Father of geese

konrad lorenz goslings

The trilling chirps of greylag goslings fill the morning air. The dew is heavy and cool against the late spring grass. The sun casts down upon the verdant land, and it shines against the greenery that magical shade of green that it turns when it is just starting to approach its summer fullness.

Konrad Lorenz comes to the goslings in the morning dew, and they race to meet his shoes. They know him as their doting parent, for when they first hatched, he was the first thing they saw. Goose instinct says follow that first thing you see when you hatch. That is your parent.

Konrad knows they will come wherever he goes. He was one of the first people to describe the phenomenon by which precocial birds attach themselves to the first moving object they encounter upon leaving the egg. They know him as their father, nothing more and nothing less.

When he lies before them in the cool grass, they gently peck at his goatee.  A beaming smile crosses his face. He is smitten with his charges.

Such a gentle man, so tender with these wee ones.

Yet behind the man lies a hidden darkness.

Raised in parochial Austria and educated at Columbia, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna, then got a doctorate in zoology. But in the 30s, the nation of Austria had turned inward and darker. The Catholic Church held sway. It was stifling a curious mind of science.

In the 30s, he studied the greylags closely. He kept wild ones and the tame varieties and crossed them, and he believed that the tame ones were degenerates. Their blood tainted the wild ones when they were crossed, and his ideas got swept up in the Zeitgeist of racial hygiene.

When the Anschluss came, he joined Hitler’s party and became Nazi scientist. In 1940, he found a job as a professor the University of Koenigsberg, but the war was not far off. He was drafted into the Werhmacht, where he worked on a project that studied the so-called Mischlinge– people who were half-German and half-Polish.

It is the same sort of science he performed on greylags that he now performed on his fellow man.

The Soviet Union beat the Nazis at Stalingrad, and the war was all but lost. The Germans sent as many men as they could to that far eastern front, and Lorenz was sent to defend the Fatherland from the great red Slavic horde. He found himself a prisoner of war, where he worked as a medic for the hated Bolsheviks. He kept a pet starling and wrote on a little manuscript. And he survived.

One day, he would say that he saw much of himself in those Soviet doctors. They were committed to an ideology, an ideology imposed by the state, and in that he saw his own folly through those years of the 30s and the war.

He returned to Vienna, where he loved his wife and dogs and his children. He kept a menagerie of all sorts of animals. He worked at the Max Planck Institutes in Westphalia and Bavaria, and he wrote books on animals and their behavior.

And he tried to forget that he had once allowed himself to become caught up in the madness the wrecked his nation. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine, sharing it with Karl von Frisch, a fellow Austrian who was deemed a mischling (why different spelling?) and forced into retirement for the crime of “practicing Jewish science,” and Niko Tinbergen, who fought to defend his native Netherlands against the Nazis and was held as prisoner of war.

Lorenz would spend the rest of his life with this stigma of having joined in that great madness. He first denied his membership to that party, but the records were soon revealed to the public.

And all knew that he had partaken in the blood and fury, not as a fanatic but as a man of science.

So he would spend the rest of his days trying to find absolution for that great sin, trying to make amends to his friend Niko.

And on nice late spring days, he would run with his goslings and lead them along the green paths and let them eat the forbs and grass, and then would lead them on to his beloved Danube, where he would enter the water like a great crocodile and the goslings would take to their aquatic existence as true waterfowl.

A true romantic lover of the wildness of Central Europe, Lorenz would work to create the Green Party and fight to preserve nature.

But none of that can atone for the madness that reason excused and acquiesced and rationalized.

So on this day, he leads the goslings onward through the greenery. Onward along the lovely green paths of Altenberg, the merry band goes.

A gosling has never heard the word “National Socialist,” nor even processes the understanding of its horrors. It knows only to follow that which it thinks is its parent.

A gentle soul trying to escape his past horror. Once a young monster, now leading on his chirping charges into the sunshine.

 

 

Natural History

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