Honk If You Love Science Experiments

There’s a large species of goose, the graylag, typically up to three feet long and weighing more than seven pounds. It’s found in salt marshes and elsewhere.

The graylag goose is the goose of life, revered in ancient times, in Eurasia. Something to do with fertility. And it’s not just religious superstition, apparently. Graylags procreate with astonishing efficiency. They seem urgently committed to preserving the graylag way of life.

The graylag is also a goose of the arts. The earliest quill pens, invented centuries ago, were made from graylag goose feathers. (Right-handed writers deemed left-wing feathers the best, because they curved away and let you see the whole page. Us lefties needed right-wing feathers.)

But sometimes, for all its auspiciousness, the graylag can be fooled. And it doesn’t seem to require a very complex scam. Strangely, this goose, long associated with fertility — reproducing itself, giving wing to the next generation — can’t always recognize its own eggs.

The acclaimed scientist Niko Tinbergen noted that the graylag, if it notices an egg outside of its nest, will engage in a sort of ritual, an instinctive routine. It sticks out its neck and, with great seriousness of purpose, rolls the egg into the nest. Heaven forbid the next generation of quill pens should be lost.

But was Mother Goose reacting out of habit, or real discernment? Dr. Niko, that wily trickster, began testing the goose by placing a series of other more-or-less spherical objects — non-eggs — outside the nest.

I’ll simplify the test results for you: The goose flunked.

The graylag goose was operating on auto-pilot. She would stick out her neck and resolutely roll just about anything into her nest. Even a volleyball. Although, once she got that volleyball into her nest, she regretted it. She fretted and fussed. A volleyball, she realized, would not produce a fine new generation of quill pens.

Ipswich, you’re the goose. You live on or near the salt marsh, you’ve preserved your way of life for centuries, and you’ve contributed greatly to the arts. Your school theatre classes, for example, have been renowned not only for producing highly acclaimed shows but also for reproducing — turning out generations of successful young professionals in the theatrical arts and beyond.

And here comes Town Meeting, our twice-a-year nesting grounds. Town Meeting is where we lay our eggs. It’s where we set the course for the next generation. Where we nurture our legacy. Secure our future. Decide how history will someday regard us.

Year after year, at our springtime gathering, we’re shown a school budget. We stick out our necks and resolutely roll that budget into the nest. But are we discerning? Or are we on auto-pilot?

This year, the mad scientists will show us an egg and ask us to stick out our necks and roll it into the nest. But wait — is it really a good egg? This budget doesn’t have the life of theatre classes in it. It won’t produce another generation of the artistic leaders Ipswich is known for.

Look carefully, Mother Goose. That’s no egg. It’s a volleyball.

Of course, someone at Town Meeting might happen to offer a motion to amend the school budget by transferring a few thousand dollars from “free cash” to the School Department, just in case the School Committee might fund theatre classes after all.

If someone makes such a motion, I guess the wise geese will vote “yes.”

If the amendment fails, then the wise geese will have a big decision to make: Pretend the volleyball is a healthy egg, and roll it into the nest as usual? And then live with it, and regret it?

Or say no — not fooled — honk honk, that’s a volleyball! — and vote “NO” on the whole school budget?

Doug Brendel lives on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where geese and other wildlife dominate the rustic landscape. Follow Doug by clicking “Follow the Outsidah” here at Outsidah.com.

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