Sunday, July 8, 2012

In Search of the Transdimensional: Murmurations

I was sent a link to the above Vimeo (by Sophie Windsor Clive & Liberty Smith) by a friend, not long ago, which really set my mind whirling. I didn't connect it with recent work, but, in a strange way, it and my recent preoccupation with nature - specifically the woods behind my house - do somewhat go hand in hand, so to speak. The Green Man is all over my psyche these days.

Currently I'm working on an illustration for an old children's story of mine... about a wood-elf. No, I'm not referring to Tolkien's variety - as lovely as they may be - nor the pretty little Victorian fairy variety either. Without going into detail, however, I've felt oddly connected to the natural world again... in the way that healthy children generally are, and my current illustration features a bird and a beech tree. So, it's all about birds and trees... and bugs.... and, for an artist, the amazing spaces in-between.

I've heard of murmurations before... which is a rather perfect word describing a flock of starlings... but what few clips I've seen never did justice to the actual phenomenon itself, which is fairly astounding.

Starlings, of course, at least the variety one sees around the east coast of the USA, are fairly obnoxious birds, and the most scruffy, least attractive birds I've ever seen. But then, I've never witnessed a murmuration... I'm not even sure they occur here... certainly none so remarkable as the ones shown in this video of Otmoor below. And the starlings across the pond are quite handsome in their own way, though, apparently, not terribly popular there, any more than they are here.

In any case, after viewing the video above - and really, the reaction of the women at the end is priceless -  I consulted Youtube and found two videos composed by Dylan Winter featuring some breathtaking starling formations over Otmoor, England.

A European Starling

Interestingly enough, Otmoor and its environs were said to be an occasional haunt for Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll. His chessboard in Through the Looking-glass was said to be inspired by Otmoor and the area is known to this day as Alice's Meadow(Note: Not only are European Starlings under attack, but apparently Otmoor was, too, till concerned citizens rallied and saved it from the bulldozers! See here.)

According to Winter's short documentary (found here) murmurations happen every day throughout the winter! Winter makes a tepid case for predation habits and social status as an explanation for the birds' behavior... but I get the impression that he's no more convinced than I am.

A predator's search strategy? Starlings maneuvering for social position...? Somehow I think there's more to the phenomenon than simplistic biological explanations. Why then do starlings take part in such remarkable displays of aerodynamics? My guess is because they can. And these displays are not motivated by biological needs but - dare I say - are inspired by needs and abilities humans can just barely understand. We do, however, engage in sports - feats of physical prowess exhibiting the capabilities of the human body to conquer limitations imposed by the three dimensions of the "solid" world. "See what we can do?" is our implication as we turn our somersaults, or fly thru the air over an ice-skating rink.

I think the birds are doing the same. "Ah, but see what we can do?" they seem to be saying. And don't you just wonder how they do it? How thousands of birds can form massive currents in the air with their bodies, synchronized in ways no human can imitate? Apparently science affords us no answers. Not even the most complex algorithm can explain what we're seeing. And, keep in mind we are only seeing these formations from one angle at a time. (!) 

The bird's odd dance has an almost alien, enchanted quality - like something you might find in one of Merriam Zimmer Bradley's Arthurian tales. I think of Lewis Carroll and his marvelous looking-glass. I think of old wives tales and folk tales featuring sorcerers and harbingers of death. I think of moire patterns and broken symmetry... I think of M.C. Escher and his tessellations.

by M.C. Escher

But I wonder, is this a transdimensional phenomena we're witnessing... an indication of some vast organic fabric of which we can only glimpse - or wholly miss -  through  our telescopic lenses and Hadron colliders? Can the discovery of any "god-particles" really fill in the gaps in our knowledge? I've often felt that animals, and wild-life in general know a great deal more than they're able to let on... but then, perhaps, "knowing" is somehow different for the denizens of the natural world. I suspect that the starlings effortlessly and gracefully gliding over Otmoor are not thinking about or planning their activities, writing "How To" books, or uploading themselves on to Facebook. They have no need for words, diagrams or marketing strategies... they're simply utilizing elements of physical reality we have little recognition of, coupled with abilities to traverse space and time in ways that render our mass-transit systems (and mass-communicaation systems) clumsy and infantile.

So, here's to birds, particularly starlings - godspeed, feathered cosmonauts!


PS: Synchronistically, that night, after writing this post, I was watching a PBS mystery centered around the theme of Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark". From the Wiki article:

"Here is how Carroll "explained" the Snark in 1887: I was walking on a hillside, alone, one bright summer day, when suddenly there came into my head one line of verse – one solitary line – For the Snark was a Boojum, you see. I knew not what it meant, then: I know not what it means, now; but I wrote it down: and, sometime afterwards, the rest of the stanza occurred to me, that being its last line: and so by degrees, at odd moments during the next year or two, the rest of the poem pieced itself together, that being its last stanza.

In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."


PPS: Regarding a comment I made on this post regarding magnetism, I happened to find this article about the earth's magnetic fields and it's effects on animals. Could our starlings be utilizing these magnetic fields for their own purposes? 

Got me. But it doesn't really rule out transdimensionalism... as I suppose one can view a magnetic field as a kind of transdimension... ;-)


7/20/12 UPDATE: I found this unfortunate afterword to my murmuration post on Graham Hancock's news page tonight. Guess it's a quick trip from the "invasive" list to the "endangered" list these days...


  1. A most superb post! You delve deeply into the psyche and pull out some interesting questions. The video stuns....and frightens (to an extent) the logical mind -- how the HELL do they DO that?? It is both beautiful and yet, completely alien -- but so very thrilling to watch.

    As you point out, we only see one dimension of the wave form and one has to wonder how it appears from other vantage points. Are these avian magicians following some wave/particle force we cannot experience nor see -- and how do they syncronize so perfectly??

    Questions..are all that are left....along with a sense of complete wonder....and somehow, I think the wonder is far more satifsying than a simple explanation.

    Excellent Post!

    1. Wow, thanks - it took me long enough getting another post up. And it goes without saying that without your singular show of enthusiasm and input I'd have stopped blogging months ago. Really.

      Yes, I suppose it's very literally a sort of visible wave/particle thing! The kicker is that the birds never collide - no accidents ever! Pretty mind-boggling...

      But, I concur - the best part of a mystery is the mystery itself! :-)

    2. Speaking of mysteries... a little like Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark - see post update! :-)

  2. Ah...the update....well, the Murmurations are the boojum as well -- not to be explained without a hat, a fish, a scale and sixteen tea cups...and then, not even easily explained at all.

    Singular show of enthusiam eh? See? There is a lack of wonder in the world -- due, I think, to a lack of Murmurations and tea cups.

    1. All true... but, at least I know one Mad Hatter! ;-)

  3. Very nice post Dia, many thanks for the God Particle link. I saw this video when it circulated and have often wondered how birds and fish move in synchronized fashion. It almost looks like they have a telepathic link, so to speak. Perhaps this is more conventionally described in terms of a collective physical activity that sports team players might well understand - 'getting into a groove' or a common frame of mind where everyone is on the same wavelength, so much so that each team player can anticipate a fellow's actions. I have heard actors talk about a similar experience when they improvise with each other. I've also heard of it, and experienced it to some degree, among academics when they get deep into a discussion and begin intensively bouncing ideas around, forsaking the individual view for a collective synchronized experience.

    1. Hey, thanks for stopping by! Re: god-particle link - no brainer; your essays are the best!

      Yeah, I'd probably agree that it was merely an easily explained example of synchronization if it were all in one linear collective movement... and there wasn't thousands of these birds. But, you'll note in Winter's video, that they're several waves of birds interacting at one time... a sort of ordered chaos that's far more sophisticated than one might expect.

      The seem to be "riding" on something... and remind me of piles of iron particles being manipulated with a magnet...