Copyright © 2021 Robert Loney
Homeward
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Homeward

An excerpt

    

After his second year of college, Adam gets a summer job as a research assistant with the biology department. A nature-lover, he enjoys spending the summer in the out-of-doors until.... Adam had spent several days helping to census all of the birds residing within a large section of the woods when Carl, the graduate student who shared Adam's cabin, approached carrying a shotgun. "What are you going to do with that?" asked Adam. "Now that we've determined what birds have territories within this area of woods," explained Carl, "we're going to study an ecological concept I call a 'floating population'. You see, I don't believe that all birds are successful in establishing territories. There is only so much space available and only a certain number of birds - those that are most fit - will be able to mark out a territory and defend it. I suspect there are a large number of weaker birds who don't have territories and so will not be able to mate. They constitute the floating population. They're just waiting for a bird that does have a territory to die and then one from the floating population will move in and take its place. "So to prove my point, we're going to remove all the birds we can from this section of woods. If I'm correct, then within a few days we should see new birds - from the floating population - moving in to take the places of the ones we've removed." "How are you going to remove them?" Adam hesitated to ask. "We're going to shoot them," replied Carl with an air of defiance, presuming this technique would be abhorrent to Adam. "We're going to shoot them?! Couldn't we use live traps?" "There are far too many birds; it would take too long. And we'd have no place to keep them once caught. If we let them go somewhere else, they'd just come back to their territories here." "But there must be some other way," objected Adam. "Is it so important to find out what you want to know that you have to wipe out the very creatures you're interested in?" "I need the information we'll gain for my doctoral thesis, Adam. You don't have to do the shooting. Just pick up the birds I shoot and record the species, and we'll compare your list with our previous census of the area. We want to try to get them all." Carl explained in biological jargon that the woods produced a "sustained yield" of bird life and that they could safely remove a "harvestable surplus" without jeopardizing the status of any one species. To hear him talk, one would think the wildlife just so much inventory. Adam listened in disbelief, his heartfelt interest in the birds juxtaposed against Carl's professional detachment. "Well, how be we start with a gray jay?" said the latter nonchalantly after spotting such a bird in a tree. "What's the Linnaean name for the gray jay?" "Perisoreus canadensis," replied Adam weakly. He had no choice but to concede or risk losing his job. "That's right." Carl aimed the gun and fired. His shot knocked the bird out of the tree. Adam retrieved the dead creature and laid it out on the open ground. He made a record of it in his notebook. Carl caught sight of a pair of woodpeckers tapping for insects. "Tell me, Adam: are those hairy or downy woodpeckers?" The understudy looked carefully at the birds. "They're too small for hairys. They must be downys." "Right again. And the Linnaean name please?" "Dendrocopos pubescens." "Very good." Carl got both birds with one shot. He put his hand to his ear. "What bird is that we hear singing?" "It's the white-throat... Zonotrichia albicollis." "Yes. He's in one of these pine trees over here." Carl stalked the bird with his assistant following close behind. Its singing became its undoing and Adam added it to the pile. "You'll have no trouble with that bird," said the gunman as he listened to another song. "The ovenbird - Seiurus aurocapillus." When Carl finished with the bird, Adam added it to the list. "I thought the ovenbird was a favorite of yours," he said sadly. "It is," replied Carl. "I once did some interesting work on vocal patterns of the ovenbird. I have several spectograms of their song I can show you sometime." For the next two hours the woods resounded with the noise of the exploding shotgun. Then the forest fell quiet. No gun. No birds. Adam's pile totalled not quite one hundred and ten of them - vireos, warblers, sparrows, jays.... "I think we've gotten them all," said a pleased Carl as he studied the new list and the original census. "We'll wait a few days and then take another census." That night, Adam has a disturbing dream.... On a splendid summer day at the university, the carillon was playing, ivy was growing, and flowers were blooming. High above the campus, an angel was descending toward the earth. Spiralling downward, he came within hearing range of the bells. He flew in closer to have a look. What kind of a place can this be? he wondered. Such lovely tunes filling the air. Such lofty towers and peaks. Such a pleasant spot to find outside of heaven! On the campus below, two scholars were conversing. Fatigued with their studies, they were expressing to each other how their dry subjects had lost the inspiration they once had. "I think we've gotten all we can out of these books. I hoped there'd be more to them." "Where else can we look? We have here the most sophisticated ideas man has come up with." "Perhaps we need someone with more insight to explain them to us." "I've talked ad nauseum about them with professors and exhausted all the insight they can provide." Just then a glitter in the sky caught the eye of one scholar. "What can that be flying about up there? It looks like a man with wings." "I've never seen anything like it," said the other. "Why - I think it's an angel!" "An angel? In these days?" The celestial being flew closer. "For sure it is! With golden hair and white robe... and sandaled feet, I think." "How beautiful he is." "It's inspiring just to watch him soar about." Most of the other people were looking downward as they went about campus life and did not notice the angel above them. "I think he has something to do with what we're looking for," continued one scholar. "Perhaps we could use him to gain more insight into our studies." The angel landed on one of the peaks of a nearby college. There he sat looking inquisitively over the campus below. "We'll have to catch him first," said one of the scholars. "How to catch an angel - not an easy task," remarked the other. "We'll use this book," suggested the first, holding up a treatise on scientific reductionism. "It has a bright, shiny cover and should make good angel bait." They hid behind some bushes beside an open area of lawn. One of them tossed the book out several feet onto the grass. From his lofty perch the angel saw the book and winged down to have a closer look. He picked it up and browsed through it. A look of confusion came over him: he turned the opened book sideways, and then upside down, and then sideways again, trying to determine what it was all about. Then the scholars sprang upon the perplexed creature. Together they wrestled him to the ground and tried to hold him there. Though the angel's arms were engaged with one of his assailants, he managed to get his wings free and, flapping them, lifted himself and the scholars off the ground. One of them grasped hold of his wings and forced him back to earth. The angel managed occasionally to get his pinions free and take flight, but each time the scholars forced him back to the ground. The melee alternated between being airborne and earthbound. Feathers were flying wildly. With their rapid loss, the angel's wings soon became useless for flying and he could only thrash about with them. The terrified creature was exhausted and the scholars had him at their mercy. "Read from that book!" insisted one. "I won't! I can't - I don't understand it," cried the angel. The scholars rubbed his face in a patch of dirt. "Read to us from it!" "I won't! I don't understand it. Please let me go!" They placed another book in front of him. The angel looked it over but said he could not understand it either. They rubbed his face in the dirt once more. The students placed scholarly work after scholarly work before the angel, and with each refusal the wretched creature got his face rubbed in the dirt. Finally one scholar wanted to abandon their effort. "Bah. He knows nothing we're interested in." "Perhaps we could educate him," suggested the other. "Here's a periodic table, a Gray's Botany, a textbook of comparative anatomy, a microscope..." "And here's some linear algebra, physical chemistry, and nuclear physics." So the scholars loaded the angel up with the tools of their trade. He suddenly threw them all aside and scrambled to get away. The students grabbed him and tried to beat him into submission. The angel finally struggled no more and they let him fall limp to the ground. The scholars stood over the unconscious creature and considered whether he might yet be of use to them. One measured the width and length of the angel's head with a pair of calipers. "Cephalic index - 75," he announced to his colleague who recorded this piece of data. They stretched a tape measure from one wing tip to the other. "Wingspan - fifteen feet, seven inches." "Height - five feet, eleven inches." "Plumage - pure white, aside from the soiling from our skirmish." Perhaps the scholars could at least get material for a paper of some sort from their encounter. Top

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