Variations on an Idée Fixe

The Year of the Greylag Goose

by Konrad Lorenz, translated by Robert Martin, photographs by Sybille Kalas and Klaus Kalas
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/a Helen and Kurt Wolff book, 199, 147 illus pp., $25.00

Konrad Lorenz
Konrad Lorenz; drawing by David Levine

Admirers of King Solomon’s Ring and Man Meets Dog will be relieved that Konrad Lorenz has reverted to his earlier vein. His last two books must have been a bitter disappointment, even to those who accepted On Aggression as a work of oracular significance. One of them, entitled Behind the Mirror, purported to be a “search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge,” but was impenetrable to the nonacademic reader. The other, Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, was easy enough—a diatribe in the language of the world-saver that dragged out the musty metaphors of social Darwinism and could have been written in the late Thirties. Overpopulation and the ruin of landscape were galloping cancers. He inveighed against the inertia of public opinion; the universal mania for the new; the lack of courtship rituals that made for stable marriages; and he feared that our civilization would fall to the less pampered peoples of the East.

The Year of the Greylag Goose, however, proves he has not lost his light touch or ability to charm. He presents the book as the record of four seasons spent studying his favorite bird in the “fairytale surroundings” of Lake Alm in Austria. The result is extremely pretty and will doubtless beguile a wide audience, partly through the color photographs of Sybille and Klaus Kalas, partly through Lorenz’s special gift of getting under the skin of other creatures. The mountains are beautiful; the air is crystalline, and the greylag itself is a marvelous bird of muted grays and whites, with a beak the color of red coral and slightly paler feet. On page after page exquisite images illustrate the flowers, the other animals of Lake Alm, and the geese themselves, courting, mating, nesting, hatching, fighting, swimming, moulting, flying, or feeding in the snow. On the last three spreads, a goose closes its eyelids and drifts into the deepest sleep.

Lorenz himself, in bathing shorts, sou’wester, or anorak, appears as the venerable, white-bearded naturalist, the Nobel Prize winner, who has never lost his capacity to marvel at the wonders of nature. When wild geese answer his call, he feels he has stepped back into a “paradise of peaceful coexistence” with his fellow creatures. On the other hand, his knowledge of evolution has earned him the right to preach sermons that will be understood by anyone who takes the trouble to read between the lines. In the postscript, he hopes that the book “will inspire overworked people who are alienated from nature with a sense of what is good and of their duty to protect and preserve nature’s living things.”

Lorenz grew up at Altenberg on the Danube, and still lives in the fantastical neo-baroque mansion built by his father, a rich Viennese surgeon. His love affair with greylag geese began when he was a little boy watching them migrate downriver. By the age of six he had absorbed…

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