I had received Father Goose (1995) by William Lishman as a present many years ago, but despite it being about a rather interesting person and subject, I never somehow got down to reading it. But this year, having added it to my #10BooksofSummer list, I finally did.
Father Goose is an autobiographical account of William Lishman, a Canadian sculptor, naturalist, environmentalist, and pilot who at various times in the 1980s and 1990s trained different skeins of Canadian geese to fly with his lightweight aircraft, initially out of a wish to fly with the birds, but a project that soon got intertwined with conservation efforts related to re-establishing migration routes for birds that had either fallen out of the ability or habit to migrate or that had to be led to new places to help preserve healthy populations. Lishman’s story also became the subject of a film, Fly Away Home (1996) which I haven’t seen and only learnt about when writing a Shelf Control post on this book.
The book opens with Lishman’s own story, glimpses of his early life, his career as a sculptor in which he made some imaginative and renowned pieces, his meeting with his wife, and then his wish to fly (which initially had him joining the Royal Canadian Air Cadets and then attempting to join the Royal Canadian Airforce). Ultimately, though he started to fly with ultralight craft. This gradually took him back to his longstanding wish to fly with the birds. This for Lishman, was not a chance process, but he worked with some others to learn how to imprint geese (or form that bond or connection with them), and the slowly fly with his craft. It isn’t an easy process by any means and sees many setbacks including the loss of a couple of birds in an accident. The efforts gradually expand to working with an entire team of conservationists and fellow enthusiasts to fly the birds to set a migratory path, once to the Arlie Centre, Virginia and with another group to South Carolina see whether the birds would be able to return on their own to Lishman’s home in Canada. The experiments do prove successful but along the way, many challenges have to be faced not only with training the geese and weather conditions, but also the bureaucracy. Still Lishman and his family manage to establish that connection with the geese, the experiments do prove to be largely successful and more than all of that, he does manage to fulfil his life-long dream.
Somehow the impression I’d initially formed of this book (before I started reading it) was a rather romanticised one of rescue geese being taught to migrate with the help of a plane. The actual story turned out quite different but an interesting one all the same.
Lishman had a rather tenuous relationship with his family, particularly his father (whom he felt couldn’t really handle teenagers), though his mother who was an environmentalist was a great influence. It is to her that he dedicates the book and credits for ‘instil[ling in him] a reverence for nature’. His days on his family farm already included time spent with and observing the geese on the farm, so domesticated that they hardly had the ability to fly. As Lishman starts out on his own, we get glimpses of his interest in flying and early attempts to do so and also some insights into his sculpting career in which he created some rather unique and inspiring pieces. His wife Paula went on to establish a successful fashion company in which he too lent a helping hand.
While we don’t directly jump into the goose story as it were, the focus of the book is of course Lishman’s work with the geese. And the experiments and work that he did were indeed fascinating (even if they weren’t quite my imagined line of a ‘natural’ bond forming between person and birds), besides also being painstaking and filled with challenges at every stage. There were some tragedies along the way too, but with effort and a lot (and I do mean a lot) of patience, results were seen as well, even when things took unanticipated turns. This was dedicated work involving months of commitment and effort, which Lishman balanced with his other work and obligations rather admirably.
The book highlights well how the human world and environment has literally turned the ‘natural’ lives of the wild upside down, besides creating death traps all over the place, whether polluted acidic water which makes resting stops for migrating birds deadly, to collisions with powerlines to more direct assaults like hunting. Not only that, as with the geese, urban life and plentiful food have broken many flocks from their annual migrating habits (On a tangent, another book I read had mentioned the changes in badger setts because of urban environments that they now lived in). And if all of these weren’t enough, those few who are attempting conservation must face endless bureaucratic red tape, permissions in Lishman and his team’s case taking so long at times, that the crucial moments needed to act for starting these time-taking experiments were many times lost.
My favourite parts of the book though were Lishman’s descriptions of the actual flight with the birds, observing them so close in the air as to be almost able to touch them, their wing strokes, ability to sense temperatures, symphony between wings and feathers, and yet the effortlessly beautiful way all these complexities turn out. Also wonderful, more so than the actual successful flights were the times when the geese did successfully return in the spring, when with Lishman and the others, one can feel that anxiety over whether or not the birds will make it back on their own.
I found this a very interesting read highlighting issues about birds and changed (or even lost) migratory patterns that I wasn’t aware of as well as work that is being done to put things to rights. But also really, about being able to fly with the birds—a truly magical experience!