Living on the northern edge of the Tay estuary gives me the delight of hearing and seeing huge numbers of migrating pink-footed geese arriving from Iceland or Svalbard making for Loch Leven or the Montrose Basin, both of which house thousands of wintering birds. Many skeins may journey at the same time, filling the sky with wings and the ear with honking. As a demonstration of the power and wisdom of animals it is unequalled in my experience.
The birds are large, elegant and in my experience, not very frightened by human beings. They can be closely observed in the stubble fields near the water, where they feed. They do not attack human beings, but if they did, they would be formidable. To be below them or amongst them is to be part of a living wildness which is strange but not completely foreign, arousing deeply buried knowledge of journeying.
Investigation has shown that these birds are formidably well-equipped for detecting the earth’s magnetic field: paired particles of pigment in their brain are activated by magnetic fields so that the birds may almost see them. Their beaks are sensitive to smells which allow them to recognise particular locations. Images of the night sky may be imprinted on it soon after birth. All these tools are used in the annual migration of several thousand miles.
In addition, no goose has ever made its first migration on its own but only in company with its parents as part of a flock to which they all belong. Doubtless information about the journey is memorised by each bird when young and developed by subsequent experience. Possibly the earth below the flight may be like a movie which can be stopped and restarted, but which always has the same ending.
They remind me that I too am equipped to orient myself on the earth, and to journey. I have abilities developed by evolution to understand the landscape through which I move. Moreover I have learned from my parents and other adults how to navigate well-known landscapes, by using established paths, roads and motorways, with the help of maps which preserve the knowledge of my forebears and contemporaries. All this perhaps explains my delight in walking, running, climbing and map-reading.
And yes, of course, I am on a journey from birth to death, on which the true way has been mapped out for me by the great pilgrims of the past, the masters of the way, whose wisdom does not diminish but rather enhances my own ability to walk the way, making my own discoveries. I’ve been travelling for almost eighty years, but this autumn still, hearing and seeing these winged travellers, I feel again something of our purpose, adventure and mystery.