Leopold knows that spring comes when geese begin their migration. He argues that a single cardinal or chipmunk can be confused about the season, but geese must travel hundreds of miles to arrive in Wisconsin and must be certain about the season. Therefore, it is possible to set a calendar by their behavior.
Leopold turns to the natural world, not the human calendar, to track the changing of the seasons. He trusts the geese who must fly thousands of miles based on their own internal clock, and while he trusts other animals, he knows that the geese’s sense of time is life or death for them, and therefore likely the most accurate.
Leopold argues that March is only “drab” to people who ignore the geese. He tells an anecdote about a smart woman he knew who never noticed the geese. He wonders “is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.”
Although a college professor, Leopold believes that education can often force people into specialized fields, blinding them to the rest of the natural world. This is a luxury only humans have, as geese who are similarly oblivious are easily shot by hunters.
The geese are “aware of many things.” They know that in November hunters are allowed to shoot them, and as a result they are more cautious. In the spring they know they are temporarily safe, and take more stops on their migratory journey. Leopold is happy to see the geese return. He proclaims, “our geese are home again!”
Although Leopold often talks about human knowledge, geese and other animals are knowledgeable as well. Additionally, throughout the book Leopold will talk about the joy the geese bring him, and the value they bring to the land generally. Although he cannot qualify their impact economically, he loves them all the same.
Leopold observes the geese and wonders what they are saying to each other and how they select what to eat. He decides it is better that they remain partially enshrouded in mystery.
Leopold is constantly curious, but understands that part of the magic of the natural world is that it is not entirely knowable, and aspects of it will always remain a mystery to him.
After many years of research, Leopold reports that he and his students found that geese travel in flocks composed of their families, or multiple family units traveling together. Based on this, Leopold speculates that the single geese he has seen migrating by his farm have lost their families to winter hunters. He says he grieves for them. He remarks, “it is not often that cold-potato mathematics thus confirms the sentimental promptings of the bird-lover.”
One of Leopold’s criticisms of education is that it is too clinical, and leaves little room for emotion or feeling. Here, he is happy to be able to combine his love for the birds, and his sorrow at the fate that has befallen some of their families, with hard data — a merging of his professional and personal interests.
Leopold remarks that it is ironic that human nations remain so fragmented, and only “discovered the unity of nations at Cairo in 1943,” while the geese, by contrast, understand the connectedness of the world, and have for thousands of years. The geese do not care about the boundaries of nations. Instead, they participate in an “international commerce,” carrying “waste corn of Illinois” up to the Canadian Arctic and down to Mexico.
Another way the geese are knowledgeable that humans are not is in regard to the unity of the land. Leopold often complains about humankind’s need to draw strict boundaries on the land, whereas animals naturally understand that the entire world is interconnected.