Think Piece

Listening to Geese: The Non-Human, Art, and The Possibilities of Global Thought (Part I)

By Guest Contributor Nina Fouilloux

By Nina Fouilloux

One of the most prevalent issues in Canada today, that has dominated media coverage, the Supreme Court, scholarship, and activism, is the concession of land in Canada to its Indigenous peoples. Countless court cases have been held over decades, where judges and Indigenous advocates are left to interpret the vague land claims in Canadian law. Although many successes have been achieved, notably the creation of section 35 in the Constitution Act which grants Indigenous peoples land claims, the more court cases arise, the more the court is left to interpret what exactly these land claims entail: R. v. Sioui (1990) left the court wondering whether or not land agreements made in the eighteenth century were still valid in contemporary times, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (1997) left judges debating whether or not oral history could be used as evidence for a land claim, and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014) highlighted whether a land claim required regular occupation of the land in question. This large disconnect between what the law addresses and what cases are actually being brought forward is emblematic of the competing theories at stake when it comes to managing land in Canada: there is Indigenous land theory, which has been given little to no authority for centuries, and Euro-Canadian theory, which has dominated and structured all of Canada since its colonization period. Reconciling these theories has proven to be a highly emotional and contentious affair, worsening national division, and echoing issues of land, belonging and borders across Turtle Island and the world. What I propose in this study is a mediation to this debate, an encouragement to broaden our use of theory, and a uniquely Canadian solution: listening to geese.

We all have memories of them, whether it be getting pecked in the park or discovering a flock in a corner of the Earth you never thought possible, every Canadian remembers looking up at the sky in bewilderment at a large “V” formation, with its sporadic loud cackle drifting away in the wind. The beaver may be the national animal of Canada, and the polar bear may be its rarest sight, but the Canadian goose is truly Canada’s national symbol. My mother used to point to them in the sky when I was young and cup her hands to yell: “You’re flying the wrong way, Mexico is that way!”. Despite her comedic attempts, the geese were most likely flying the right way. In fact, geese have a strict migratory pattern determined by the seasons: in colder months, they fly down south to escape the chill and find food, and in warmer months, they fly back north to reproduce. Due to this, Canadian geese can be found in most parts of North America and have a unique reputation for not respecting boundaries: geese are often considered pests for nesting on private properties like golf courses and will even be culled in areas where they are deemed unwanted. Despite this, the geese do not cease; they are not interested in performing border politics, they cannot differentiate private property from public, and they interact differently with land than most humans do.

In response to the debate mentioned above and the theoretical limitations that exist, I will attempt to demonstrate how considering an undervalued theoretical angle: that of the non-human, can help broaden our use of theory to find solutions to global and complex issues. On top of this, I will vow for the use of creative art in helping provide theoretical framework in which to conceptualize global theory. In relying on the framework set out by researcher Thom van Dooren on human and non-human relationships, this study will find that theorizing the movement and behavior of Canadian geese allows for the exploration of concepts related to land, such as borders and private property, in a broader way that creates a dialectical process between the human and non-human, which in turn, participates in the creation of a more holistic approach to theory.

Known for his pioneering research on crows around the world, Professor Thom van Dooren is an advocate of “field philosophy”, a type of philosophy which emphasizes a hands-on approach to theorizing the world, a method which van Dooren utilizes heavily in his study of the non-human. It is out of this that van Dooren elaborates his theory on “multispecies ethics” which operates on the basis that it is possible to live in harmony with other species when considering different world views around an issue, for example, climate change and its effects on humans and crows. Therefore, in studying different crow groups around the world, van Dooren was able to create a “two-species ethics” for how crows and humans can interact with their environment; he does so by outlining how each group interacts differently or similarly with concepts such as hope, community, and sacrifice. The main aspect of van Dooren’s research that is relevant to us is his push to “think with others”, which he describes as a “philosophy that is engaged and committed, interdisciplinary and experimental, grounded in collaboratively imagining, understanding, and crafting better possibilities for life.” It is within this push to “think with others” that I propose to “listen to geese”. Listening to geese is similar to thinking with crows: it does not entail extracting how the non-human thinks about an issue and then attempting to respond in that exact same way, but rather it is about broadening our philosophical landscape, collecting data from different sources in order to find solutions that cater to a larger group. Therefore, the first concept Canadian geese and their interactions with land allows us to reflect on in that of borders.

For Canadian geese, borders are determined by physiological changes in their bodies, not by politics. Studies in goose migration find that there are several physiological reactions that make geese know when and where to migrate, including sun positioning, olfactory stimuli, and magnetoception. All of these methods give Canadian geese somewhat of an internal compass, but it remains difficult for scientists to explain exactly why geese know where to return to the same places every year. Nonetheless, since geese must travel and follow their internal signal to ensure their survival, they naturally cross borders without question: geese can be found all over Canada, the United States and in northern Mexico. Beyond North America, the geese have been introduced in Europe in countries such as the United Kingdom, Finland, and Sweden, but also in places such as New Zealand, Chile, and Japan. It is this seeming boundlessness and global citizenship that has made the goose a symbol of freedom and a sort of challenge to the idea of nationally constructed borders. Here, we see the idea of borders themselves as challenged by the goose’s movement: they cannot respect politically determined borders as they simply do not see them and cannot respect them at the risk of their livelihood. Thus, by considering that the non-human, in this case, geese, do not see borders and thus cannot follow border politics adequately, we are then capable of putting the notion of borders into question and considering their fluidity and potential to change, as well as the potential for territory to be shared throughout different seasons and between different species and people. However, goose theory can go much further.

Another concept that Canadian geese compel us to think about in relation to land is that of “private property”, notably due to the fact that geese are considered pests when they are on “human property”. In fact, in areas where they are considered pests, hunting will be increased. In New Zealand in 2011, farmers who deemed Canadian geese as damaging to their crops successfully lobbied the government in order to have the geese be considered as abundant hunting game, putting them on the same scale as sparrows and pigeons, considerably increasing their risk of being killed. On the other hand, in 2018, the West Essex Golf Club in England, employed hunters in order to control the number of Canadian geese on their courses which they deemed got in the way of player’s shot’s. If we consider the point made earlier, that geese do not perform borders like we do, it is easy to see how, when putting the non-human and human in relation to each other, some ideas, here, that of private property, simply cannot coexist, compelling us to remember that the concept itself is a Western European construct that is not necessarily incontestable.

On top of these lessons which rely mostly on the freedom of the goose’s movement, there are many we can learn from their compromise as well. In fact, despite its seaming boundlessness, the Canada goose does know the “here” from the “there”: even if it does not understand crossing borders in the way we do, it still physiologically recognizes when it is in breeding grounds versus its feeding grounds, in some way meaning it can conceptualize borders similarly to how humans do. Thus, the Canada goose’s unconditional defiance of borders might actually not be much to romanticize. In fact, it has been shown that border walls, such as the U.S. – Mexico border can confuse Canadian geese during their migration, due to things like noise and light pollution, making them unable to migrate adequately, therefore putting their populations at risk. Similarly, the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl has actually been shown to not be able to cross the U.S. – Mexico border walls, thus affecting its livelihood. Here, we see the emergence of an interesting dialectic between the human and non-human: it is not just that we as humans must “listen to geese” in order to find inter-human solutions, but that we must also create interspecies dialogue in order to mediate the negative effects that inter-human debates have on animals. Essentially, this requires reflecting on the concept of coexistence, something van Dooren places at the center of his multispecies ethics. Thus, when considering land and borders, it is relevant to explore what these concepts mean to all species involved. In doing this, dialogue on the need to reevaluate the ethos of borders can be created to mediate land debates in Canada. Moreover, this type of dialogue can go beyond the idea of borders and private property but can perhaps also allow for the revaluation of concepts such as land value, tradition, and community, which affects Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, but also the non-human.

When it comes to the land debate in Canada and similar debates around the world, there is no catch-all solution: Canadian geese themselves are not the answer, and exclusively theorizing the non-human is not the theoretical push needed to breach the limitations presented by the land debate. However, by listening to geese, we can remember to think, because in doing so, one can deconstruct ideas such as that of borders, challenge them, meditate on their meaning, which in turn, has the potential to change in order to promote harmony. It is this reevaluation of borders, through the lens of something that views them drastically differently than we do and is affected by them differently, that will help us enrich our global thought.  

Theorizing the non-human to discuss concepts of land may be novel, but in some ways, this theorization has already been occurring for decades in the works of Canadian artists, who’s creations are rarely ever considered as intellectual material with the potential to participate in the creation of theory. Part II will discuss how artists have been “listening to geese” for centuries and how art can pose as valued theoretical material.

Nina Fouilloux is a MA student at the University of St Andrews in Global Social and Political Thought. Her primary research interests revolve around Canadian politics and Indigenous studies, specifically Indigenous political thought and intellectual history, reconciliation, and decolonization. She holds a BA from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, with a double major in Political Science and Art History.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Geese Family in Dowtown Toronto, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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