In Wildness is the preservation of the World. ~ Henry David Thoreau
It’s rare a children’s book changes you when you’re an adult. I don’t mean fleeting Harry Potter/Team Edward crossover fandom, but genuine change (as with Watership Down). I was nearly 30 when Jane Langton’s book The Fledgling was published in 1980. At that stage of my not-yet-fledged career, I read children’s books by the boxload and was thrilled to discover a new one by my favorite writer.
The Diamond in the Window (1962) changed my religion. At the age of ten, I declared myself a transcendentalist, based on quotes by Emerson and Thoreau sprinkled throughout the fantasy. I was 15 when I read The Swing in the Summerhouse (1967). The same characters swing through magic portals that lead to thought-provoking experiences, none harder than the doorway labeled “Grow Up Now.” I could identify — I was eager to grow up, leave home, become a children’s writer! When I read The Astonishing Stereoscope (1971), I was already out in the world, aware it was no picnic. The Fledgling was published after a lengthy gap and earned a Newbery Honor.
Langton’s books make me long for the crisp New England autumns of barn jackets, apple buckle, and wild geese streaming over white steepled churches. In The Fledgling, lonely Georgie longs to fly. She connects with a lone migrating gander. Neither can find their place in the world, yet they find each other. On moonlit nights, the Goose Prince, as she calls him, carries Georgie over the town of Concord until she learns to glide on thermals. Georgie has never been happier. Then they are seen soaring over Walden Pond …
Canada geese were uncommon in central Virginia when I was younger. They ply the Atlantic flyway to migrate. But one October afternoon, as I dropped off memos in my boss’s corner office, I stood spellbound as a string of large black and white birds rowed across the gray sky. New England had come South. I next saw Canada geese years later at my stepfather’s graveside service. It was March and the geese had stopped at a pond in the cemetery on their way north.
When I heard their bugling cry, I thought, Something told the wild geese/It was time to go. Only a children’s writer would remember a Rachel Field poem, even carrying a broken heart. But I also felt a curious lifting in that two-note call. On the anniversary of my stepfather’s death, I had the entire poem published in his Washington Post memoriam.
What is it about the sound of wild geese? Poet Robert Penn Warren felt as many of us do:
Long ago in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.
I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.
I did not know what was happening in my heart.
Georgie hears the big birds first, “a‑WARK, a‑WARK!” She looks up. “They made a waving pattern in the balmy September sky. From wing to laboring wing they passed the creamy air, gabbling to each other in their hoarse strident talk.”
This past September — and whenever I hear them — I watched as geese flew over. I looked up, too, admiring their buff waistcoats, their neat black feet tucked up under short wedge tails. In the book, everyone in Concord acknowledges the geese. “‘It sounds like fall,’ they said to each other. “When the geese come back, you know it must be fall.’”
Not all New Englanders appreciate the sound of geese. In 1897, Mabel Osgood Wright wrote from her Connecticut home, “The honking of Geese is a strange, unbird-like sound, and when they pass over at night and you hear the fanning of their wings it seems as if some sleeping cloud-goblin has awaked himself with a snore.” The snore of a cloud-goblin!
The Fledgling is about more than flying. It explores friendship in the purist sense, though some narrow-minded characters misunderstand with disastrous results. Essayist David Quammen believes hearing geese “freshen[s] the soul … Wild geese, not angels, are humanity’s own highest self … When they pass overhead, we are treated to a glimpse of the same sort of sublime creaturehood that we want badly to see in ourselves.”
When I hear geese, I feel the need to pull myself up, be a better person, be worthy of those birds and that sky and this day before it’s gone. My heart feels glad.
Near the end of The Fledgling, the Goose Prince gives Georgie a present, a small round object. “Take care of it,” he says. When Georgie’s own broken heart has healed, she realizes the present is the whole world. The most precious gift of all. Jane Langton gave me wild geese. She also reminded me to take care of the present.
This fall, listen for wild geese. Let their call lift you up over this troubled year. Look down on our only world and consider what you might change.