Snow geese with a side of Mary Oliver

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Driving home Sunday, after a brief visit with a friend and a short, slow jog on the treadmill at the gym (both desperately needed), I passed a field with hundreds and hundreds of white birds in it. They didn’t quite register at first. Large, white birds? Apparently! A thousand or more? Perhaps?

I was nearly home and anxious to set about the usual chores that need attention. I was also excited to spend the afternoon with my boys. We have such little time. But I turned the car around, pulled alongside the field and got out. Yes, large, white birds. A thousand or more. And such a ruckus!

A woman came out of a house nearby, and I asked her what they were. “Snow geese,” she said. I had never seen them before and had no idea they came through this part of New York on their migration. We regularly see Canada geese. Dozens at a time. (Not hundreds.) They fly in neat arrows. They honk in rapid, but distinct notes, giving the impression that they speak one at a time. (Almost.)

But the snow geese! Such a ruckus! Their flight is frenzy. Is swirl. Is wiggle and waver. Where smaller birds’ murmurations seem tighter, crisper, much more disciplined, this flock’s collective heart doesn’t quite seem into the choreography. (They don’t take it too seriously.) They call in raised, excited voices. They interrupt. They talk over.

And they laugh! Or seem to. The sort of laughter that’s contagious. Bird to whole flock. And whole flock to now-giddy human.

The snow geese brought me the sort of joy I hadn’t felt in a while, and it caught me off guard. It seemed like a gift. Yes, I understand it to be a chance encounter that had nothing to do with me, but I came away feeling kinda dreamy. It’s been months since I experienced that kind of affection for the world.

It’s tempting to entertain all the metaphors — a veil that falls and is lifted, for example, a curtain that sways open and brings something into view — but I only want to think of it this way: the path of their migration draws a line, and I get to cross over it. May I be now galvanized instead of anguished. May I move now with humor and not despair. And (they arrived so close to the solstice!), may I be now in light instead of shadow.

Since Sunday, I’ve been researching snow geese. They fly through narrow corridors en route from the Arctic to points South this time of year. These, likely, seem headed to coastal Virginia. Here’s what it says at

Very localized, but abundant where they occur, Snow Geese typically are seen in large numbers or not at all.

I love the poetry in that description: in large numbers or not at all.

And speaking of poetry, I love Mary Oliver’s take on these geese. I’ve always been enamored by her poem “Wild Geese” but never knew she’d written a similarly compelling poem “Snow Geese.” It opens like this:

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!

Here’s how she describes her reaction to them:

… I
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.

And it can be, can’t it? Delight can be the most serious, vital thing.

That’s precisely how I experienced the snow geese. Only poetry captures these things. Not even videos or photographs get to it in that way. I am grateful I speak its language. Or, to turn it on its head, I am grateful it speaks mine.

I’m grateful, also, for the random joy of snow geese.

May I wonder now instead of doubt.

Happy Holidays, everyone. There’s a way forward.

And as much light as we need.

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  1. Carolee,
    I came across this post in a search for Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese.” I was revising a piece I wrote years ago that includes the reference and I wanted to refresh my memory with the text of the poem. What a bonus to read your entry and to watch the video. Thank you from months and miles away (12/2017, California). Happy Solstice to you and yours.

    1. i am so glad you enjoyed it, sharon. it was the first time i’d seen them in my life & such a treat. made the mary oliver poem that much more amazing! happy solstice!!! & thanks so much for leaving a note. lots of people find this post & it’s lovely to hear from someone.

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