Of course when I heard about a scholarship opportunity recommended to me by my AP Biology teacher, I jumped at the opportunity. An essay was the only requirement. That night, I went home and finished it as fast as I could. A couple thousand words was an easy task. Before sending it in for official review, I sent it to my school counselor and English teacher. Both said my essay was excellent.
Not to anyone’s surprise, I was accepted three days later for admittance into Ground Zero. My essay topic was contrasting from the others. The bulk of applicants wrote about distrust of the government and what secrets they were hiding. I wrote about how the government has our best interest. Afterall, my father worked for the military until his passing in 2098 due to a combat strike, or so we were told. Later I found this was not the case, but that story comes later. I was delighted to engage with wildlife and learn more about the woods. Afterall, field work was my dream job. Who wouldn’t love exploring every day?
I remember I was sent a notebook for my field notes. This notebook was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Most notes are digital now, but this one had pages and pages of paper. Each page had lines to neatly organize your thoughts. You could separate sections and days. You could even hand draw pictures. This reminded me of the stories my grandmother told me from when she was in college. Digital notes were just taking off, but she prided herself on being “old school” and using a pen and paper. This was a skill my generation lacked. Most had never taken the time or put effort into handwritten notes. A psychology podcast I listened to suggested that previous generations were able to remember content better because of the physical pen to paper notes rather than typing. This could be an experiment for my own learning. I would love to take time to learn how my grandparents fared without the booming technology we have today. I wonder if this will make the experience richer for me.
I also received a paper map of the area because no devices were allowed during this study. I sat down with my grandpa who taught me how to use and read a paper map as I had never seen one in my 17 years of life. Another thing about paper was that it was static and unchanging. Maps on our devices were ever changing with the times. This map was from 2020, so a lot had changed but this was all we had. Before leaving, I surveyed the area online and looked at Google drone footage. At first, I tried to memorize it all using techniques from my psychology studies podcast, but then I remembered I had a pen and paper. By the time I realized I could sketch out a map, it was wiped from Google drone. It must have been a technical error because why would the government delete the footage? There was nothing there to hide. I was here to try to prove that to the public.
Before leaving, I did all the research I could on the Cleveland National Forest. I researched the history of the land, genetic diversity of the organisms that lived there, biodiversity, soil studies, air quality studies, molecular ratio graphs, temperature trends, and more. I wanted to be prepared for anything. Because I had this thick notebook I was able to bring with me, I noted everything of importance. No humans have been here since 2020, but there was plenty of drone footage before it all disappeared from the internet. With the VR data I felt as if I had already been a million times over.
What lied within the forest was a mystery to scientists. I was excited to be chosen to go on this expedition. I felt like those astronauts who got to visit Venus for the first time. Seeing humans in those thick heat proof suits broadcasted in the telephotometer in the sky for all to see across the world was riveting. On that day, I told myself I would do something like that one day. It’s basically a new expedition. Sure we have drone footage, but no human has stepped foot in this area in 80 years. I can’t wait to see how the biodiversity has changed. Some think those scientists from 2020 were killed because they knew too much, but I’m certain they just got lost. Grandma told me 2020 was a wild year, and I’m sure those scientists went away to escape the craziness and got lost.
Finally the day came for me to leave. My mom hugged me goodbye and said, “You’re going to great things Alana. I can’t wait to hear about all of your adventures.”
A van parked in the driveway, and a man in a dark suit and dark glasses approached the house. On our home camera system I saw him check his handheld device and smart watch and checked a few boxes. He sighed heavily and cracked his knuckles before knocking. He seemed nervous waiting on us to answer the door. I lugged all my equipment to the van: notebooks, my tablet loaded with all kinds of textbooks and resources, typical camping materials, a filtering straw for water, an antimicrobial agent, clothes, and more. Cayden brought this old beat up GoPro, which to me it was odd to bring such an outdated piece of documentation equipment, but he seemed really into it. The others didn’t seem as thrilled or prepared as I was.
As always, I was likely overprepared for the occasion, but it’s better to be overprepared than underprepared. Afterall, it will be useful to have all of these notes and old maps.
Security was a nightmare as always. “Security” is fancy name for uneducated fools who were too dumb to make it through law school or the police force. I got plenty of eyerolls for my massive stack of notes and binders of maps and previous studies. Jokes on them; I’m prepared. As I approached this one security officer who oddly was shorter and frailer than I, she snatched up my binders and flipped through the pages, ripping a few as she went.
“Hey, I worked hard on that,” I protested as she spit directly in my direction.
“Hush up or you’ll be sent home now. That won’t look too great on those college applications. Remember you are being recorded sweetie.” She pointed up to one of several cameras in the area.
I sighed and put my head down. Why would she need to selectively comb through my notes? What do I have to hide? They are just doing their job I guess. I saw Atlas shuffling to hide the GoPro. Why break the rules? They exist for a reason, and like I’ve stated before, the government has nothing to hide from us.
Finally, I get all my notebooks and binders back. I stumble away and just three feet from the checkpoint, I tripped. My notes scattered everywhere. Now not only were they ripped and dirty, but they were now out of order! I scrambled to pick every last article, map, and diagram up. Atlas bent down to help pick them up.
My assignment. It was gone. In all the fuss of the notes flying, my placement was missing. Tears welled in my eyes. Did I blow it?
Finally, after what felt like an hour of shuffling papers, I found where I was supposed to go: where the old Bobcat Meadow Campground used to lie in 2020. I have no idea how long it was there after that, but I could figure it out if I could reorganize my notes. According to the 2020 map, it lied at the base of the south side of Skye Valley and to the north of Bobcat Meadows. This campground used to feature 1.2 miles of trail connections. Campfires were restricted during fire advisories. It’s unknown if this was the true cause of the fires or not.
The forest seemed to be recovering quite well. Scientists have been working hard for many years researching methods on how to make it recover faster. I noted observations before I went my separate way from the group. I noted that the pines seemed to be producing more sap than is normal this time of year. This may be due to an invasive species in the area trying to take over. I see scratches and holes bored into the bark from the other side. What was strong enough to rip these deep scratches into the bark? I looked up in the branches to see a starling perched above. When it saw me, it crouched down and cocked its head to the side and spread its wings. If I was an idiot I would have sworn this bird just said hello.
I flipped through my notes again and noted this interaction. I looked around and saw more starlings. More than I had ever seen. They were just watching. The closer I looked and the more silent I was, the more chattering I could hear. This was nothing unusual. Groups of starlings are called a murmuration because their noises almost sound like human murmuring.
“….Hello? Who is that?”
This voice was unfamiliar to me, but it sounded friendly and innocent.
“Who is that?” it mocked behind me.
“Go awayyyy…. Whatcha doing?”
I looked around frantic. As far as I could see there was nobody there. In my studies, I found that starlings could in fact mimic human phrases, but there’s no way they could learn thought processes. A study in 2056 by Mackenzie Harolds from Harvard confirmed this. I just kept walking on my way because I wasn’t going to waste my time speaking to a bird who couldn’t actually process what I was saying or doing.
I moved along and filled an entire notebook by midday. So many interesting organisms were teaming around me. Beetles, birds, trees, bees, but worst of all mosquitos. I coated myself with bug spray to prevent the bites, but I knew it was useless. This stuff hasn’t worked since my mother was a child. Evening turned to dusk. I knew it was time to call it quits for the night. Dawn came pretty early, and there was still so much to take notes on.
I set up my little sleeping bag and rolled my jacket up as a pillow on the stack of notes below me. I thought of my sweet mother who told me good night every night.
“Good night,” I whispered to myself and smiled.
Off in the distance I could have sworn that I heard “Good night Alana.”
Like my psychology podcasts said, our brains will make up stimulation if we don’t have enough. Being alone in the forest is a perfect storm for this.
I woke with a startle hearing what sounded like a young woman screaming for help. I rushed out of my tent into the barely lit sky looking around for who needed help.
I ran towards the nearest hill to get a better look at the area. All the while I heard crying and sniffing. I don’t know if it was because there was a large open space here with lots of echo points or what, but it sounded like it was coming from multiple directions.
“Where are you and how can I help?”
“OVER HERE ALANAAA!”
I stopped dead in my tracks and chills covered my spine. The sound was right behind me. I slowly turned around to see starlings cocking their heads at me. I look around and spin 360 to get a better view. I see hundreds of shiny little eyes staring back at me.
“You…you…can talk? Like talk back?” Immediately I started laughing and looked up at the cameras. I knew this was a joke the guy behind the big computers was playing. “That’s a good one man! Starlings knowing my name?!”
Within an instant thousands of starlings flew up from the trees and surrounding areas to make a big murmuration. They were swirling and chirping. “Alana, Alana, Alana, Alana…” The large horde of birds covered what little bit of sun I had. The sounds of their wings was deafening. They flew back and forth then came back like a boomerang. They met the horizon again and came straight back. I was sure to note this behavior. This was very unusual behavior. It seemed almost like they were stuck in this little area, but I know they could go where they wanted. What as keeping them here?
The murmuration settled down as quickly as it was sparked. They settled down into their perches. Why were there so many here? I read an article before leaving home that starling populations were booming in urban areas despite anti-avian devices. I read that starlings brain chemistry was changing, but we don’t know how or why. My gears started turning in my head. What was keeping these birds here?
I walked back to my tent to pack up for the days adventure. I munched on my protein bar loaded with omega 3 for brain power throughout the day. Because of my strange interaction this morning, my notebook for today was already half full. Murmuration Incorporation is going to love my thorough notes! Hopefully some of my work will get published in a journal. Can you imagine? A publication before I’m even in college?
I headed on my way land looked around for more starlings. The more I thought about them, the more I realized that maybe they could grasp human personality and conversation. We knew their brain chemistry was changed, and certainly with a natural disaster such as a fire it could introduce room for adaptation and new traits. We could be witnessing a real time evolution. With this thought I had to take a break and sit down to look at the notes. I pieced information together to try to support this hypothesis. It wasn’t a total outlandish guess.
As I was flipping through the notes, a starling flew down and perched on a fallen log next to me. Its eyes glowed and it cocked its head. It hopped closer to gain a look at my research. It cooed when it saw the photo of the researcher from Harvard. There’s no way this bird recognizes this woman.
I thought to myself, should I answer? Should I test this theory right here and right now? Before I could answer it spoke again.
“Starling… New York City.”
My jaw dropped.
“Central Park…New York City.”
In fact, a Shakespeare enthusiast released a bunch of starlings in the 1890s…in Central Park in New York City. How does this bird know this? It had to have heard it from my own murmuring earlier in the trip. I just brushed it off. The bird started mimicking the sounds of a corvid, specifically a raven. This also could be explained due to their mimicking capabilities. They are known to do this and are masters at punking scientists.
I quickly shut my notes and packed up to move on, but before I knew it night was upon us again. In the shadows of the forest it was almost as if I could hear my mother telling me good night.
“I love you sweetie.”
I prided myself on being a rational person. For hell’s sake I’m applying to Ivy League schools for a double major in Biology and Psychology. I knew these birds couldn’t respond to me intelligently. Logically, I knew this. Because this was obvious, I whispered a secret to the bird next to me.
“I cheated my way through Calculus. I don’t know a damned thing,” I whispered to the bird. It sounded like it chuckled and it flew away. I chuckled too. Then it swooped back and perched in front of a camera.
“ALANA cheated in calculus. Ask her to do an integration!”
“What…” My face turned pale and I felt sick. “Shh… come back. It’s a secret!” I pleaded. “Please stop. I’ll give you some food.” I offered a bag of potato chips.
“ALANA! What is the derivative of tangent? Come on. This is an easy one if you paid attention.”
Here I am being exposed by a bird. Not only did this bird intelligently respond to me, but it also challenged some mathematical concepts. Did this bird have knowledge of derivatives and integrations? Was this really a bird?
I looked through my notes and found a meme about birds from 2018. Apparently that generation thought that birds were fake and equipment used by the government. Maybe this was the case. I tried not to sweat it too much. Afterall, the camera didn’t hear me say that I cheated my way through calculus. I looked at the study where it was proved that starlings could not process human thoughts and respond intelligently. The authors all had years and years of experience in their field. I scanned down to where they got some funding for the project.
Was this a set up? Were they paid off to report false findings?
“Help with what?” I hesitated answering at first.
“Trapped… pain… injection… lies… help… please… ALANA” They all spoke at once repeating and chanting. The forest roared with chattering. They had to have heard these words several times before. Was this a puzzle or mind game. This elaborate scheme had to be set up by someone. Who would put the countless hours into training these birds to speak just to mess with us?
“ALALA, help, help, help, help, help, help, help…”
The chanting was almost like a psychological torture. Had it really been three days? Am I really in the Cleveland National Forest? I wondered if I had strayed from the paths. I quickly pull out my stack of maps to gain my bearings. Birds start swooping towards my head.
“ALANA, ALANA, ALANA, cheater, trapped, goodbye…”
“Goodbye? Why goodbye?”
“ALANA, the end, the end, the end” A few flew towards the fence and just stopped. “Open, open”
I looked up at the cameras. I looked through the rules in my packet. Stated in big letters was DO NOT TOUCH THE FENCE. DANGER. It did not state what the danger was, all it said was not to touch. I flung a rock at the fence. Nothing. I threw my emergency foldable spade. Nothing. Hmm. I didn’t seem to be electric. I wonder what the danger was. This rule I was willing to test. I stood up and approached the fence. The starlings cooed and cheered me on.
“What exactly am I supposed to be doing?”
“Let me see what I can do.”
I rushed towards our meeting spot to leave our assignment. I looked around for the others to desperately explain what was going on. What on earth would they think? How would I explain this? I was wondering if I should keep it to myself to preserve my academic profile. Who was I, a teenager, to challenge Murmuration Incorporation?
Link to website with group members work: