Man Versus Loon: Author's Commentary
Part of a continuing series wherein I make commentary on my stories from a craft, narrative theory, and general writing perspective. If you haven't read the story, I recommend heading to my fiction page and reading it first. All the stories discussed here are available there—most for free.
The Author’s Take: (no spoilers or wonkery, unless you consider minor philosophical musings as such)
Okay, so it’s a silly little story, and what could be sillier than writing more words about a silly little story than the silly little story itself contains? But I suppose one sign of a decent piece of fiction is if more words of criticism are written about the story than the story itself contains. By that metric Hemingway, Morrison, O’Connor, Steinbeck et al. are all doing okay, so why not get the ball rolling on Rowe? Seriously, somebody needs to roll that sucker out there.
All kidding aside, though, this story does have a serious tone to it and a bit of a critical one as well. I wrote this after reading Henry David Thoreau’s account of his encounter with a loon out on Walden Pond (I think) while he was paddling his canoe. I read Thoreau as a high school student, and I suppose as a good New Englander, I thought of him as a deep thinker. I mean, he got quoted in every graduation speech I ever heard in Massachusetts, right? So he must have had something going on.
And he did. Don’t get me wrong. But when I read Thoreau as an adult, I found him to be interesting, and for his time and place, he must have been an epic weirdo to all the regular folks in Concord growing pumpkins and potatoes. However, at least to my mind, he seemed shockingly naïve about humanity’s place in nature for such a supposedly deep thinker and naturalist.
He seemed to have this Rousseuian belief about the pervading goodness of nature and a person’s ideal place in it. Thoreau wrote about his loon encounter as a lark. He chased it around in his canoe, thinking that it was a grand old time seeing how close he could get before the loon dove away, hooting and flapping its feathers. And it is a fun passage. But I’ve seen loons up close, and the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking like, “Henry, man, you get out of that canoe and that loon will mess you up, dude.”
And I think that’s really Thoreau in a nutshell, writing about nature from gentle little Walden Pond, a seat of relative safety and comfort. If you contrast him with a contemporary who knew something about the other side of the natural world and had been out there in it, you get Moby Dick. Now there’s somebody who could really paint a stunning picture of nature’s wonder while rightly setting you to cower in fear of it simultaneously.
I was also thinking about something else when I wrote this story. I have a close friend, and she’s a birder—totally loves birds, and I have to confess, I don’t. I guess I could take them or leave most of them, but there is one bird I feel strongly about.
I do not like Canada Geese. They’re so absurd. That ridiculous honk, the way they waddle along looking like a big, rangy, stupid duck that isn’t quite good enough to be a swan. Crapping all over the grass. And worst of all, they have the audacity to get up in people’s faces like they’re tough.
So what gets me, is that they really do attack people. I’ve actually seen a Canada Goose attack a fully-grown man, and to my shock, I watched this man tuck tail and run like he was being chased by an actual real animal he should be afraid of. And I was thinking like, “Is this what warm houses with leather recliners have done to men? Seriously? You’re fleeing from a Canada Goose?”
Can you imagine that same goose going after a Spartan warrior or an Apache brave? Short fight, long dinner.
I think that in addition to the menacing side of a beautiful piece of the natural world, I needed to have the menacing, animal side of the man come out in the narrator. That ferocity is as surely a part of us as it is of animals; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.
That’s the duality that I think was missing from Thoreau’s loon encounter and much of his other writing. We do have a neck-wringing intensity about us, and I hope we never lose it sitting in the easy-chair.
You don’t actually have to wring the goose’s neck to be formidable; you just have to be formidable enough that a goose knows better than to chase you. Can we at least keep that as we soften every hard edge in our world?