Every fall around this time I get a glimpse of the cycle of nature that has been, for generations, the catalyst for the creation of some of the most compelling works of folk art. Driving home from work, I pass by some beautiful wetlands that provide temporary resting and feeding grounds for flocks of Canada Geese. I hear their honks in the air and through the trees as I pass near these bodies of water, and later in the season I can’t help but gaze admiringly at their V-formations in the sky as they head southward. They are living reminders to me of a great 19th-century decoy in the Fenimore Art Museum collection. Our goose is big; about 30” long and 16” high. Its maker is unknown, although it appears to carry a monogram, “HB,” on the bottom.
It happens that in the past few weeks I have been reading James Michener’s 1978 novel Chesapeake, which centers around the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in particular the Choptank River. Michener dwells on the importance of the annual migration of Canada Geese to this region and its effect on the local economy and ways of life. He goes so far as to say that the Eastern Shore had two seasons: “Geese is here,” and “geese ain’t here.”
He even devotes an entire chapter to a single family of these geese, describing their travails in surviving predators in the Canadian Subarctic, taking their long flight south using a natural GPS ingrained from centuries of seasonal migration, arriving in the marshes of the Choptank River in numbers close to one million, and facing the savvy hunters of the region who used all means available to attempt to out-smart them. These means included strategically placed blinds, well-trained Chesapeake dogs, floating skiffs (the photo here shows an example of one from the Shelburne Museum), reliable guns, and, of course, well-carved decoys.
Most of the time, the geese were too smart for even the best hunters. Their natural wariness, and keen eyesight, allowed them to spot a musket from a great distance. It’s amazing to me that they learned to differentiate between a man with a gun and one without. They did not fear the latter.
The take from the goose hunting season was not sizeable until the hunters brought out the big guns – literally. In response to the market demand for goose in the deluxe hotels of nearby cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, hunters began using large guns that took an entire skiff to manage. The rule of thumb was “aim the skiff, not the gun.” A single shot could kill nearly 100 geese. By the turn of the 20th century, the seasonal population was down from almost one million to less than 30,000, and the big guns were banned in the 1910s. Eventually, the geese came back to the Maryland shore, but it took decades.
And so our Canada goose decoy stands not only for a historical way of life and a means of reaping a subsistence form nature, but also for the excesses of man and the effort to strike a balance to preserve the natural beauty and bounty of one of the nation’s most remarkable out-of-the-way places. To those of us who are fleeting witnesses to the long journey of the geese, it really brings meaning to our brief encounters with these great birds, meaning that spreads out both geographically and historically.