I grew up in suburban Chicago, but I now live in central Illinois, in the same town where I went to college. I've lived in Charleston for nearly nine years now, and I taught English at our university for five of those years, but once in a while it still feels strange to find myself here "in the cornfields," to shop in a "mall" with only one floor, to have a ten-minute chat with the postal clerk when I'm buying stamps. What feels most strange, though, is being back at the same place where I once "pulled all-nighters" (how did my body do that?), walking my dogs past my first college dorm, beneath the same third-floor window I looked out of one morning thirty years ago to see, victim of some late-night drunken prank, the giant plaster steer from the local steakhouse.
I've been walking my dogs past my old dorm lately not so I can wax nostalgic (though the indelible smell of beer does come flooding back each time) but because I enjoy the pond that's next to the dorm, which, though boasting green scum and the buoy of an empty beer can, was home this summer to family of five geese. For the whole month of June, and part of July, every morning as I gripped my dogs' leashes, I'd spot the two parents and their three inseparable children drifting in a threaded line across the pond, or resting symmetrically beneath the trees (the parents faithful bookends on either side of the kids), or just coming back from their morning stroll across the field behind Carman Hall. Though most of the students were gone for the summer, I feared for the goose family's safety in this college town, but I was also fascinated by both their steadfast "family-ness" and their dedication to what could barely be called a pond -- more like a decorative puddle surrounded by buildings and parking lots, with a "shore" that was littered with hamburger wrappers and cigarette butts. They didn't seem to notice.
So unwavering was their presence at the pond that I wondered if the goose family would ever leave it; they were even still there when I returned from a week's vacation in Wisconsin. But one morning, soon afterward, I looked and looked and couldn't find them anywhere -- not in the pond or under the tree or coming across the field. (And I noticed that the sidewalk surrounding the pond was a lot cleaner than before....) Who had made the decision, and when? And what was the signal? (The jerk of a wing? The twitch of a bill?) Was it day or night when they'd secretly (en masse? one by one?) lifted off into the sky? Where had they gone, and most important, were they thinking of me?
Three weeks later, I'm still walking my dogs past the Carman Hall pond, checking for my geese, certain one morning they'll appear.... Yesterday, from a distance, I saw some bird-like mass on the shore and thought maybe it was them, but as the dogs and I got closer, it turned out to be -- amazingly -- a Great Blue Heron, who suddenly flapped away, its huge wingspan and dangling legs rising ponderously over the dorm, as out of place above the roofs of the fraternity houses as a stolen plaster steer in a dorm parking lot, or a Chicagoan in the cornfields.
written Summer 2007