A newsletter confirmed I had won the scholarship before I could open the letter waiting in my mailbox. It was the last week of school before summer, every teenager’s season of true freedom, and I wasn’t going to be spending it in the desert like I planned. I threw the newsletter on my desk, next to trail maps and guidebooks and scattered notes detailing my thru-hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. I was preparing for a two month stretch of the PCT, a journey my mom didn’t support, but upon reading the newsletter which confirmed my required service in the Cleveland Woods as an independent youth researcher, my mom would have no choice but to watch me leave her for another summer. I wrote the essay as a joke, a fictional encounter in the Ground Zero that remained after the Cleveland National Forest was destroyed in the largest forest fire the world had ever seen.
I wrote about a Cleveland National Forest that existed in the world when AOC was president, before it was genetically modified and revered as the perfect forest that could withstand climate change and stand as a model for forest landscapes around the world. The world turned to shit after she left. She was the first and last woman president the United States had ever seen, and old, white, wealthy men had sat there ever since. The Cleveland National Forest was a mystery to everyone, including the government that was sponsoring this opportunity. The Murmuration Corporation sponsored the scholastic endeavor I was about to embark on for the Department of National Forest Management. Young protestors who idolized the left-wing ideals of the 21st-century continued to demand on the steps of the Department of National Forest Management why there was no access to the forest in the Virtual Realm, especially since no human had stepped foot on the landscape since a lost group of biologists did in 2020.
Forest management teams built a fence to separate the area destroyed by a massive forest fire that the world called the tipping point in the climate crisis. It destroyed all wildlife and removed thousands of people from their homes who were forced to relocate to anywhere that wasn’t the California that had been destroyed by wildfires, including my grandmother. She was an immigrant in her own country, and treated like one too. She was displaced and homeless for years until she found my grandfather, trauma and grief-ridden from the War on North Korea. Then came my mom who followed in my grandmother’s footsteps of taking care of a loser from the military who refused to be treated by mental health professionals. The men in my family hid behind their uniforms and pretended to be brave. An institution that’s wrecked their souls and tore me from every home I knew, all 8 of them growing up.
“Kiarra, I didn’t even know you submitted an application for this,” my mother asked at dinner. My younger brother had finished eating and retreated to the basement to play in the VR room which had replaced our library this summer. The school began introducing new virtual realms in our homes to learn about molecular biology in Hawaii or hearing Adrienne Rich read poems from her home without using textbooks, a grant funded by the government to reinvent education spaces for children. VR used to be limited only to a headset, but now it enveloped entire rooms where any fictional fantasy could be entered and lived through a somewhat real experience. I wanted to escape to the room after he finished so I could start my fifth month of training for the PCT with new terrain to cover, but my mom wasn’t going to budge.
“I thought it would be a good idea, you know. With my writing and all. The English program requires that I have some publications before I even start my major, so I’m already behind,” I explain, pushing the green beans around my plate to avoid my mother’s glare.
“Your father’s coming back in two weeks—“
“Is he really?” I demand, dropping the fork with a dramatic clink against the Corelle plate. I look my mom in her eyes. She looks more tired than usual, probably staying up late trying to contact him again. She tried reaching for my hand, but I refused it.
“Yes, really,” she insisted, “only this time he’s coming home for good. You don’t understand what he’s been through. The psychologists have sent me so many reports--”
“He’ll recover just like he did the last time and take us away again. Or I should say you and Kody. I won’t be here anymore, and this scholarship is even more promising that I’ll get to move out even sooner.”
Kirby squeaked from the living room and swooped to try to eat the rest of the turkey on my plate. “God damn it, mom! You can’t keep them caged just for dinner?” Kirby was one of 13 birds my mother kept in the zoo of our garden house. She started hoarding birds after she was paralyzed in a car accident coming home from a field expedition in San Diego. My dad was stationed in Korea thousands of miles away, and the Army hardly gave my mom enough compensation to cover her medical expenses. This all happened when I was 12, and I remember going to the hospital seeing my mom without her legs for the first time like it was yesterday. She kept the birds because she grew up with them her entire life, and felt like they gave her the illusion that her imagination could fly just as the birds could. I always wondered what kind of freedom they had to begin with being stuck in the house.
My life changed forever when my mom became paralyzed, and Kody and I had to learn to take care of my mom. We were caregivers before I even could become legally responsible for myself. Kody was only 15, two years younger than myself, but he always despised my desire to abandon them as soon as I could. I didn’t realize how inaccessible the world was until my world was limited to what was, so I did many things on my own that a child shouldn’t do. Learn how to go to the bank to cash a check. Pick up groceries and remember the PIN number for the debit card. The U.S. no longer cared for the misfits, exactly why my dad was being removed from service, and the reason why I wanted to go into the Cleveland National Forest to begin with.
“You hear what they’re doing to recover that place? Absolutely nothing. There’s so many rumors, Kiarra. I don’t think it’s safe to go there,” my mother wheeled herself to the trash can to scrape away the leftover crumbs.
“Cayden and Alana are going, too. We all wrote our essays together. All they want is data for the entry to appease the hippies who want access to the VR forest” I add, standing to finish my glass of water.
“No teenager has ever contributed to an entry,” my mother warned. And she was right. All records were lost because the United States eliminated the two-party system and further divided the system into individual departments that looked like the ancient President’s Cabinet. No more were the three branches of government my grandma had lived to see. Every Department served a different purpose, but all of them were fueled by capitalist industries who wanted to restart just as the Cleveland National Forest was about to rebirth. The aim of the scholarship was designed to encourage teenagers in the country to contribute to the last environmental entry in the Encyclopedia, the government’s alternative to removing public libraries and replacing them with a unified source. Gone were internet channels with different sources. The people overthrew media outlets and demanded they be unified after the circumstances of the 2020 pandemic and election which forever changed the world. They solved a divide with unification, which only created a need for divisions with departments for every damn thing imaginable. Micromanaging so much that there were no local or state authorities anymore, since everything fell under federal management, including all publications. Free press was still free, but it was funneled through the Encyclopedia's database to be fact-checked at all levels. “I think it’s time we start contributing. No more adults telling the story.” I replied.
“The entries aren’t stories, they’re--” “Facts. Yes, facts. But aren’t they all stories too?” I set my plate in the dishwasher and retired to my room to read my departure materials until I fell asleep. I dreamt of my father coming home and birds circling the same dome I always envisioned every night I fell asleep. I never knew where this tower existed, but the next few weeks would prepare me for an entirely different world. Would I even be able to fall asleep?
It was the day of departure, and I wasn’t ready. No matter how much I convinced myself this was a good idea, that I should have listened to my mom and stayed to take care of her and my younger brother Kody, I still felt sick to my stomach. I kept telling myself I was very qualified. I was an avid hiker, a Girl Scout growing up. I was set to embark on my first thru-hike that summer on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Mojave Desert, but I had to push those notes aside and further delay my trip until I returned from the Murmuration Corporation’s scholastic endeavors.
I had everything packed according to the documents provided, and I was still debating on bringing my recorder. We weren’t supposed to bring any cameras since the areas were under surveillance 24/7, but there was nothing specifically against audio devices. I found it odd that we were requested to only write about our experiences, but the aim of the scholarship was to start a historical record of the recovered forest to celebrate new life that had grown in the area. The government promised it would be a celebration of incredible biological miracles that had been genetically engineered to create the perfect forest. Scientists all over the world wanted to use the area to observe how life would start over if the entire earth were to engulf in flames like so many politicians claimed we were doomed for. And with the 100 year anniversary of the fires approaching, the Department of National Forest Management wanted to prepare an entry to be published in 2200.
When a large, dark government car approached my driveway, I knew it was time to leave. I didn’t hug my mom goodbye, even though she watched me drag all my supplies out the door without helping. My mom still had good upper body strength, but her lack of assistance was not out of spite for using a wheelchair. Kody was at school, but he didn’t even know I would be gone. I didn’t want to hear his criticism for leaving, so I followed the men who opened the doors, and I put all of my trust into the government for the first time of my life. What I would get in return was still a mystery to me, and as we drove deeper into the desert I wondered how my friends felt about this endeavor. Were they nervous like me?
Cayden was destined for a political path, so I was sure he would be over the moon for this opportunity. Atlas had talked about entering the scholarship for weeks. As soon as requests were published in the school newspaper, he was sending me drafts every two or three days. He was determined to bring his archaic GoPro, but with the limitations described in our briefing materials, I don’t know if he would try to break the rules. Alana would certainly bring everything she could, including the notebooks full of observations she constantly recorded. She wouldn’t dare break the rules, but out of all my friends, I felt the least prepared as the only student who wasn’t on track to focus on a college path in science but the most afraid to write the history of a place that’s been erased from human collections. It didn’t sit right with me, but I want to at least have a say in what’s written.
As I got out of the car to enter the large industrial complex where we would undergo three weeks of training, I heard chilling echoes of environmental activists in my head. I was listening to programs in the Virtual Realm of Greta Thunberg in recent days. I stumbled across her speeches when she gave when she was only 17 years, the same age I bear, yet I faced an incredibly different set of ecological problems. Greta always looked to restore faith in humanity within generations far beyond her existence. She was alive when the fires first destroyed the Cleveland National Forest, but she lived in Europe and never traveled by air. Plus Europe was facing its own crises with overpopulation in urban areas and lack of fresh water. There was too much work to be done in the world. Greta alone couldn’t tackle it, yet everyone turned to her at the same time as they turned away when she opened their minds to the global struggle that imprisoned everyone until we woke up. It hasn’t happened yet, but I have a feeling that this project will be another small step in this direction. I dared to turn those steps into bounds, but would the government actually publish my encounters if I did? Would I be removed from the project if my writings were too fictional? Too real?
I was incredibly uncomfortable with the audio device still wedged between my pack and my shoulder blade. It was the only way to get it through the security clearance at the entrance of the forest. My muscles still ached from the longest hike Icompleted yesterday. It was the rite of passage they created for us to finally be admitted to the Cleveland National Forest. Alana, Cayden, and Atlas were all assigned different acres of the forest to get a full entry experience, and I was tasked with the Palomar Mountain exploration, hence the intense climbing I had to do. We were dropped off at the entrance of Old Route 76, and I waited silently for my helicopter to arrive.
“Well, good luck, everyone,” Cayden said.
“You as well. Oops!” Alana dropped all of the notes she had lugged with her. Atlas rushed to help her. I stood still against the fence. Atlas glanced at me and nervously asked, “Did you bring--”
“Got it right here. It’s stabbing me in the shoulder right now.” I replied.
“Shh! We don’t know if there’s audio recordings in this place. There’s cameras everywhere.” Cayden chastised me, silently mouthing his doubts. “So what? We only have three days here, might as well fuck with them only a little bit.” I pushed my pack away from the fence and walked away from it. This entire project wasn’t what I expected. We had very specific journals to fill out with requirements covering different species observations, primarily focusing on Starlings that had risen from the ashes of this place. Looking around I never would have guessed it was destroyed nearly 100 years ago. Regrowth, my friends described, was a natural progression of the forest embedded in the recovery process. The way the Encyclopedia described it sounded like the forest was a being that was abused and mentally disturbed forever after the event that created the disturbance. This forest looked like it suffered no trauma with the government’s biological interference. It was beautiful though, and the majority of regrowth wasn’t impacted by human intervention. I looked for these starlings but couldn’t hear or see them. We didn’t know how many lived in this area, but we were tasked to discover as much as we could.
“I have mine.” Atlas flashed the GoPro underneath the fabric of his shirt.
“See, Atlas wants to break the rules too. Nature breaks the rules all the time, so we need to figure out what’s breaking the rules here,” I laughed, peering up at the towering trees. I felt somewhat connected to this landscape in that there was an imbalance of biodiversity that was impacted by human intervention in comparison to areas where natural regrowth was permitted. From where we entered, we were in a perfect zone, an area with completely controlled variables. It looked similar to photos and videos we had observed of the untouched areas we studied before we entered. Scientists were able to inject rapid-growth hormones to stimulate the regrowth faster than any natural growth would permit. Tampering with the earth’s natural time scales appeared to have no consequences, and the scenery looked beautiful, but I had doubts at how pristine the area looked. The Murmuration Corporation showed us what looked like tourist commercials selling the recovered landscape as a park that could one day very soon reopen to tourists to observe the clear effects of science against the Earth’s natural clock. We were all on a race against time with the climate crisis, so scientists heard the call and reacted as such. Listening to the old biologists encounters though was evident that the finish line was never identified.
“You make me nervous, Kiarra,” Cayden said, getting his map out. “Doesn’t this whole project make you nervous?” I asked.
“Of course, but look at it as an opportunity to actually contribute something. We’re always getting bashed on for not helping society, so take this as a start. They asked us for a reason. I know it’s true. So let’s give them some proof they made the right choice.” He replied.
“Thank you,” Alana said after Atlas handed her the last dusty article from the ground.
“Well, we only have three days, so I’m going to head out. I’ll see you at the end.” Cayden said.
“So long,” Alana said. “I’m going to leave too. I’m supposed to go to—somewhere. I don’t have it on top anymore. I’ll figure it out.” It was just Atlas and me left.
“Do you seriously have any hope in any of this working out? We don’t actually know what the hell is in this forest,” I mentioned.
“They showed us everything they’ve collected. It’s the best they can do,” Atlas said.
“So we’re filling in the gaps, I get that. But it seems like there’s too many unknowns. What if it’s dangerous? What if one of us gets hurt? Isn’t it odd that we’re all splitting up? Why can’t we share our experience together?” I asked.
“There’s unknowns in every investigation. It’s an exploration at its core,” he explained, getting out his map. “It’s only three days, so what could really happen?”
“How can you smile like it’s no big deal? I’m not being skeptical to act like this is a big conspiracy. I know this is a real forest, but how real can it be if it’s genetically modified by humans? Interruption on this scale can’t possibly be perfect. Perfect is an illusion, a false narrative.” “Remember whatever we write is automatically recorded. At least it can’t be erased.”
“But can it be modified?”
“I don’t know, Kiarra,” he said, sounding frustrated. “Let’s just get through these next three days and figure it out at the end. You know why I’m here. Do you?”
And with that he left in the only direction left that wasn’t covered. Maybe I couldn’t articulate why I was here, but it didn’t match the mission objectives. I decided then I would agree to riding in the helicopter, but after I was dropped off, I would only explore Palomar Mountain and not the rest of the forest I was assigned. I was wearing armor for God’s sake. What the hell would I need protection from? Atlas’ area covered part of mine, so his accounts would make up for it. My friends were more supportive of this project than I was. I just hope the armor won’t protect me from one of my friends wanting to hurt me.
I could hear the helicopter approaching shortly after everyone parted ways. It was a short ride to Palomar Mountain. I had never ridden in a helicopter, and with my armored body suit and my heavy pack I wondered for a small moment if this is what Dad felt like every time he was deployed. I had no intention of ever joining the military, but here I was serving as a government pawn to advance their agenda. There was no consequence in leaving at any point, so I promised myself I would only go as far as I could physically handle. The men who rode in the helicopter with me wished me good luck, and set off, leaving a gust of wind rushing me forward deeper in the forest. I only had three days to document as much as I could. It was already past 11:00 so I was technically already behind in the schedule assigned to me.
I didn’t want to use the map that was provided. It was from 2020 before it was destroyed. Where I stood there used to be a campground. A few miles away was the Palomar Mountain that I needed to climb. The landscape was spectacular with mountains painting the land for miles.
Patches of modified growth towered over natural growth, and it made the mountains look like a nature checkerboard or chessboard. What piece was I playing? I certainly wasn’t the queen. More like the pawn, always looking two steps ahead but no going backward.
I hiked north using my compass. The tools they provided were very similar to what I would expect to bring on my PCT hike.I could see the telescopes that dotted the mountainside. They were supposedly rebuilt a few years after the original fires, which is where the biologists first had their encounters with the starlings. I was hoping to find some there, since that was the main objective of the mission, but I hadn’t heard any signs of birds since I started my hike.
I sat for a short lunch break and let my legs and feet rest. Looking across the valleys I imagined where Cayden, Atlas, and Alana would be by now. I hadn’t taken any notes, so I took time in between bites of dehydrated fruit to scribble observations of the chessboard. I made sketches as best as I could, looking at the mountains in front of me as a guide. They were rough outlines but I gave a good description of the many barriers between the landscape. It was a wonder the natural growth could fight for the same resources with the modified trees and bush towering them, but scientists had discovered that the natural growth didn’t accept the hormones from trees that were recovered naturally. Feeling the soil beneath me in a modified area, it felt like real soil. Not that I frequently felt soil before this journey, but I brought it up to my nose and it smelled like genuine earth. I let it fall and continued higher up the mountain.
By the time the sun set, I was halfway to the peak of Palomar Mountain where I would encounter the telescopes. My body was exhausted and aching, despite the physical training we suffered through the past few days. It made sense though. Treadmills and bikes couldn’t simulate the surface of the earth, and neither could the advanced technology of the VR either. I had only recently began using the VR trails to practice for the PCT, but the technology couldn’t simulate the heat or the oxygen levels that I faced in real life.
I took off the armored jacket and set up the tent we were given. It didn’t take me long to set up camp and start dinner over my stove. As soon as I started the flame, I heard for the first time the sound of a starling. I jumped, almost kicking over the stove. I looked around everywhere, but it was getting dark and I couldn’t see anything flying above. I was in natural growth now, but it almost sounded like the starling was asking a question, if it even was a starling. I heard chirping in the same sound of a question, and I instinctively responded out loud. “Hello?” I wasn’t matched with a response, but the same question-like chirp.
“Where are you?” Then I heard more. They were communicating with each other. I looked back and forth between the trees where I heard the calls and they were clearly talking to match human inflections. I knew they mimicked sound, but not so closely to humans. The chirping shortly disappeared, and I saw two quick flashes when they flew away. They were quick, but I didn’t get a good glimpse of them in time to actually write details, but I had enough to write about their calls. I had my recorder on since I left the helicopter, so I could listen back and make out what exactly I heard later. I was so exhausted I needed to sleep. I was confident I would find more the next day, so I quickly fell asleep as soon as my head touched the inflatable pillow.
I woke up before the sun rose. It was cold, but when I unzipped the flap to my tent, I was amazed by the stars I saw. No wonder there were telescopes were. I lived in such an urban area I didn’t know what stars looked like except for the scenes I saw in movies. I smiled in awe of the beauty. Space travel was still a luxury to those who could afford it, and many teenagers from my class sought after joining the Space Force. It wasn’t the route for me. I had little faith in how the world was being run on the ground, and I had little more for entrusting someone to take me out of the atmosphere. But this scene was spectacular. I fell asleep watching it and woke up to the sun cooking my skin, even through my jacket. I peeled it off and tied it around my waist.
I packed my things and continued on my journey up the mountain. I kept my eyes and ears peeled for starlings, weaving through natural growth and modified growth. I felt cooler walking through the modified growth with the shade it provided but the natural growth provided the best views. Both sections of the forest were alive with the same hum of creatures with insects everywhere. I expected the idea of a perfect forest to be aligned with geometric symmetry, but there were no such indicators or an unrealistic portrayal. Or at least it wasn’t visible to my eye.
I took a break but felt an immediate sense of panic when I had ran out of water in my first canteen. We were only given two, which tests were completed to analyze exactly how much water we needed, but the scientists running those tests probably didn’t account for the variable that I had started my period a few days before and needed more hydration than normal. They were men, so of course they didn’t take that into consideration in my health evaluation.
I didn’t know of any sources of water near me, and the map didn’t show anything around me either, so I had to seriously ration what I had left. I made scratches into the metal with my audio recorder, the only tool I had with a sharp enough end, and made lines dividing the amount of hours I had left. I subtracted the hours I would be sleeping and ended up kicking the bottle, disgusted with how little I would have to drink each hour.
This wasn’t supposed to be a test of survival. I was supposed to study how other organisms survived in this strange environment. But maybe we were subjects after all. Thoughthree days though was not enough to determine those strategies. If they truly intended on opening this environment back to tourists at the 100 year anniversary, it would need more human intervention without the biological interference on a molecular level. Like the trash and the cars and the pollution that this area hasn’t been exposed to in years.
Part of me wanted this area to remain closed to humans, but it’s been so modified I don’t see the appeal in visiting a giant science experiment. And so many people felt comfortable using VR to travel the world that expanding more the world to human intervention felt like a joke. It’s only further removed us from the world in a way that we have no respect left for it when we are forced to interact with it in real time.
I picked up my water canteen and threw it in my pack, still angry. I screamed explicitness, and yelled at nothing. Except I wasn’t yelling at nothing. Cayden, Atlas, and Alana were the only other humans in this landscape, but somewhere the starlings would hear me and would probably mock my frustrations.
“This is the part in the movie where the lone traveler goes crazy,” I laugh aloud to myself. I forgot my recorder was on, so I decide to talk aloud to keep myself company.
“I can almost see the base of the telescope now, so once I reach that in the next hour or so, I will take a break and take my allotted drink amount and eat some more food. Am I getting to the point where I’m officially fucked? I mean, I was fucked in the first place for getting chosen for this adventure.
All I know is once this is over I’m never going to take water for granted again. And to think I was going to hike the PCT in this weather. I’m going to have to seriously evaluate how much water I’m going to take. I think it would be a good idea to give up the room for the comfy pillow I bought just to have more water. It’s no joke, and if there’s anything I get out of this experience it’s that I’ll never take water for granted ever again.
And my period. It was almost over but they only gave me a few pads. They’re biodegradable of course but with how much water I have I don’t have the energy to dig any more holes. And when I hike the PCT? I can’t afford this shit. I’m going to have to suffer through it naturally. I would save some but I only have two left and it would ideally only get me through tomorrow before we’re taken back to the training sanctuary. Are you all hearing this anyway? I don’t know where these cameras are. They’re hidden pretty damn well. Are you going to keep them running when tourists visit? You understand we’re the land of the free, and I don’t think you’ll get a lot of fans. I’m not a fan of the surveillance. Why does it need to be surveillance anyway? Why? Why? WHY?”
And at that moment I saw smoke rising from a few mountains beyond. Only it wasn’t smoke, it was a huge murmur of starlings. The way it moved in the sky was ominous. It looked like a black cloud enshrining messages into the sky.
“There’s a huge murmur of starlings coming towards me. It’s beautiful but, I don’t know where they’re going. They’re twisting and warping in the sky,” I tell my recorder.
They rapidly turned and disappeared behind the white telescope. I ran as fast as I could towards the telescope. I couldn’t keep up the pace but I knew I was only a few more miles away. I pitched some of the things in my pack to lighten the load, deciding I would camp at the telescope for the last night. Wherever the starlings disappeared, certainly I would find more.
By the time I reached the telescope it was dark again, and I was more exhausted than I was the previous night. But I took the time to rest and scribbled in my notes the strange formations the starlings made. The murmuration had to have thousands of them flying together. I decided to enter the telescope, and brought my walking pole, the only item close to a weapon I had. I didn’t expect the starlings to be dangerous, but I didn’t know what kind of creatures might have taken over the telescope since it was abandoned. Up close a rusty copper covered the once white metal. I touched the metal and made a clean spot, my fingers covered in dust that was the same color as the soil. I circled around the observatory to find an entrance, and once I did, I pushed open the door without difficulty. When I opened the door, I immediately knew where the starlings disappeared. I shut it because it was so loud, afraid to enter. But my curiosity was too strong so I mustered the courage to open the door again and used my flashlight to see.
I flashed it everywhere and couldn’t see any starlings in the immediate entrance. They must have been hiding deeper into the observatory, so I climbed further in. It smelled horrible since the birds obviously took over the building as a breeding sanctuary. There were pieces of nest residue all over the floor and hundreds of egg shells broken on the ground. Clearly, the starlings had recovered and were successfully procreating from how loud it sounded. Echos reverberated from all the walls in an ominous chamber of never ending sound. It almost sounded beautiful, but it sounded like they were in pain. It reminded me of death, with the smell and the chaos.
I reached the center of the observatory where I no longer needed my flashlight. The moon casted light on thousands of starlings flying across the space and hanging on the walls. There were some trees growing inside where they had taken over with homes and nests in every crevice. I turned my flashlight off, and the sound immediately stopped. My heart nearly stopped with the sudden silence, and I felt my body freeze. Were they stunned by my encounter? They hadn’t interacted with humanssince the biologists first introduced the hormones in 2020. “Hello?” I asked without thinking. Silence followed except for the echoes of my voice, and then at once they all mimicked my inflection. I fell to my knees in fear, in suspense, in awe. “Hello?” I repeated, with a different inflection. They repeated as I had, and a few came down to observe me closer. I couldn’t move, but more came down and tried to cover me with their bodies. I was terrified, afraid they were going to pick off my skin. Of course they were probably hungry, and I was the prey who voluntarily entered their habitat. They climbed all over my skin, many just swooping down and retreating with no room. They pecked at my skin and mimicked my screams, but they didn’t eat me like I was afraid of. One bird was tiny, but hundreds of them on top of me felt incredibly heavy. I couldn’t lift them off me, but I gave up the fight and relaxed on the floor. Playing dead was the only strategy I had left, and eventually the majority of them retreated to the top of the observatory or left through the large hole in the ceiling. I was out of tears and I couldn’t move. How would I record this terrifying encounter in words? I didn’t know if my recorder was still on my body, but my clothes were in shatters, and some of my skin touched the cold ground. I don’t know how long the attack was, if it was seconds or minutes but I felt dead. Was I still alive? I moved my toes and felt a small amount of comfort. I opened my eyes and found one starling close to my cheek. It tilted its head, blinking faster than I did.
“Sleep now,” it murmured. Did it actually speak? Did I say sleep now? Did it mimic my words or did it produce it’s own? I couldn’t stay awake any longer and passed out of consciousness.
The next morning, I didn’t wake up on the ground. I thought Bald Eagles made the largest nests, but the surface I woke up on was the lining of a nest-like surface that stretched fifty feet in the top of the tree. I didn’t know how I got there, if I was carried or I made the sleepless climb myself, but. I was intrigued by the starlings who were watching my movements. I sat up, feeling incredibly hungry and thirsty. I didn’t eat dinner the previous night, so I needed to leave and get back to our meeting base by the end of the day. Would the starlings try to attack me if I left? “Hello, I need help,” I confessed. I wondered if they could understand me or only mimic my sounds. Some of them chirped the same patterns. Most starlings were able to mimic sounds after hearing them repeated several hundred times. These starlings had adapted to mimicking sounds as soon as they were made. Did this help them survive the fires in the first place?
“Help,” a few of them repeated.
“Yes, help.” I realized they could only mimic sound and not actually recognize the meaning behind the words, so the small amount of hope I had was gone almost instantly until I saw a starling larger than the other emerge from the hole.
“Help. Help. Help,” it repeated in several inflections. “You will help us save the future.”
“Me? How?” Was I wrong?
“You will help us save the future,” several of them repeated in several rounds. “You are the start of a new hope.”
“The biologists—“ I recognized the words from the biologist recordings in 2020. These were the words they used in the recordings, so they were talking to starlings. Were these the same starlings descendants of the original starlings here?
“You will help us save the future. You are the start of a new hope. Don’t let us down.”
“We can’t save the forest. You are the start of a new hope. We can’t save the forest. Don’t inject them, too. You are the start of a new hope. Don’t inject them, too. Don’t inject them, too. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. We can’t save the forest. Oh, shit.”
All of them repeated similar phrases in different orders, but I realized immediately that the starlings were incredibly intelligent enough to repeat sounds as soon as they heard them. Whether they understood the social implications of the words was a mystery, but they obviously repeated the same words the biologists did, and now I understood what happened after the recording stopped. They must have followed the wrong directive and injected the hormones into the starlings and it enhanced the starling’s abilities to mimic voices. I had only spent a few hours with them, but I already understood their plight.
From their other murmurations, I could also understand that they were trapped in the forest and held there by some kind of force shield that surrounded the forest. It was connected to the fence, and if it were broken down they would be set free. Their environment was too small and they needed room to grow. I knew they were an invasive species, but they were being tortured here. If they were allowed to escape in a controlled environment they would have a better quality of life. I wanted to help them, but I didn’t know how.
“If I meet my friends I might be able to help you. I need food and water. Can I leave this place? I promise I’ll come back.” I ask as if they could give permission.
More of them chimed the same phrases over and over. I don’t know if they understood me, but I carefully got up and they let me leave, or they just watched me leave. I didn’t know how much agency they had, but I was determined to help them. I found my pack left in the same spot when I left the observatory. I drank the entire canteen, not caring if I had any left for the rest of the day. I ate some dry cereal and left to return to our meeting spot. I didn’t have time to write down my findings. I wanted to get with Cayden, Alana and Atlas as soon as possible. This wasn’t an exploration anymore. This was a rescue mission, and I was going to make it happen.
The Cleveland National Forest is Created: History & Heritage: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/cleveland/learning/history-culture/?cid=stelprdb5278297
Video of Talking Starlings: https://www.10000birds.com/talking-starlings.htm
What to do about starlings: https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/what-do-about-starlings