Waking Up From Being Extinct
Lessons From Birds On How To Survive The Next Drought
Two evolutionary scientists from Princeton University were on my tail.
They’d been following me for months with their binoculars. I pretended not to notice. I maintained identical life habits just so they would get bored. But they never got bored. For three decades they never got bored.
What did they know about me that I didn’t?
Ordinarily, I would let it go. But in this case I couldn’t. I raided their camp. I bobbed into their archives. I pecked at their diagrams. The data was endless. Scribbles. Daily notes. Photographs. Projections. All about me.
And this is what I found out: The Grants wanted to turn my imminent extinction into a coffee table book.
They knew we were in trouble. They also knew that the smaller-beaked brothers were about to win the jackpot. The Galapagos Islands had run out of big seeds, our staple. Our economy, leadership, and infrastructure was based on big seeds. We couldn’t hack the small stuff. The leadership was all conservative big beaks, and they didn’t want their power balance disturbed. So.
Aside from the very quick-witted brothers, most of us ended up snuffing ourselves. War. Attrition. Greed. Shortsightedness. The Grants were right.
I was in the third Finch platoon, getting creamed by the small beaks, before I species jumped.
Today, I am lying on a bed with my face wrapped in bandages. I have been lying here for a while now, trying to remember. Instead, I see orange flames in the darkness, imagining human shapes in them.
I have bird dreams, but I’m inside the body of a man.
A female voice tells me that I’m in a private clinic in Beverly Hills. She helps me unwrap the bandages.
I freak out at my mirror image. I look like a naked duck ready to be roasted. How am I ever going to get laid again?
A man who claims to be my doctor walks in and tries to calm me down.
“The memory loss is absolutely normal, as is most kind of mild sensory deprivation, at least for your kind of a case,” he says.
My kind of a case?
“You will learn all the details in due time, but first we have to get you rested. And adjusted,” he says with a smile and pulls the curtain on me.
Adjusted? I get up and look outside the window. My jaw drops. I see giant nests puncturing the clouds, blinking with lights. An entire city is calling me.
I decide to adjust quickly. On my second day, the clinic sets me up in a little house on Franklin. On the third day I’m already comfortably numb. I literally feel nothing. Everything smells of caramel smog, including my skin.
The days go by in fuzzy convenience. I don’t need to look for seeds anymore. I shop at Wholefoods. I have a Chevron mileage card. I have a two-for-one Cream Cheese Puffs coupon. I’m surrounded by abundance.
A few weeks later I take my first commercial flight. I look down on a city from 30,000 feet above and get my first flashback of Galapagos.
The good old days, man. You know we used to rule the island, before the seeds ran out? We nested every single tree.
But look at me now. Have I not moved up the cosmic ladder? My new species has terraformed a planet in less than half a century. They got this place covered with asphalt, concrete and cable. The nesting is very safe. I’m part of the smartest race in existence after four billion years of natural selection.
And as a representative of this race, I have to act accordingly.
I’ve upgraded from Scientific American to Esquire. I’m creating a brand out of myself. I tweet at least five times a day. I eat kale and I floss. I formulate opinions on popular topics. I talk very little about my finch background. I jog every morning. Sometimes I run up a hill and roar, proud of my brand new Nikes.
I tell all this to my doctor during my next checkup. He holds a magnifier over my eye and tells me that I’m finally a perfectly adjusted man. He offers me a glass of congratulatory water, and clears his throat.
“Ahem. Do you know what we do here at the clinic?” he asks me.
Come to think of it, I always took the clinic a bit granted.
“We’re into extinction,” the doctor says. “We try to understand it, in order to prevent it. That’s why species jumpers like you are very important for us. You provide us with invaluable data.”
I knew it. I’m part of something important; I was just never able to figure out how.
“The most important data is really behavioral,” he continues. “What kind of behavior do you think accelerates extinction events?”
I’m uncertain. Nuclear proliferation?
“Extinction events are usually initiated by external events, but they are accelerated by what goes on inside your mind. For example, do you know that you have a tendency to wallow in a sense of false superiority?” he asks.
I goggle at him. Maybe he should allow me some psychological buffer after a traumatic species jump?
“You are comfortably snug only because you are too lazy to figure out the truth, yes? In fact, you don’t even want to know. You want to forget.”
He raises his finger and sighs.
“On a behavioral level, that makes you no different from yeast, bacteria, or a finch,” he says and pivots around.
I’m beginning to feel dizzy.
“You have no free will,” he continues. “And only when you face certain extinction do you try to change your ways, huh?” The doctor shakes his head.
For a fraction of a second, time freezes. Sweat crystals freeze around his hair, like a slow-motion Rottweiler shaking off a puddle. That’s when I realize.
He’s drugged me.
I take stock of my situation. Really look around myself, now. I’m in a hospital room with prison cell windows. I’m wearing pajamas. I’m tied to a metallic reclining chair. A mask is strapped over my mouth. And I have difficulty breathing.
What else have I missed? Well, there is this Mengele.
He is talking to me still, but I can’t hear shit. A thirty-foot wave of blood is rushing through my eardrums.
The doctor taps my forehead with his finger, trying to get my attention.
“The problem is here.” Tap tap tap. “You don’t remember the mistakes of your past lives. And the only way to avoid future extinction, is to remember the past.”
He tilts my chair over and drags me backwards across a white marble floor.
“We will do this as many times as it takes. You will learn, eventually, the same way babies learn to swim.”
He settles me down over a trapdoor, pulls my mask off, and unstraps my hands. Then he leans over me.
“Remember.” he whispers into my ear, smelling of minty hospital sanitizer.
I feel a warm pinprick on my neck as the trapdoor opens.
I fall, as calm and content as a baby Buddha, remembering all my past lives at once.
I squeeze my eyes hard shut, telling myself not to forget.
I wake up.
The early-morning sun is covering my bedroom wall with gently flickering orange flames. I lie there for a moment, just enjoying the show. Then I remember. The fucking dentist appointment is today.