Last Wednesday week I caused a waitress at a local café to become mildly upset when I complimented her on the goose pendant she was wearing around her neck. “Goose!” she said, aghast. “It’s a swan!” It wasn’t, though: the bird depicted on it had a black head with a large white patch on the side of its face, and I recognised it instantly. It was a Canada Goose.
I’ve never seen a Canada Goose in its native habitat, but I’ve seen them just about every time I’ve gone to London – something which I’ve been doing every few years since I was a small child. For a long time I thought they were native to the UK: I don’t know nearly as much about European birds as I do about Australian birds, and even in Australia I know next to nothing about waterfowl, and more tellingly until I was in my twenties the idea of animals in general being introduced to the UK had simply never occurred to me. Granted, I knew that the Grey Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in which I take great delight every time I’m in the UK were introduced from North America, and have had a hugely detrimental impact on the native and much smaller Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) which are still common elsewhere in Europe – but I imagined that to be a one-off. So many animals in Australia have been introduced from the UK, and so severe has been their impact on the Australian environment and native wildlife, that the idea of the UK having been subject to similar unnatural intrusions was – still, instinctively, is – utterly alien to me. The UK is the source of problem animals, it doesn’t receive them.
Not that the Canada Goose is a great threat to Britain’s wildlife, necessarily. The website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds describes them as a “nuisance”, singling out specifically their habit of forming large and noisy flocks in public parks. Bothersome, certainly, but hardly a scourge. Nonetheless, the knowledge that they’re not native to the UK makes me value them less whenever I see them, as if by not being endemic the birds are somehow less authentic.
When I was in high school a friend asked me an interesting question. I was railing against Indian Mynahs (Acridotheres tristis), a bird introduced to Australia some decades ago and probably the most reviled bird in this country, and my friend asked me how I would have had the Mynahs treated if, by some environmental catastrophe, Australia became the last place on earth in which they lived. Would I kill them all, to save the native birds to which they provide competition? Would I protect them? It’s a vexing question and I can’t remember how I answered: most likely I didn’t answer at all. I think that I still don’t know how to answer the question.
We place value on animals, and that value is far from evenly weighted. This is something that we all know, and we all acknowledge it even if we sometimes feel guilty about it: it’s long been a truism that it’s easier to convince people of the necessity of protecting a threatened species of bird or mammal, than a threatened species of spider or insect. Some animals are simply more aesthetically pleasing to humans, or at least to the great majority of humans, and consequently those animals are the animals which we most highly prize.
Even among a group of animals such as the birds, though, not all are equally adored. Why is a swan so much more worthy of our adoration than a goose? Why would somebody be dismayed to be told that the pendant she’s wearing, which she thought depicted a swan, actually is representative of a goose?
I think the names that we apply to animals, the particular conjunction of sounds which together signify a given animal and conjure its form in our mind’s eye, can have an almost insurmountable effect on how we perceive that animal. Of course there are some words – squirrelly, for instance; dogged – which derive directly from certain animals and which describe not just a specific mode of being which we characteristically ascribe to that animal, but also echo meaning from the abstract of the word back onto the original animal in a kind of semantic feedback loop. There are other animals, though, a great many of them, whose name may be shorn of all, or almost all, specific meaning, but which nonetheless evoke by their name, the play of the sound of that name in our mind, a particular emotional and intellectual response.
I’ll give an example. When I was travelling through the Finnish arctic in September 2003 I was sitting on a bus, watching the passing landscape. Sitting on a bus – or in a car – is an unavoidable part of travelling through the Finnish arctic, especially if you wish to travel further than the town of Rovaniemi which sits about eight kilometres below the Arctic Circle and which boast the region’s one significant airport. After a week in a national park two-hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle I was catching the bus back south, and I was sitting on the front of the bus, because I’d realised by then that doing so afforded the best chance of seeing any wildlife: the Finnish arctic is composed of thousands of square kilometres of birch forest, and seeing anything in it from the road is virtually impossible, so the only chance to see wildlife in that environment is when an animal wanders out of the forest, onto the road.
This happens fairly often: the arctic region from Russia through Finland and Sweden to Norway is home to the Sami, northern Europe’s indigenous people. The Sami have always been Reindeer herders, and this is a tradition which continues to this day – albeit in a strikingly modernised, mechanised way. Consequently, the forests of arctic Europe are full of Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), each one semi-domesticated and somebody’s property. Periodically the Reindeer are rounded up into great corrals for the slaughter, but for the most part they roam free – and they’re prone to wander without warning onto roads.
Being a foreigner, when I was travelling through northern Finland I was not inured to the charms of the Reindeer. I still viewed them as a delight rather than a nuisance. So when I got on the bus I sat at the front so that I could see any Reindeer on or near the road; and I did see Reindeer, many of them – but I also saw something much more unusual, and exciting, and wild: I saw a Moose (Alces alces).
It was only a glimpse: the animal loped out of the forest into the path of the bus and then immediately turned and retreated back to the safety of the trees. But it was enough: it was a genuine sighting of an animal many people who travel to the arctic never get to see. Days later, still excited, I recounted the story to my parents, and my father gently corrected me: in America the animal is called a Moose, but in Europe it’s called an Elk.
This is true, if confusing: there’s a different – though related – animal, Cervus canadensis, in North America which is called an Elk, but the Elk of Europe is the Moose of the Americas. Nonetheless, I can’t bring myself to think of Alces alces as an Elk: to me the word elk suggests great elegance, and grace, and even a certain sophistication. Moose suggests something closer to how the animal in question actually appears: something gangly, and a little awkward, and generally comical. Moose is such a perfectly apt name for the animal that I wonder how anybody could call it anything else. Of course it’s unfair on the animal, whose peculiar appearance is a result of effective adaptation to its environment, to ascribe it with such unflattering characteristics – but fairness is besides the point here. I’m talking about mere impressions, and the impression given by the Moose is inherently moose-like.
With its very similar name I think the goose suffers from the same perception. A swan is regal, and stylish, and glamorous. A goose is a goose. The fact that in appearance the animals are more alike than they are dissimilar is unimportant: when we think consciously we think in words, and the word goose does not speak of an animal of great dignity. A swan is scarcely any less elegant than a goose, and if it appears to glide effortlessly through the water compared to the goose’s more robustly functional paddling then on land it waddles in a most ungainly fashion while the goose stands bold and upright and acquits itself with great purpose.
Perhaps nobody wants to be associated with such an unglamorous and practical animal, though: would anybody go to a ballet called Goose Lake? It seems doubtful. We may not know animals as well as we think we do, but we know what we think of them and I think most of us would rather align ourselves with the swans than with the geese. Still, at least one person, somewhere, decided to decorate a pendant with the image of a Canada Goose; perhaps they didn’t know what the animal was, but just liked the look of it. However, I think I’m going to choose to believe that they consciously threw their lot in with swan’s less flattered cousin. After all, the Melbourne singer-songwriter Paddy Mann, aka Grand Salvo, didn’t write a song called “Brave Like a Swan”.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org