Monday Motivation: Goosey, goosey gander
The first sign we were given that a torrid spring lay ahead of us was Brenda’s cry of dismay. “Get away,” we heard, “go on, let me through!” Which was followed by a squeak and a muted but desperate “Help.”
We found her standing on the pontoon confronted by an aggressive Canada goose, its wings half raised, its neck outstretched, its mouth open, hissing. Behind the goose, on the patch of astroturf that Brenda – one of our neighbours on Pontoon F – has fixed to the triangle at the back of her houseboat, stood another goose, and beside it, amidst a few scraps of weed, lay a large egg.
The drama of the situation was apparent at a glance.
Now, let me contextualize this scene. Our aquatic community consists of twelve houseboats arranged in herringbone fashion along a pontoon that stretches some fifty metres or so into our lake. We’re situated in the last houseboat on the right. Brenda’s is the second last on the left. Due to the geometry of herringbones, behind each houseboat there is a small triangle on which, variously, we’ve erected sheds, laid out pot plants or, in Brenda’s case, created an intricate tapestry of garden ornaments and adornments. A bench took pride of place against the back wall of the houseboat. Arranged around it on the wall was a confection of masks: the Green Man alongside images of Father Thames and Poseidon. Porcelain lizards slithered up the wall. A small ladder was artfully placed on one side of the bench and a number of pot plants, together with two or three wooden birds – one a lugubrious duck – were balanced on its steps. Larger pot plants, including a luxuriant fern, were dotted around the astroturf.
You get the picture.
But now the sole and territorial occupant of this patch of fantastical conceits was a mother goose – a dame is what she should properly be called – with an egg. And according to English regulations, a nesting bird may not be disturbed.
The residents at the end of the pontoon learned how to deal with the goose’s angry husband, the gander – they mate for life, by the way, and the ganders are fiercely protective of their dames during the brooding period. Whenever Trish passed by, for instance, she held an open umbrella out to confound the gander. Brenda armed herself with a broom.
And day by day, the dame added another egg to her clutch until she was the proud possessor of eight. She and her mate also added material to their nest drawn from underwater, from the banks of the lake, and from Brenda’s various pot plants. In fact, the geese pretty quickly vandalised Brenda’s garden, ripping the plants to shreds, incorporating one of the wooden ducks into their nest as a kind of bulwark, and so on. A visible component of the nest was the fern that every passer-by had once admired.
It was very distressing to Brenda.
We caught the occasional glimpse of the eggs when the dame took short breaks from her maternal duties. Her mate took to patrolling the waters on either side of the pontoon when he realised (this, of course, is an assumption, because it’s difficult penetrating the mind of a goose) that we presented less of a threat to his potential offspring than other male geese in the vicinity did.
Several pitched battles took place between our gander and goosey rivals in the environs of Pontoon F.
We all looked up the gestation period of a Canada goose. Twenty eight days, we learned would pass between the laying of the last egg of the clutch and the hatching of all.* The first egg was laid on March 24. That meant that 36 days later, on April 29 or 30, the eggs would hatch, the adult geese would shepherd their family into the water, and the occupation would be over.
April 29 arrived. And passed. April 30 dawned. This must be the day, we decided. I took peeks at the nest several times over the course of the day.
No sign of the goslings.
May 1, 2 and 3 came and went. Deep misgivings took root in many of us.
“I’m not sure that these eggs are viable,” I remarked gravely to Trish.
“You give up hope too quickly,” she said.
May 4, 5 and 6 passed. Our gander was growing impatient. He joined his mate on the pontoon. I imagined the two of them anxiously examining their clutch. But she continued to spend most of her days on her eggs.
The unseasonal cold of April gave way to a week of warmer weather. The goose spent more time off her nest.
“You see,” Trish said, “she’s letting the sun do her work for her. Clever goose.”
But in our hearts we all knew that 2023 was not the year in which these two geese would celebrate the birth of a fine clutch of offspring.
And yet nevertheless, our dame persisted for a few more days.
But by last week, even she had to admit defeat. She abandoned the brood. The eggs, mottled and flaking, lay forlornly in the tatters of the nest.
I suspect that the pangs of grief that Canada geese feel under circumstances like this do not last long. And since they live for somewhere between ten and twenty five years, there will be many more opportunities for procreation in the future.
And the relevance to us of their ordeal?
Well, the parallels seem obvious to me. I have been busy helping a writer develop an idea for a television series now for some weeks. We’d been struggling with the motivation of the antagonist. Why, precisely, did he take against our hero? Our initial assumptions didn’t provide the kind of powerful motivation that our story demanded.
I cobbled together a sort of satisfactory storyline. But my last thought at night, as I brooded on our ideas, was that there was something wrong with our predicates.
And then yesterday I realised, with a start, that I was a goose trying to incubate a clutch of eggs that were unlikely ever to hatch. I had to begin again.
So I threw out our central idea, and played out in my mind a possible alternative.
And, by god, it worked.
We can pursue weak ideas for too long, convinced that there’s a fix, a band-aid that’ll somehow solve our plot problems. Often we’re wrong. The only solution is to abandon the nest and find a radical alternative.
* Evolution has devised a nifty way of ensuring that all the goslings hatch more or less simultaneously. The dame will lay the entire clutch before beginning to incubate them, thus delaying the development of the foetal goslings until the starter’s whistle sounds.