Tuesday, August 2, 2011


Dateline July 18, 2011

Early one subfreezing January morning in North Florida, eighty state prisoners lined up outside to march to the chow hall for a breakfast of two pancakes and a cup of hot oatmeal.

I was one of those prisoners. In the predawn darkness, glaring orange security lights mounted on tall concrete towers illuminated two Canada geese nibbling on the brown grass blades of the exercise yard. The anomaly of the wild goose pair juxtaposed with the razorwire fence beside them struck me. I couldn’t take my eyes off them as we headed for the chow hall, craning my neck to catch a last sight of them. I hadn’t seen a Canada goose in decades, since my imprisonment, and I didn’t know when I’d see one again, let alone two. It wasn’t that long a wait─just until the next day.

On the way to the law library to do legal research the next morning, there they were again, nibbling at the dry, dead grass in a different exercise yard adjacent to the prison school, oblivious to the activity around them.

Twice in two days! My lingering memory of Canada geese went back to my childhood in Central Florida and a group of children gazing skyward at a large V-shaped formation of honking wild geese migrating southward, far overhead. The image epitomized freedom, unrestrained by time, place, or national boundaries.

The following day the geese treated me to the sight of them taking to the air, their six-foot wingspan lifting them easily over the high steel fences that encaged the humans below. The continuing daily proximity to the wild creatures prompted me to find out more about them to satisfy my curiosity as to why, with all the Western Hemisphere to choose from, they’d selected a maximum security prison for their winter vacation.

The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds informed me that although Canada geese prefer wetlands, grasslands, and cultivated fields within commuting distance of water, they have adapted successfully to man-made habitats, such as golf courses and farms to the extent that they will chase off other nesting waterbirds. National Geographic can add prisons to that list now.

I also discovered that the Canada goose winters in the Northern Panhandle of Florida, from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf Coast. That explained it. I also found that they were closely related to the endangered Hawaiian goose, or néné, best known as a crossword clue, and had become so prolific in the last few decades that they are considered pests in some areas. Not in my area, they aren’t.

My paternal feelings of regard for the pair (mated for life─no divorce for geese) became conflicted, however, after I read an article with a recipe for roast Canada goose, said to be the tastiest of all geese. After a deprived bland prison diet of daily beans and soybean patty substitutes, my visions of the majestic birds with their black heads and white chin straps interspersed with the enticing image of a roast goose and all the fixins’ as the centerpiece of Christmas dinner at home with my family. I shook it off.

After several weeks of almost daily sightings, I realized that I hadn’t seen the geese in awhile. I speculated that they had relocated to (literally) greener pastures. Then one day a friend informed me that the geese were nesting in the prison farm field west of the law library. I surveyed the area from a window in the library, and lo and behold! There they were, the female sitting on a ground-level nest, the male a few feet away on guard duty, black neck stretched high to observe any possible threats.

Over the next few weeks I learned from prisoners who worked the farm plot of cabbages, squash, and collards, that the female sat on a clutch of four eggs. The prisoners kept a small drainage pond in the field filled with water, which the geese took turns visiting, the nest never left unprotected.

One morning I put down my legal documents on a table in the law library and hurried to th window to see “my” geese. They weren’t there! The nest was abandoned. What could have happened? Across the field in the distance, I spied a long black neck extended above a height of unmowed grasses by the drainage pond. A few minutes later, another Canada goose appeared, then I noticed a movement of something brown and small following the mother. A baby!

The geese headed across the farm field, the mother followed by the tiny gosling, the father maintaining a vigilant watch at the flank. But where were the other three? All I saw was one baby goose.

The farmworkers informed me that only one egg had hatched. After a couple of days the mother abandoned the cold eggs, focusing her attention on the survivor.

In the days and weeks ahead, the baby bird grew quickly. It went from timidly following the parents around to racing ahead for some tidbit. When a curious crow flew over the field the father launched himself into the air for a direct intercept of the surprised predator. No F-16 Air Force jet took off so fast with such singleminded purpose as that protective male.

Before long the gosling had lost its immature brown camouflage coloration and looked more like a slightly smaller version of its parents. The trio is inseparable as I watch from my window today, none of them ever more than a few feet apart. I thought that humans could learn some parenting lessons from geese, whose attentiveness to their young’s needs and protection never wavers. Scientists say they operate on instinct. Perhaps we’ve lost some of our important instincts along the way. The only geese I’ve ever seen in prison were there by choice, and could leave whenever they decided to take wing.

I haven’t seen the young goose fly yet. It is approaching full size, so it won’t be long. I do know that mom and dad aren’t going anywhere until their offspring can go with them. Perhaps ne day a V-shaped formation will appear overhead, and the wild geese will answer the honking calls of their kind, flying away home. Would that I had wings, and could join them, free at last.


Postscript: They flew!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

See, Charlie? You CAN make people jealous still despite the fact you're in prison and they're not. Others are in a prison of their own design. Hoping for good news from the parole commission !!!