Skip to content
Forbes names WWB one of the ten best ways to spend your quarantine. Read about it here.
from the November 2005 issue

To the Longbills at Mangyeong River

From time to time, climbers ascending Mt. Everest or Nanga Parbat stumble upon migrating birds, frozen on snow-capped peaks at 8,000-meter altitudes. The cross-continental flight formation these birds launched in the northern tundra of Canada passes straight through the heart of the Asian Continent. The migrating birds pass over the Himalayas to reach the Adrian Sea, off southern India. The exhausted ones fall and die in Himalayan whirlwind on snow-covered mountain tops, while others stream through the sky. The busy birds do not pause to mourn the deaths of their fallen companions.

On those nights when the ridge of Nanga Parbat is swept by a blizzard, some birds lose their course and fly blindly into the icecap. Their bodies pierce the ice like arrows, and they die in the motion of vigorous flight, necks stretching forward, legs tucked behind. These birds remain frozen mid-flight in the snow. The birds that hit the northern wall of Nanga Parbat die like arrows, like bullets, like the wind. They die in the posture of a headlong charge. The shared dream of these winged creatures hover frozen over their corpses in a streamlined shape. Each corpse buries its wings in white snow for the wings can no longer fly, but it does not give up the dream of life, the dream to fly even in death.

The taciturn few who ascend Nanga Parbat alone are moved to tears by the dead birds stuck in the snow; perhaps they read their own destiny in its streamlined contours. Yet, the dream of the buried wings is bound to be reborn in the destiny of these wandering species, and so all birds come back to life in the end.

Longbills take off from the northern coast of New Zealand, bound for Alaska, moving from shore to shore through the central corridor of the South Pacific. They hop along the shoreline of the unfamiliar continent as if the beaches were giant stepping stones. On the first week of April, the longbill flocks arrived, as they always do, here at the marshland at the mouth of Mangyeong River on the western coast of the Korean Peninsula. Even birds of the same flock must have preferred companions; they floated in the evening sky in dozens of flight formations, like smoke, to descend on the tideland. Wings angled lower, in tune with the wind from the distant sea, the birds calmly veered toward the mouth of the river, without a single flap. The prominent keels of their breastbones, which spur the flight muscles spanning the wing from joint to tip, looked dogged and glossy.

The evening sky teemed with flocks of returning birds, while families of longbills that had arrived several days earlier were gathering their group on the mud flat to reorganize the ranks for a northward launch. They called out in urgent voices. Longbills have no unfamiliar places, for they have no home. They stop for awhile then leave the shores of many continents, peninsulas, and islands. In our fellowship of mortals, the birds' hardship of being born from eggs, only to wander with the wind, helps ease the struggles of those born of mammals, bound to the land of their settlement.

Birds seem to fly into this tideland for the sole purpose of eating. They venture out to the edge of the marsh with the low tides and come rolling back in on the rising sea, closer to human habitations. They search for things to eat, ceaselessly poking the vast muddy land between ebbs and flows. They burn the fuel of their bodies to fly. They must eat to fly again. The longbills scour the mud with their beaks even as the rising tides push them. Plovers detect with their eyes food that has surfaced on the mud and peck at it, but longbills cannot aim at their food. They blindly tap at invisible targets buried in the mud. They catch food only by chance. In order to survive, they have no choice but to ceaselessly pick at hidden prey. For this reason, their beaks are soft and sensitive, rather than hard. Only after slicing through random spots in the mud with their sensitive beaks, the longbills must judge whether anything buried underneath is worth swallowing. Without exception, they have more to spit out than swallow.

The hardship of putting food to one's mouth is no different for spoonbills. The spoonbill's beak is broad, like a flat rice scoop. With this wide beak, the spoonbill scrapes the tideland all day long. The scene is reminiscent of a beast devouring its prey. The spoonbill swallows what can be taken from the mud it holds in its beak and shakes out the rest. Every time it swallows a morsel, its long, lanky neck jerks with a shudder. The spoonbill is seriously endangered.

At the mouth of the Mangyeong River, in front of Okgu Saltworks, around 4 p.m. on the 8th of April, thirteen spoonbills were busy digging their beaks into the muddy fields and furrows as the tides pushed in. With the arrival of the semimonthly full tides, the longbills, with no exposed tideland upon which to set foot and nothing to eat, flew into a thicket of reeds. "See the birds of the sky, that they don't sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them." Perhaps this blessing from the Gospel according to Matthew is dedicated to the hardship of these hungry flocks. These birds could be a flock from Paradise Lost, driven to this world along with human beings when they were banished from Paradise.

According to those who believe that evolution is the ultimate purpose of life, the origination of the longbill species was completed on a shore during the Mesozoic's Cretaceous period. Now the birds flutter from coast to coast, through the space-time of hundreds of millions of years, singing at an indecipherably high pitch. These birds that have descended on this shore, the direct descendants of a species that was already extinct hundreds of millions of years ago, again take a desperate flight toward extinction several hundreds of millions of years from now. An extinct past and an extinct future are the only homes for these birds, and they return home, wandering all the shores of the world as wayfarers. The birds in The Origin of Species, therefore, are no less beautiful than their counterparts in Paradise, which the Creator was pleased to see-they are simply unfortunate. Darwin's hungry birds, descending on the shores of this world, are majestic beings of inevitable ruin; they pass through space and time from extinction to extinction. The birds return, again and again, flying in the sunset above the marshy mouth of the Mangyeong. They always come back to life.

Read more from the November 2005 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.