The Meaning of Geese is Norfolk-based conservationist Nick Acheson’s first book and, if this is a taste of things to come, I am already looking forward to a second.
During the dark times of the Covid-19 pandemic, when the country was experiencing various lockdowns and mixing with other people was at best discouraged and at times illegal, the author was faced with a winter that loomed jobless and alone. The book opens with how he found himself back in the UK after several years living in Bolivia, and the reasons why he gave up a life of leading birding tours to come back and live in Norfolk. Reducing his carbon footprint as much as possible was a big driver for this, but it seems that a sense of home, of belonging somewhere, was also a major factor. This sense of belonging is a theme that runs through the book, and a connection to the places we all call home is a constant thread.
Living in a small village near Fakenham, Norfolk, Nick was well placed to abandon a high-carbon lifestyle and pick up his mother’s old, red bicycle; a bicycle that he would use to cover around 1,200 miles over seven months. Not a bad achievement on a 40-year-old bike!
The book is laid out in diary-like format and follows Nick’s journeys around north Norfolk, mainly in search of the flocks of wintering Pink-footed Anser brachyrhynchus and Brent Geese Branta bernicla, but occasionally for other species, such as the Yare Valley’s Taiga Bean Geese A. fabalis and even a pair of Snow Geese A. caerulescens. The diary-like format makes it easy to read the book in small chunks as well as giving a sense of time to the whole book. The arrival of autumn, the coming of winter and, finally, the breaking of spring are all as much a part of the book as Nick’s encounters with geese. The geese are the main players, though, and Nick has a deep knowledge of both them and the world they inhabit. His many and varied insights into the lives of the birds flow easily from the pages. The complex origins of our expanding breeding Greylag A. anser and Barnacle Geese B. leucopsis are explored, and he even manages to enjoy the ‘badly goose-shaped’ Egyptian Geese Alopochen aegyptiaca that are a modern feature of Norfolk’s fields.
As well as many of his own personal observations and insights, the book draws heavily from birders who spend as much of their time watching and studying geese as Nick does, and their collective experiences from Norfolk, Lancashire & North Merseyside and Iceland are all retold here. They and their friendship with Nick are a large part of this story, too, and it’s a delight to see familiar names given a prominent place in the text. Nick also draws together insights from both farmers and conservationists, laying out the recent history of Pink-footed Geese in Norfolk and arguing that the future of geese is very much tied in with the future of farming. Conservation issues such as lead shot are dealt with in some detail, and this is certainly a book that will educate as well as entertain.
Most of Nick’s bike rides are simply to watch and enjoy geese, and there is plenty of lovely prose describing the journey, the anticipation, and the joy at seeing flocks whiffling into fields and of the landscape this all takes place within. On a few occasions, I felt as though there could have been a little less description but, overall, it was a genuine pleasure to be reading a book from someone who clearly loves not just the birds but the wider environment too. Anyone that can describe a Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus as being ‘magnificent’ has a true eye for nature, and we are lucky that Nick Acheson has shared his eyes with us. This is a very well-written and enjoyable book, a great addition to the nature-writing genre and one that I can heartily recommend.