Evolutionary Poetry and Fiction

Feathered Spirits
by Merle Borg

It was an ordinary accident, ordinary except that it blocked the road, and forced its ugly way into my life. Two boys, on their way to high school, sped over a hill, and slammed their small pickup under a stopped truck. Their hundred-foot skid marks explained why it happened. Both boys were pinned in the wreckage, with legs pointing in odd directions. The driver was convulsing thick blood. They struggled weakly, and while the trucker watched for fire, I held them still.

Distant sirens eventually found us, and special equipment quickly freed the two. A helicopter landed and took one away. The other screamed off in an ambulance.

There was a woman on the rescue team, and I was thankful, yet vaguely uncomfortable by her presence. The men could all remember when it was their time... the invincible feeling... the defiant pounding rush of pure danger. There was an unspoken acceptance as they carried off two of their own. The woman was an outsider somehow, an intrusion of sanity... like a nun at a prizefight. I wondered if she understood the two million years of instructions these boys were following, when they raced along that narrow hilly road?

It was evening before I learned any more. Among the injuries were collapsed lungs, a fractured skull, and several broken legs; but both boys would live. Horror turned to relief, then sadness. Mother Nature played a particularly cruel trick on the male of our species. We are unable to understand danger at adolescence... and are compelled to challenge it. These invincible young warrior instincts came from our tribal past, and the combination creates this deadly rite of passage. Those of us who survived, boast of the things we did.

These two now have their stories; but first they will be hauled out to the skid marks; for the lectures, and the hugs, and the inevitable loss of their keys - a measure that probably isn't necessary. They were learning pretty good there, for the last hundred feet. Their knees will never forgive them, and the memory of a dry scream will remain annoying wedged in their throats, forever.

When the young heroes finally hobble to school, their teachers will point them out, while sternly dispensing the usual warnings. A demoralizing task, this, explaining danger to an audience, half of whom are invincible. The drone of rules and deadly statistics will quickly bore those at the rear - the arrogantly fidgeting nobility, whose feathered spirits are in war paint, leaping about ancient bonfires. Words of caution grow pale and silent in this part of the room, to snickering taunts hurled from the beginnings of time.

The concept of danger cannot be communicated to adolescent males, but the reason it can't, can. They were needed this way.


We evolved in tribal groups. As tools were developed, and fire was mastered; the problems of food and predators were overcome. With no viable restraints, our population exploded. In the scramble for limited "hunting/gathering" resources, only the strongest groups survived. The caring and fairness necessary for tribal strength evolved, but those qualities extended only to "us". We developed a we/they mentality. "We" were sacred. Everyone else was not.

Warriors became necessary; a duty that involved dodging spears. Speed, agility, and an eager willingness were required. Older members of the groups had families, and compelling reasons to help in the risky confrontations; but they were slow, and were needed for their knowledge and experience. Young females were necessary for reproduction. Young males were the obvious warrior candidates, but with no investment in the tribe, getting them to stand their ground, would be a problem.

Famous for her tricks, Nature found a way. She gave young males a love for thrills and glory, and the belief that they were invincible. Then, for good measure, she gave everyone a love for "heroes".

It was a cruel trick, but it worked. Tribes armed with these willing weapons were more successful than those with cautious sensible young men. Over thousands of generations, we males have been bred to be thrillingly, gloriously, and expendably stupid at adolescence. Like temporary soldier ants, we weren't designed to survive; we were designed so the rest would.

The traits remain, but our world has changed. The grisly result pours into emergency rooms daily, not all of it extracted from mangled vehicles. Warrior aftermath of a purer kind is collected in the frayed areas of American cities. Here, idle boys form teams, and enjoy a rivalry that involves shooting at each other. Different game. Same thrills. Same glory. Same sirens. Same words angrily scrawled on the toe tags: "terminal stupidity."

Man, the intelligent animal, the maker of tools and explorer of the universe, has been alone at the top of the food chain, with no birth control, since the first spears were fashioned. The two-million year "push and shove" has left us with a fearful we/they mentality, an inane interest in physical contests and their heroes, and sons that are dumber than dirt.

On a limited planet, with no viable enemies, we had to become our own. There was no other way. The sacrificial duty fell to our sons, and the adaptation is tragically visible in them. When not on the playing fields, their quests for thrills and glory, bring only grief. In the US, young men between the ages of fifteen and twenty-six, die of injuries at a rate nearly four times that of the more sensible sex.* Twenty thousand are killed in this country each year... fifty a day... two every hour.


For most of human history, warriors were revered. Young men knew their purpose, and strutted in praise and respect. In the placid modern world, they linger in vague and boring anticipation... battling dark forces on video games, and dreaming their glory dreams... or performing their athletic miracles to our frenzied cheers... none of us remembering why.

When left together, the waiting gets dangerous. Feathered spirits start telling war stories, and the competition sometimes spills over. A challenge is issued... courage is questioned... and young men nervously toss rule and reason aside to heed the primal call. All too often, sirens are sent to find them; and if luck turns away, pleading eyes and disbelieving fingers will be gently pried loose, and sheets will be pulled over, and then they're gone... and all the dreams that never were... will never be.

From the first rush of excitement, to the wide-eyed, terrifying end; young dreams have been violently separated from young bodies for two million years. The path to our modern world is hallowed in sacrifice. After protecting the murderous flanks of that incredible journey, unfulfilled dreams glare from vacant sockets in powerless rage, as invincible young warriors are told the destination was not for them. They are no longer needed... in truth, they are no longer allowed. Their watch is over.

Un-thanked, and heralded only by sirens, anguished spirits turn around and head back down that merciless, blood-soaked trail. We pull over and stare at the casual butchery in helpless horror, as Mother Nature undoes her little trick, and smartens up the male of her favorite species... and from the shared soul of mankind, comes the murmuring cry, that a piece of the best in us, is slipping away.


It was a very ordinary accident, but it has been disturbingly difficult to forget the two boys at the end of those skid marks; dutiful remnants of another time, high on their ancient mission; priceless living artifacts, slammed against the modern world. Disturbing because the last few generations of us have known about our beginnings, yet we have refused to accept our ancestry, and explain its significance to our children.

Anthropologists try. They lead us to the excavations, and point excitedly to our origins. We glance at some crude tools and primitive drawings, then we look back at our shiny things... and walk away. In cosmic irony, or divine justice, we dismiss our parentage, while luck decides which of our sons will live.

The boys on that road needed to know what they were passing through. They all do. Fitted with instructions from a glorious past, fueled with excitement, and trying to hang on in a modern world; they are in that crimson netherland between a place that is no more, and a place they are not ready for... in the pitiless ambush of change. They should be told.

By understanding the tricks of their evolution, our sons may recognize the ancient voices, and appreciate the connection... and the honor; and when all the gathered ghosts of nature are screaming for stupidity - these expendable heroes may stand firm, and hold their ground in proud defiance.

It's their call. Pitted against breeding, knowledge is sorrowfully inadequate; but instincts, like tricks, lose much of their terrible power, once revealed. Clear and understandable information is all we can give them, and it's all a warrior asks.


Merle Borg, 11/12/01

The figures are the latest (1998) US figures, taken from: Office of Statistics and Programming, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Injury Mortality Reports http://webapp.cdc.gov/sasweb/ncipc/mortrate.html

Injury deaths, all intents, ages 15-25, Female - 5,341 Male - 20,183

For questions and comments, please see http://briefcase.yahoo.com/bc/roofman6/lst?.dir=/Feathered+Spirits

Merle's email address: lborg@sdcoe.k12.ca.us