TO GET TO BILL LISHMAN’S PLACE, you first have to find Scugog, a small town in rural Ontario about 50 miles northeast of Toronto. After driving along country roads, through a landscape of apple orchards, cow pastures and the occasional ostrich farm, you hang a left at the 9-foot-tall rusty steel dragon. Then you just have to look for the seven telltale grassy bumps that show where Lishman’s underground house is. If the season is right, you’ll probably see some geese.
Lishman, who built the dragon and the 2,700-square-foot subterranean home, is swiftly taking on another identity: Father Goose. Three years ago he took to the skies in an ultralight plane to teach a flock of Canada geese to migrate south. Geese that have not been raised in the wild “retain the instinct to migrate every fall, says Lishman, 57, “but they don’t know where to go unless someone shows them the way.” Lishman decided to show them—and, if his scheme worked, eventually to use it to help such endangered birds as the trumpeter swan and the whooping crane.
What started out as a wild goose chase became Fly Away Home, the new movie starring Jeff Daniels and Anna Paquin, which was shot mainly around Lishman’s 100-acre farm. Lishman trained the 80 geese used in the film—and, as Daniels’s double, did most of the flying.
“I got a kick out of it,” says Lishman, “seeing bits and pieces of my life up there and seeing Hollywood’s take on it.” Hollywood’s take is that Lishman, as played by Daniels, is a true eccentric, a sculptor and inventor who dreams near-impossible dreams. Hollywood, for once, may have understated the case. Lishman’s inspired output includes an award-winning documentary about his geese; a rocking chair, made from loops of metal tubing, that has been sold as far away as Singapore; and a full-scale model of a lunar landing module that sat in his backyard for 12 years.
Then there’s the story of how Lishman met his wife, Paula. She was a 17-year-old Swede studying in Mexico; he was 27 and en route to South America in 1966 when he spotted her on the street—at 6’3″ she was difficult to miss. “I just saw this beautiful woman,” he says. “I thought, ‘There’s my wife.’ ” He was right. Married two years after that meeting, they have three children: Aaron, 24, Geordie, 21, and Carmen, 12. In 1979, Paula launched Paula Lishman International, whose sales ($10 million in 1995) of sweaters and shawls woven from strips of beaver, fox and mink pelts help finance her husband’s adventures.
The second of three children of a central Ontario cattle farmer and his wife, a biologist, Lishman invoked his independence early. “My father gave me a hard time because I wanted to be an artist instead of going to university,” he says. “I was in my 30s before he accepted I was going my own route.” By that time, Lishman was doing very well for himself. His metal sculptures—including a replica of Stonehenge, an oversize buffalo and a 22-foot-high pregnant woman—are displayed in various collections throughout Canada and the U.S. Some line the driveway to Purple Hill, the underground home he built in 1990.
In 1978, Lishman, barred from getting a pilot’s license because he is partially color-blind, began tinkering with ultralight aircraft, which fly no higher than 1,000 feet and don’t exceed 63 mph. “I’d get up summer mornings,” he says. “It would be a nice, beautiful, calm morning with a little bit of mist, absolutely magical—and go for a quick flight.” Joined by a flock of ducks one day in 1984, Lishman had his epiphany.
Working with two naturalists, he hit on the idea of teaching the local, non-migrating geese to follow his ultralight to warmer climes. His 1993 solo flight, to Virginia, documented on a segment of ABC’s 20/20, made Lishman famous. In Fly Away Home the geese are taken south by Anna Paquin’s character, who, unlike Lishman or his real-life daughter, is trying to come to terms with her mother’s death.
During the past three years, Lishman has led more than 100 birds south, and every spring many have come back to the farm in Scugog. Along the way the geese have given him a few pointers about how to enjoy life. “I’ve learned an awful lot from geese,” says Lishman. “They travel and socialize with friends and enjoy the best, freshest foods—and they spend winters in the south.”
With a little guidance, of course, from Father Goose.
NATASHA STOYNOFF in Scugog