By B.G. Kelley
The Dad Vail Regatta, the biggest intercollegiate rowing event, summons images of sleek sculls oared with precision by finely chiseled athletes. It presents an aesthetic springtime tableau on the glimmering, sun-spilled Schuylkill. The regatta, which begins today, is part of the sports DNA here.
I've been going to Dad Vail since 1968. But these days I don't watch the races as much as I do the Canada geese - those birds with black heads and necks and white patches on their faces that come from Peter's Island and beyond to the banks of the Schuylkill to feed on the grass, to play, or simply to rest peacefully. Like the rowers rhythmically slicing their oars through the water and the blushing cherry trees, the geese are part of the physical poetry and synergy of this part of Fairmount Park in springtime.
Peter's Island is a two-acre slip of land, which dates back to the early 1800s, in the middle of the Schuylkill, just below the historic Columbia Bridge. It serves as the birds' breeding ground and is littered with goose nests - and mothers squatting on goose eggs to protect their soon-to-be goslings. Any human visitors to the island will encounter the angry hissing of the mothers. This is their habitat.
Geese have things to teach us. They inspire us with their alertness, curiosity, intelligence, devotion to the flock, and the musical honking that is their unique communication with each other. Just the other day I saw a mature goose honking wildly to younger ones when an armada of boats preparing for the regatta were approaching and encroaching on that part of the river where they were leisurely sidling. The birds immediately flew to the banks of the river in a perfect V, with the elegance of an airplane squadron in full formation.
Sure, animals have a different culture, a different language, and different habits from humans, but they have the same desire to live in peace, to be apart while at the same time sharing certain environments. We are linked to them.
One day this spring I got the surprise of my life when I saw a lone goose waddling side-by-side with a human on the sinuous people path along Kelly Drive - it was like watching two humans strolling hand-in-hand together. The human was smiling at the goose and feeding it some peanuts he had been eating. They became friends, the goose following the human around like a child does a parent.
It reminded me of what the science and nature writer David Quammen said in his epochal essay "The Miracle of the Geese":
"Geese are images of humanity's own highest self. They show us the apogee of our own potential. They live by the same principles that we, too often, only espouse. They embody liberty, grace, and devotion. When they honk so musically we are treated to a glimpse of the same sort of sublime creaturehood that we want badly to see in ourselves."