Even Sparrows... Bird watchers


Posted: 03.10.23 in Articles category


Early autumn here in the UK and wild species of geese like the Pink-footed Goose and the Barnacle Goose are arriving here from Iceland and the Arctic lands of northern Europe to spend the winter in their thousands, like generations of geese before them. It’s interesting to note that wild geese feature as a motif in contemporary Celtic Christian literature, and it seems a powerful one, at least at first reading. For the idea is that Christian disciples in the first millennium from the Celtic fringes of the British Isles like Columba and his fellow monks viewed a flying goose as a symbol of the Holy Spirit that they should follow:             

  .... what better way to consider the work of the Holy Spirit than by chasing the wild goose through place and time. For legend has it that from the time of Columba to the present day, in these northern lands the Holy Spirit has been symbolised by the wild goose. Unlike the calm and gentle dove, a wild goose is in essence untamed, uncontrolled and unpredictable. And like the wild goose the Holy Spirit blows to and fro on the wind: coming in strangeness and power to disturb the status quo and to set people onto a new adventure with God.

 Legend may well state, but I suspect that the legend in question is modern and bears little relation to any beliefs held by the so-called ancient Celts living in the western parts of the British Isles. I can find no written evidence that any Irish, Scottish or Welsh Christian during the latter half of the first millennium spoke about geese as divine symbols.  The wealth of hagiographic writings about the saints of these lands like Columba, Brendan or David make no such reference. Nor do geese feature in the stories about Cuthbert, despite his known affection for wildlife like the Eider, and I find that omission very surprising. The saint lived for many years on Holy Island where the arrival of Pale-bellied Brent Geese each September is a noteworthy event locally today, hence it is curious that there is no mention of wild geese in the various tales about Cuthbert and the natural world if they were being seen as spiritual manifestations. There is an implicit assumption of course in my reasoning that Brent Geese were migrating to the island in the seventh century and that needs to be proven, but predictability is one of the remarkable features of geese migration with birds making the same long-distance journeys from breeding to wintering grounds year on year and over the generations. The claim that wild geese are unpredictable does not fit their migratory behaviour, neither do claims that they are uncontrolled, untameable, and likely to attack you. In my experience it is domestic geese that pose the greater personal danger. I regularly walk past two that live outside a local farmer's house, and invariably they come out to hiss at me and make me feel unwelcome!  

 I suggest the divine wild goose is a modern idea that was probably invented by George MacLeod, founder of the ecumenical Iona Community on the Hebridean island where St Columba established his monastery in the sixth century. MacLeod was one of the most remarkable Scottish Christian leaders of the twentieth century. He was a man of deep faith who worked tirelessly both for social justice on behalf of Glasgow's poor and for nuclear disarmament until his death at the age of 94. Clearly, George Macleod was also an inspirational and 'larger than life' character, blessed with great skills of oratory, sharp wit and vivid imagination as a storyteller and poet. His biographer Ron Ferguson likens him to a 'Seannachaidh', the Gaelic term for a Celtic bard, describing him as “the old Celtic spellbinder" with an exceptional myth-making ability, and I strongly suspect that the story of the wild goose is one such myth that he made. Let me quote him now:   

 "The Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit is not a Dove. But the Wild geese: flying high in V shaped formation, the leading bird from time to time giving way to another at the point of the V. True leadership is in Fellowship, taking the brunt by turn."

 Whatever its historic roots, the symbol of the Wild Goose has continued to resonate for the Iona Community. Its publishing unit is 'Wild Goose Publications' and the community's logo is a 'pen and ink' drawing of a goose in the style of Celtic art. Little surprise therefore that Ron Ferguson's account of the community's history (of which he was leader in the 1980s) is entitled 'Chasing the Wild Goose'.  I am intrigued that the book's front cover has an image not only of that stylised goose logo, but also of a Greylag Goose - coincidentally the species of goose that was re-introduced across Scotland last century during the years Iona Abbey was being rebuilt and the Community established.

 Macleod's comment that the wild geese are a Celtic symbol makes no claim about historicity. What is more interesting is his argument that geese sharing the lead as they fly in V formation provide a helpful Christian metaphor about working together. It is a metaphor repeated elsewhere and more widely, even in the secular business world, and it is known as 'the wisdom of geese'. Various commentators have noted their cooperative social behaviour, particularly in flight. Typically, geese fly together in V-formation with one goose taking the lead and the others flying in line behind to benefit from the reduced air friction they experience. When that lead bird tires it drops back into the formation and another goose takes over, hence rotating the leadership role. All the while the birds honk, it is said, to encourage those up front to maintain their speed. It is highly contentious to ascribe human motivations to other animals including geese, but geese in flight behave cooperatively for their mutual benefit and they graphically demonstrate the importance of teamwork. Wild geese might not be an ancient Celtic symbol, but nevertheless they have something to teach us all.



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