In his new book Wintering: A Season with Geese, Stephen Rutt traces the lives and habits of the UK’s most common goose species and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Ceri Levy reviews.
It’s Sunday afternoon in my garden and leaves fall from the trees as the early autumn sun shines. I have just filled the birdfeeders and two nuthatches creep down the trunk of the central willow tree to feed. The tits and sparrows follow too as a green woodpecker yaffles in the field behind my garden. The sun is still warm enough to enjoy and knowing that the colder weather will be here soon, I open yesterday’s parcel containing a copy of Wintering by Stephen Rutt. I make a deal with myself that if it’s any good then I am going to read it from beginning to end out here in one sitting. I take my seat, aware of the birds’ feeding frenzy, and I open the book.
For many, geese are as synonymous with the changing of the seasons into winter as swifts and swallows are with the move into summer. Great swathes of land within the UK become blanketed in an influx of five species of geese from the far north of the globe. The barnacle, the brent, the bean, the white-fronted and the pink-footed geese. Compared to the cold from where they have come from, our winter must feel like summer to them. Greylag geese are also found here, many of which are residents, although some 88,000 do come over from Iceland for the winter.
Within the book, Stephen Rutt has recently moved with his partner to Dumfries, Scotland, which coincides with another arrival, that of pink-footed geese, who winter in the Firth. Rutt is hard at work on his first and now acclaimed book, The Seafarers, but he can’t help but become side-tracked by the sound and image of geese as they fly overhead to their wintering sites close by. This sends him on an intriguing quest to visit all the species of geese that winter with us.
“I am falling more deeply for geese on a daily basis… the regular skeins flying over are captivating me. Sinking deep inside me. It is new for me. In a new place they are making me feel, tentatively, at home. Connected to the world, while it just happens around me, daily and unadorned. It is not a famous spectacle, these passing skeins of geese, not the top billing on wildlife TV. These geese just quietly go about their daily movements, as I go about mine. I am one insignificant human to them but they are reminding me that I am a part of the world that stretches as far away as Iceland, part of the running rhythm of winter.”
The book is a document of this sudden obsession that takes him away from his daily work and sets him on a winter mission that involves travelling across the country to visit the visitors. He calls upon the help of experts and family, most notably his father who accompanies him on his jaunt to East Anglia to track down brent geese, including the dark-bellied and the black brant, which is the American version of the brent goose. The book becomes a thrilling page-turner as I wait to discover whether the Rutts discover this uncommon bird on these shores as they venture on an expedition across Essex and Suffolk. (No spoiler here.)
This crazy road trip is what birds can do as they inspire birders to disappear along muddy tracks, up hill and down dale. Confusion can reign supreme with potential sightings here, there or nowhere, all the while creating a merry dance, taking one on a wild goose chase. But payback is enormous once your quarry is found and for me birds in general have tethered me firmly within nature; it is this connection that Stephen Rutt describes so beautifully throughout Wintering.
Writers explaining their bonds with nature inspire us to look to further our own environmental connections and Stephen Rutt’s story makes me want to search out the wildlife that surrounds me and connect with it, nurture it and cherish it more than I already do. In these dark times we can all do something to help the world around us. It is all we truly have.
As I finish reading I look at the nuthatches, woodpeckers and tits and feel an affinity with them. There are undoubtedly health benefits of spending time with wild creatures and I am uplifted by this book and peer upwards searching for a first view of a skein of geese flying overhead to their wintering grounds not far from me. I will never look at geese the same again. Strangely, I can’t wait for winter.
Wintering: A Season with Geese is out now, published by Elliot & Thompson. Buy a copy here, priced £12.99.