Moonshot, swans are connected Flight: Three trumpeter swans being led by an ultralight from Virginia to a Chesapeake salt marsh and the space launches that took man to the moon are two ends of the same spectrum.

On the Bay

December 26, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

THE EAGLE has landed," the world heard in July 1969, as humans reached up and touched the moon.

On Dec. 19, just as thrilling and profound, three trumpeter swans alighted in a Chesapeake salt marsh, their species' first return in two centuries.

But how can you compare them, moonshot and swanfall (a British term for the birds' descent at migration's end)?

The Saturn V that boosted Apollo 11 toward the lunar surface stood 363 feet high, weighed 6 million pounds, propelled the astronauts to an escape velocity of seven miles a second, and struck a moving target a quarter-million miles distant with sniper's precision.

The French-made Cosmos ultralight, on which the young swans were imprinted from hatching to follow as "mother," weighed 360 pounds, about the same as nine trumpeters.

It took two days to lead the birds 103 miles from Warrenton, Va., to Crapo (say CRAY-po, please), a Dorchester County hamlet where they will winter.

The Cosmos is prized for slowness, its ability to stay aloft at bird-compatible speeds as low as 25 mph.

Moon launches are triumphs of computers, engineering, metallurgy and chemical propellants; potent, polished rockets risen on flaming pillars to the heavens. They are the key to frontiers for a race whose home planet is showing signs of wear and tear.

The ultralight in which biologist Gavin Shire shepherded his flock across the bay last week, with its flexible, gossamer wings and minimalist frame of hollow struts and steel cabling, more closely resembles flying machines sketched 500 years ago by Leonardo da Vinci.

Shire nearly missed the landing strip, and one swan, riding eddies of wind close to the fragile craft's wing, narrowly missed a disastrous entanglement on the final approach to Lake Cove Farm near Crapo.

It is a safe bet the heroines, Isabelle, Sidney and Yo Yo, three female trumpeters only six months removed from the egg, will never share the immortality of Armstrong, Aldrin and Apollo.

They are merely a test, a prelude to the grand vision of the Environmental Studies Center at Airlie, Va., and the Washington-based Defenders of Wildlife.

The two organizations aim to re-establish natural migrations of trumpeters, the world's largest flighted waterfowl, to the bay 187 years after hunting and habitat destruction wiped the magnificent creatures out of existence here.

Come spring, it is hoped the three trumpeters can retrace their route in reverse, from Crapo to Airlie, proving migration can be taught to their kind.

Then, a more realistic and permanent migratory path will be taught to other trumpeters, probably from upstate New York to the bay.

How can you compare them, moonshot and swan journey?

How can you not? They are two ends of a spectrum that, I believe, make an enormously hopeful statement about the human potential.

As we near the end of the millennium, it is clear that manned flight, a dream older than Icarus but realized only in this century, has produced many of the legends of our age.

The Wright brothers, Lindbergh, Sputnik, our footprints in the lunar dust -- these are the symbols of our spirit of adventure, our LTC thirst to explore, to push farther, faster, higher.

And now, in the last few ticks of the millennial clock, comes a lovely permutation of the same theme, which last year hit the big screen in the movie "Fly Away Home."

It is the fragile ultralight mothering, shepherding, first wild geese (subject of the movie), and now trumpeter swans and, in related experiments, endangered whooping cranes, in efforts to restore their lost migratory pathways.

It is low-paid young biologists literally living with hatchling birds for months, baby monitors attached to their bunks all night, readying them for the moment of migratory flight. No celebrated astronaut was more dedicated.

It is a frontier newer than space -- one of recovery, of restoration, of reconnecting some of the planet's old, natural circuits that earlier generations ripped asunder.

Having gained the power to burst gravity's bonds and hurl large objects past Jupiter, we are finally discovering the virtues of flying lower and slower.

If our future truly lay in the stars, the path would be relatively straightforward. Aiming bullets through windless voids seems a good deal easier than learning to live within limits, to exist with our globe's natural heritage in sustainable ways.

My bias is that society should more value understanding the places we're from than devising ways to escape them. Learn to talk with the dolphins we know before broadcasting to aliens we imagine.

But probably we are a species that needs to do both. Even in my low-tech kayak I can seldom resist poking around just one more bend in the river.

Also, we might realize some day that the largest benefit from the Apollo missions was not moon rocks or beating the Russians, but the marvelous photographs of Earth floating in the black void, highlighting our home planet's fragility and beauty.

"It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool," wrote John Steinbeck, about an expedition collecting marine life on the Baja California coast.

He meant, I think, that the fullest wonder of the world lies in humankind's unique ability to behold all, from spiny sea urchins to the Milky Way, and know it is all connected.

What potential -- to soar among the stars, and to slow down to restore lovely, white grace notes of winter, missing too long from the tiny indentation on the planet known as the Chesapeake Bay.

Pub Date: 12/26/97

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