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The Snow Geese

Overview

Every spring, millions of geese embark on an arduous three-thousand-mile migration from their winter quarters in the southern United States to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. One year William Fiennes decided to go with them. Intrigued by what he'd read about the birds' amazing annual journey, Fiennes was also desperate to emerge from a period of illness and from the belief that, at age twenty-six, his life had ground to a halt.

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Overview

Every spring, millions of geese embark on an arduous three-thousand-mile migration from their winter quarters in the southern United States to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. One year William Fiennes decided to go with them. Intrigued by what he'd read about the birds' amazing annual journey, Fiennes was also desperate to emerge from a period of illness and from the belief that, at age twenty-six, his life had ground to a halt.

The story of his voyage turns out to be about a great deal more than geese. A blend of memoir, natural history, and travel writing, The Snow Geese is also about homecoming: the birds on their long homeward journey north, the romance of homecomings, the urge to leave home and the even stronger need to return. The arc of Fiennes's extraordinary adventure is the backbone of a narrative rich in meditations on philosophy and natural science, and deeply perceptive in its descriptions of both physical and emotional travel.

Already being compared with Bruce Chatwin and Barry Lopez, William Fiennes is a gifted writer with a voice that is thoughtful, wry, and keenly observant. His book thrums with ideas, with stories and anecdotes, with humankind as well as with birds. The joy of being alive, of being on the move, and -- above all -- of returning home are poignantly captured in this intelligent, exuberant book, a debut of great delicacy and distinction.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780753115886
  • Publisher: ISIS Large Print Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2002
  • Series: Isis Series
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 8 CDs, 9 hrs. 32 mins.
  • Product dimensions: 7.50 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

William Fiennes has contributed to Granta, The London Review of Books, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Oxford, England. The Snow Geese is his first book.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
The Snow Goose

We had no idea the hotel would be the venue for a ladies' professional golf tournament. Each morning, before breakfast, competitors gathered at the practice tees to loosen up their swings. The women wore bright polo shirts, baggy tartan and gingham shorts, white socks, and neat cleated shoes that clacked on the paved walkways of the country club. Their hair was furled in chignons that poked through openings at the rear of baseball caps; their sleek, tanned calves resembled fresh tench attached to the backs of their shins. Caddies stood beside hefty leather golf bags at the edge of the teeing ground, and the women drew clubs from the bags with the nonchalance of archers. Soon, rinsed golf balls were flying out from the tees, soaring high above the lollipop signs that marked each fifty yards down the fairway.

In addition to the golf course, heated swimming pool, and two tennis courts, hotel guests had at their disposal a peach-walled library, lit by standard lamps. White lace antimacassars lent fussy distinction to the dark red sofa and matching armchairs. Between the bookcases, in a simple gilt-wood frame, a colour print showed a suspension bridge, rigged like a harp, with staunch arched piers and high support towers lifting the curve of the main cables. Gold-tooled green and brown leatherbound books occupied the shelves alongside more modest clothbound volumes, the dye faded on their spines where light had reached it. The books were not for reading. Their purpose was to impart the atmosphere of an imperial-era country house. What the designer wished to say was, This is a place to which gentlemen may retire with cigars.

The shelves held arcane titles in strange conjunctions: an Anglo-Burmese dictionary next to a set of Sully's memoirs; G. Marañon's La Evolución de la Sexualidad e los Estados Intersexuales alongside Praeger's Wagner as I Knew Him; Carl Størmer's De L'Espace à L'Atome between J. R. Partington's Higher Mathematics for Chemical Students and the second volume of Charles Mills's History of Chivalry. An entire shelf was devoted to editions of the Dublin Review from the 1860s, containing such essays as "Father de Hummelauer and the Hexateuch," "Maritime Canals," "The Benedictines in Western Australia," and "Shakespeare as an Economist."

One morning, after watching the golfers at the practice tees, I found a familiar book, a thin fawn volume almost invisible among the antique tomes. When I pulled The Snow Goose from the shelf, the books either side of it leaned together like hands in prayer. I settled back into an armchair and began to read, remembering how I had first heard this story, aged ten or eleven, in a classroom with high windows, sitting at an old-fashioned sloping desk with a groove along the top of the slope for pens and pencils to rest in, initials and odd glyphs gouged deep in the wood grain. Our teacher, Mr. Faulkner, was a tall man with scant hair, flat red cheeks, and teeth pitched at eccentric angles. He wore silk paisley neckerchiefs and cardigans darned with wrong-coloured wools, and he kept his sunglasses on indoors for genuine optometric reasons. He was approaching retirement and liked to finish term with a story. One of the stories he read us was Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose.

I could feel, on the back of my head, the starched filigree imprint of the antimacassar. The library had no windows. Hotel staff wearing bold name badges walked briskly past the open door. I stopped noticing them. I imagined an Essex coastal marsh, an abandoned lighthouse at a river mouth, and a dark-bearded hunchback named Rhayader, a painter of landscapes and wildlife, his arm "thin and bent at the wrist like the claw of a bird." Fifteen years had passed since I'd listened to Mr. Faulkner reading this story, but its images rushed back to me: Rhayader's bird sanctuary; the October return of pink-footed and barnacle geese from their northern breeding grounds; Frith, the young girl, "nervous and timid as a bird," who brings Rhayader an injured goose, white with black wing tips — a snow goose, carried across the Atlantic by a storm as it flew south to escape the Arctic winter.

Rhayader tends to the snow goose. Time passes. The snow goose comes and goes with the pink-foots and barnacles. Frith gradually loses her fear of the hunchback; Rhayader falls in love with her but is too ashamed of his appearance to confess it. In 1940, startled by planes and explosions, the birds set off early on their migration north, but the snow goose stays behind at the lighthouse. Frith finds Rhayader loading supplies into his sixteen-foot sailing boat, preparing to join the fleet of civilian craft that would cross the Channel to rescue Allied troops from Dunkirk.

Much later, in a London pub, a soldier remembers details of that retreat: a white goose circling overhead as the troops waited on the sands; a small boat emerging from smoke, crewed by a hunchback with a crooked hand; the goose flying round and round above the boat while the hunchback lifted men from the beach and ferried them out to larger ships. The soldier compares the goose to an angel of mercy. He has no idea what became of the hunchback or the white bird, but a retired naval commander recalls a derelict small boat drifting between Dunkirk and La Panne, with a dead man lying inside it, machine-gunned, and a goose standing watch over the body. The boat had sunk, taking the man down with it.

Frith had been waiting for Rhayader at the lighthouse. He doesn't return. The snow goose flies back in from the sea, circles, gains height, and disappears. A German pilot mistakes the lighthouse for a military objective and blows Rhayader's store of paintings to oblivion.

I closed The Snow Goose, returned it to the shelf, and left the library for the fairways. But the tournament itself seemed lacklustre after the morning's pageant at the practice tees: the streaked blond chignons; the easy rhythm of the swings; the fine baize finish of the green. Each caddy attended to his lady with devotion that verged on medieval courtliness: if she complained of a dirty clubface or perspiring hands, he would take one step forward, offering a fresh white towel. Sometimes women swung at the same time, and you could see two or three balls sailing out alongside one another, coterminous, holding still above the trees before inclining, as if by common assent, towards the flag.

*****

I fell ill when I was twenty-five. I was a graduate student, working towards a doctorate. I went into hospital for an operation two days before Christmas. The surgeon did his rounds dressed as Father Christmas while a brass band toured the wards playing carols to requests. Between verses you could hear the bleeping of cardiac monitors and drip stands. I longed to go home. I heard a doctor tell another patient she could go home; he seemed to be granting her a state of grace. A few days later my mother and father picked me up and drove me home after dark, and I slept in a little room adjoining their bedroom, a room that my father had come to use as his dressing room but that had been my bedroom when I was very young. That night I dreamed I was skiing. I was skiing on a wide-open slope under blue sky, with no limit to the width or extent of the piste, and a sense of boundlessness, of absolute freedom. And then the snow had gone and a woman I had never met was leading me by the hand across a field, saying, "Shall we go to Trieste? We must go to Trieste!" The window was ajar and a cold December draught blew through onto my head, and I woke up early, thinking my head was encased in ice. My mother swaddled my head in a folded blanket: I felt like an infant discovered in the wild and tended to by Eskimos.

I hoped that within two or three weeks I would be back at work, but there were complications. I went back to hospital for another ten days, and then my mother and father picked me up again and drove me home. I slept in the little room. I could smell my father's clothes. The bed was tiny — a child's bed. I slept on the diagonal, corner to corner, across the sag in the unsprung horsehair mattress, and when I woke up the first thing I saw was my great-grandmother's watercolour of Mount Everest, with a biplane flying towards the mountain, the word everest embossed in black capitals on the cardboard mount. The picture hung above a table I'd always loved — it had a secret compartment, one flap hinging where you least expected, with a knack to tricking the latch and always the same things inside: an old Bible; pairs of cufflinks in a tissue nest; a clothes brush shaped like a cricket bat, the handle wound with waxy black twine.

There were further complications: hospital for the third time in as many months, a second operation. And then the need for serious convalescence — a few months, probably, for rest, for things to settle down, for my strength to come back. I gave up hope of meeting the university's requirements that year, and did not wish to be anywhere but home. My parents had moved into this house a few months before I was born: it had been the hub of my life, the fixed point. And now that everything had turned chaotic, turbulent, and fearsome, now that I had felt the ground shifting beneath my feet and could no longer trust my own body to carry me blithely from one day to the next, there was at least this solace of the familiar. The house was my refuge, my safe place. The illness and its treatments were strange and unpredictable; home was everything I knew and understood.

A medieval ironstone house in the middle of England, miles from the nearest town. The stone was crumbling in places, blotched with lichens and amenable to different lights, ready with ferrous browns, ash greys, and sunlit orange-yellows, with paler stone mullions in the windows, and a stone slate roof that dipped and swelled like a strip of water from gable to gable. A wood of chestnuts, sycamores, and limes stood a stone's throw to the east, with a brook, the Sor Brook, running through the trees to a waterfall — a drop of nine or ten feet, with a sluice beside it, my handprints preserved in the concrete patch of a repair. Rooks had colonized the chestnuts, sycamores, and limes, and when the trees were bare you could see the thatch bowls of their nests lodged in the forks, and black rook shapes perched in the heights, crowing like bassoons. The tall broach spire of a church poked the sky to the north, farmland drew away in a gentle upward grade to the south and west, and every one of these aspects — the wood, the farmland, the shape of the spire, the sounds of the rooks and brook — was a source of comfort to me. These things had not changed for as long as I could remember, and this steadfastness implied that the world could be relied upon.

I waited for my condition to improve. I wasn't patient. The edge of my fear rubbed off as the weeks passed, but I became depressed. In hospital I had longed to return to the environment I knew better than any other, because it was something of which I could be sure; because the familiar — the known — promised sanctuary from all that was confusing, alien, and new. But after a while the complexion of the familiar began to change. The house, and the past it contained, seemed more prison than sanctuary. As I saw it, my friends were proceeding with their lives, their appetites and energies undimmed, while I was being held back against my will, penalized for an offence of which I was entirely ignorant. My initial relief that the crisis had passed turned slowly to anger, and my frustrations were mollified but not resolved by the kindness of those close to me, because no one, however loving, could give me the one thing I wanted above all else: my former self.

Leaves hid the nests in the tree crowns. Swallows returned in April, followed by swifts in May. After supper we'd sit out at the back of the house, watching swifts wheel overhead on their vespers flights, screaming parties racing in the half-light. Rooks flew in feeding sorties from the wood to the fields. You could hear the Sor Brook coursing over the waterfall in the trees, the sibilance of congregations saying trespasses, trespasses, forgive us our trespasses. But the sound was no longer a source of comfort. I couldn't relax into the necessity for this confinement. I felt the loss not just of my strength but of my capacity for joy. I tried to concentrate on the swifts, to pin my attention to something other than my own anxieties. I knew that generation after generation returned to the same favoured nesting sites, and that these were most likely the same birds we had watched the year before, descendants of swifts that had nested in the eaves of the house when my mother and father first moved to it; descendants, too, of swifts my father had watched as a boy, visiting his grandparents in the same house.

My mother suggested a change of scene, and we drove to a hotel close to the Welsh border. We had no idea it would be the venue for a ladies' professional golf tournament. Each morning, before breakfast, I walked down to the practice tees to watch the women loosen up their swings. I found The Snow Goose and read it straight through, remembering Mr. Faulkner, the room's high windows, the grooved desks. I was suspicious of the story's sentimentality, its glaze of religious allegory, the easy portentousness of its abstract nouns, and I laughed at Gallico's attempts to render phonetically (as if they were birdsong) the East End speech of the soldiers in the pub and the upper-class diction of the officers. But something in the story haunted me.


From the Hardcover edition.
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First Chapter

Chapter 1
The Snow Goose

We had no idea the hotel would be the venue for a ladies' professional golf tournament. Each morning, before breakfast, competitors gathered at the practice tees to loosen up their swings. The women wore bright polo shirts, baggy tartan and gingham shorts, white socks, and neat cleated shoes that clacked on the paved walkways of the country club. Their hair was furled in chignons that poked through openings at the rear of baseball caps; their sleek, tanned calves resembled fresh tench attached to the backs of their shins. Caddies stood beside hefty leather golf bags at the edge of the teeing ground, and the women drew clubs from the bags with the nonchalance of archers. Soon, rinsed golf balls were flying out from the tees, soaring high above the lollipop signs that marked each fifty yards down the fairway.

In addition to the golf course, heated swimming pool, and two tennis courts, hotel guests had at their disposal a peach-walled library, lit by standard lamps. White lace antimacassars lent fussy distinction to the dark red sofa and matching armchairs. Between the bookcases, in a simple gilt-wood frame, a colour print showed a suspension bridge, rigged like a harp, with staunch arched piers and high support towers lifting the curve of the main cables. Gold-tooled green and brown leatherbound books occupied the shelves alongside more modest clothbound volumes, the dye faded on their spines where light had reached it. The books were not for reading. Their purpose was to impart the atmosphere of an imperial-era country house. What the designer wished to say was, This is a place to which gentlemen may retire with cigars.

Theshelves held arcane titles in strange conjunctions: an Anglo-Burmese dictionary next to a set of Sully's memoirs; G. Marañon's La Evolución de la Sexualidad e los Estados Intersexuales alongside Praeger's Wagner as I Knew Him; Carl Størmer's De L'Espace à L'Atome between J. R. Partington's Higher Mathematics for Chemical Students and the second volume of Charles Mills's History of Chivalry. An entire shelf was devoted to editions of the Dublin Review from the 1860s, containing such essays as "Father de Hummelauer and the Hexateuch," "Maritime Canals," "The Benedictines in Western Australia," and "Shakespeare as an Economist."

One morning, after watching the golfers at the practice tees, I found a familiar book, a thin fawn volume almost invisible among the antique tomes. When I pulled The Snow Goose from the shelf, the books either side of it leaned together like hands in prayer. I settled back into an armchair and began to read, remembering how I had first heard this story, aged ten or eleven, in a classroom with high windows, sitting at an old-fashioned sloping desk with a groove along the top of the slope for pens and pencils to rest in, initials and odd glyphs gouged deep in the wood grain. Our teacher, Mr. Faulkner, was a tall man with scant hair, flat red cheeks, and teeth pitched at eccentric angles. He wore silk paisley neckerchiefs and cardigans darned with wrong-coloured wools, and he kept his sunglasses on indoors for genuine optometric reasons. He was approaching retirement and liked to finish term with a story. One of the stories he read us was Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose.

I could feel, on the back of my head, the starched filigree imprint of the antimacassar. The library had no windows. Hotel staff wearing bold name badges walked briskly past the open door. I stopped noticing them. I imagined an Essex coastal marsh, an abandoned lighthouse at a river mouth, and a dark-bearded hunchback named Rhayader, a painter of landscapes and wildlife, his arm "thin and bent at the wrist like the claw of a bird." Fifteen years had passed since I'd listened to Mr. Faulkner reading this story, but its images rushed back to me: Rhayader's bird sanctuary; the October return of pink-footed and barnacle geese from their northern breeding grounds; Frith, the young girl, "nervous and timid as a bird," who brings Rhayader an injured goose, white with black wing tips — a snow goose, carried across the Atlantic by a storm as it flew south to escape the Arctic winter.

Rhayader tends to the snow goose. Time passes. The snow goose comes and goes with the pink-foots and barnacles. Frith gradually loses her fear of the hunchback; Rhayader falls in love with her but is too ashamed of his appearance to confess it. In 1940, startled by planes and explosions, the birds set off early on their migration north, but the snow goose stays behind at the lighthouse. Frith finds Rhayader loading supplies into his sixteen-foot sailing boat, preparing to join the fleet of civilian craft that would cross the Channel to rescue Allied troops from Dunkirk.

Much later, in a London pub, a soldier remembers details of that retreat: a white goose circling overhead as the troops waited on the sands; a small boat emerging from smoke, crewed by a hunchback with a crooked hand; the goose flying round and round above the boat while the hunchback lifted men from the beach and ferried them out to larger ships. The soldier compares the goose to an angel of mercy. He has no idea what became of the hunchback or the white bird, but a retired naval commander recalls a derelict small boat drifting between Dunkirk and La Panne, with a dead man lying inside it, machine-gunned, and a goose standing watch over the body. The boat had sunk, taking the man down with it.

Frith had been waiting for Rhayader at the lighthouse. He doesn't return. The snow goose flies back in from the sea, circles, gains height, and disappears. A German pilot mistakes the lighthouse for a military objective and blows Rhayader's store of paintings to oblivion.

I closed The Snow Goose, returned it to the shelf, and left the library for the fairways. But the tournament itself seemed lacklustre after the morning's pageant at the practice tees: the streaked blond chignons; the easy rhythm of the swings; the fine baize finish of the green. Each caddy attended to his lady with devotion that verged on medieval courtliness: if she complained of a dirty clubface or perspiring hands, he would take one step forward, offering a fresh white towel. Sometimes women swung at the same time, and you could see two or three balls sailing out alongside one another, coterminous, holding still above the trees before inclining, as if by common assent, towards the flag.

*****

I fell ill when I was twenty-five. I was a graduate student, working towards a doctorate. I went into hospital for an operation two days before Christmas. The surgeon did his rounds dressed as Father Christmas while a brass band toured the wards playing carols to requests. Between verses you could hear the bleeping of cardiac monitors and drip stands. I longed to go home. I heard a doctor tell another patient she could go home; he seemed to be granting her a state of grace. A few days later my mother and father picked me up and drove me home after dark, and I slept in a little room adjoining their bedroom, a room that my father had come to use as his dressing room but that had been my bedroom when I was very young. That night I dreamed I was skiing. I was skiing on a wide-open slope under blue sky, with no limit to the width or extent of the piste, and a sense of boundlessness, of absolute freedom. And then the snow had gone and a woman I had never met was leading me by the hand across a field, saying, "Shall we go to Trieste? We must go to Trieste!" The window was ajar and a cold December draught blew through onto my head, and I woke up early, thinking my head was encased in ice. My mother swaddled my head in a folded blanket: I felt like an infant discovered in the wild and tended to by Eskimos.

I hoped that within two or three weeks I would be back at work, but there were complications. I went back to hospital for another ten days, and then my mother and father picked me up again and drove me home. I slept in the little room. I could smell my father's clothes. The bed was tiny — a child's bed. I slept on the diagonal, corner to corner, across the sag in the unsprung horsehair mattress, and when I woke up the first thing I saw was my great-grandmother's watercolour of Mount Everest, with a biplane flying towards the mountain, the word everest embossed in black capitals on the cardboard mount. The picture hung above a table I'd always loved — it had a secret compartment, one flap hinging where you least expected, with a knack to tricking the latch and always the same things inside: an old Bible; pairs of cufflinks in a tissue nest; a clothes brush shaped like a cricket bat, the handle wound with waxy black twine.

There were further complications: hospital for the third time in as many months, a second operation. And then the need for serious convalescence — a few months, probably, for rest, for things to settle down, for my strength to come back. I gave up hope of meeting the university's requirements that year, and did not wish to be anywhere but home. My parents had moved into this house a few months before I was born: it had been the hub of my life, the fixed point. And now that everything had turned chaotic, turbulent, and fearsome, now that I had felt the ground shifting beneath my feet and could no longer trust my own body to carry me blithely from one day to the next, there was at least this solace of the familiar. The house was my refuge, my safe place. The illness and its treatments were strange and unpredictable; home was everything I knew and understood.

A medieval ironstone house in the middle of England, miles from the nearest town. The stone was crumbling in places, blotched with lichens and amenable to different lights, ready with ferrous browns, ash greys, and sunlit orange-yellows, with paler stone mullions in the windows, and a stone slate roof that dipped and swelled like a strip of water from gable to gable. A wood of chestnuts, sycamores, and limes stood a stone's throw to the east, with a brook, the Sor Brook, running through the trees to a waterfall — a drop of nine or ten feet, with a sluice beside it, my handprints preserved in the concrete patch of a repair. Rooks had colonized the chestnuts, sycamores, and limes, and when the trees were bare you could see the thatch bowls of their nests lodged in the forks, and black rook shapes perched in the heights, crowing like bassoons. The tall broach spire of a church poked the sky to the north, farmland drew away in a gentle upward grade to the south and west, and every one of these aspects — the wood, the farmland, the shape of the spire, the sounds of the rooks and brook — was a source of comfort to me. These things had not changed for as long as I could remember, and this steadfastness implied that the world could be relied upon.

I waited for my condition to improve. I wasn't patient. The edge of my fear rubbed off as the weeks passed, but I became depressed. In hospital I had longed to return to the environment I knew better than any other, because it was something of which I could be sure; because the familiar — the known — promised sanctuary from all that was confusing, alien, and new. But after a while the complexion of the familiar began to change. The house, and the past it contained, seemed more prison than sanctuary. As I saw it, my friends were proceeding with their lives, their appetites and energies undimmed, while I was being held back against my will, penalized for an offence of which I was entirely ignorant. My initial relief that the crisis had passed turned slowly to anger, and my frustrations were mollified but not resolved by the kindness of those close to me, because no one, however loving, could give me the one thing I wanted above all else: my former self.

Leaves hid the nests in the tree crowns. Swallows returned in April, followed by swifts in May. After supper we'd sit out at the back of the house, watching swifts wheel overhead on their vespers flights, screaming parties racing in the half-light. Rooks flew in feeding sorties from the wood to the fields. You could hear the Sor Brook coursing over the waterfall in the trees, the sibilance of congregations saying trespasses, trespasses, forgive us our trespasses. But the sound was no longer a source of comfort. I couldn't relax into the necessity for this confinement. I felt the loss not just of my strength but of my capacity for joy. I tried to concentrate on the swifts, to pin my attention to something other than my own anxieties. I knew that generation after generation returned to the same favoured nesting sites, and that these were most likely the same birds we had watched the year before, descendants of swifts that had nested in the eaves of the house when my mother and father first moved to it; descendants, too, of swifts my father had watched as a boy, visiting his grandparents in the same house.

My mother suggested a change of scene, and we drove to a hotel close to the Welsh border. We had no idea it would be the venue for a ladies' professional golf tournament. Each morning, before breakfast, I walked down to the practice tees to watch the women loosen up their swings. I found The Snow Goose and read it straight through, remembering Mr. Faulkner, the room's high windows, the grooved desks. I was suspicious of the story's sentimentality, its glaze of religious allegory, the easy portentousness of its abstract nouns, and I laughed at Gallico's attempts to render phonetically (as if they were birdsong) the East End speech of the soldiers in the pub and the upper-class diction of the officers. But something in the story haunted me.
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