Early to rise

Thursday, May 30, 2002

It takes a darn good reason to pry me out of bed more than three minutes before I'm due at work.

Got it down to an art - in and out of the shower, slap on a little deodorant at the request of the girls down at the office, throw on a pair of Dockers over the Spiderman pajamas while jumping in the car and laying rubber out of the Lakeside metroplex.

What would it take to get me up earlier than I have to be?

A clutch of Fifth District Congressional candidates streaking by the house might nearly do it. A Publishers Clearing House guy dangling the keys to a 1960 Corvette convertible would stand a fighting chance. Heather Locklear in a Saran Wrap bikini would be close, but no cigar. I think the birth of one of my children did it, but I grumbled. A medium-size house fire or a moderate earthquake? Forget about it.

The one other thing that can get me up before dawn is the day the geese hatch out.

The velvet charcoal time of day just before first light is the enclave of the barn owl muttering about its midnight murders and the red-eyed truckdrivers who sing a lonely morning harmony with air brakes against the concrete.

And it is the hour of the geese; restless, faithful, bickering creatures perpetually passing through someplace and rarely belonging anyplace for long. It is this that I like about them; I know the feeling.

It is good to see the rugged Canadas back in Storm Lake every spring. They are my sign that the seasons and the time are moving inexorable on, and yet a symbol that some things never change.

I've never hunted one of the grand birds, and that is only fair, since I don't recall one ever hunting me.

Can you believe that some people in this town these days whine and complain about the resident geese and ducks. They make too much noise. They leave droppings. They stop traffic once and a while.

To this I offer the carefully thought-out scientific rebuttal:

Eat my shorts.

Some of us have been here long enough to remember the low ebb of the environmental age, when you seldom if ever saw or heard a goose over Storm Lake.

When my grandfather was a boy in these parts and the last century was shiny new, he saw skies filled with waves of geese and ducks parading up or down the skyway, nearly eclipsing the sun, babbling the gossip of Canadian plains with such enthusiasm that the farmers would come out to see what was the matter.

I remember not so many years ago, when it made the paper that 20 Canadas were seen over Storm Lake, and the hatching of a single egg on the local marsh was a rare incident and worthy of celebration.

This week on my nightly runs along the shore, I've passed three families of geese with their fuzzy goslings. As I pass, the mother gathers her young inside her wings, and the big males give a warning hiss before going back to business.

Storm Lake wouldn't be the same without them.

If a grandchild of mine ever stands here in the early morning charcoal breeze, how would they mark the passage of seasons without the ducks and geese and pelicans and gulls and now eagles and swans?

Without them, getting up so early just wouldn't be worth the bother.

Creatures of the dawn seem to have an inborn understanding of one another, even when this normally noon-oriented sleeping beauty is among them. (Okay, wise guy, at least the sleeping part applies.)

To rise early more than a few times a year would take this wonder away, not to mention my sunny disposition.

Yet there are subtle degrees of being in the early morning that can't be imagined in the blaze of midday.

Orion marches wearily across Little Storm Lake to the western horizon as the charcoal yields to steel wool, and the steel wool to gunmetal, gunmetal to dove gray. The owl mutters and the trucks rattle. I sit my haunches in the damp grass and welcome the new bundles of goose down going out for their first swim. It might be a year before I am awake this early again. Let's hope.

"Like many another treaty of restraint, the pre-dawn pact last only as long as darkness humbles the arrogant..." naturalist Aldo Leopold one wrote. "The goose on the (sand) bar, rising briefly to a point of order in some inaudible anserine debate, lets fall no hint that he speaks with the authority of all the far hills and the sea..."

Welcome home, geese. You and I have journeyed through one more uncertain year to meet on this achingly-early charcoal morn.

Same time next year?

But for now, my eyelids feel as heavy as your strong wings. There's a warm quilt just waiting for me.