The Longest Journey

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On the Essex coast between the village of Chelmbury and the ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth, lies the Great Marsh . It is one of the last of the wild places of England, a low, far-reaching expanse of grass and reeds and half-submerged meadow.

Thus begins Spike Milligan and Ed Welch’s haunting audio and orchestral adaptation (1976) of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose.* Living in Essex, as I do,  that opening has a special resonance, a soundtrack that plays inside my head when I take  winter walks along the sea wall at Goldhanger to see the Snow and Brent Geese. These harbingers of the changing seasons remind us of the cyclical turning of the world and the interconnectedness of living things. The return of the geese shows that even at its most desolate, in the harshest of winters,  the saltings are not barren and lifeless and that beauty can be found in the most unexpected places, if we chose to look for it. Gallico’s prose celebrates the winter landscape:  ‘Greys and blues and soft greens are the colours, for when the skies are dark in the long winters, the many waters of the beaches and marshes reflect the cold and sombre colour. But sometimes, with sunrise and sunset, sky and land are aflame with red and golden fire.”

Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, The Snow Goose is a story about the regenerative power of friendship and love. The annual return of the snow goose to the marshes brings a young uneducated girl,  Fritha,  to the abandoned lighthouse, where Philip Rhayader, a crippled artist, lives in isolation. With each passing year the snow goose returns and a bond grows between the young woman and the man.  However, just at the point that Fritha becomes aware of the depth of her feelings for the gentle artist, he joins the fleet of Little Ships setting sail for Dunkirk to rescue soldiers from the Normandy beaches. Unlike the snow goose, Rhayader does not return. The ending of the story is stark. With Philip gone and the snow goose returning briefly, but without coming to land, Fritha, ‘was no longer flying with it! but earth-bound. She stretched her arms up into the sky and stood on tip-toes, reaching.’

For contemporary taste or for the cynical, the story may be excessively sentimental, but written in 1941 when ‘The world was on fire’, it is, in spite of its bitter ending, ultimately optimistic. Fritha’s tears and self-awareness are restorative. With themes that bridge child and adult experiences, The Snow Goose is thought provoking read for children at the upper end of the junior years. Angela Barrett’s illustrated version of the story  (Walker Books, 2007)  is a powerful evocation of the balance between beauty and desolations and is highly recommended.

Circle, a new book by acclaimed artist and film maker, Jeannie Baker, also makes connections between human experience and an epic migration of seabirds. In this visual non-fiction narrative, a young boy lies on a hospital bed, wishing that he could fly like the godwits that he has been researching. Though Baker’s book is more concretely about animal migration than The Snow Goose, it also opens with a lyrical sentence, ‘In a place where mud and sand become sea…’,  which suggests the timelessness of fairy tale or fableThe title comprised of a single word ‘Circle’, like Baker’s previous book ‘Mirror’, adds weight, underlining the universal significance of this story.  This epic narrative in which birds ’follow an ancient, invisible pathway’ ‘Alone in an infinity of sky’ suggests natural forces that are bigger than any one species, and this is reinforced by the incidental inclusion in the illustrations of other migratory animals, caribou, humpback whales and brent geese. At the same time Baker personalises the story, encouraging us to identify with the godwit with ‘white wing patches’ and a wheelchair bound boy, who is undertaking his own journey to recovery.

For readers unfamiliar with godwits, these amazing birds make the longest journey of any animal, travelling from their summer home in the Arctic, they migrate 11,000 kilometres to their southern home in Australia and New Zealand in unbroken flight. On their return journey to the North, they stop to rest and feed in the wetlands of Southeast Asia around the Yellow Sea.

Baker’s book explicitly tackles environmental issues.  On the first double page spread, the boy in his wheelchair watches the godwits through binoculars as they take flight for their journey northwards. A sign states: ‘Nature Reserve. Dogs, horses and vehicles prohibited’. Two kangaroos graze in the long grasses, while in the distance a girl with a dog on a leash walks along the beach. An empty rowing boat lies on the beach and at sea there are several yachts and one large ship, possibly a cruise liner. This advancement of technology is echoed in a later picture showing the godwits in flight alongside a plane, with a structural design that resembles the birds’ shape in flight. In the same picture a rocket, possibly a missile, flies alongside, provoking the question, ‘is there a point at which technological advancement tips into a destructive development?’

The birds arriving in China find that their resting grounds are disappearing, and they are forced to search in ‘wider and wider circles’ for safe stretches of mud in the expanding industrial landscape. The final double page spread shows the godwits returning to ‘the place where mud and sand become sea’ but there are changes here too. There are more boats in the water, more humans walking dogs and one that has been released from its lead chases the godwits forcing the exhausted birds to take flight from their resting place. A small industrial development is seen in the distance. Like Baker’s earlier book Window,  this is a landscape where development is encroaching on wildlife habitats. Human needs and desires override other concerns.

The final half page spread returns to the framing narrative. The boy lies on his bed dreaming of flying alongside the godwit, his abandoned crutches poking out from under his bed. The optimism in this story comes from the boy’s ability to empathise with the natural world. In this final image he ‘becomes one’ with the godwit, flying with them high above the earth. It is through empathy with nature, and for others, that problems will be resolved.

The Snow Goose and Circle are markedly different books, and yet they offer points of connection which open up spaces for discussion with young readers. Both texts are short enough to be read in guided reading.

Though nearly ninety years separate the writing of The Snow Goose and Circle, the world is facing a new crisis.  Human migration is the dominant story in the media and the vitriolic narratives are designed to feed a readership hungry for sensationalism. On Saturday 4th June The Daily Mail published a raft of stories from every conceivable angle in a barely disguised attempt to persuade British citizens of every ethnic background that migration is the biggest threat to the fabric of society. The distinction between economic migration, asylum seeking and illegal immigration being conveniently muddied. And yet, people fleeing their own war ravaged homeland are, like the godwits, circling wider and wider, seeking a refuge, a place to rest and to seek nourishment. If we are morally obliged to protect the feeding grounds of the godwits, the snow geese and the brent geese, are we not also morally obliged to alleviate human suffering where we can?

Stories about animal migration inspire awe and wonder. They can also raise issues about land rights, and they encourage us to reach inside ourselves, to explore our connections with the natural world and with each other.

  • Note: Paul Gallico’s original story actually starts ‘The Great Marsh lies on the Essex coast between the village of Chelmbury and the ancient Saxon oyster-fishing hamlet of Wickaeldroth’, but I think the tone achieved by moving the verb phrase to the end of the sentence, as Miligan did for his adaptation, is more haunting and adds a timeless, fairytale-like quality to the text.
Other books about animal migration

Susan Katz Cooper When Butterflies Cross the Skies Capstone (2016)

Nicola Davies, Nick Maland (illus.) Big Blue Whale Walker (2015)

Nick Dowson, Patrick Benson (illus.) North: the greatest animal journey on Earth Walker (2013)

Chris Packham, Jason Cockroft (illus.)  Amazing Animal Journeys Egmont (2016)