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

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 noteWith 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:*
because we love the way dawn wakes up
and switches night to daya sudden sweep of daisies in a green field
like counting stars
       losing count
              starting over again

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
              then we can hear the hiss of rain
       common ground
what if couldn’t-care-less cared more
and we let the murmur of change
              change our ways
       if you love the bird, don’t cage it
       even love’s not enough
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.
on any high hilltop, breathing this air,
this precious air, remember those who lost their breath
       and healing the earth
              the earth heals us
       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
       we know we too are rock and star
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.
hear the roots of trees
dark soil’s cavernous memories
       tectonic plates shift
this is the patience of the albatross
       a cormorant’s hunger
craning for a flash of silver
       beneath the water
              isn’t this how we learn not to fear
       the seasons
              that mark time
shape our lives
       love the kiss of a dandelion clock
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
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:
nowhere else to go
              home for the winged
it’s just this
              our words
       building this home we share
       these bridges
you wake to a dawn
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
like fruit in season
the secret language of earth
                     underland of coal, uranium, oil
belong together
it’s just this       us
       the people
              our footsteps
walking into all this wonder
       every day through every weather
by Linda France
till we trust enough
              to fly together
       synchronised       one vast voice
all different, all the same
              to mend our wounded earth
breath by breath
       a prayer
              to give life back to life
                     all of us
       pieces of the world
       atom by atom
       cell by cell
       what else matters
our better place
              not a destination
a method
the sting of cold sea on tight, red skin
making a stand
              for a different future
imagine we’re made of those slivers of sky
       know all the colours of light
ballads of continents crossed
       comrades lost to storm or predator
              the shockwave moving through the flock
the good omen of a crescent moon
       milky stars
              set in new stories
meadow orchids
       skeins of geese
follow the almost invisible path through the heather
summer’s easy grin, the slow smile of autumn
gaze of winter starlight
       spangles of sunlight on a river
       otters rippling
       in the city that birthed us
       bright tufts that grow in the cracks
tomorrow comes soon
a chance to constellate honesty
escape heroic fantasies
       gravity’s boots
the pull of the moon
       waves that crash with forgotten history
              the rubbed edges of the world
                     a spider crab scurrying sideways
we will never have this time again
              can never rewind this moment
                     the path between
so what if’s rubbed out
       and becomes what is
but now              on the tip of our tongue
what is
       is more than the ear can hear
or eye see —
              home for the prickly, those that slither
                     climb or crawl
                            for us all
see how we flit
       twist swell
co-mingle       co-exist       co-inhere
what, if not cartwheeling
       what, if not care
              what, if not a cadence
       like love
              held lightly
       the twist and fall
              the surging sweeping joy of it all
              the visceral thrill
              tunnel of trees
              those little paths one-person-wide
              between hazel and ash
              warm bark
                     the planet’s rage
where heather meets heaven
       if you love the flower, don’t pick it
       here we are
              turning over
       this tainted page
sit like a mountain
all weathers
in our hearts
       what if words could fly
              and this poem rose into the blueness
                     a whirr of black italic wings
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
life, damp grass between bare toes
light passing through poppy petals
the slow unfolding of a rose
       our neighbours busy in their vegetable patch
       the daylit gate
              indifference banished by love
       we feel it all, drink it in and love it
all the maybes, all the small things
       we touch
              gentle, curious
and let pass
wind-suck and time disappears
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
to start again
       what if our flutterings become feathers
              the starlings lend us their wings
              we’ll miss the starlings when April comes
what if all the time we were searching
       the sky
              the birds
       were watching for us
love honey, love bees
the smell of dust, hot rain
a damson tree
       dripping purple fruits
       if you love wild things, let them be
April high tide
hurls driftwood
a wreckage of shells
       we love the roaring isles
       the taste of a peach
more shades of green
than words scream Life!
power to the parliament of rooks
       how much would you pay to hear the sound
of rain
       or birdsong