The Wild Hunt.

There have been geese flying over my cabin late at night for about a week; headed back to Canada, I suppose.

For most people who live in areas frequented by flocks of geese, the birds are about as exciting as chickens; in many cities they may even be viewed as serious pests, especially around airfields and parks, where they can be aggressive and very, very messy. For me, the romance hasn’t quite worn off yet. In the places I’ve spent most of my life — northern Alabama, South Florida, Dallas — geese are pretty rare, and here in northwest Arkansas I still slow down to gawk when I see a flock of them nibbling their way across a field, like strange, alien cattle.

Geese feeding or resting on the ground are referred to collectively as a gaggle. In flight, a flock of geese is a skein or a wedge if flying spread out, and if clumped together, a plump.

But when they pass overhead on a night in springtime, carried on a wrack of clouds and moonlight, they seem like anything but peaceful beasts of the field: their cries are uncanny, spooky, not unlike the sound of dogs barking.

That sound of an airborne dog pack is probably behind the legend of the Wild Hunt, where ghostly dogs lead their master to the souls of the dead. Britain had the Gabriel Hounds and  the Devil’s Dandy Dogs; in Wales flew the Cwn Annwn, the Hounds of Hell; in the Channel Islands Herodias and her witches flew only over water; while in Spain the Holy Company did their work on foot. Even here in North America we have the Ghost Riders, where the hounds are accompanied, or replaced entirely, by dead men on horseback.

In many cases, the original legend had little to do with good or evil, but was simply a variation on the near-universal idea of the  “psychopomp”, the guide of the dead, rounding up his newest recruits to lead them to their destination. Later Christian interpretation replaced the earlier Scandinavian and Welsh and Brythonic afterlives of hunting, eating and singing with a pit of eternal damnation, and the Wild Hunt became associated with terror and torment: for the dead, the Hunt meant the road to Hell beckoned; for the living, seeing or hearing the Hunt passing overhead meant death was near.

Kind of a shame, really.

In spring and fall, when the birds migrate and the seasons change, we all feel a certain restlessness: cabin fever, that little bit of wildness that creeps into even the most sedate soul on the first chilly night in fall, or during those strange airless spring evenings when the peepers start their first tentative choruses and even the cows and chickens seem twitchy and anxious. We know that things will settle down after a few weeks, and the routines of the new season will take hold for the next half-year. Much as we crave the safety and stability of that predictable daylight world there’s always a part of us that enjoys being spooked, that hears that unearthly noise in the night and wants to imagine something strange: a part of us likes the idea of Herne the Hunter or Gwynn ap Nudd or the Lady of the Game tearing through the sky with a pack of invisible hounds, inviting us to come and play, to join the hunt, to romp along the wind with them.

I’m commencing my third spring here, and I’ve grown sufficiently accustomed to the sound of the geese that, although I still take note, I roll over and go back to sleep without giving it much thought.

And that’s kind of a shame, really.

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