Mothering and a Goose

My family tells a story about my mother as a young girl on a family outing. The only thing I know about this outing is that my mom was bitten by a Canada goose (Branta canadensis). Technically, since geese don’t have teeth, the story may be slightly exaggerated, but there is truth in it.

Geese are notoriously territorial. In defense of the goose, it is likely that there were goslings nearby, and they were simply trying to protect them. However, my mom’s encounter left an impression. Although there are no physical scars, the impact has been mythic in scope because it has served as a warning for two generations:

Do not get too close to a Canada goose!

Both I and my older son had learned this lesson at my mother’s knee. It echoed in our collective memory as my younger son skipped curiously into an approaching flock of Canada geese.

We were at the Peggy Notebaert nature museum on Chicago’s north side. It was August. In Chicago, this can mean any number of things. The weather is as unpredictable as the emotional states of a hungry toddler. On this particular August day, it was hot. 100 degree heat index hot. It was one of those days that turns a parked car into an oven in less time than it takes to check Facebook. And this was the day that battery of the car died in the parking lot of the Peggy Notebaert nature museum.

My younger son and I were there to pick up my older son from nature camp. We chose this camp because its gives its campers an all-access pass to the great North lawn, the North Pond nature sanctuary, and the award-winning Nature Museum. The lawn, pond, and museum are part of Lincoln Park, an expanse of more than 1200 acres of green space in an expensive real estate market on the city’s north side. Along with the lakefront, Lincoln Park is a showcase for the vision of Chicago as “urbs in horto” – “City in a Garden.”

The campers had spent the day running on the lawn, meeting snakes and turtles, and digging holes. When we arrived at the museum, we expected some tales about these adventures before the talk turned to baseball and our camper dove his nose into a book for the drive home.

Instead, the kids were buckled into a sweltering car, as two separate sets of kind neighbor-strangers tried to get us jump-started. To no avail.

Sweaty kids poured out of the car to find some refuge in the shade under the leafy oak trees and whatever cooler Lake Michigan breezes could be found. They wanted to kick off their sandals and run in the grass, but ubiquitous goose poop prevented it. I have it on good authority that the Chicago Park District lovingly calls Canada geese, “shit-eagles.” Given the state of the North Lawn, it’s easy to see why.

This is the scene. I am negotiating the dead battery, the connection with the tow truck driver, overheated kids, and my own rising anxiety. This is when my younger son wanders wide eyed toward the flock of Canada geese. Because my older son knows my mom’s childhood story, he believes his brother is headed toward certain death. And, he freezes like the proverbial deer-caught-in-the-headlights.

I think we have a little more time, but that moment of decision is visceral. I remember standing beside the parking lot in between the prickly, shrubby roses as this moment of decision stretched out before me. Do I rush in and swoop him out of the approaching flock? Fearful, transferring my fear to him. Or, do I let him explore a little longer?

It’s in this stretched-out moment of time that I realize how little I know about these birds. I have no idea what the real risks are in this situation. Will they really bite? If they do, I mean, what kind of damage are we talking about? Do they have diseases? If they do, can they be passed on to humans?

Faced with this chasm of unknowing, I simply call: “Please stay close.”

There is a sign on the Chicago “L” (our public train system) that shows a stick figure with a dress and a small person holding a hand: “Hold onto your children.”

CTA sign (Lea Schweitz)
CTA sign (Lea Schweitz)

I smile every time I see it (despite the gender bias encoded in the message). On the train, it’s relatively clear that this means keep the kiddos off the tracks. But, what about with geese? What’s an urban mama to do? Hold onto her children? Or, let them run?

What are the stories that we want to tell – and tell our children – about nature in the city? How will our family retell this story of our encounter with Canada geese at North Pond?

From Chicago, we have been standing with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock in prayer. Prayer is powerful, and the questions that the kiddos ask afterwards? Look out.

Who are the Water Protectors?

And, why can’t they just move somewhere else?

The lessons being taught from Standing Rock are many. Water is life. Connections to the land run deep. One way to hold onto your children is by building the stories of their lives to connect to the land and the creatures – sometimes humans, sometimes Canada geese – that hold them, too.


**I had the joy of sharing a version of this story at the 2016 National Lilly Fellows Conference in Minneapolis, MN at Augsburg College on October 15, 2016.  We had a great time, including some zombies! 

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