Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Of Geese and Our Endless Pursuit of Formation...


This time of year, I get to watch a lot of geese getting into their famous “V” formation as the frost and snow starts to fall down on those of us who are hopelessly anchored-down fools. My son’s school is close to a fairytale-like woods and river and in the late spring, I saw these same geese as fuzzy yellow-and-brown hatchlings wobbling in a cluster together, following their mothers in the tall reedy grasses of the banks. By now, they have grown into the sleek, big, proud birds I watch honking with confidence as they head to warmer weather for the winter. Watching them against the backdrop of the grey sky on their migratory paths, I always have to stop and watch, even if makes me a little late to pick up my son. He understands because he loves to watch flying geese, too. The geese who are already in formation are a meditative, peaceful sight, a rare majestic sky display in our busy world, but the ones who are actively getting into the V are the ones who really inspire me. As they flap their muscular wings, some fall behind in their row, some move ahead, they swerve through and surf the air currents as a group, and then, gracefully, they get organized into their famous formation. I feel a sense of profound relief every time, of things being right in the world, at least at that moment.

There is a very logical and pragmatic reason behind this specific formation: the aerodynamic positioning lets the geese get more bang for their collective buck, allowing for their range to be maximized while effort, and thus fatigue, are significantly minimized. Except for the lead bird, who is rotated in and out, they all enjoy reduced drag as well as benefit from what is called “upwash,” which helps to carry the weight they are responsible for keeping aloft. I watch these birds seemingly effortlessly form their distinct Vs in the October and November skies and I’m both impressed by their intuitive precision as well as secretly envious. From my perspective as a vegan and a longtime activist, I can’t help but wish that we could be more like geese. Why can’t we get organized to get the maximum benefit?

In the vegan movement, as was true with the feminist and the anti-war movements I was involved with from my teens on, there are always those voices from within who call for us to become more unified in order to most easily reach the bigger goal, presumably one that we share. The problem is that we do not necessarily share the same overarching goal and, even more significant, it just is not going to happen. Human nature is oppositional to that precise orderliness and singularity of vision within large groups, the kind that allows flying geese to turn on a dime and gracefully adjust their formation according to ever-shifting factors – fatigue, wind currents, the overall strength of the group and who knows what else – that are keenly felt and communicated to one another. As much as I might admire and envy the kind of elegantly efficient structure and selfless cooperation I see in a formation of geese, I also realize that it is a pipe dream for us to aspire to as a movement. It simply isn’t happening and nor should it.

The fact of it is that vegans are not all flying to a pond at a nice gated community in Georgia or Florida but even if we were, we would still find reasons to fight and disagree. Should we turn left or right or stay more or less center? How high? How low? Should we go faster or maintain a slow-but-steady pace? Should we stop for a rest? How can we be so selfish and weak as to think of resting when there is so much to do??? As much as I might like to fantasize about being part of a flying V, pointed like a determined, wind-resistant arrow toward the end goal, I know that this is just not human nature. It’s a pleasant, gauzy distraction of a daydream but that is all that it is.

I don’t think that it’s in anyone’s best interest to continually peck away at one another over pettiness, but, being human, we will disagree about what is petty. Rather than trying to get everyone on board with a singular approach and vision, perhaps the best path is to share yours with the world and find those with whom you can work together on your path. I think we need to quit this essentially futile quest for cohesion of thought, voice and action and just seek out those we can easily get into formation with toward shared goals. If we stand around bickering and squabbling in pursuit of something that is unachievable, before we know it, the fall will have turned into winter and we will be forced to remain stuck in one place. 

It’s early December so ice is starting to form on the river near my son’s school, floating pieces that are slowly starting to freeze into a solid surface of ice. Some geese left at the first sign of cold, some waited until heavier frosts and still others are going to tough out the winter here. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t argue about routes or strategies or unity, they don’t mock those who left earlier as wimps and they don’t disparage those who remain as old fogies. The geese just do what they need to do. I think we should do the same and stop beating the drum beat of unity, no matter how temping it might be. We need to find our own way to fly and go the distance.


  1. Love this one, Marla. Poetic and wise....

  2. Thanks, this is lovely.

    As a newly re-committed vegan who is living with (and cooking for) a decidedly NON-vegan family, I feel out of step a lot, both with them and with the vegan community. But I know I am doing the best I can do at this moment in time. This is a lovely piece of inspiration and models what I feel to be the main goal for me - to reduce suffering and spread peace in the world.

  3. Very well thought out but I think a problem not addressed is that some feel some group's actions actually are detrimental to the goals of other groups.

    If some people formed a group that thought sharper knives would be more humane in the slaughterhouse others might think that totally ridiculous yet each group has found likeminded souls.

  4. I am glad you're here, Annie. I've learned that even as a "strict" vegan, you will never be vegan enough for some people, so you may as well do what makes sense for you. I, for one, am glad you're here and I am grateful, too.

  5. That is true, Marty. I understand and think it's valuable to speak out against those who are detrimental to the animals, but I also think that at a certain point, we need to speak up with promoting our own vision AND strategies. Being locked in combat doesn't seem terribly productive. Thanks for your thoughts! I hear you.

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