Murmurations

Thomas Goodhart Uncategorized 0 Comments

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. “Come on,” she said. “Hurry up.”

Mr. Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said. gasping for breath. “I can’t run at all. You’ll have to go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”

The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson few pebbles.

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

 

Recently I had the incredible privilege of pilgrimaging along with friends and members of two Episcopal parishes from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and Long Island, New York to Assisi, Italy and parts of Umbria and Lazio thereby, journeying in the footsteps of St. Francis. We began and ended our time together in Rome. At the conclusion of our travels I remained there for a few days to see that beautiful city and reconnect with a dear friend and colleague now working in Italy.

 

During this time one late afternoon I explored the less-touristy neighbourhood of Trastevere, an area thumb_IMG_0757_1024“across the Tiber,” continuing the theme of St. Francis to San Francesco a Ripa, a church built upon the site of a hospice where Francis sojourned when he visited Rome in 1219 and still has the cell with its stone pillow where Francis stayed. In a city like Rome the rebuilt church building itself is seemingly new, constructed as it was in the 1680’s. (Incidentally, in a side chapel is the stunning Ecstasy of Beata Ludovica Albertoni, a funerary monument sculpted by the famed Baroque artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, well worth the off the beaten track explorations.)

 

Leaving the church building that afternoon with sunset nearing, I decided to return to my hotel, Casa Valdese, with plain but very pleasant accommodations operated by the Waldensian Evangelical Church—a Reformed partner denomination with the RCA—and used in part to support the Waldensian Faculty of Theology in Rome. Using the Tiber River as my meandering but more efficient and irenic route through the city during work day rush hour traffic I padded along the brick path at the riverside sharing it with runners and cyclers getting in their exercise at day’s end. Rome was founded over 2,760 years ago in the 8th Century BCE on seven hills near the Tiber River and is one of the most ancient cities in Europe continuously inhabited.

 

When in Rome it’s hard to look anywhere without seeing the broad breadth of history and culture, art and architecture being everywhere! But walking alongside the Tiber at the water’s edge, in the heart of the city yet down below it, the sounds somewhat muffled, it’s almost easier to imagine that history not so much on the grand scale as on the personal. Sure, these very waters have been plied by kings and popes as well as slaves and soldiers, but everyday Romans for over two millennia too. The river has carried goods to citizens and servants and has also run foul with filth and disease and the blood of violence. The river has served as commerce and lifeblood for the city in a variety of ways. How did those everyday Romans live here? As history was being made, how did they respond? How did they cope? How did they strive?

 

And here I was traipsing home beside it along with joggers and bicycles. We were not the only ones to share the river that day, however. Above us and the towering sycamore trees that lined the upper bank of the river were masses of starlings, flocks of them called murmurations. A murmuration is first and foremost experienced by the ear, as Merriam-Webster defines, “the utterance of low continuous sounds or complaining noises.” The starlings constant chatter creates a low and constant din of noise. But murmurations are best known for those spectacular movements of birds flying en masse, performing sky maneuvering amazingly in unison. The nearing twilight created stage lighting effect for the acrobatic feats of the murmuration appearing as rapidly morphing and constantly moving dark clouds against the pinkish sky as birds darted and swooshed.

 

thumb_IMG_0768_1024In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, Helen Macdonald, Cambridge University professor and author of most recently, ‘‘H Is for Hawk,’’ writes,

Part of the allure of flocking birds is their ability to provoke optical illusions. I remember my astonishment as a child watching thousands of shorebirds flying against a gray sky vanish and reappear in an instant as the birds turned their countershaded bodies in the air. Perhaps the best-known example is the hosts of European starlings that assemble in the sky before they roost. We call them murmurations, but the Danish term, sort sol, is better: black sun. It captures their almost celestial strangeness. Standing on the Suffolk coast a few years ago, I saw a far-flung mist of starlings turn in a split second into an ominous sphere like a dark planet hanging over the marshes. Everyone around me gasped audibly before it exploded in a maelstrom of wings.

 

I must confess experiencing the murmuration above the Tiber was both eerie and ethereal. I paused and watched them for the longest time wondering how such creatures can move together in sync so beautifully. Scientist call it scale-free correlation:

Surprising as it may be, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. Even in the case of flocks of geese, which appear to have a leader, the movement of the flock is actually governed collectively by all of the flock members. But the remarkable thing about starling flocks is their fluidity of motion. As the researchers put it, “the group respond[s] as one” and “cannot be divided into independent subparts.”

When one starling changes direction or speed, each of the other birds in the flock responds to the change, and they do so nearly simultaneously regardless of the size of the flock. In essence, information moves across the flock very quickly and with nearly no degradation. The researchers describe it as a high signal-to-noise ratio.

This scale-free correlation allows starlings to greatly enhance what the researchers call “effective perceptive range,” which is another way of saying that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock.

 

The way the starling are able to communicate to one another within the murmuration is not entirely understood, but it seems to be like in the game “telephone” where one individual starts with a message and it is communicated on down the line. When humans play telephone we mess up rather easily and often comically. When starlings play, they don’t mess up. As well, there communications are almost instant, in under a tenth of a second. Furthermore, it seems as though they are able to communicate almost instantly with the nearest seven birds around them. Collectively, this is how they accomplish scale-free correlation.

 

It should be noted, but why? Why do they do this?

 

Plainly put, it’s survival. As individuals, starlings are more easily able to be picked off by a raptor, and subsequently picked apart as it’s being eaten. But together, turning on a dime, seemingly erratic flight patterns and en masse, the falcon or hawk has a far more challenging time picking up dinner.

 

In a way murmurations are a response to fear. The starlings fear for their lives but have evolved a behavior and interdependence to cope and survive.

 

In recent days it seems that fear is the primary motivation for much of humanity’s response to the times in which we live. We have political leaders and pundits spouting off all sorts of hateful rhetoric. I will not use this space to give them any further publicity beyond saying what I have found most discouraging, most sad, has not been the politicians comments, but rather, the crowds enthusiastic responses. Hearing the crowds cheer at one rally about closing our borders to one particular group—that day, a particular religious group, Muslims, but on earlier days it was Mexicans, immigrants, etc.—or hearing a university convocation crowd cheer guns against our neighbours brought my mind instantly to Shirley Jackson, Lottery. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right…” I wonder, like when I walked along the banks of the Tiber about the everyday Romans, now about the everyday Americans? I wonder when history is written about our times and leaders, what will be communicated about us? Like the starlings, there is a constant din of noise, a murmuration. Unlike the starlings it hasn’t yet helped us to move together, defending one another, ALL the birds in our mix.

 

Human’s flocking tendencies are seldom as beautiful as birds, admittedly. While starlings have scale-free correlation that helps them to have conformity, I would usually always be cautious with any human conformity. Still, if we could learn to communicate better, to move generally together…

 

I highly recommend Ms. Macdonald’s essay quoted above as it beautifully compares bird’s flocking behaviours with human’s “flocking” tendencies and further associates an awareness for the Syrian refugee crisis:

As I stand there, observing the cranes, my mind turns to more human matters. It has been nagging away at me all the time I’ve been here, the razor-wire fence that the government has erected more than a hundred miles south of here to stop Syrian refugees walking across the border from Serbia; the thought of crowds moving slowly northeast as the cranes moved southwest. Watching the flock has brought home to me how easy it is to react to the idea of masses of refugees with the same visceral apprehension with which we greet a cloud of moving starlings or tumbling geese, to view it as a singular entity, strange and uncontrol­lable and chaotic. But the crowds coming over the border are people just like us — perhaps too much like us. We do not want to imagine what it would be like to have our familiar places reduced to ruin. In the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock made of a million souls seeking safety. I love the flock not just for its biological exuberance, but for the way it prompted me to pick similarity out of strangeness, for the way its chaos was transformed, on reflection, to individuals and small family groups wanting the simplest things: freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep.

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