailed without being judgemental or condescending. In Manitoba he meets a wily old Icelander, the Viking, who is intent on avoiding preying widows. On the train he listens to the history of hobos and trains from a now retired hobo. In Churchill a chance meeting at a church gives him the home of a friendly woman who needs a dog sitter while she is away. An acquaintance takes him out on the land and ice when the geese start to flock in, Fiennes is elated; they´d arrived on the same day. His companion is excited also, he can´t what to start shooting and cooking. “I love you,” Jeff hollered at the birds. “My babies.”
When he gets to Baffin Island and finally goes by skidoo to the nesting grounds with an Inuit family, there too it is hunting and eating. Somehow that had never occurred to Fiennes originally, that he would be eating the object of his travels. Fiennes wonders and explores our limited knowledge about the ability of birds to migrate over vast distances, at just the right time. For a more scientific and geographic description of Snow Geese I recommend a book by a Vancouver writer who studied the western flocks of snow geese that travel through Vancouver´s Reiffel Sanctuary in the Fraser delta: The Private Eye: Observing Snow Geese by Mary Burns. UBC Press, Vancouver, BC.
On another level The Snow Geese is about the subtitle: A Story of Home. The author has many related digressions on the concepts of home and homesickness. People too are filled with longing for home. Death from homesickness has been a recognized disease for centuries. It seems ironic that Fiennes is at the end living with people who did indeed die that way when the Canadian government started moving and displacing Inuit peoples from their villages to other settlements and to residential schools and hospitals in the south. The images of millions of global refugees fleeing their homes because of war, civil conflict, violence and poverty, come vividly to mind. I think of the sorrow and pain of those who are forced from the place they call home.
In the Arctic, Fiennes is overcome by longing for his own home to which he can return, back to the house where his father greets the returning swifts every May like welcome dinner guests. He returns, with new energy, understanding and an appreciation of the creatures we share the earth with.
Reading this book was a joy and pleasure for me, just at a time when I was concerned about the end of my life´s journey.