Jonathan circled slowly over the Far Cliffs, watching. This rough
young Fletcher Gull was very nearly a perfect flight-student. He was
strong and light and quick in the air, but far and away more important, he
had a blazing drive to learn to fly.
Here he came this minute, a blurred gray shape roaring out of a dive,
flashing one hundred fifty miles per hour past his instructor. He pulled
abruptly into another try at a sixteen point vertical slow roll, calling
the points out loud.
“…eight… nine… ten… see-Jonathan-l’m-running-out-ofairspeed..
eleven… I-want-good-sharp-stops-like yours… twelve…
but-blast-it-Ijust-can’t-make… – thirteen… theselast-three-points…
without… fourtee …aaakk!”
Fletcher’s whipstall at the top was all the worse for his rage and
fury at failing. He fell backward, tumbled, slammed savagely into an
inverted spin, and recovered at last, panting, a hundred feet below his
“You’re wasting your time with me, Jonathan! I’m too dumb! I’m too
stupid! I try and try, but I’ll never get it!”
Jonathan Seagull looked down at him and nodded. “You’ll never get it
for sure as long as you make that pullup so hard. Fletcher, you lost forty
miles an hour in the entry! You have to be smooth! Firm but smooth,
He dropped down to the level of the younger gull.”Let’s try it
together now, in formation. And pay attention to that pullup. It’s a
smooth, easy entry.”
By the end of three months Jonathan had six other students, Outcasts
all, yet curious about this strange new idea of flight for the joy of
Still, it was easier for them to practice high performance than it
was to understand the reason behindit.
“Each of us is in truth an idea of the Great Gull, an unlimited idea
of freedom,” Jonathan would say in the evenings on the beach, “and
precision flying is a step toward expressing our real nature.Everything
that limits us we have to put aside. That’s why all this high-speed
practice, and low speed, and aerobatics….”
…and his students would be asleep, exhausted from the day’s flying.
They liked the practice, because it was fast and exciting and it fed a
hunger for learning that grew with every lesson. But not one of them, not
even Fletcher Lynd Gull, had come to believe that the flight of ideas
could possibly be as real as the flight of wind and feather.
“Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip,” Jonathan would say, other
times, “is nothing more than your thought itself, in a form you can see.
Break the chains of your thought, and you break the chains of your body,
too…” But no matter how he said it, it sounded like pleasant fiction,
and they needed more to sleep.
It was only a month later that Jonathan said the time had come to
return to the Flock.
“We’re not ready!” said Henry Calvin Gull. “We’re not welcome! We’re
Outcast! We can’t force ourselves to go where we’re not welcome, can we?”
“We’re free to go where we wish and to be what we are,” Jonathan
answered, and he lifted from the sand and turned east, toward the home
grounds of the Flock.
There was brief anguish among his students, for it is the Law of the
Flock that an Outcast never returns, and the Law had not been broken once
in ten thousand years. The Law said stay; Jonathan said go; and by now he
was a mile across the water. If they waited much longer, he would reach a
hostile Flock alone.
“Well, we don’t have to obey the law if we’re not a part of the
Flock, do we?” Fletcher said, rather self-consciously. “Besides, if
there’s a fight we’ll be a lot more help there than here.”‘
And so they flew in from the west that morning, eight of them in a
double-diamond formation, wingtips almost overlapping. They came across
the Flock’s Council Beach at a hundred thirty-five miles per hour,
Jonathan in the lead. Fletcher smoothly at his right wing, Henry Calvin
struggling gamely at his left. Then the whole formation rolled slowly to
the right, as one bird… level… to… inverted… to… level, the wind
whipping over them all.
The squawks and grockles of everyday life in the Flock were cut off
as though the formation were a giant knife, and eight thousand gull-eyes
watched, without a single blink. One by one, each of the eight birds
pulled sharply upward into a full loop and flew all the way around to a
dead-slow stand-up landing on the sand. Then as though this sort of thing
happened every day, Jonathan Seagull began his critique of the flight.
“To begin with,” he said with a wry smile, “you were all a bit late
on the join-up…”
It went like lightning through the Flock. Those birds are Outcast!
And they have returned! And that… that can’t happen! Fletcher’s
predictions of battle melted in the Flock’s confusion.
“Well sure, O.K. they’re Outcast,” said some of the younger gulls,
“but hey, man, where did they learn to fly like that?”
It took almost an hour for the Word of the Elder to pass through the
Flock: Ignore them. The gull who speaks to an Outcast is himself Outcast.
The gull who looks upon an Outcast breaks the Law of the Flock,
Gray-feathered backs were turned upon Jonathan from that moment onward,
but he didn’t appear to notice. He held his practice sessions directly
over the Council Beach and for the first time began pressing his students
to the limit of their ability.
“Martin Gull!” he shouted across the sky. “You say you know low-speed
flying. You know nothing till you prove it! FLY!”
So quiet little Martin William Seagull, startled to be caught under
his instructor’s fire, surprised himself and became a wizard of low
speeds. In the lightest breeze he could curve his feathers to lift himself
without a single flap of wing from sand to cloud and down again.
Likewise Charles-Roland Gull flew the Great Mountain Wind to
twenty-four thousand feet, came down blue from the cold thin air, amazed
and happy, determined to go still higher tomorrow.
Fletcher Seagull, who loved aerobatics like no one else, conquered
his sixteen point vertical slow roll and the next day topped it off with a
triple cartwheel, his feathers flashing white sunlight to a beach from
which more than one furtive eye watched.
Every hour Jonathan was there at the side of each of his students,
demonstrating, suggesting, pressuring, guiding. He flew with them through
night and cloud and storm, for the sport of it, while the Flock huddled
miserably on the ground.
When the flying was done, the students relaxed in the sand, and in
time they listened more closely to Jonathan. He had some crazy ideas that
they couldn’t understand, but then he had some good ones that they could.
Gradually, in the night, another circle formed around the circle of
students a circle of curious gulls listening in the darkness for hours on
end, not wishing to see or be seen of one another, fading away before
It was a month after the Return that the first gull of the Flock
crossed the line and asked to learn how to fly. In his asking, Terrence
Lowell Gull became a condemned bird, labeled Outcast; and the eighth of
The next night from the Flock came Kirk Maynard Gull, wobbling across
the sand, dragging his leftwing,to collapse at Jonathan’s feet. “Help me,”
he said very quietly, speaking in the way that the dying speak. “I want to
fly more than anything else in the world…”
“Come along then.” said Jonathan. “Climb with me away from the
ground, and we’ll begin.”
“You don’t understand My wing. I can’t move my wing.”
“Maynard Gull, you have the freedom to be yourself, your true self,
here and now, and nothing can stand in your way.It is the Law of the Great
Gull, the Law that Is.”
“Are you saying I can fly?”
“I say you are free.”
As simply and as quickly as that, Kirk Maynard Gull spread his wings,
effortlessly, and lifted into the dark night air. The Flock was roused
from sleep by his cry, as loud as he could scream it, from five hundred
feet up: “I can fly! Listen! I CAN FLY!”
By sunrise there were nearly a thousand birds standing outside the
circle of students, looking curiously at Maynard. They didn’t care whether
they were seen or not, and they listened, trying to understand Jonathan
He spoke of very simple things – that it is right for a guil to fly,
that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against
that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation
in any form.
“Set aside,” came a voice from the multitude, “even if it be the Law
of the Flock?”
“The only true law is that which leads to freedom,” Jonathan said.
“There is no other.”
“How do you expect us to fly as you fly?” came another voice. “You
are special and gifted and divine, above other birds.”
“Look at Fletcher! Lowell! Charles-Roland! Judy Lee! Are they also
special and gifted and divine? No more than you are, no more than I am.
The only difference, the very only one, is that they have begun to
understand what they really are and have begun to practice it.”
His students, save Fletcher, shifted uneasily. They hadn’t realized
that this was what they were doing.
The crowd grew larger every day, coming to question, to idolize, to
“They are saying in the Flock that if you are not the Son of the
Great Gull Himself,” Fletcher told Jonathan one morning after Advanced
Speed Practice, “then you are a thousand years ahead of your time.”
Jonathan sighed. The price of being misunderstood, he thought. They
call you devil or they call you god. “What do you think, Fletch? Are we
ahead of our time?”
A long silence. “Well, this kind of flying has always been here to be
learned by anybody who wanted to discover it; that’s got nothing to do
with time. We’re ahead of the fashion, maybe, Ahead of the way that most
“That’s something,” Jonathan said rolling to glide inverted for a
while. “That’s not half as bad as being ahead of our time.”
It happened just a week later. Fletcher was demonstrating the
elements of high-speed flying to a class of new students. He had just
pulled out of his dive from seven thousand feet, a long gray streak firing
a few inches above the beach, when a young bird on its first flight glided
directly into his path, calling for its mother. With a tenth of a second
to avoid the youngster, Fletcher Lynd Seagull snapped hard to the left, at
something over two hundred miles per hour, into a cliff of solid granite.
It was, for him, as though the rock were a giant hard door into
another world. A burst of fear and shock and black as he hit, and then he
was adrift in a strange strange sky, forgetting, remembering, forgetting;
afraid and sad and sorry, terribly sorry.
The voice came to him as it had in the first day that he had met
Jonathan Livingston Seagull,
“The trick Fletcher is that we are trying to overcome our limitations
in order, patiently, We don’t tackle flying through rock until a little
later in the program.”
“Also known as the Son of the Great Gull ” his instructor said dryly,
“What are you doing here? The cliff! Haven’t I didn’t I.., die?”
“Oh, Fletch, come on. Think. If you are talking to me now, then
obviously you didn’t die, did you? What you did manage to do was to change
your level of consciousness rather abruptly. It’s your choice now. You can
stay here and learn on this level – which is quite a bit higher than the
one you left, by the way – or you can go back and keep working with the
Flock. The Elders were hoping for some kind of disaster, but they’re
startled that you obliged them so well.”
“I want to go back to the Flock, of course. I’ve barely begun with
the new group!”
“Very well, Fletcher. Remember what we were saying about one’s body
being nothing more than thought itself….?”
Fletcher shook his head and stretched his wings and opened his eyes
at the base of the cliff, in the center of the whole Flock assembled.
There was a great clamor of squawks and screes from the crowd when first
“He lives! He that was dead lives!”
“Touched him with a wingtip! Brought him to life! The Son of the
“No! He denies it! He’s a devil! DEVIL! Come to break the Flock!”
There were four thousand gulls in the crowd, frightened at what had
happened, and the cry DEVIL! went through them like the wind of an ocean
storm. Eyes glazed, beaks sharp, they closed in to destroy.
“Would you feel better if we left, Fletcher?” asked Jonathan.
“I certainly wouldn’t object too much if we did…”
Instantly they stood together a half-mile away, and the flashing
beaks of the mob closed on empty air.
“Why is it,” Jonathan puzzled, “that the hardest thing in the world
is to convince a bird that he is free, and that he can prove it for
himself if he’d just spend a little time practicing? Why should that be so
Fletcher still blinked from the change of scene. “What did you just
do? How did we get here?”
“You did say you wanted to be out of the mob, didn’t you?”
“Yes! But how did you…”
“Like everything else, Fletcher. Practice.” By morning the Flock had
forgotten its insanity, but Fletcher had not. “Jonathan, remember what you
said a long time ago, about loving the Flock enough to return to it and
help it learn?”
“I don’t understand how you manage to love a mob of birds that has
just tried to kill you.”
“Oh, Fletch, you don’t love that! You don’t love hatred and evil, of
course. You have to practice and see the real gull, the good in every one
of them, and to help them see it in themselves. That’s what I mean by
love. It’s fun, when you get the knack of it.
“I remember a fierce young bird for instance, Fletcher Lynd Seagull,
his name. Just been made Outcast, ready to fight the Flock to the death,
getting a start on building his own bitter hell out on the Far Cliffs. And
here he is today building his own heaven instead, and leading the whole
Flock in that direction.”
Fletcher turned to his instructor, and there was a moment of fright
in his eye. “Me leading? What do you mean, me leading? You’re the
instructor here. You couldn’t leave!”
“Couldn’t I? Don’t you think that there might be other flocks, other
Fletchers, that need an instructor more than this one, that’s on its way
toward the light?”
“Me? Jon, I’m just a plain seagull and you’re… “
” …the only Son of the Great Gull, I suppose?” Jonathan sighed and
looked out to sea. “You don’t need me any longer. You need to keep finding
yourself, a little more each day, that real, unlimited Fletcher Seagull.
He’s your in structor. You need to understand him and to practice him.”
A moment later Jonathan’s body wavered in the air, shimmering, and
began to go transparent. “Don’t let them spread silly rumors about me, or
make me a god. O.K., Fletch? I’m a seagull. I like to fly, maybe…”
“Poor Fletch. Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they
show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you
already know, and you’ll see the way to fly.”
The shimmering stopped. Jonathan Seagull had vanished into empty air.
After a time, Fletcher Gull dragged himself into the sky and faced a
brand-new group of students, eager for their first lesson.
“To begin with ” he said heavily, “you’ve got to understand that a
seagull is an unlimited idea of freedom, an image of the Great Gull, and
your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your
The young gulls looked at him quizzically. Hey, man, they thought,
this doesn’t sound like a rule for a loop.
Fletcher sighed and started over. “Hm. Ah… very well,” he said, and
eyed them critically. “Let’s begin with Level Flight.” And saying that, he
understood all at once that his friend had quite honestly been no more
divine than Fletcher himself.
No limits, Jonathan? he thought. Well, then, the time’s not distant
when I’m going to appear out of thin air on your beach, and show you a
thing or two about flying!
And though he tried to look properly severe for his students,
Fletcher Seagull suddenly saw them all as they really were, just for a
moment, and he more than liked, he loved what he saw. No limits, Jonathan?
he thought, and he smiled. His race to learn had begun.
The New York Times, July 3, 1974
Des Moines, Iowa, July 2 – John H. Livingston, the man who
inspired the best-selling novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,”
died Sunday at the Pompano Beach (Fla.) Airport soon after
completing his last plane ride.
Richard Bach, a former Iowa Air Guard pilot, has said his
best-selling book about a free-wheeling seagull was inspired by
Johnny Livingston, as he was known, moved many years ago
from Iowa to Florida. He was one of the country’s top pilots
during the barnstorming days of the nineteen-twenties and thir
From 1928 through 1933, Mr. Livingston won 79 first
places, 43 seconds and 15 thirds in 139 races throughout the
country, many of them at Cleveland. He won first place and
$13,910 in 1928 in a cross-country race from New York to Los
Mr. Livingston leaves his wife, Wavelle, two brothers and
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