Jonathan Livingstone Seagull
by Richard David Bach

 

To the real Jonathan Seagull,
who lives within us all.

Part One

It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a
gentle sea. A mile from shore a fishing boat chummed the  water.  and  the
word for Breakfast Flock flashed through  the  air,  till  a  crowd  of  a
thousand seagulls came to dodge and fight for bits of food. It was another
busy day beginning.    
 But way off alone, out by himself beyond  boat  and  shore,  Jonathan
Livingston Seagull was practicing. A hundred feet in the  sky  he  lowered
his webbed feet, lifted his beak, and strained  to  hold  a  painful  hard
twisting curve through his wings.  The  curve  meant  that  he  would  fly
slowly, and now he slowed until the wind was a whisper in his face,  until
the ocean stood  still  beneath  him.  He  narrowed  his  eyes  in  fierce
concentration, held his breath, forced one...  single...  more...  inch...
of... curve... Then his featliers ruffled, he stalled and fell.
     Seagulls, as you know, never falter, never stall. To stall in the air
is for them disgrace and it is dishonor.
     But Jonathan Livingston  Seagull,  unashamed,  stretching  his  wings
again in that trembling hard curve - slowing, slowing, and  stalling  once
more - was no ordinary bird.
     Most gulls don't bother to learn more  than  the  simplest  facts  of
flight - how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls,  it
is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was  not
eating that mattered,  but  flight.  More  than  anything  else.  Jonathan
Livingston Seagull loved to fly.
     This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to  make  one's  self
popular with other birds. Even his parents were dismayed as Jonathan spent
whole days alone, making hundreds of low-level glides, experimenting.


     He didn't know why, for instance, but when he flew at altitudes  less
than half his wingspan above the water, he could stay in the  air  longer,
with less effort. His glides ended not with  the  usual  feet-down  splash
into the sea, but with a long flat wake as he touched the surface with his
feet tightly streamlined against his body. When he  began  sliding  in  to
feet-up landings on the beach, then pacing the length of his slide in  the
sand, his parents were very much dismayed indeed.
     "Why, Jon, why?" his mother asked. "Why is it so hard to be like  the
rest of the flock, Jon? Why can't you leave low flying  to  the  pelicans,
the alhatross? Why don't you eat? Son, you're bone and feathers!"
     "I don't mind being bone and feathers mom. I just want to know what I
can do in the air and what I can't, that's all. I just want to know."
     "See here Jonathan " said his father not unkindly. "Winter isn't  far
away. Boats will be few and the surface fish will be swimming deep. If you
must study, then study food, and how to get it. This  flying  business  is
all very well, but you can't eat a glide, you know. Don't you forget  that
the reason you fly is to eat."
     Jonathan nodded obediently. For the next few days he tried to  behave
like the other gulls; he really tried, screeching and  fighting  with  the
flock around the piers and fishing boats, diving on  scraps  of  fish  and
bread. But he couldn't make it work.
     It's all so pointless, he thought, deliberately dropping  a  hard-won
anchovy to a hungry old gull chasing him. I could  be  spending  all  this
time learning to fly. There's so much to learn!


     It wasn't long before Jonathan Gull was off by himself again, far out
at sea, hungry, happy, learning.
     The subject was speed, and in a week's practice he learned more about
speed than the fastest gull alive.
     From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as  hard  as  he  could,  he
pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves,  and  learned  why
seagulls don't make blazing steep pewer-dives. In just six seconds he  was
moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one's wing goes unstable
on the upstroke.
     Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at  the  very
peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed.
     Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then  push
over, flapping, to a vertical  dive.  Then,  every  time,  his  left  wing
stalled on an upstroke, he'd roll violently left,  stall  his  right  wing
recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right.
     He couldn't be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times  he  tried,
and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour,  he  burst
into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down  into  the
water.
     The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the  wings
still at high speeds - to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still.
     From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into  his  dive,  beak
straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he  passed  fifty
miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds
he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan  had  set  a  world
speed record for seagulls!
     But victory was short-lived. The instant he began  his  pullout,  the
instant he changed the angle of his  wings,  he  snapped  into  that  same
terrible uncontrolled disaster, and at ninety miles per hour  it  hit  him
like dynamite. Jonathan Seagull exploded in midair and smashed down into a
brickhard sea.
     When he came to, it was well after dark, and he floated in  moonlight
on the surface of the ocean. His wings were ragged bars of lead,  but  the
weight of failure was even heavier on his back. He  wished,  feebly,  that
the weight could be just enough to drug him gently down to the bottom, and
end it all.
     As he sank low in the water, a strange hollow  voice  sounded  within
him. There's no way around it. I am a seagull. I am limited by my  nature.
If I were meant to learn so much about flying, I'd have charts for brains.
If I were meant to fly at speed, I'd have a falcon's short wings, and live
on mice instead  of  fish.  My  father  was  right.  I  must  forget  this
foolishness. I must fly home to the Flock and be content as  I  am,  as  a
poor limited seagull.
     The voice faded, and Jonathan agreed. The  place  for  a  seagull  at
night is on shore, and from this moment forth, he vowed,  he  would  be  a
normal gull. It would make everyone happier.
     He pushed wearily away from the dark water and flew toward the  land,
grateful for what he had learned about work-saving low-altitude flying.
     But no, he thought. I am done with the way I  was,  I  am  done  with
everything I learned. I am a seagull like every other seagull, and I  will
fly like one. So he climbed painfully to a hundred feet  and  flapped  his
wings harder, pressing for shore.
     He felt better for his decision to be just another one of the  Flock.
There would be no ties now to the force that  had  driven  him  to  learn,
there would be no more challenge and no more failure. And it  was  pretty,
just to stop thinking, and fly through the dark, toward the  lights  above
the beach.
     Dark! The hollow voice cracked in alarm. Seagulls never  fly  in  the
dark!
     Jonathan was not alert to listen. It's pretty, he thought.  The  moon
and the lights twinkling on the water, throwing out  little  beacon-trails
through the night, and all so peaceful and still...
     Get down! Seagulls never fly in the dark! If you were meant to fly in
the dark, you'd have the eyes of an owl! You'd  have  charts  for  brains!
You'd have a falcon's short wings!
     There in the night, a hundred feet in the  air,  Jonathan  Livingston
Seagull - blinked. His pain, his resolutions, vanished.
     Short wings. A falcon's short wings!
     That's the answer! What a fool I've been! All I need is a tiny little
wing, all I need is to fold most of my wings and  fly  on  just  the  tips
alone! Short wings!
     He climbed two thousand feet above  the  black  sea,  and  without  a
moment for thought of failure and death, he brought his forewings  tightly
in to his body, left  only  the  narrow  swept  daggers  of  his  wingtips
extended into the wind, and fell into a vertical dive.
     The wind was a monster roar at his  head.  Seventy  miles  per  hour,
ninety, a hundred and twenty and faster still. The wing-strain  now  at  a
hundred and forty miles per hour wasn't nearly as  hard  as  it  had  been
before at seventy, and with the faintest twist of his  wingtips  he  eased
out of the dive and shot above the waves,  a  gray  cannonball  under  the
moon.
     He closed his eyes to slits against the wind and rejoiced. A  hundred
forty miles per hour! And under control! If I dive from five thousand feet
instead of two thousand, I wonder how fast..
     His vows of a moment before were forgotten, swept away in that  great
swift wind. Yet he felt guiltless,  breaking  the  promises  he  had  made
himself. Such promises are only for the gulls that  accept  the  ordinary.
One who has touched excellence in his learning has no need of that kind of
promise.
     By sunup, Jonathan Gull was practicing again. From five thousand feet
the fishing boats were specks in the flat blue water, Breakfast Flock  was
a faint cloud of dust motes, circling.
     He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his
fear was under control. Then without ceremony he hugged in his  forewings,
extended his short, angled wingtips, and plunged direcfly toward the  sea.
By the time he passed four thousand feet he had reached terminal velocity,
the wind was a solid beating wall of sound against which he could move  no
faster. He was flying now straight down, at two hundred fourteen miles per
hour. He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed  be'd
be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed  was  power,
and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.
     He began his pullout  at  a  thousand  feet,  wingtips  thudding  and
blurring in that gigatitic wind, the boat and the crowd of  gulls  tilting
and growing meteor-fast, directly in his path.
     He couldn't stop; he didn't know yet even how to turn at that speed.
     Collision would be instant death.
     And so he shut his eyes.
     It happened that morning, then, just  after  sunrise,  that  Ionathan
Livingston Seagull fired directly through the center of  Breakfast  Flock,
ticking off two hundred twelve miles per hour, eyes  closed,  in  a  great
roaring shriek of wind and feathers. The Gull of Fortune smiled  upon  him
this once, and no one was killed.
     By the time he had pulled his beak straight up into the  sky  he  was
still scorching along at a hundred and sixty miles per hour. When  he  had
slowed to twenty and stretched his wings again at last,  the  boat  was  a
crumb on the sea, four thousand feet below.
     His thought was triumph. Terminal velocity! A seagull at two  hundred
fourteen miles per hour! It was a breakthrough, the greatest single moment
in the history of the Flock, and in that  moment  a  new  age  opened  for
Jonathan Gull. Flying out to his lonely practice area, folding  his  wings
for a dive from eight thousand feet, he set himself at  once  to  discover
how to turn. 
    A single wingtip feather, he found, moved  a  fraction  of  an  inch,
gives a smooth sweeping curve at tremendous speed. Before he learned this,
however, he found that moving more than one feather  at  that  speed  will
spin you like a ritIe ball... and Jonathan had flown the first  aerobatics
of any seagull on earth.
     He spared no time that day for talk with other  gulls,  but  flew  on
past sunset. He discovered the loop, the slow roll, the  point  roll,  the
inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel.


     When Jonathan Seagull joined the Flock on  the  beach,  it  was  full
night. He was dizzy and terribly tired. Yet in delight he flew a  loop  to
landing, with a snap roll just before touchdown. When they hear of it,  he
thought, of the Breakthrough, they'll be wild  with  joy.  How  much  more
there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the
fishing boats, there's a reason to life! We  can  lift  ourselves  out  of
ignorance,  we  can  find  ourselves  as  creatures  of   excellence   and
intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!
     The years ahead hummed and glowed with promise.
     The gulls were flocked into the Council Gathering when he landed, and
apparently had been so flocked for some time. They were, in fact, waiting.
     "Jonathan Livingston Seagull! Stand to  Center!"  The  Elder's  words
sounded in a voice of highest ceremony. Stand to Center meant  only  great
shame or great honor. Stand to Center for Honor was  the  way  the  gulls'
foremost leaders were marked. Of course, he thought, the  Breakfast  Flock
this morning; they saw the Breakthrough! But I want no honors. I  have  no
wish to be leader. I want only to share what I've  found,  to  show  those
horizons out ahead for us all. He stepped forward.
     "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," said the Elder, "Stand to  Center  for
Shame in the sight of your fellow gulls!"
     It felt like being hit  with  a  board.  His  knees  went  weak,  his
feathers sagged, there was  roaring  in  his  ears.  Centered  for  shame?
Impossible!  The  Breakthrough!  They  can't  understand!  They're  wrong,
they're wrong!
     "... for his reckless irresponsibility " the  solemn  voice  intoned,
"violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull Family..."
     To be centered for shame meant that he would  be  cast  out  of  gull
society, banished to a solitary life on the Far Cliffs.
     "... one day  Jonathan  Livingston  Seagull,  you  shall  learn  that
irresponsibility does not pay. Life is the  unknown  and  the  unknowable,
except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we
possibly can."
     A seagull never speaks  back  to  the  Council  Flock,  but  it  was
Jonathan's voice raised. "Irresponsibility? My brothers!" he  cried.  "Who
is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a  higher
purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads,
but now we have a reason to live - to learn, to discover, to be free! Give
me one chance, let me show you what I've found..."
     The Flock might as well have been stone.
     "The Brotherhood is broken," the gulls intoned together, and with one
accord they solemnly closed their ears and turned their backs upon him.
     Jonathan Seagull spent the rest of his days alone, but  he  flew  way
out beyond the Far Cliffs. His one sorrow was not solituile, it  was  that
other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they
refused to open their eyes and see. He learned more each day.  He  learned
that a streamlined high-speed dive could bring him to find  the  rare  and
tasty fish that schooled ten feet below the surface of the  ocean:  he  no
longer needed fishing boats and stale bread for survival.  He  learned  to
sleep in the air, setting a course at  night  across  the  offshore  wind,
covering a hundred miles from sunset  to  sunrise.  With  the  same  inner
control, he flew through  heavy  sea-fogs  and  climbed  above  them  into
dazzling clear skies... in the very times when every other gull  stood  on
the ground, knowing nothing but mist and rain. He learned to ride the high
winds far iniand, to dine there on delicate insects.
     What he had once hoped for the  Flock,  he  now  gained  for  himself
alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for  the  price  that  he  had
paid. Jonathan Scagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are  the
reasons that a gull's life is so short,  and  with  these  gone  from  his
thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.
     They came in the evening, then, and found Ionathan  gliding  peaceful
and alone through his beloved sky. The two  gulls  that  appeared  at  his
wings were pure as starlight, and  the  glow  from  them  was  gentle  and
friendly in the high night air. But most lovely of all was the skill  with
which they flew, their wingtips moving a precise and  constant  inch  from
his own. Without a word, Jonathan put them to his test,  a  test  that  no
gull had ever passed. He twisted his wings, slowed to a  single  mile  per
hour above stall. The two radiant birds slowed with him, smoothly,  locked
in position. They knew about slow flying.
     He folded his wings, rolled and dropped in a dive to a hundred ninety
miles per  hour.  They  dropped  with  him,  streaking  down  in  flawless
formation.
     At last he turned  that  speed  straight  up  into  a  long  vertical
slow-roll. They rolled with him, smiling.
     He recovered to level flight and was  quiet  for  a  time  before  he
spoke. "Very well," he said, "who are you?"
     "We're from your Flock, Jonathan. We are your  brothers."  The  words
were strong and calm. "We've come to take you higher, to take you home."
     "Home I have none. Flock I have none. I am Outcast. And we fly now at
the peak of the Great Mountain Wind. Beyond a few hundred feet, I can lift
this old body no higher."
     "But you can Jonathan. For you have learned. One school is  finished,
and the time has come for another to begin."
     As it had shined across him all his life,  so  understanding  lighted
that moment for Jonathan Seagull. They were right. He  could  fly  higher,
and it was time to go home.
     He gave one last look across the sky, across that magnificent  silver
land where he had learned so much.
     "I'm ready " he said at last.
     And Jonathan Livingston Seagull rose with the two starbright gulls to
disappear into a perfect dark sky.
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