How It’s Meant to Be


There comes a time in every fall
before the leaves begin to turn
when blackbirds group and flock and gather
choosing a tree, a branch, together
to click and call and chorus and clamor
announcing the season has come for travel.

Then comes a time when all those birds
without a sound or backward glance
pour from every branch and limb
into the air, as if on a whim
but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass
a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance

and now the tree stands breathless, amazed
at how it was chosen, how it was changed.

~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing

…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head
a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air

and when I turned my face upward
I saw a flock of blackbirds
rounding a curve I didn’t know was there
and the sound was simply all those wings,
all those feathers against air, against gravity
and such a beautiful winning:
the whole flock taking a long, wide turn
as if of one body and one mind.

How do they do that?

If we lived only in human society
what a puny existence that would be

but instead we live and move and have our being
here, in this curving and soaring world
that is not our own
so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives
and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together
toward a common good,

we can think to ourselves:

ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be.
~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.

The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is actually muffled weeping.

A Muffled Whuff

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Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

 

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Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me.  I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.

Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions.  It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t.  It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t.  They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound.

We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA.  Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks.  We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, going our own way bumping and crashing without care.

We have lost our internal moral compass.

We shoot each other in the backs, even during school lessons or listening to music or engaging in acts of worship.  We watch each other bleed and die.

And do nothing yet again.

The sound of silence is muffled weeping.

 

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Bereft in Winter

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Silence and darkness grow apace,
broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods.
Songbirds abandon us so gradually that,
until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay,
we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death.
Even the sun has gone off somewhere…
Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed,
and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.  

~Jane Kenyon from “Good-by and Keep Cold”

___________

Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.   The usual day-long symphony of birdsong of the rest of the year is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering, the occasional dog barking, with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth.    The horses confined to their stalls in the barns snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.

Last weekend I was startled by the cacophony of a starling murmuration or “rumble”, hundreds rising and falling together in mass over the farm, landing brashly in our treetops and bleaching the ground beneath with their droppings, shattering the silence for an hour before moving on to another piece of real estate.  Our farm was quiet once again.

The chilly silence of the darkened days is now interrupted by gunfire percussion, no melody at all.  There are no morning birdsong arias,  leaving me bereft of their blending musical tapestry that in a few short months will wake me at 4 AM. There is no peeper orchestra from the swamps in the evenings, their symphonies rising and falling on the breeze.

It is too too quiet and I’m left bereft, hungry for a song, any song. I listen intently for the familiar early morning and evening serenades returning.

It’s not long now.

 

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The Human Season

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I speak this poem now with grave and level voice   
In praise of autumn, of the far-horn-winding fall.
I praise the flower-barren fields, the clouds, the tall   
Unanswering branches where the wind makes sullen noise.
I praise the fall: it is the human season.
                                                                  Now
No more the foreign sun does meddle at our earth,   
Enforce the green and bring the fallow land to birth,   
Nor winter yet weigh all with silence the pine bough,
But now in autumn with the black and outcast crows   
Share we the spacious world: the whispering year is gone:   
There is more room to live now: the once secret dawn   
Comes late by daylight and the dark unguarded goes.
Between the mutinous brave burning of the leaves   
And winter’s covering of our hearts with his deep snow   
We are alone: there are no evening birds: we know   
The naked moon: the tame stars circle at our eaves.
It is the human season. On this sterile air
Do words outcarry breath: the sound goes on and on.   
I hear a dead man’s cry from autumn long since gone.
I cry to you beyond upon this bitter air.
~Archibald Macleish “Immortal Autumn”

 

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Muffled Whuff

photo by Steve Balcombe, Scotland
photo of a starling murmuration taken by Steve Balcombe, Scotland

Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared,
then another, and another.
It was the starlings going to roost. 
They gathered deep in the distance,  flock sifting into flock,
and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke.
They seemed to unravel as they flew,
lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. 
I didn’t move;
they flew directly over my head for half an hour. 

Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down
in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except
that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced.
The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye.
Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff.
Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig,
right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.

Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now,
birds winging through the gaps between my cells,
touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet?
~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

 

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