Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
October 31, 1997
Does art imitate nature as Seneca said back in the first century, or
does nature imitate art? Or does it make any difference?
Sometimes the line between fantasy and reality is very thin. We live in
a real world that is sometimes grim, sometimes funny, usually routine.
Recently a combination of geese, whooping cranes, airplanes and a movie,
very nearly made the line disappear entirely.
Last year the friends with whom I often share Saturday night movies
rented "Fly Away Home." I had never heard of the movie, and my
acquaintance with geese was pretty much limited to watching them fly
in formation high above me in the spring and in the autumn.
In the movie, thirteen year old Amy arrived on an Ontario farm, to live
with her father after her mother was killed in a car crash in New
Zealand. Lonely, lost in a strange land, she wandered aimlessly around
the farm. Then one day bulldozers started tearing up a nearby wood and
she stumbled onto a nest of eggs which had been tossed around but were
miraculously unbroken. She hid them in a dresser drawer and kept them
warm until they hatched. When a dozen or so little goslings popped out
of their shells, Amy became their mother -- Mother Goose if you will.
Baby geese need a mama, and not having one with feathers, they
immediately bonded with the first living creature they saw. A good
portion of the film records their growth as they waddle around the farm
after Amy. She and her father realized that unless they geese learn to
fly and to migrate south in the winter they will die. Dad the inventor
built a couple of ultra light aircraft, taught Amy to fly one, and the
wonderful fantasy begins as father and daughter, two planes, and a
gaggle of geese fly south at 35 miles per hour.
One wonderful scene shows the towers of Baltimore materializing from the
mist and the office workers agape, looking out the windows to see the
little girl and her geese flying by. But the greatest of all is the
scene at the end with two planes nearing their destination, and the
geese making a perfect living arc between them in the sky.
I was completely lost in the fantasy and the beauty of that scene.
Imagine my temporary disillusionment when I discovered that art was
truly imitating life. The movie was based on the work of a Canadian
named William Lishman who, in 1988, became the first human in history to
fly in formation with a flock of birds. That year he logged over 40
hours of formation flying with a dozen juvenile Canadian geese. Five
years later he led a flock of 18 geese 400 miles from Ontario to
Reality or fantasy, it is still an amazing achievement. Lishman wrote a
book called "Father Goose, Adventures of a Wildlife Hero." His work has
led to the formation of "Operation Migration," a foundation which is
developing aircraft led migration techniques for waterfowl. Its home
page can be found at fathergoose.durham.net on the Internet.
The technique starts with a permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service
allowing the OM team to collect eggs for hatching. Eggs are placed in
incubators where they're turned several times a day. The "imprinting"
process starts with handlers playing recordings of aircraft engines and
talking to the eggs when they turn them. As they are hatched, the first
thing the goslings see are their handlers. "Fly away Home" was pure
art imitating nature.
Another story of this remarkable blending of fact and fantasy is the
journey of four whooping cranes and eight sandhill cranes from Idaho to
a New Mexico wildlife refuge last week. Eleven of them made it,
although two finished the trip in the trailer hauled by the ground
Reality and fantasy have come together here. Here in our practical
world there are people singing to goose eggs. Here are people with the
imagination to teach geese to fly by leading them in tiny aircraft which
seem to be put together with paper clips and Scotch tape. And here we
have these wonderful birds, taught to fly by humans and flying with
such grace that we can only stand in awe -- a union of fantasy and