As It Happens

Remembering artist Bill Lishman, the man who flew with Canadian geese

Carmen Lishman says there was "never a dull moment" growing up with Bill Lishman for a father. The artist and environmentalist known for flying with geese died on Dec. 30.
Bill 'Father Goose' Lishman taught Canadian geese to fly with him. (Submitted by Carmen Lishman )

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Carmen Lishman says there was "never a dull moment" growing up with Bill Lishman for a father. 

"He grew up on a farm so he always said the best hours are between 5 and 8 a.m.," she told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"So we were up early. We were outside."

Lishman — an award-winning artist, writer and filmmaker —  was the first person to lead a flight of geese with an aircraft, a feat that inspired the 1996 Oscar-nominated film Fly Away Home.

He died on Dec. 30 after a battle with leukemia. He was 78.

Bill Lishman is pictured here with his daughter Carmen when she was a little girl. The artist and nature lover died from leukemia on Dec. 30. (Submitted by Carmen Lishman )

"He had such an active imagination, an active life, an active spirit that, you know, in these last few weeks, seeing his body kind of hold him back, it felt a bit like a relief when he passed because we knew it was kind of cramping his style to be so unwell," Carmen said.

He is survived by his wife of 50 years, Paula, 68; their two sons, Aaron, 45, and Geordie, 42; and daughter Carmen, 34.

Carmen said he was always enlisting the help of his family to complete one wild project or another — including working on their 2,600-square-foot underground home in Scugog Township, Ont., north of Toronto, or helping with his eccentric sculptures.

Bill Lishman had an affinity for Stonehenge and he created two replicas — one out of ice, on the left, and one called Autohenge for a Chrysler commercial. (Submitted by Carmen Lishman)

Lishman created two massive replicas of the world famous Stonehenge formations — one made of rusty old cars, and another sculpted out of ice from Lake Scugog.

"He always talked about that experience he had when he walked into Stonehenge and he thought, 'The Druids were really on to something,' and that there was some kind of cosmic connection that that shape created," Carmen said.

"He had a spiritual relation to that shape and form."

But he was most famous for training Canadian geese to fly alongside him in his tiny ultra-light plane, which was immortalized in his autobiography Father Goose and the feature film Fly Away Home.

Carmen said the idea came to him in the mid-80s, when he was flying his home-built aircraft and was briefly joined by a flock of ducks.

"He came home from that flight just raging. He said nothing before that moment in his life was as meaningful as that moment when he could see a bird in flight, each feather passing over itself when the bird was flapping," she said.

"Just the whole experience was so magical for him he had to repeat it."

He'd read about how goslings imprint on the first thing they see when they hatch, believing it to be their parents.

So he hatched goslings on his property and trained them to imprint on him and his family and the sound of his ultra-light engine. 

"We would show them our faces and play them the sound of the engine through a little tape recorder, so as long as those two things were together, they knew they had to be with us," Carmen said.

"So we would run through the forest and they would chase after us with the tape recorder in hand."

Bill Lishman, back left, and his family, who he often enlisted in his various schemes and projects. (Submitted by Carmen Lishman)

Her father made his first successful flight with 12 Canadian geese in a V-formation in 1988, then guided 18 of the birds from Scugog to Virginia in 1993.

The practice has since been adopted by conservationists and was used to help preserve the whooping crane.

Carmen told As It Happens she remembers her father for his love of nature and all that it represented.

"One of the things that I thought about a lot on the day that he passed was his comment that there are no straight lines in nature. And if you think about it, it's true," she said.

"And so curved spaces and curved thinking and imagination that runs in curved lines was really what moved him and made him feel most comfortable."


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