Murmuration

It should have been just a throw-away line in Modernist novelist Ernest Hemingway’s first novel. A character describes how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

That line, or the concept of it: gradually, then all at once, has persisted because it encapsulates something that occurs more broadly than the accumulation of debt obligations. Economics, politics, artistic movements all work socially in ways that may be tied to some very deep concepts, deeper than mere humanity.

Earlier this winter I presented William Butler Yeats “The Stare’s Nest at my Window.”  It’s Yeats musing on his country, which had so recently achieved colonial independence and yet had then fallen so soon into sectarian civil war. The “stare” is an archaic word for the common starling, and despite its presence in the title, this bird doesn’t really appear in the poem. Instead, Yeats’ poem is asking for honeybees, rather than starlings, to build in the nesting cracks in the deteriorating masonry of his home.

In talking about how I experienced the poem, I felt that Yeats may have been speaking to an understanding of starlings as a harmful, invasive species. European starlings are obnoxious, capable of displacing other birds, and they are artless, bereft of any sort of lovely birdsong or plumage. Their large flocks can damage crops, eating grain, fruit, young plants, and even the very seeds before the crops have become anything. Honeybees, as I read Yeats’ wish, are some better, more directly constructive creatures.

When a country is in turmoil, acting against its own as well as humanity’s best interests, doesn’t it seem as if such is evidence of base and selfish forces that are natural and therefore incapable of change? Evil, greed, and self-dealing seem ingrained, the result of some gradual deteriorating evolution toward greater and greater failures of heart and mind.

As it turns out, starlings, those deplorable birds, do have something marvelous that they can do. In flight, flying near to each other so as to seem to be grains in a sand painting or facets in a mosaic, by the hundreds and by the thousands, they can shift and change direction in such an amazing way—gradually, then suddenly.

Though this video has some cutesy elements, it’s one I could find that both shows the murmuration behavior and a theory of its mechanism.

 

These birds, certainly those individual birds in the flock, cannot know that this is beautiful, yet they do it anyway. Human observers may think they have seen a miracle, a sign of the divine, or at least some unprecedented event—but what they have really seen is just as ingrained in nature: a physics of change and of glorious new shapes.

In a comment on “The Stare’s Nest at My Window,”  alternative voice here at the Parlando Project Dave Moore remembered that he too had done a starling piece, so we’re overdue to present it to you today. His song is called “Murmuration,”  and it’s about this startling flight behavior of starlings. You can hear it performed by the LYL Band with the player below.

 

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