At the Conference of the Birds
So respect the child within you because he knows the truth: he was kidnapped and put into an aging body and given unpleasant work and a lot of stupid rules to follow. From time to time, the child wakes up in the grownup’s body and finds there’s no one left on the baseball field and he can’t even find his ball and glove, that the little river beside which he used to read poetry and eat licorice lozenges has been swallowed up by the utilitarianism of a world which permits a stream to exist only if it proves useful to pollute. What a strange world, when each tree, each flower, each blade of grass, each bee and swallow has to earn a living, and even the lilies of the field must have a care for tomorrow. The oversight that Christ noticed: “They reap not, neither do they sow…” has now been corrected. In this new world, everything reaps and sows and commits a double blasphemy by ascribing it all to the grace of God. The swallows have failed to fulfill their quota of mosquitoes; they will be punished. The squirrel’s granary is full of acorns, but he has neglected to pay his income tax.
There was great consternation in the world, for the hand of man had reached out, had discovered a way to communicate with all living things, had discovered at last a way of being understood and of understanding. And what did they choose to say? That our labor is required in their scheme of things. No longer are we to go our way and they theirs; now we are to work for them. “It’s not just for ourselves,” the humans said. “Don’t think we don’t recognize how unseemly this must seem, trying to tax the previously untaxable. But these are troubled times. Due to various forms of bad luck and (we admit it) mismanagement by our predecessors, to whom we bear no resemblance and from whom we repudiate all relationship, it is necessary now for everyone to work. Not just the human beings and their allies, the horses and dogs. All of us must make an effort to repair the damage, so that we will still have a planet to live on. This being the case, please spare me the lilies of the field routine. At least they can collect moisture for our water replenishment scheme. And the birds can bring us twigs and bits of sod from the few wooded areas left, so that we can start our reforestation. We haven’t made contact with the bacteria yet, but it’s only a matter of time. I’m sure they will do their part, because they are by all accounts sober-minded and serious people.”
Graylag, the great gray goose of the northern latitudes, had been late in getting the news. He and his flock usually went further north than anybody else, to the regions where the low summer sun flashed off bright waters pierced with dark wooded islands. The sooty terns arrived soon after, and they brought the news.
“Listen, geese, it’s finally happened! The humans have held discussions with us!”
Graylag was less than enthusiastic about this news. In fact, this was just what he had been dreading.
“What did they say?” he asked.
“Just ‘happy to see you,’ that sort of thing. They really seemed rather nice.”
“Sure, humans always seem nice at first,” Graylag said. “But then they do something unthinkable and unspeakable. Which of us would hang up humanskins on our walls, mount the stuffed head of a hunter on the wall of a cave, or paint pictures of deer bringing a wounded hunstman to bay? They go too far, humans, they presume too much.”
“Maybe it’s different for them now,” the sooty tern said. “They’ve been through a lot recently.”
“Haven’t we all!” Graylag sniffed.
The tern flew on. The terns were nesting this year near Lake Baikal, where the big human rocket station had been. New grass and seeds were growing nicely in the cracks of the lava shield that resulted when the installation melted down under nuclear attack.
There had been disturbances all over Earth. The terns had suffered sad losses, as had all the other species they knew. Only some of the underwater species had profited—sharks and moray eels were doing nicely—but at least they had the good taste not to rub it in. They knew they were perverse to be able to benefit by what came near to causing the end of all life on the Earth.
Later in the season, a flight of ptarmigan came through to the north and exchanged information with Graylag.
“How is it going between you and the humans?” Graylag asked.
“Well, frankly, not so good.”
“Eating you, are they?” said Graylag.
“Oh, no, they’re being very good about that,” the ptarmigan said. “Downright silly about it, in fact. They seem to think that just because you can converse intelligently with a fellow means you shouldn’t eat him. Which makes no sense at all. Wolves and bears talk as well as anyone, and it never occurs to them to give up meat in favor of salads. We eat what we must and we all get along somehow, isn’t that right?”
“Of course,” said Graylag. “But what seems to be the trouble, then?”
“Well, you’re not going to believe this, Graylag.”
“About humans? Try me!”
“Very well. They want us to work for them.”
“You? The ptarmigans?”
“Everybody. All the animals and all the birds.”
“You’re right, I don’t believe it.”
“Nevertheless, it’s true.”
“Work for them? What do you mean? You’re not exactly of a size to carry a pick and shovel or scrub dishes—the two jobs humans seem to have the most need to fill.”
“I don’t know exactly what they mean,” the ptarmigan said. “I got out before they could make me do it, whatever it is.”
“How could they make you?”
The ptarmigan said, “Oh gray goose, you don’t know much about men! You may know the high empty skies, but you don’t know men. Don’t you know that whereas birds can fly and fish can swim and turtles can crawl, men can talk? It is talk that is the excellence of a man, and he can convince you to do anything he wants, if he talks at you long enough.”
“Convince you to work for them?”
“Yes, and pay taxes, too.”
“But this is madness! One of their own holy men promised us exemption from all that. He said, they reap not, neither do they sow. We have our own things to do. We live in the aesthetic dimension. We are not utilitarian.”
The ptarmigan looked discomfited and said, “You should have been there. You’d have to hear them talk.”
“And then become a beast of burden! Never, ptarmigan!”
Sometime later, a conference was held among several species of large predatory birds. This was the first time eagle, hawk, and owl shared the same branches. The meeting was held in a wooded valley in northern Oregon, one of the few areas in the northwest that had escaped direct nuclear effects. A man was there, too.
“It’s easy enough to blame this mess on us,” the man said. “But we’re just creatures like the rest of you, and we did only what seemed best. If you were in our situation, do you think you would have done any better? It’s too easy an answer to say that man is bad, kick him out and the rest of us will live in peace. Men have always been saying that to each other. But it should be obvious that there’s no way everything can stay as it was. Things have to change.”
The animals objected, “You men are not natural. There can be no cooperation between you and the rest of us.”
“Not natural?” the man said. “Perhaps this mess around us, this shrinking down of the habitable earth, this cutting back of the proliferation of species, was not an accident or an evil. The lightning that starts the forest fire isn’t evil. Perhaps we humans are nature’s way of producing atomic explosions without dragging stellar cataclysms into it.”
“Perhaps,” the animals said. “But what’s the point? The damage was been done. What do you want from us now?”
“The Earth is in pretty sorry shape,” the man said. “And there may be worse to come. We all have to work now, to restore soil, water, vegetation, to give ourselves a chance. This is the only task left to us now, all of us.”
“But what has that to do with us?” the animals asked.
“Frankly, you birds and animals have had it easy for long enough. It must have been nice for you, the millions of years without responsibility. Well, the fun’s over now. All of us have work to do.”
A pileated woodpecker raised his rakish head and said, “Why must we animals do it all? What about the plants? They just sit around and grow. Is that equitable?”
“We have already contacted the plants,” the man said. “They are prepared to do their duty. We have discussions going on with some of the larger bacteria, too. This time we’re all in it together.”
Animals and birds are essentially simple-minded and of romantic natures. They cannot resist the fine words of a man, because those words act on them like the finest food, sex, and slumber combined. Even animals dream of the perfect world of future.
The tern grasped a twig in his claw. He said to Graylag, “Do you think men can be trusted?”
“Certainly not,” Graylag said. “But what does that matter?” He grasped a bit of bark. “It’s all changed now, but whether for the better or the worse I don’t know. All I do know is this: it is probably going to be interesting.” Grasping the bit of bark, he flew over to add it to the pile.
The Destruction of Atlantis
Countless centuries ago, before the beginning of Egypt, before the continents had taken on their present shapes, before the oceans and mountains had settled into their present positions, there was a land and a civilization which has left no record. It ha ...