The Constant, Haunting Music of the Geese

Twenty-five years ago, I lived for most of a year by the shores of Lake Mattamuskeet. I arrived in the fall and watched the great flocks of Canada geese, snow geese and tundra swans settle onto the lake for the winter, and I was there in the spring when they rose back into the sky and headed home to the Arctic Circle.

I had moved to the lake to discourage a big energy corporation from draining and excavating more than 350,000 acres of coastal wetlands, including all of what is now the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The corporation intended to strip mine the humus, organic peat soils that are part of the unique local swamps called “pocosins” and burn them to produce electricity.

My job was to talk about the ecological consequences of that kind of peat mining with commercial fishermen between South Creek and Stumpy Point.

This essay first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of the North Carolina Literary Review. Over the years I’ve written several other essays that have appeared in that wonderful journal of the state’s literary life. They include “A World of Fisher Folk” (Summer 1995), “Love, Death and Sweet Potato Biscuits” (Spring 2006), “My Father’s Library” (Spring 2007) and “`The Voice of the Shipyard’: Arthur Miller in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1941” (Summer 2014). You can order any, or all, of them or any other issue of the NCLR here.

The Cry of the Tundra Swans

Soon after moving there, I fell completely under the lake’s spell. The lake was barely a quarter mile from where I stayed at the home of Don Richardson, the county school librarian. From Don’s house, I had only to walk a few hundred yards past Speedy Tunnell’s store and turn at the Soule Cemetery to reach the causeway that crossed the lake.

Once I was on the causeway, I turned quickly onto a gravel road that ran several miles across a waterfowl impoundment dike that paralleled the lake’s southern shore. Impoundments bordered the dike road on both sides and in their marshy shallows and out across the wide open waters I could see the tremendous flocks of ducks, geese and swans coming out of the northern sky and settling onto the lake for the winter. I soon got into the habit of walking along the lake’s shores in the morning before breakfast or late at night after I had come home from one of my trips to talk with fishermen along the Pamlico Sound.

The lake was the winter feeding grounds for some of the largest flocks of migratory waterfowl on the Atlantic seaboard. Kelly Davis, a friendly, pony-tailed young ranger whom I met at the local wildlife refuge’s headquarters, told me that at least 30,000 Canada geese, 15,000 tundra swans, and 10,000 snow geese had settled onto the lake by the first of December.

They were an overwhelming, larger-than-life presence there: their calls loomed night and day over the countryside. On a calm day, I could hear them several miles beyond the lake: the resonate, musical hronk, hronk, hronk of the Canada geese, the snow geese’s plaintive culk, culk, culk, and the cry of the tundra swans that, from a distance, sounded like baying hounds.

A Taut Line of Their Longing

The winter sky never seemed barren of them. I cannot remember ever looking up without seeing at least a little V of snow geese flying between the lake and the crop fields where they grazed among the stubble, or a pair of the tundra swans, their wings spanning six feet or more, flying between the lake and the salt marshes of Swan Quarter Bay.

On my morning walks, I watched them by the thousands feeding on the wild asparagus and duckweed that grows so abundantly on the lake’s bottom. The great lake was sixteen miles long and six miles wide, but its depth was never more than three or four feet, allowing a verdant garden of aquatic grasses to grow underwater. To reach the grasses, the birds turned tail feather-up and stretched their long necks beneath the water.

During that winter’s chilly nor’easters, the geese and swans bobbed silently on the water with their necks tucked inside their wing feathers. In those icy gales, most of the flocks clung to the lake’s northwest corner, where they could take refuge from the wind in the lee of the surrounding forest.

But even in a stiff winter wind, many of the birds also took shelter in the marshes on our side of the lake.

For them all, I knew, the lake was refuge and comfort through the winter. Most of the Canada geese had flown to the lake all the way from the plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The snow geese and tundra swans had come even further. They had traveled as far as 3,500 miles from tundra breeding grounds on the edge of Greenland and the Arctic Sea. As I walked among them that winter, I imagined a taut line of their longing running between Lake Mattamuskeet and the Arctic tundra. I wondered too, how, millennia ago, their ancestors had come so far and how they had grown so attached to this lake nestled down in the swamps.

Rachel Carson at Bird Shoal

Sometime that winter, I learned that Rachel Carson had visited Lake Mattamuskeet soon after the Second World War. I cannot remember how I discovered that fact—maybe Ranger Kelly told me. But somehow I found a copy of a report that the legendary naturalist had written about Lake Mattamuskeet. I could not have been more pleased. I had long been devoted to Carson’s writings. I had first read her classic accounts of the sea’s life when I was in high school and I had thought I recognized in her a kindred spirit.

From her early books, I knew that, at the very least, we shared an affection for Bird Shoal, a little island of mud flats, narrow beaches, and marsh grass just off the little fishing port of Beaufort, near where I grew up.

Early in her career, Carson had done field biology study at a federal laboratory in Beaufort and had often visited Bird Shoal while she was there. Multitudes of fiddler crabs always greeted her, as they did me, and I had never forgotten how she had likened “the sound of so many small chitinous feet” to “the crackling of paper.”

Or, as she described in The Sea Around Us, how she spent long summer days there by herself “getting acquainted with a whole village of sea anemones…and wading around in water up to my knees, not a human soul in sight.”

Or the moving scene in Under the Sea Wind, her first book, when she described a quiet night on Bird Shoal: shad bursting through the inlet, a black skimmer resting after a long flight from the Yucatan, and newborn diamondback terrapins slipping into the dark waters of Back Sound. In the unforgettable last part of that passage, a marsh rat catches “the scent of terrapin and terrapin eggs…heavy in the air.” The rat digs up the nest and is devouring one of the newborns when he, “blinded by gluttony, is speared by a blue heron.”

Silent Spring

The photographs of Rachel Carson that I had seen in books and magazines made me suspect that she expected much of herself, did not abide fools gladly, and may have been a bit aloof and prickly, all of which was borne out many years later when I read her biography and a collection of letters to her dearest friend, an avid amateur ornithologist named Dorothy Freeman.

Neither did Carson comport herself to please the world. In photographs, she always wore slacks or, if knee-deep in marsh mud, shorts. She never appeared in a dress or make up and never did much with her hair, which she wore short and practical. Her portraits reminded me of the determined young women in the Second World War’s “Rosie the Riveter” posters, the ones who had worked in defense factories during the war. She looked plain, a little dumpy, and very serious.

Then, in college, I discovered that, despite all her bestselling books and scientific acclaim, Carson had put aside nature writing and risked everything to pen Silent Spring, her earth-shattering expose on the harm DDT and other pesticides were doing to the world’s life. She stole my heart completely.

New Holland

Unlike Bird Shoal, there was no way to know that Carson had been to Lake Mattamuskeet from her published writings. She did not mention her visit to the lake in any of her books or articles. She visited the lake only once, probably in 1946, long before The Sea around Us came out and made her an international celebrity.

(Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, was published in 1941 but was overlooked in the rush to war; it was republished and became a bestseller after the success of The Sea Around Us.)

At that time, she could not afford to make a living as a writer and was employed as an editor for the publications branch of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, DC. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service oversaw the nation’s new wildlife refuge system, which the Roosevelt administration had created during the Great Depression partly as a conservation reform and partly as a jobs program. After the war, the Fish and Wildlife Service published a series of reports intended to educate the general public about the value of having wildlife refuges. Carson was assigned to write the report on Lake Mattamuskeet.

When visiting Lake Mattamuskeet, Carson stayed at the old pumping station at New Holland, a little settlement on the lake’s southern shore. Land developers had used the pumps to drain the lake as part of several attempts to farm the lakebed in the 1920s.

The most ambitious scheme was that of Richard Scott, a New York businessman who actually succeeded in draining the lake dry by digging one canal from the lake’s east end into Engelhard Bay and another canal from the lake’s west end into Rose Bay, then re-opening the old locks on an antebellum canal that ran from New Holland to Juniper Bay.

Scott recruited 25 or 30 farm families from the Great Plains to relocate to the lakebed, most of them European immigrants. A few were Dutch, and their nationality and the large system of dikes and levees used to drain the lake inspired their village’s name, New Holland.

Richard Scott’s dreams did not pan out. Though the pumping station’s giant steam turbines were among the world’s largest, hurricanes repeatedly re-flooded the lake bottom’s fields and farmhouses. In just a few years, the lakebed was full of water again. By the time I first saw New Holland, it was only a row of tarpaper shacks. They clung to a narrow little piece of earth between the old canal and the side road to the old lodge and refuge office.

The Old Lodge

After the failure of those land schemes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired the lake in 1934. The Service employed Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) laborers to build waterfowl impoundments in the old farm fields on the lake’s western and southern shores. In the impoundments, dikes and canal locks regulated water levels to make them suitable winter feeding grounds for migratory waterfowl.

At that time, many migratory bird species had not recovered from the state’s market gunning era, when local hunters shipped so many barrels of ducks, geese, and shore birds north that many were on the verge of extinction.

The CCC also converted the pumping station at New Holland into a beautiful hunting lodge with a great hall that boasted two grand stone fireplaces, magnificent cypress tiles, 25-foot-high glass windows that overlooked the lake’s marshes, and a circular staircase that ascended the old smokestack 120 feet above the lake to a wildlife observation post.

The hunting lodge had been shuttered for nearly two decades when I moved to Lake Mattamuskeet. It was in a state of ruin and disrepair. Windows were broken, paint peeling, and several rusty steel cables had broken off support pillars and dangled from the ceiling.

A cedar tree had come through the floor of the main hall and shattered a window by the outflow canal, and the basement floor, which was partly beneath the lake’s water level, had flooded. The lodge’s caretaker once gave me a tour of the basement.  When he opened the door, at least a dozen water snakes slinked off behind wooden crates or swam through a broken window into the lake.

There were however still traces of grandeur in the old lodge. I tried to imagine the building in its former glory, the way it might have looked when Rachel Carson stayed there.

The old stone fireplaces had not been harmed or disfigured at all, and the great oak beams that ran across the ceiling stood undiminished by age. There was also a big section of the interior where the floorboards were made out of cross-cut cypress logs, hewn from trees larger and older than any I had ever seen.

Carson had walked on those floorboards, too, of course, and she had also climbed up the brittle iron steps in the lodge’s old smokestack, where we had both looked out across the lake and seen thousands upon thousands of ducks, geese, and swans.

One Great Aviary

On my early morning walks by the waterfowl impoundments, I saw all of the wildlife that Carson mentioned in the booklet that she wrote for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On winter days when I found a little lull in the wind, I watched foxes, rabbits, raccoons, otters, muskrats, white-tail deer, and, once or twice, black bears.

The birds, though, were the really compelling creatures at Lake Mattamuskeet. Carson relished the song birds as much as she did the great flocks of geese and swans. In her pamphlet, she described myrtle warblers by the hundreds hiding in bushes around the lake’s edges; wrens, vireos, and common yellowthroats in the tall grasses along the causeway; pine warblers and brown-headed nuthatches in the pines on the refuge’s outskirts.

Winter was the lake’s glory, most especially early winter when the passerines and migrating song birds briefly shared the lake with the over-wintering ducks, geese, and swans. On those days, the wildlife refuge seemed to be one great aviary.

When I first arrived at Lake Mattamuskeet, only the leaves on the black gum and water tupelo had turned their fall colors. Only the first small flocks of migratory ducks, geese, and swans had settled on the lake. By mid-November, the water oak, sweet gum, and red maples had turned color and tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl had settled onto the lake.

By the first of December, the forest surrounding the lake was dark and gray, and yet the lake still teemed with life. That was the time of year of Carson’s visit and, as I imagined she did, too, I took great joy in seeing the lake’s splendor when most of the countryside seemed so cold and empty.

Along the waterfowl impoundment dikes, I watched swamp sparrows and sedge wrens flit among the tall grasses. I heard rails and soras calling to one another from their marsh hideouts. Great blue herons and great egrets fished in the shallows.

Long-billed dowitchers chased minnows along the south dike, just east of the causeway, and every duck in the world seemed to be out there: ringnecks, canvasbacks, ruddys, oldsquaws, scoters, redheads, hooded mergansers, wood ducks, coots, grebes, and others that I could not identify.

I assumed Carson had seen them, too, though no doubt she recognized them all.

In the cypress glades and hardwood forests east of Lake Landing, where the lake edged up against the southern boundary of the big pocosin swamps below the Alligator River, I also enjoyed watching the lake’s raptors—osprey, merlins, peregrine falcons, and occasionally a bald or golden eagle.

The Throbbing Chorus of their Voices

On an afternoon when I was waiting for the offshore fishermen to return to the docks at Engelhard, I walked past a broad plain of flooded crop fields and up to what the refuge managers called “the wooded impoundment.” There I found least bitterns, marsh hens, common moorhens, and the largest flocks of the tundra swans, snow geese, and Canada geese I had ever seen, all of them lolling in the shelter from the northeast winds that the forests on that side of the lake provided.

“Sometime, somehow, I hope I can take you to Lake Mattamuskeet,” Carson wrote her friend Dorothy Freeman in the fall of 1959, more than a decade after her only visit to the lake.

Their letters, edited by Freeman’s daughter, Martha, and published in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman (Beacon Press, 1995), are by far the most intimate portrait that we have of Carson’s life.

Her visit to Lake Mattamuskeet never found its way into her books, but, with the passage of time, that brief interlude in her life seems to have grown especially meaningful to the great naturalist. “That experience was something I’ll never forget,” she wrote Freeman, “the countless thousands of Canada geese wintering there. During the evening and—I seem to remember—even far into the night, the throbbing chorus of their voices rose from the lake where they were resting.”

At Don Richardson’s house, I lay in bed at night and listened to the birds and thought of how Carson had listened to them, too.

The Air Filled with their Music

The young naturalist relished the feeling of being surrounded by the great flocks while she was in the lodge, but she was nearly delirious with happiness when she walked out by the lake. “The greatest thrill,” she wrote Freeman, “came when we went out just before sunrise to watch the flocks rising up and heading out into the neighboring fields where they forage by day.”

This was the same, breathtaking spectacle that got me out of bed so early mornings to walk along the causeway or the impoundment dikes. “They would pass literally just over our heads—so low the sunshine made their dark heads and necks look like brown velvet. And all the while the air filled with their music.”

Lake Mattamuskeet did not appear in the two women’s surviving correspondence for three years after that letter in 1959. When it does come up again, Carson’s life had changed a great deal. She had just published Silent Spring, and the book had made her one of the most famous writers on the planet.

Carson had turned her scientific knowledge, her powerful forces of moral persuasion, and her poet’s heart against the chemical industry, and especially against modern pesticides that she considered a reckless endangerment both to nature and humanity.

The chemical industry, in turn, was excoriating her. The industry’s lobby was devoting a fortune toward discrediting her as a scientist and in attacking her personally. Her critics labeled her “an hysterical woman,” and they successfully convinced several magazines, including Reader’s Digest, to renege on publishing excerpts from Silent Spring.

Carson would be vindicated: scientists around the world greeted Silent Spring with enthusiasm. A year after its publication, President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee issued a report substantiating Carson’s evidence of the harm done by pesticides and herbicides to living things. The United States and many other world governments soon enacted pioneering reforms governing the use of pesticides. Destined to become one of the century’s most influential books, Silent Spring inspired a sweeping new ecological consciousness.

More than Woods and Waterfowl

All that lay ahead, though, when Carson wrote Freeman so longingly about Lake Mattamuskeet in the autumn of 1963. At that time, she was still enduring the chemical industry’s relentless attacks. She was also dying of ovarian cancer. She had been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier, when she was still writing Silent Spring. As she neared her last days, judging from her letters to Freeman, Carson increasingly thought of Lake Mattamuskeet.

Carson never gave up her dream of returning to Lake Mattamuskeet. Even though she had made only that one visit after the Second World War, she mentioned the lake often in her private letters. It was as if, in her dying days, the lake had come to mean something more than woods and waterfowl, something perhaps that she felt attainable again only by its shores.

In the years to come, when I returned to Lake Mattamuskeet, I often lay awake in my bed at Don’s house and listened to the birds on the lake and thought about Carson and how one becomes attached to a place.

I thought, too, about how a place can call you home, like the lake did the tundra swans and snow geese all the way from the Arctic Circle. I thought, as well, about how one can become so attached to a place that, when you are nearing death, you seek even lost parts of yourself there.

By the early part of that winter, whether I was walking along the outer impoundment dikes and watching the tundra swans feeding or merely laying in bed and listening to their soft murmur, I began to feel that the lake was getting the same kind of hold on me.

When I spent nights elsewhere, I felt isolated and empty without them near me. I longed to hear their hue and cry. Soon I was putting myself to sleep on those evenings by shutting my eyes and imagining the soothing cries of the birds on the lake. On those trips away from the lake, I often startled awake the next morning and it would take me a few seconds to realize that it had only been the absence of the birds’ calls, not some greater rent to life’s fabric, that disturbed me.

The Thing I Will Always Remember

In the fall of 1963 Rachel Carson wrote Dorothy Freeman again about the two of them going to Lake Mattamuskeet. Freeman replied warmly and asked her how far it would be and how difficult it would be for them to go. Carson wrote back, in November, saying that the lake used to be “a good day’s drive” from her home in the Delaware countryside, but new highways and a by-pass around Richmond might have lessened the time necessary to make the drive.

“Want to go?” she jauntily asked her friend.

Both women knew by then that Carson would never again look up and see the geese and tundra swans flying over her head at Lake Mattamuskeet. Her cancer had advanced too far. Even getting out of the house was a trial. She died in her sleep six months later, in the spring of 1964.

“The thing I will always remember,” she had told her friend, was “the constant, haunting music of the geese—thousands and thousands of them.”

Walking nights alongside the great lake and listening to them out there in the dark, I began to wonder if that is what I would remember, too.


This essay is from a work-in-progress, a collection of essays to be called A Winter at Lake Mattamuskeet. Against all odds, the grassroots coalition of commercial fishermen and environmentalists did succeed in halting peat mining in the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula.

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