The Word For World

The select group of elite technocrats, thought-leaders and entrepreneurs invited to the exclusive ‘Dangerous Visions’ innovation breakfast sponsored by Big4Bank listened impatiently as they waited for the keynote presentation. They sipped single origin coffee, nibbled on organic muffins and paid very little attention to the succession of worthy speakers from the scientific community who grimly outlined some of the existential challenges facing planet Earth.

Dr. Alvi Reels from the University of Stockholm, frustrated by the obvious lack of interest in her lecture on the threat of extinction faced by the world’s bees, strode to the front of the stage and passionately pleaded for attention.

“Ladies and gentlemens, please!” begged Dr Reels. “Bees need your help! If you could just please understand the seriousness of this matter… The implications for future food production…”

From the seated panel behind her, loud-mouthed Texan techno-brat Cortez DaKilla motioned towards Dr Reels, and grinned, leerily. He leaned across to stage whisper an off-colour remark to Dick Tidybeard, head of Tidybeard airlines, and the two of them sniggered loudly. Mortine Hogden, mining magnate, sitting alongside, pretended not to hear.

“We need to try and see things from a different perspective,” pleaded Dr Reels, ignoring the mutterings from Tidybeard and DaKilla at her back. “Recognize our connectedness with so many aspects of the natural world… Way back in in 1972, the hugely respected science fiction author and feminist Ursula K. Le Guin published perhaps her most famous work, ‘The Word For World Is Forest’. Le Guin was attempting to illustrate our essential need to see ourselves as an integral part of the biosphere, and the biosphere itself as a living organism. We must examine the language we use to describe our world, to develop meaning…”

Sir Barrington Topps, Chairman of BiG4BANK, rose from the seated panel and made his way toward the podium, tapping his expensive watch.

“So… what is our vision for the future? What will be our word for world?” continued Dr. Reels, as Sir Barrington brusquely pushed her away from the microphone. “What is our word for a world without bees?”

“Hugely interesting stuff, I’m sure” gushed Sir Barrington. “But I’m afraid we seem to have run out of time. Let’s give Dr Reels a big round of applause, though. It’s so good to see so many of you here and so obviously eager to innovate, to push the envelope, to disrupt, to think out of your boxes,” and he motioned toward mining magnate Mortine Hogden and airline supremo Dick Tidybeard, who were greedily sharing a platter of truffle-dusted beluga caviar.

“Now I know you’ve been impatient to hear our next guest,” continued Sir Barrington, “who has been so much in the news recently. And he certainly is no stranger to controversy. His forthright and deterministic views have provoked both praise and outrage. His plain-speaking and refusal to be constrained by political correctness, have won him both enemies and admiration. However, nobody can deny that he has shaken up our thinking about the modern world and how we approach the future… I’ll like to introduce Cortez DaKilla, CEO of the fabulously successful and lately one of the most politically influential thinkers on the planet. Cortez, if you will join me please…”

To a loud round of applause, DaKilla brushed back a mop of bleached hair and ambled up to the microphone. He greeted Sir Barrington with a warm embrace.

“This guy Sir Barrington,” winked Cortez at the audience. “What a winner! Eh? he’s a boss, eh? Am I right?”

Sir Barrington’s staff clapped loudly.

“And this word for world stuff, eh? Well, I’d sure like to make an update on that, a pivot. What if we say that our Word For World is Business? Huh? How does that hit ya? Because that’s what it’s really all about when we get down to it. Turning a buck, eh? Making a dollar…”

There were murmurs from the audience. On the panel, Dick Tidybeard and Mortine Hogden nodded, while Dr Reels looked ashen.

“Let’s face it, folks, it’s time for an update on our operating system. What some see, these uh, scientists here see, as problems… I see as opportunities. Like take all this climate stuff — places getting flooded, whole countries on the move… hunger, starvation, disease… Jeez, that Mother Nature sure is a dumb broad. But wait — what an opportunity! How much will those people pay to stay safe and well and keep their heads above water? You immediately got healthcare, security business opportunities, you got, heh, heh, rafts of new opportunities… Now, let’s take Dr Reels and her bees…”

DaKilla paused for effect and grinned.

“What will the world do without bees, huh? Well…”

DaKilla reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of shining metal objects. He threw them up into the air. They burst into buzzing life and quickly formed into a whirring swarm of micro-drones.

“Do ya know what these little guys mean, folks? Well, I’ll tell ya what they mean — they mean business. People need food don’t they? And to grow food, them farm boys need their crops pollinated don’t they? So, that’s what we’ve designed these little techno-bees to do. Yeah. And with these little guys we’ll control the future…”

The crowd applauded. Dr Reels, crouched awkwardly on the panel, stared fixedly out through the enormous top floor windows. Outside on the sculptured patio, a roof garden glistened in the dew-dropped chill of the early morning. Rich blossoms attracted breakfasting birds, who fed greedily from the flowers, refueling after a long, cold night. Reels watched attentively as a pair of Red Wattlebirds (Anthochaera carunculata) cackled among the branches, their curved bills and long tongues probing through the pink petals for sticky nectar. Tiny Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) flitted among the undergrowth, keeping well clear of the larger and much more aggressive Wattlebirds.

Suddenly, there was a squawk, a flash of grey and green, and an audible thunk as a tiny feathered body slammed against the patio window. One of the Wattlebirds had chased a Silvereye out of its feeding territory, and in panic, the tiny bird had flown full-pelt into the glass. It fell flatly to the grey concrete sill, and lay there, unmoving.

Dr Reels excused herself and manoeuvred toward the patio door. Opening the door quickly, she bent and scooped up the almost weightless little body. Cradling it carefully it her hand, Reels placed the bird inside her shirt, close to the warmth of her chest and returned to her seat. She could feel its sharp little bill, its claws, the delicacy of its feathers, against her skin, all unmoving, no signs of respiration, no sign of life.

DaKilla, meanwhile, continued at the podium, grimacing sourly at the distraction.

Dr Reels opened her shirt slightly to check on the bird. It was deep in shock. It remained still and unmoving, hanging between life and death. The next few minutes would be critical. Pressing against the Silvereye’s chest with a thumb, Dr Reels massaged and pumped gently. She bent forward and kissed the head of the stricken bird.

“This too shall pass,” she whispered to the bird.

Dr Reels could now see movement from the bright mirror eye of the bird, which reflected the animated surroundings of the conference room. In this shining eye, Reels could see reflected the flashing figure of DaKilla as he sniggered into the microphone and beyond him the glorious vista through the windows of the bright blue city morning, the harbour, the ocean in the distance. Dr Reels watched as the blue fast-forwarded and turned to grey and to limpid night. She could see DaKilla in the eye as he grew rapidly older, paler, bent and balding. She could see him fading, digesting shallow skin and bones to skeletal, dissipated in a shimmer of stinking grey dust, powder, nothingness. She watched in the eye as the harbour rose and fell on the hives of a shining metal city. Inlets and beaches rose and fell with the storm tides. The humming city drowned, abandoned, overgrown, became rubbled ruins, sedimentary layers, buckled, rippled and eroded. Sandstone layers caked and piled into mountain ranges. Ranges worn away by trickled whispers of rain to red earth deserts. She watched as the sun’s light in the eye grew yellow, faded and weak.

And then the darkness.

Dr Reels pumped again at the Silvereye’s chest, and a leg twitched. A claw tightened against her finger. And the bird moved. Fluttered wings. A sharp little beak. She could feel something wet against her hand. The Silvereye had pooped a wet black clot of goo. A good sign, thought Dr Reels, and she smiled.

DaKilla was continuing at the podium, raving now about the competitive advantages of bubonic plague. Dr Reels ignored him as she walked across the stage and out onto the roof garden. She stood at the edge of the terrace and released the bird into the bright living future of the morning.

Photo: Silvereye, Zosterops lateralis, from Wikipedia.

Licence: Creative Commons