Jilly D.

Silly goose: lessons in learning truth

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on March 15, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Mecklenburg MillSam remembers the mill in Mecklenburg. Known for milling the best buckwheat flour in the northeast, Mecklenburg was once a thriving community. This nearby hamlet had three stores, the Grange and a gas station when he was a boy. He worked for Phil White, who owned White’s Nursery – across from the Post Office. When Sam was 10 years old he planted every one of the white pine trees in the acreage adjacent to our property on the southern edge.

Sam acquired a body of experiential knowledge growing up when and where he did. Wisdom passed to him by his teachers: his dad, Uncle Donald, Kermit Leonard, Hopi Linton, Grandfathers Minor Updike and Harry Warren. Sam has no idea how smart he is.

Sam Warren grew up a blond, blue-eyed farm boy in a time when schools devalued his natural curiosity, diminished his creative talents, and punished his independent thought. Told he was stupid by teachers, he began to believe it at an early age. At least in school. His grades reflected his teachers’ expectations. He graduated with a certificate in welding. His mother instilled in him the dangerous idea that he could do anything he wanted as long as he worked hard and tried his best.

My parents were not college graduates either, but they instilled a strong work ethic and valued books.  I may not be the smartest, but I worked the hardest.

My mother was raised on a farm near Lake of the Woods, Minnesota; a homestead lost during the Depression. My dad’s father owned a furniture store as the son of an immigrant Swede who was the Harbor Master and ran the lumber yard along the Mississippi in north Minneapolis. Dad worked in food service before taking over his father’s business; just 18 months before grandpa suddenly died of a heart attack. After the race riots of the late 1960s and a fire, dad sold the furniture store and went back into college food service.

The Swenson home movies show me in River Falls at the University of Wisconsin campus where I feed sheep and toddle around the barnyard. My dad named me “Jill,” after a cow at the Ag School. I took to school from my first day in Kindergarten at the Jenny Lind Elementary School in the Camden neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis. By third grade I was conducting summer school in the backyard where I was the teacher. I established a lending library from my parents’ personal collection. I got into the Great Books Program and started learning German in fourth grade at Lakeview Elementary in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.

I discovered at an early age I was really good at school and learning was fun. My experiences in early education differed dramatically from Sam’s.  That didn’t mean I had an easier time socially. I wore glasses at the age of 5 after having several corrective eye surgeries. I had been born cross-eyed. Chubby, bookish and bespectacled, I was an odd girl.

I lived inside the world of books. School was my sanctuary. I had taken a personal vow that I would continue to go to school every day as long as it remained fun. Teaching became a way to keep learning without paying tuition. When school stopped being fun was when it stopped being about the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

Facts don’t seem to matter anymore. The truth is whatever sells; whatever is most popular. Weapons of mass distraction lead to world destruction. I pursued critical thinking skills and fact checking. Truth is built on facts. Knowledge is not constructed out of rumor or gossip, but hard data. Scholarship took on the fashion of postmodern theory: things in and of themselves matter less than the mediated signs and symbols of these things. In short, they think reality is secondary to media. I am not convinced.

After several years of observing the geese arrive and depart from Warren Pond, I came across a tattered typewritten sheet of paper from long before I had met Sam. For some reason I had saved these words from “Lessons from Geese,” but I knew I hadn’t written them. What was the source for this natural wisdom?

Fact 1: As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an“uplift” for the birds that follow. By flying in a V formation, the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew alone.

Lesson 1: People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are traveling on the thrust of one another.

Fact 2: When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of flying alone. It quickly moves back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front of it.

Lesson 2: If we have as much sense as a goose we stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go. We are willing to accept their help and give help to others.

Fact 3: When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies to the point position.

Lesson 3: It pays to take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership. As with geese, people are interdependent on each other’s skills, capabilities, and unique arrangements of gifts, talents, or resources.

Fact 4: The geese flying in formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

Lesson 4: We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, the production is much greater. The power of encouragement (to stand by one’s heart or core values and encourage the heart and core of others) is the quality of honking we seek.

Fact 5: When a goose gets sick, wounded or shot down, two geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it. They stay with it until it dies or is able to fly again. Then, they launch out with another formation or catch up with the flock.

Lesson 5: If we have as much sense as geese we will stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong.

The “Lessons of Geese” I’d saved all things years captured several essential truths based on natural observations. I had wanted to find the original source since it is such a wonderful example of how nature offers transcendent knowledge if only we pay it proper attention. I spent countless hours fruitlessly searching online for the elusive American Naturalist Milton Olson and his copyright on an essay about the behavioral traits of geese.

I did find the “Lessons from Geese” used by Toastmasters International, the Boy Scouts of America, Outward Bound, speeches by cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien and countless other business executives and leadership gurus. The essay appears on thousands of websites, business magazines and professional journals.

Julia GrinsmanTrying to locate the original source, I put my problem in the hands of a professional: my local reference librarian, Julia Grimsman. Within two hours she ended my two month wild goose chase. Milton Olson wasn’t an American Naturalist; he was a pastor at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Minnesota, from 1958-1963. This might explain how I had come into possession of this piece of paper as a good little Lutheran girl.

Private detective in the Reference Section, Julia quickly discovered Milton Olson is not the author of “Lessons of Geese.” Dr. Robert McNeish of Baltimore wrote it first for a sermon he delivered in his church. For many years a science teacher, Dr. McNeish claimed he wrote it up based on a flyer filled with interesting facts about geese that he picked up along the Maryland shore where he routinely observed birds. Because the essay involved “facts” a good ornithologist should know about it.

Julia was keen to find out whether there is any scientific basis to these lessons A gifted reference librarian, she quickly discovered Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology had published this essay many years ago and refuted some of its scientific claims.

The truth loomed larger than the “facts” reported on a piece of paper. The reason I searched for the original source is that I didn’t quite believe my own direct and deeply personal observations of geese were original. Of course not. People have watched geese and reflected upon their behavior for centuries. There is no sense to finding an original printed source. Silly goose. The truth is found when you apply lessons learned from natural observation.

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  1. Unaccompanied Minor really loved this!!!!!!! So beautifully written. And the “silly goose” took me by delightful surprise. Honking encouragingly from this direction, Jill.

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