Learning from Geese

Posted by Renee Magyar on April 10, 2013

A prime model for collaboration, these creatures offer a deep wisdom for hustling and bustling humans.

A common sight in spring: geese flying overhead (photo credit: Henry McLin)

It's springtime and I love my daily bike commute on Portland's Springwater Corridor Trail along the Willamette River. It's also that time of the year for geese: over the last month they have ubiquitously descended on the city's parks, trails, and greenways, taking a break from their annual migration back up to Canada for the spring and summer. Morning and evening I encounter flocks overhead, honking and calling, and more geese lounging on the grass and trail, steadfast and stubborn in their position (when's the last time a goose moved out of your way?).  'Tis the season for abundant waterfowl on urban turf.

Normally, I'm preoccupied with dodging stalwart birds and turds peppered all over the trail. I completely take them for granted. But the other day, a honking flock caught my attention. They were in perfect unison, perfect harmonious alignment, flying overhead. I stopped to watch and listen. We all know that geese fly in a V formation. Why?

Each bird flapping its wings creates an uplift in the air currents for the bird right behind it. By flying in the 'V', the flock flies faster and farther than if each bird flew on its own. When a goose flies out of the arrangement, it feels the difficulty of trying to fly alone, unaided, and gets back into formation to take advantage of the group's lifting power. The lead goose navigates and maintains the speed; when it gets tired, it goes to the back of the flock and another goose takes its place. Thus, the 'leader' is always rotating. Meanwhile, the geese in the rear honk to encourage those up front to maintain their speed.

In other words, it's a collaboration. Each goose isn't out to be the fastest or the highest or the best flyer. It's about getting somewhere together, as one.

Watching the geese I had a feel-good moment about work: this is what we're doing at Sustainable Northwest. We are creating human formations, bringing people together to travel in unified directions to achieve common goals. We help people and communities build on each other's strengths, accelerating their journeys to reach their destinations - restored landscapes, with jobs for people restoring those lands.  

We are social animals, just like geese, and we, too, collaborate and cooperate. It's in our bones, embedded in our DNA. So are competition and rivalry. But we are too richly complex in nature to be one or the other. We can choose how we want to reach our destinations - alone and at odds with others, or together as allies. At Sustainable Northwest, we choose to fly together.

Back on the trail, the geese passed, their honking fading into stillness like a track on a CD. It was getting dark. I started up on my bike again and a lot of people passed me, but I didn't care. I wasn't compelled to outride anyone else. If I were, I'd miss out on the geese, on the beautiful deer that grazed next to the trail, the frogs croaking, the moonlight on the water and the twilight sky. I'm part of this landscape too. We're in this together.

Collaboration has been our modus operandi at Sustainable Northwest since the beginning. We recently hosted a conference on collaborative forestry, bringing various collaborative groups from all over the state to discuss impacts, goals, and challenges. Working with these groups, we're developing sustainable land stewardship practices and bringing back jobs to rural Oregon at the same time. We'll give you details on our next 'collaboration' blog, coming up after the Collaborative Forest Land Restoration meeting. Keep an eye out! 

Dimitra Giannakoulias is the Operations and Communications Associate at Sustainable Northwest