2007 Paul Gruchow Winners, Sue Leaf

 

Sue LeafSue LeafSue Leaf of Center City, Minnesota won the 2007 Paul Gruchow Essay Contest with her essay To Love the World. Honorable Mention went to Coleen L. Johnston of Mazeppa, MN for her essay Foreigner.

Sue Leaf of Center City, MN won the 2007 contest with her essay entitled, “To Love The World.”, and co-won the 2006 contest with her essay: “Everlasting Fire.” Sue Leaf has a PH.D in zoology and has taught biology and environmental science at Cambridge Community College in Minnesota. She was awarded a McKnight Individual Artist Grant in 1998. Her writing has been published in Minnesota Monthly, Utne Reader, Architecture Minnesota and Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. She is the author of Potato City (Borealis Books, 2004). She lives in Center City, Minnesota on the shores of Pioneer Lake.

 

To Love the World

 

            We first saw the geese shortly before Christmas. In the gray light of a Sunday afternoon, our family went out to skate half an hour before supper. The north end of Pioneer Lake  froze several weeks ago, but a persistent patch of water had lingered until a few days before. Sub-zero temperatures had finally capped it and we felt confident to head out over its glossy surface.

            As the girls and I dallied over our skate laces, using the disassembled dock as a warming bench, the boys raced away, the anxious Sheltie at their heels. They soon reappeared with a report: the ice was smooth down to Grandstrand’s, the cracks looked to run four inches thick and there were six geese sitting on the surface at the point!

            Tom explained, “They look like oddballs. One’s all white, and one might have a broken wing.”

            Only three days ago there had been a flock of over a hundred geese on the open water of Pioneer. Interspersed between the buffy and black Canada geese had been one pure white bird, a stray domestic that had joined up with its wild cousins.

            “This is not good,” Audubon friends of ours had remarked over coffee. “Some years back, there was a farm goose on Pioneer and when the lake froze, the bird was caught in the ice and died. They can’t fly, you know.”

            Since then, I’d been keeping an eye on the white goose and its compatriots. When the open water closed, the flock had disbanded and I had assumed the birds had taken off for the bigger lakes that were still open. Apparently, all had but six: the white goose, the one with the broken wing, Broken Wing’s mate (probably) and three others.

            If I had the judicious heart of a true scientist, the situation wouldn’t have distressed me. Minnesota’s Canada Goose population has swelled in the past several decades to nuisance numbers. A large percentage no longer migrates to the species’ historic wintering grounds, but remains on waters kept artificially open by power plants or aerators. Their vast numbers deposit even vaster droppings on lakeshores and picnic areas and pollute the water with E. coli. Five Canada geese stranded on an iced-over lake should be called “natural selection,” not “tragic.”

            Life would be much easier for me if I did not respond sympathetically to the plight of small creatures! But the report of stranded geese, (and one with a broken wing, yet) made my stomach knot. What would they eat? How could they keep safe from predators? Still, what could I do to help the dumb clucks? My skates laced, I stood up and headed north, towards the alder thicket and away from the doomed birds, putting distance between me and their fate.

            Christmas came and with it the festivities of the season. The college kids arrived from school, bringing great baskets of dirty clothes and youthful zest. We had parties, we had feasts, we had glogg and aquavit, and I put the geese out of my mind.

            On New Year’s Eve, my brother-in-law stopped by. “Say, I see you’ve got geese on Pioneer,” he remarked. He said it in hushed tones, as one might say, “I hear so-and-so’s cancer is terminal.” My stomach did a little flip as if to say, “Oh, yeah, those birds… they’re still alive!” Then the conversation turned to his remarkably fruitless ice fishing and I forgot them once more.

            Christmas passed and Epiphany arrived, the season of light. A true Arctic chill settled over east central Minnesota and we awoke each morning to temperatures far below zero, minus twenty degrees, minus twenty-five. Goldfinches and pine siskins clustered around the bird feeder, voraciously consuming seeds.

            January compensates for its frigid temperatures by providing us with clear sunny days of increasing length. I had bought a pair of slender skate skis shortly after Christmas and I began spending time on the flat terrain of frozen Pioneer to teach myself the new sport.

            You see different things skiing on a snowy lake than you do skating on ice. Skate skiing around Pioneer at a laborious beginner’s pace, I noticed tracks. I looked behind me at the somewhat uneven, but nonetheless distinctive, herringbone marks that a skate skier lays down. I saw the tidy trail the Sheltie left as she dogged my progress around the shoreline.

            Along the east and north shores, I traveled alongside tracks left by an otter. I could see little round depressions made by its short, stubby legs, and long, concave half-tunnels, created as the animal slid along on its belly. Step-step, slide; step-step, slide, an otter tango on Pioneer Lake.

            As I passed beneath the hulking form of the church on the south end and took the corner, headed north once more, I caught sight of big bird tracks, each toe at least two inches in length. I wondered fleetingly about eagles, but I hadn’t seen a bald eagle since the Christmas Bird Count.

            Another track showed more clearly the webbing between the toes. They were goose tracks, geese waddling about on the ice!

            “They’re still alive,” I thought again.

            The tracks led up a small bank to a yard and there, huddled down and fluffed out, were the geese. They were all facing south, their creamy feathered breasts soaking up whatever warmth a January sun could bestow. Out of the wind and in the sunshine, they were in as comfortable a spot as could be found on Pioneer that morning.

            They rose as one as soon as I approached and drifted away, as geese do: apparently nonchalant, not exposing the underlying wariness that provoked them to leave such a cozy spot. Honking softly and wiggling their tail feathers, they wafted into a line of fir trees.  They were markedly thinner than geese I had seen in November. One or two extended their wings, as if considering flight. I wondered if they were too weak.

            How many calories does a goose burn at minus twenty-five degrees? I couldn’t imagine. Body temperature for birds is higher than our ninety eight degrees Fahrenheit, ten degrees higher in many cases. That’s about a one hundred thirty degree temperature difference between the internal core of the bird and the outside air. Goose down and feathers are highly efficient insulation, but still, I thought their caloric needs must be immense.

 

            At this point in the narrative, true biologists would say, “Life’s tough, it really is,” before skiing home to a lunch of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I envy them their indifference.

            I stood on the ice, distressed by the plight of the geese and cast about in my mind on what could be done. Should I call the conservation officer? What would I say? “There’s six geese out on Pioneer?” He might come out and shoot them. I thought that would be okay; it would end their suffering. But conservation officers have horrific work loads. Six miscalculating geese were hardly worth his attention.  There might come a day when I’d really want the conservation officer to pay heed to me. I didn’t want to use up my currency.

            I would feed the geese. That was something I could do. Wild creatures are adapted to withstand Minnesota winters if they have access to food. Canada geese fatten up in the fall in harvested corn fields, gleaning kernels fallen amid the stubble. We had cracked corn at home. I could spread it on the ice.

            I skied home, found a bucket and scooped corn into it, then trotted on the ice back to the spot where I’d seen the most tracks. I scattered the corn on the ice and returned home. I tried to forget about them.

            Over lunch, I wondered about the ragged edges of the story: how is it that able-bodied geese misread winter’s cues and remained on the frozen lake? How could loyalty to a mate override the self-preserving instincts to migrate? How much wildness remains in a domesticated goose that leaves a barnyard stocked with food to join its wild kin? And the question that frayed me the most: What role, if any, should a human play in this natural drama?

 

            The last question has plagued me since my graduate days in the laboratories at the university. What is the proper relationship between people and wild animals?

            The Church has one answer, derived from the Genesis account of creation: humans are the crown of creation, lords over the other, lesser, creatures. Adam demonstrates this when he gives the other animals names. In Genesis, God intones:  “Have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing…”

            Evolutionary biology offers a different perspective: humans are one of many animals, part of the great web of life. They are not a “crown” of anything, but one highly adapted animal among a biological network of millions, all evolved to a specific niche.

            That view is what biologists hold in theory, but when it comes to research, they act under the assumptions of Genesis. Animals are trapped, netted, collared, and killed. In the lab they are dissected, macerated, probed and pickled.

            As a young graduate student, I tagged along on a research project that studied the migration patterns of a population of meadow mice. Movement into and out of the study plot was recorded for individual mice. The little furry creatures, all brown and all the same size, were identified by clipping off their toes in a specific pattern. Meadow mice have five toes on each forepaw and four toes on each hindpaw. By clipping one toe on a forepaw and one on a hindpaw, the various combinations can identify a large number of mice. It was common practice in work with small mammals twenty years ago.

            I’m sure it was painful for the mice to lose a toe, but apparently they survived the trauma. Mice marked in this manner were recaptured many times over the seven year course of the study.

            Mary, the older graduate student conducting the study for her doctorate, was not indifferent to the procedure. “For one thing,” she told me one morning out in the field, “we don’t know how missing a toe affects the little guys. Does the wound ever get infected and kill some? Do they have a shortened life span without a toe or two?”

            I winced with each snip of the scissors, and didn’t do doctoral work involving mammals. Instead, I chose a project that used an invertebrate as a study animal, thinking it would be easier to kill or maim something that resembled an insect. Strangely, this didn’t prove true. Recall—to a biologist, all animals are part of the great web of life. On the evening that I received my degree, at my celebratory party, I raised a glass to toast the thousands of small sow bugs that had been sacrificed for my research. My family and friends thought I was joking, but I was not.

            Biologists like to say that the engine that drives scientific research is pure, unadulterated curiosity. Scientists, the common wisdom goes, have a consuming thirst to find answers to the questions they ask. I was never sure that satisfying my curiosity sufficiently justified all the havoc wreaked on animal lives in the name of science. I left the university, doctorate in hand, thinking I had been a failure as a scientist.

 

            Twenty years later, I still have no answer to this. In order to accrue biological knowledge, animals and plants have to die. Sometimes studies can be conducted no other way. Even in live studies, our clumsiness and life’s fragility cause many accidental deaths. What we have learned from our scientific endeavors has improved the quality of human life, explained genetics, helped us better protect biological communities and identify and preserve endangered species. My appreciation of science’s great gifts does not harmonize with my reluctance to impose suffering or death on its test animals.

 

            Each day now, I ski around the lake. It hasn’t snowed in awhile, so tracks are accumulating. I follow my herringbone marks, I note the busy otter. When I reach the geese domain, I see how they’ve tamped down the snow with their webbed feet, how some of my cracked corn has been eaten. The birds leave droppings on the ice and I suspect a neighbor is also feeding them. The lake will be frozen another two and one-half months. Will they survive the winter?

            I also see my own footprints leading from our shoreline to the geese. Back and forth, back and forth they go. It may be foolish, but this is what it means to love the world. There is so much suffering here, I cannot possibly address all of it, but feeding these geese is one thing I can do. Though I’d like to profess that humans are merely one part of the great web of life, we have to appreciate the Genesis truth of our great power over the rest of creation. When we love something, we assume responsibility for its well-being.

            Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.

 

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