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Murmuration: A Stunning Animated Poem About Our Connection to Nature and to Each Other

A collaborative praise song for “indifference banished by love.”

Murmuration: A Stunning Animated Poem About Our Connection to Nature and to Each Other

In one of the essays collected in Vesper Flights (public library) — which was among the finest books of 2020 and includes one of the most magnificent things ever written about the enchantment of the total solar eclipseHelen Macdonald reflects on watching starlings swarm the sky like living constellations on their way to roost for the night, and writes:

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.

In a lovely echo of Richard Feynman’s Ode to a Flower — his timeless, poetic insistence that knowing the science behind something beautiful doesn’t rob it of enchantment but “only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe” — Macdonald unfurls the science behind the awe of murmurations:

The changing shape of starling flocks comes from each bird copying the motions of the six or seven others around it with extreme rapidity; their reaction time is less than a tenth of a second. Turns can propagate through a cloud of birds at speeds approaching ninety miles per hour, making murmurations look from a distance like a single pulsing, living organism.

Like all great essays, Macdonald’s begins with an observation of one thing and becomes a meditation on another, taking one fragment of elemental reality and polishing it to shine a sidewise gleam on a larger existential reality — in this case, the murmuration of human refugees trying to find their way to safety and belonging amid a gasping world.

Poet Linda France encountered Macdonald’s essay during a climate writing residency at New Writing North. Inspired by Neil Gaiman’s “What You Need to Be Warm” — his humanistic poem for refugees and the homeless, composed from thousands of definitions of warmth from around the world — she invited people to submit verses about our relationship to the natural world beginning with “Because I love…” and “What if…,” then set out to stitch the five hundred submission with the thread of her own poetic imagination into a lyric murmuration, which artist Kate Sweeney turned into a soulful animated short film. Amplifying the poignancy of the project is its timing — it was created for the 2020 Durham Book Festival, while the human world was roosting in confused and frightened isolation, swarmed by the shared terror of a pandemic and the smoke of unprecedented wildfires, suddenly more aware than ever that we are a single pulsing living dying organism.

France reflects on the inspiration she drew from the starlings:

I wanted to borrow their natural capacity for shared purpose, communication and movement to embody what human beings might be capable of if they worked together to address the biggest ever challenge facing the planet and all its species and systems — the perfect storm of the climate emergency, mass extinction and an unprecedented global pandemic… I wanted to catch the noise of it all, let the clash and clamour co-exist and recreate something of the starling murmuration’s fractal patterning both on the page and in the ear.

With an eye to the “interrogation of our relationship with the planet and other species” radiating from the submissions and to how they deepened her own understanding of “the dangers of ‘us’-and-‘them’-ing,” France adds:

Transforming our relationship with the natural world into something more reciprocal has little to do with righteousness or separation. The collective includes all beings and asks for mutual tolerance, transparency and trust.

MURMURATION
by Linda France

1
*
Because we love watching the flock’s precision glide
       upstroke for height, tilt of wing spun mid-flight
just for a moment
              we’re in the frenzied swirling rush

              home for the winged

       owls hoot their love through the dark
                     chiffchaff creeps up stalks
              fennel and flow
dipper and wagtail
              Arctic terns like darts
geese honking              each note weighed
a duck sits on top of the bowling club out king of the world

       if you love the bird, don’t cage it

              we’ll miss the starlings when April comes

*
on any high hilltop, breathing this air,
this precious air, remember those who lost their breath

       if you love the flower, don’t pick it

a sudden sweep of daisies in a green field
like counting stars
       losing count
              starting over again

more shades of green
than words scream Life!

life, damp grass between bare toes
light passing through poppy petals
the slow unfolding of a rose

              home for the prickly, those that slither
                     climb or crawl
                            for us all

       atom by atom
       cell by cell
       what else matters

we cherish these conversations when the vetchling speaks
the lavish eruption of nasturtiums, weaving ropes of white stems
orange flowers
       lush leaves
              hearts burnt open

       if you love wild things, let them be

*
follow the almost invisible path through the heather
summer’s easy grin, the slow smile of autumn
gaze of winter starlight

              isn’t this how we learn not to fear
change
       the seasons
              that mark time
shape our lives

       spangles of sunlight on a river
       otters rippling

the sting of cold sea on tight, red skin

       we feel it all, drink it in and love it

love honey, love bees
the smell of dust, hot rain
a damson tree
       dripping purple fruits

       love the kiss of a dandelion clock

wind-suck and time disappears

the pull of the moon
       waves that crash with forgotten history
              the rubbed edges of the world
                     a spider crab scurrying sideways

       we love the roaring isles
       the taste of a peach

       our neighbours busy in their vegetable patch
       the daylit gate

              tunnel of trees
              those little paths one-person-wide
              between hazel and ash
              warm bark

       in the city that birthed us
       bright tufts that grow in the cracks

*
because we love the way dawn wakes up
and switches night to day

       the twist and fall
              the surging sweeping joy of it all
              the visceral thrill

how dusk strips away the waste of worried days
       as birds yield to their roost
       and leave the night to moth and bat
beyond day, beyond everything

       we know we too are rock and star

but now              on the tip of our tongue

       even love’s not enough

2
*
At the midnight of the year
utter darkness
a million compasses fail
and the starlings don’t come
empty sky
no swallows, no swifts
no summer nests in the eaves
threads looped in the blue
a blackbird that isn’t there
opens his throat
into silence, thin air
no golden note

you wake to a dawn
unheralded
dusk, uninvited, doesn’t know
where to begin
ghost calls echo in the trees
dogs and deer stop barking
rain forgets to fall
its rhythm broken, lost
oak and elm hold their breath
you will never see another flower
the stars’ last vanishing act
no words left

3
*
April high tide
hurls driftwood
       oarweed
              sea-glass
a wreckage of shells

tomorrow comes soon

       how much would you pay to hear the sound
of rain
       or birdsong

what if couldn’t-care-less cared more
and we let the murmur of change
              change our ways

hear the roots of trees
                     whispering
dark soil’s cavernous memories
       tectonic plates shift

sit like a mountain
all weathers
in our hearts

       what if our flutterings become feathers
              the starlings lend us their wings

till we trust enough
              to fly together
       synchronised       one vast voice
all different, all the same
              to mend our wounded earth

ballads of continents crossed
       comrades lost to storm or predator
              the shockwave moving through the flock

see how we flit
       twist swell
                                   dive
co-mingle       co-exist       co-inhere

belong together

*
imagine we’re made of those slivers of sky
       know all the colours of light

hitch a ride on the bees’ flight
go to earth with badgers
       small as Alice       catch the worm
the keys of the ash
       rise like a dandelion
              the promise of a peony bud

where heather meets heaven
              home

this is the patience of the albatross
       a cormorant’s hunger
craning for a flash of silver
       beneath the water

the good omen of a crescent moon
       milky stars
              set in new stories
meadow orchids
       skeins of geese

a chance to constellate honesty
              justice
escape heroic fantasies
       gravity’s boots

so what if’s rubbed out
       and becomes what is

                     the path between

              then we can hear the hiss of rain

*
what is
       is more than the ear can hear
or eye see —

we will never have this time again
              can never rewind this moment

all the maybes, all the small things
       we touch
              gentle, curious
and let pass

like fruit in season
the secret language of earth
                     underland of coal, uranium, oil

              indifference banished by love

power to the parliament of rooks

it’s just this       us
       the people
              our footsteps
walking into all this wonder
       every day through every weather

              solidarity
                     the planet’s rage

making a stand
              for a different future

it’s just this
              our words
       building this home we share
       these bridges

nowhere else to go

       here we are
              turning over
       this tainted page

to start again

       and healing the earth
              the earth heals us

our better place
              not a destination
a method

       common ground

*
ask
       what if words could fly
              and this poem rose into the blueness
                     a whirr of black italic wings

breath by breath
       a prayer
              to give life back to life
                     all of us
       pieces of the world

what if all the time we were searching
       the sky
              the birds
       were watching for us

what, if not cartwheeling
       what, if not care
              what, if not a cadence
       like love
              held lightly

Complement with a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s “Singularity” — a kindred-spirited poem about our creaturely and cosmic interconnectedness — and a young poet’s staggering response to it, then revisit Hannah Arendt on identity and the meaning of refugee and Toni Morrison on borders, belonging, and the meaning of home.

BP

Blessing Sound, Blessing Light: David Whyte’s Poems for the Small Miracles of Presence that Awaken Us to the Wonder of Being Alive

Cinematic songs of praise for the visible invisibilities and the silent symphonies that make life worth living.

Blessing Sound, Blessing Light: David Whyte’s Poems for the Small Miracles of Presence that Awaken Us to the Wonder of Being Alive

“Now I will do nothing but listen,” the young Walt Whitman resolved as he pressed his ear against the eternal song of being a century before Aldous Huxley found in the transcendent power of music a portal into the “blessedness lying at the heart of things.”

“Blessedness is within us all,” Patti Smith wrote in yet another century as she contemplated life, death, and love. (Which might, in the end, be one.)

Even for the unchurched among us, who worship at the altar of reality, blessedness can be a beautiful concept unbaggaged from religion. For me, blessedness is a feeling-tone of grateful wonder. That feeling-tone can come as symphonic as a total solar eclipse or as quiet as the rising tide. It can bless with the surprising cymbal of a robin’s egg out of time and out of place or with the murmuration of a moonlit tree. It can bless with Bach.

That feeling-tone of grateful wonder is what poet and philosopher David Whyte celebrates the “Blessings & Prayers” suite of poems found in his altogether vivifying collection The Bell and the Blackbird (public library).

Two of these poems — “Blessing for Sound” and “Blessing for the Light” — come alive as a ravishment of Irish landscape and music in Whyte’s collaboration with filmmaker Andrew Hinton and composer Owen Ó Súilleabháin for Emergence Magazine.

BLESSING FOR SOUND
from The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte

I thank you,
for the smallest sound,
for the way my ears open
even before my eyes,
as if to remember
the way everything began
with an original, vibrant, note,
and I thank you for this
everyday original music,
always being rehearsed,
always being played,
always being remembered
as something new
and arriving, a tram line
below in the city street,
gull cries, or a ship’s horn
in the distant harbour,
so that in waking I hear voices
even where there is no voice
and invitations where
there is no invitation
so that I can wake with you
by the ocean, in summer
or in the deepest seemingly
quietest winter,
and be with you
so that I can hear you
even with my eyes closed,
even with my heart closed,
even before I fully wake.

BLESSING FOR THE LIGHT
from The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte

I thank you, light, again,
for helping me to find
the outline of my daughter’s face,
I thank you light,
for the subtle way
your merest touch gives shape
to such things I could
only learn to love
through your delicate instruction,
and I thank you, this morning
waking again,
most intimately and secretly
for your visible invisibility,
the way you make me look
at the face of the world
so that everything, becomes
an eye to everything else
and so that strangely,
I also see myself being seen,
so that I can be born again
in that sight, so that
I can have this one other way
along with every other way,
to know that I am here.

Complement with Whyte on courage, anger and forgiveness, and his soul-slaking poem about the pathway to true love, then revisit Ronald Johnson’s transcendent prose poem about sound, science, and the soul and filmmaker Andrew Dawson’s tree-inspired visual poem based on Whyte’s lyric reflection on the meaning of closeness.

BP

Between Restlessness and Rapture: Autumn and the Sensual Urgency of Aliveness

A wildlife ecologist’s serenade to the season that makes you “want to linger long enough to hear every sound and look far enough to see into forever.”

Between Restlessness and Rapture: Autumn and the Sensual Urgency of Aliveness

When autumn comes with its ecstasy of sweetness in the orchard and its symphony of color in the forest, it staggers us with something difficult to name, some bewildering harmonic of the transcendent and the transient — each ripening apple an aria of delight, each bright falling leaf a sigh, a homily, a dirge without music.

Looking back on her life in its final year, the great French writer, actor, and mime Colette celebrated autumn and the autumn of life as a beginning, not a decline — the season of “those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving.” Two generations later, while navigating a season of bereavements, Pico Iyer discovered in autumn existential training ground for finding beauty in impermanence and light in loss. We call it “fall,” but something swells in us as the days grow shorter and the trees more skeletal — the quiet uprising of resilience that readies us for the self-renewal of wintering.

The Cowarne Apple, 1811. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (public library) — his love letter to the spirituality of science and the wonder of the wilderness — the poetic ornithologist and wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham considers the singular and sensual enchantment of autumn:

Fall is the time when nature speaks most clearly to me. In autumn one is treated to an orgy of sights, sounds, and smells that can be wonderfully overwhelming. The stifling late-summer heat is mercifully cleared by cooler air overnight. Breathing is suddenly easier and the soaking sweat evaporates. You want to inhale deeply enough to take in every molecule wafting on the wind. The tired sameness of September’s deep green fades then flames into October’s vermilion sumacs and scarlet maples, lemon-yellow poplars and golden hickories. In those days of crispness I want to linger long enough to hear every sound and look far enough to see into forever.

Reflecting on the natural restlessness the season seems to stir in us and other animals, he writes:

The Germans have a fine word for it: zugunruhe. A compound derived from the roots zug (migration) and unruhe (anxiety), it describes the seasonal migration of birds and other animals. In this wanderlust I want to go somewhere far away, to fly to some place I think I need to be. Nature is on the move, too, migrating, storing, and dying. Everything is either accelerating or slowing down. Some things are rushing about to put in seed for the next generation. A monarch butterfly in a field full of goldenrod is urgent on tissue-thin wings of black and orange to gather the surging sweetness before the frost locks it away. Apple trees and tangles of muscadines hang heavy. The fruit-dense orchards offer a final call to the wildlings. Foxes, deer, coons, possum, and wild turkeys fatten in the feasting. The air is spiced with the scent of dying leaves. The perfume of decay gathers as berries ripen into wild wine. Even the sun sits differently in an autumnal sky, sending a mellower light in somber slants that foretell the coming change.

The droning katydids, tired from their months-long work of filling the hot wet nights with song, hang on into October. But soon choirs of thousands dwindle to hundreds, and then just one or two. A persistent cricket tries hard to fiddle in time but the first freeze throws a wrench into his rhythm. The rustling riot of turning, falling leaves and the mysterious moonlit chirps of migrant songbirds winging their way to faraway places make my heart race… When the moon glows in a mid-November sky like a pallid sun, I, too, am so soaked in wanting and wood’s lust that I might as well wander like a warbler in the joyous urgency of it all.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Henry Beston — a father-figure for generations of such lyrical nature writers — on harvest and the human spirit, then revisit poet Diane Ackerman’s wonderful notion of living as an “Earth ecstatic” and a breathtaking animated poem about our connection to nature and each other, inspired by the seasonal migration of starlings.

BP

Naomi Shihab Nye’s Beloved Ode to Kindness, Animated

“Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.”

Naomi Shihab Nye’s Beloved Ode to Kindness, Animated

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Leo Tolstoy — a man of colossal compassion and colossal blind spots — wrote while reckoning with his life as it neared its end.

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac half-resolved, half-instructed an epoch later in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend.

Of course, even the best-intentioned of us are not capable of perpetual kindness, not capable of being our most elevated selves all day with everybody. If you have not watched yourself, helpless and horrified, transform into an ill-tempered child with a loved one or the unsuspecting man blocking the produce aisle with his basket of bok choy, you have not lived. Discontinuous and self-contradictory even under the safest and sanest of circumstances, human beings are not wired for constancy of feeling, of conduct, of selfhood. When the world grows unsafe, when life charges at us with its stresses and its sorrows, our devotion to kindness can short-circuit with alarming ease. And yet, paradoxically, it is often in the laboratory of loss and uncertainty that we calibrate and supercharge our capacity for kindness. And it is always, as Kerouac intuited, a practice.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop from her 1922 fairy-poems. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)

In 1978, drawing on a jarring real-life experience, Naomi Shihab Nye captured this difficult, beautiful, redemptive transmutation of fear into kindness in a poem of uncommon soulfulness and empathic wingspan that has since become a classic — a classic now part of Edward Hirsch’s finely curated anthology 100 Poems to Break Your Heart (public library); a classic reimagined in a lovely short film by illustrator Ana Pérez López and my friends at the On Being Project:

KINDNESS
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Complement with a fascinating cultural history of how kindness became our forbidden pleasure, Jacqueline Woodson’s letter to children about how we learn kindness, and George Sand’s only children’s book — a poignant parable about choosing kindness and generosity over cynicism and fear — then revisit other soul-broadening animated poems: “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “Murmuration” by Linda France, and “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry.

BP

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