Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Attorney for Passenger Pigeons (Part 2 of 3)

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Blake dove into the Internet.
Everyone knew that passenger pigeons were extinct, except him.  There were even pictures of the stuffed birds, mostly in private collections.
Many articles sang the same song.  Evil greedy humans had hunted the bird to extinction and we should all be ashamed.
Other sites were different.  The bird had apparently been beautiful, and impressive in its numbers, and its extinction had moved many people to poetry.
Finally, he located a site with a large unorganized collection of facts.  He studiously went from page to page, reading and copying everything.
The prize, to his mind, was John J. Audubon's writings.  A patron saint of the environmental movement, Audubon's descriptions reeled and soared through Blake's mind's eye, letting him glimpse just a bit of what it must have been like to see thousands of flocks fly overhead, for hours on end.  One image, that of a flock wheeling in unison, one moment showing the azure of their combined breasts, and then turning as one, to show the purple of their backs, stuck with him.  It must indeed have been a beautiful sight, uncountable flocks overhead changing colors like jewels.
But Audubon's narrative was also dangerous.  The scientist could not imagine their extinction, but like the careful observer he was, he considered the effects of the massive hunting, and observed the grand flock recovering easily from a harvest.  And it had been a massive hunt -- a million killed.  Blake couldn't quite get his mind around that.
He glanced at the clock.  His wife should still be up.  He picked up the phone.
"Barbara.  I'll be late getting home.  I'll probably be late working on this case every night right up to the last minute.  But, I was wondering if it would be okay to have Aunt Margaret's birthday party this week.  I would like to see her."
"You do?"  She was rightly suspicious.  Aunt Margaret had been her favored friend when she was a child, but by the time she'd married, her great aunt had gone downhill.  Blake had no pleasant memories of the lady.
"Yes.  I don't know why, but I'd like to see her, and I really hate it that this case has made me go back on my promise."
"Okay, if you really mean it."
"Yes, I do."
Aunt Margaret's room was spare.  Paintings hung on the walls and flowers sat on the little desk next to the bed -- his wife's contributions.  
She looked smaller every time he came, and the pillow below her head looked huge.  She appeared comfortable, and the bed was cranked up to a sitting position, but he suspected the nurse who had arranged her hair had also arranged her thin frame on the bed with all the care of someone creating a flower arrangement.
Barbara gushed over her 97th birthday, carefully omitting that it was actually several days early.  She talked about little Judy, and told her about how she was learning to walk, and getting into all sorts of trouble.  The old lady breathed, but showed no other signs of life.
"Blake is here with me."  She waved him closer.
"Hello, Aunt Margaret.  Happy Birthday."  He tried to make it real, although she'd never quite remembered who he was even before the last stroke.
"I was thinking of you the other day.  You have seen a lot of history.
"The world must have been quite a different place when you were young.  The machines have changed, and the people have changed.  There are different ideas now, so different from when you grew up."
Barbara watched him, listening.
Blake looked at the old wrinkled face, not that there was response to his words.  But she was alive, and who knows, maybe she could still hear what was going on around her.
"I have a case, a legal case, about passenger pigeons.  Do you know about passenger pigeons?  They were almost totally gone by the time you were a little girl, so I suspect you haven't seen them any more than I have.  But your parents did.  You lived in Kentucky, Barbara told me.  They must've presented a spectacular sight when they came through.  Did your father tell you about them?  How they came in flocks that blocked out the sun?
"I wish I could see them.  They're long gone, but you can be sure I'll tell my daughter about them, when she gets older and can understand.  If your father told you about them, then you are really blessed to get descriptions by someone who was there, who saw them in person."
It was just his imagination, he was sure, but it seemed like there was a glisten around the edge of her old eyes.
Barbara smiled and squeezed his hand.
He'd invited his wife to come to New York with him, maybe take in a show after his job was done?
"No, I still think I should be there for her birthday."
It was just as well.  He was up all night working and reworking his presentation.  His brief was turned in by the deadline, and he'd managed to be suitably offended at the memo from the humanity lawyers complaining about their deadlines.  It was all gamesmanship.  Their memo and his written response were spare ammunition to be used if necessary to argue their good-faith efforts.
The ISAB proceedings were held in a new building near the UN.  There were five separate courts, each running their own agendas.  His assigned assistant, Joe Neeley a young man barely out of high school, looking prim in his blazer, showed him his temporary office and filled him in on the workings of the court.  The Homo sapiens negotiators had an entire floor in the same building, with easy access to an extensive law and science library.  He was given access as well, but there was no time to use it.
He entered the courtroom, and his eye caught the wooden calendar on the wall, with May 19 in black incised letters -- Aunt Margaret's birthday.
Three arbitration judges arrived shortly before 11AM, strangely attired in colored robes more reminiscent of his professors' gowns at graduation than the black of US judges.  It was a reminder that he was arguing before an international tribunal, and he shouldn't expect US custom to prevail.
He felt alone on his side of the aisle, while a team of four sat confidently on the other side.
Who are the people in the gallery?  I wonder if there are any Passenger pigeon fans out there?  I could use the support.
He was up first, presenting his opening argument.  He argued that Ectopistes migratorius, as an equivalent species to Homo sapiens, had been unfairly reduced in numbers and driven to extinction by the actions of 19th century American commercial hunting and land development, and that the governments of the United States and Canada should pay 100 million dollars into a fund to be used to reconstruct the genetic sequence of passenger pigeons from the taxidermically preserved remaining members of the species.
"And when technology and research reach appropriate levels, the species should be recreated and reintroduced into the wild."  He felt odd, pushing such an agenda, but regeneration was really the only course open.  How else to benefit his client?
Judge Engelmann, on the left, barely looked his way, taking notes all the while.  Judge Mbeya, in striking dark orange robes, stared at him with hardly a blink.  And on the right, Judge Park rested her chin on her fist, as if her forearm were propping her head up.  Surely, she wasn't asleep, but she moved so little it was a disturbing thought.
The lead negotiator for Homo sapiens then presented, and it was a point-by-point knockdown of everything he had said.
"Ectopistes migratorius no longer exists," the gray-haired lead-council began, "and there can be no question of an award by this board, since there is no species to receive its benefit."
Reconstruction was a myth, he argued, since earlier attempts had used DNA with helper sequences from host animals and the result was not equivalent to the original species.  It would just be a chimera, an entirely different species, and one which would be entirely dependent on Homo sapiens for its existence and care.
He went on to undermine humanity's guilt in the extinction.  Yes, there was large scale hunting, but from all historical records, the species abruptly declined in numbers, well in excess of any expectations.  An avian disease could well have caused the species extinction, or some parasite totally unrelated to the hunting losses.  
Audubon was trotted out with due reverence and his passage explaining that the passenger pigeon could survive the hunting was recited.  Records from state legislatures from the mid 1800's were entered into the record, showing that protection for the species was considered, investigated, and determined to be unnecessary. 
"Humanity had been careful.  Humanity had been prudent.  By every science of the day, the birds were studied and found healthy, but still they died.  We didn't do it.  Some defect of Ectopistes itself was likely to blame for their extinction.
"Extinction happens to all species.  It is not humanity's role to play God and reverse that."
As he summed up, Joe Neeley edged up to Blake's table and handed him a small notepad.
"Phone call from Barbara Springdale:
"Aunt Margaret died this morning.  Made it to her birthday on her own.  Everything under control here.  Come home soon, but do a good job for the pigeons.  Love, Barbara."
He slipped the note under the other papers, trying to shake off the feeling of failure.  No.  It's not over yet.

No comments:

Post a Comment