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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.

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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.

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The Peace of Wild Things: Wendell Berry’s Poetic Antidote to Despair, Animated

On where to seek refuge from the forethought of grief.

The Peace of Wild Things: Wendell Berry’s Poetic Antidote to Despair, Animated

Two hundred years ago, in a prophetic book envisioning a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, Mary Shelley considered what makes life worth living, insisting that in the midst of widespread death and despair, we must seek peace in the “murmur of streams, and the gracious waving of trees, the beauteous vesture of earth, and sublime pageantry of the skies.” A century later, Willa Cather — another immensely talented, immensely underappreciated novelist and poet laureate of the human spirit — contemplated the deepest wellspring of happiness and located it in those moments when, immersed in nature, we find ourselves “dissolved into something complete and great” — a line now emblazoned on Cather’s tombstone by her partner.

In another half-century, Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) — one of the great poets and wisest elders of our time — arrived at this elemental truth, a truth we so easily lose sight of in those times of despair when we most need it, articulating it with his uncommon tenderness and clarity of vision in the title poem of his 1968 collection The Peace of Wild Things (public library), composed under a thick cultural cloudscape of despair — at the peak of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, after the successive assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. King, in the wake of Silent Spring and its disquieting wakeup call for our broken relationship with nature.

Art from The Blue Hour by Isabelle Simler

Berry — a rare seer into those subterranean landscapes of being where nature meets human nature and a rare voice of our collective ecological conscience — reads the poem in this breathtaking short film, produced by On Being and illustrated by English artist Charlotte Ager.

THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

At the last Universe in Verse — my charitable celebration of science and the natural world through poetry — On Being creator and host Krista Tippett read Berry’s poem with a lovely prefatory meditation on how poetry gives us the language to remember our creaturely nature, which in turn reroots us in the larger web of belonging as “creatures among creatures”:

Complement with Wendell Berry on delight as a force of resistance, how to be a poet and a complete human being, his conscience-clarifying poem “Questionnaire,” and Krista’s soul-salving OnBeing conversation with him, then revisit two kindred-spirited animated poems: Marie Howe’s “Singularity” and Linda France’s “Murmuration.”

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We Are Water Protectors: An Illustrated Celebration of Nature, Native Heritage, and the Courage to Stand Up for Earth

An inspired signal from that sacred place where the spirit of wakeful action meets the bone of ancient wisdom.

We Are Water Protectors: An Illustrated Celebration of Nature, Native Heritage, and the Courage to Stand Up for Earth

“Every story is a story of water,” Native American poet Natalie Diaz wrote in her stunning ode to her heritage, the language of the Earth, and the erasures of history.

We ourselves are a story of water — biologically and culturally, in our most elemental materiality and our mightiest metaphors.

From author Carole Lindstrom, member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, and artist Michaela Goade, member of the Central Council of the Tlingit a Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, comes We Are Water Protectors (public library) — a lyrical illustrated celebration of cultural heritage and the courage to stand up for nature.

Inspired by the landmark locus of courage and resistance at Standing Rock — the 2016 movement that magnetized people from more than five hundred indigenous nations and thousands of allies to take a stance against the Dakota Access Pipeline, against its concrete assault on a particular piece of land and against its general symbolism as ominous emblem of extractionism — the book invites young people to cast themselves as agents of change and stewards of the natural world.

In the author’s afterword, Lindstrom explains that in Ojibwe culture, women are considered the protectors of the water and men of the fire. In her tradition, there is a prophecy that paints two possible roads from the present to the future: One is the natural path, embracing the sacred relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world long before biologists and ecologists discovered that “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human”; the other is a path of unnatural acceleration, propelled by greed and mindless technological frenzy.

In the prophecy, this second path is strewn with black snakes — a symbolic image ominously reflected in the actuality of the oil pipelines that cross-hatch Native lands with their grim message of turning nature from a source of life-wide vitality and reverence to a resource for human need and greed.

Goade — who grew up in the coastal rainforests of Alaska, with an embodied awareness of the intricate relationship between water and life, and is the first Native artist to earn the Caldecott Medal, the Nobel Prize of children’s book illustration — amplifies the story’s message with her vibrant artwork drawing on motifs from Native folklore and mythology.

Radiating from the spirit of the story is a reflection of the touching message to the next generations, with which Rachel Carson said her farewell to life after awakening the ecological conscience of the American mainstream:

Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.

Complement We Are Water Protectors with the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd on the might and mystery of water and a stunning animated poem about our connection to Earth and to each other, then revisit another soulful illustrated celebration of nature in The Blue Hour.

Illustrations courtesy of Roaring Brook Press; photographs by Maria Popova

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