Every morning we pass the lone goose. He has been there waiting on the banks of Coulee Creek for a couple of weeks. He is attentive and as we go by his long neck turns to keep one eye focused on us. My heart breaks for him. Geese mate for life and I fear the worst has happened to his partner. How the minutes must drag into hours and days as he waits for her arrival! How long will he sit there at the bend in the creek before he gives up? And then what? How does a lone goose find a new mate in late spring on the prairie? Wherever I look, pairs are hunkered down together preparing nests and incubating their eggs. If there is a goose singles pond, it is a well kept secret.
I hiked upstream from the lone goose’s hangout earlier this spring. Not far away, perhaps only a quarter mile, I found the remains of a dead goose. At the time, I marveled at the lightweight bones, the unique fused pelvic girdle, and the wide, long feathers that were piled together in a heap. Probably made a good meal for the coyotes, I thought. But now as my heart breaks for the lone goose, I wonder if that pile of bones was his partner. The cycles of nature make sense to me intellectually; some animals die so that others may live. But when I see the lone goose again each morning, I ache.
There is a delicate balance that keeps the web of life perfectly in tune. We exist as part of this web, though you wouldn’t know it while walking around on pavement in the cities or down brightly lit grocery store aisles, selecting perfectly picked and packaged food that has traveled the world to our tables. Out here in the country, we are no longer just consumers. We are an authentic part of something bigger. It is not as tidy as human society. It is messier, with the raw spots open to the wind, rain and sun. Fairy tales with predictable happy endings have no place out here.
How can I reconcile the immense joy nature brings me with the death that is an integral part of the system? I have put wildlife out of its misery when it was evident that the alternative was a long slow death. With a shovel in hand and tears running down my cheeks, I have beheaded fatally-wounded naked baby birds. I cannot answer the question of whether there is life after death, heaven or hell, nirvana or reincarnation for myself, nor for the baby birds who lived but a short while on this earth. Those greater questions go unanswered, floating away on drifting clouds. What feels right when faced with death is deep reverence for the life that was. And so I end each mercy killing with a burial, the placing of the body within the earth from which it came. Here it will decompose and spring forward as life anew. I tuck the bodies away where flies won’t consume the flesh, laying eggs that emerge as naked fat white grubs where once there grew magnificent feathers. Is this my fascination with tidy endings, the human attachment to neatly packaged goods and ideas rearing its head? Or – quite possibly – my actions spring from an innate desire to weave together the loose ends of the web of life, completing nature’s perfect pattern.