As the afternoon begins to wind down, a soft sound fills the sky from an unseen source. It begins to get louder, and louder, as my eyes cast about the terrain looking the cause of the interruption of silence.
I am sitting peacefully, mediating, looking over the water, a small lake, surrounded by oaks and maples that have already surrendered their leaves for the season.
There is a distinct chill in the air, and, at the risk of sounding cliché, I know what all of nature knows: winter is descending.
They come in for a landing. Ducks. Hundreds of them, landing on the lake, in their annual migration.
As I’m writing this, I open Google to search for their exact species name, and am disturbed to realize that the vast majority of “waterfowl migration” websites are duck hunting websites. The sadness lingers in my chest for a moment, before I can come back to these words.
These beautiful red-headed ducks chirp and chatter as they descend, but it’s the sound of their wings that I am listening to, a gentle, sweeping sound, barley discernable under the honking.
The sound of wings would fill the air like a strong wind if there weren’t so much Duck Talk going on.
I imagine myself being a duck and wondering why all my brothers and sisters are talking so much. As a human, I am very moved by non-verbal communication.
The ducks’ orange webbed feet skid in for a landing, the water splashing with the sound of a rain shower, and then, instantly, everything falls silent. They’ve landed. There is silence.
The behavior of flying in a flock of hundreds fascinates me.
Ducks like these exemplify it, but Starlings have made it famous: the effect known as “murmuration.”
A murmuration of starlings sweeps across the sky in the thousands, reforming, sweeping, swirling, dancing, all as one. It looks like they’re dancing, just having fun. And the shapes the flock takes resemble a constantly changing rorschach blot. An award winning photography series by Daniel Biber cin 2018 captured a starling murmuration where the shape the flock takes becomes a giant starling in the sky.
It’s a fascinating behavior, and Starlings are about the most eloquent symphony to watch, even when they are not forming a fractal pattern that resembles a giant bird.
At the individual level, the murmuration phenomenon is relatively straightforward: when a neighbor moves, so do you. Depending on the flock’s size and speed and its members’ flight physiologies, the large-scale pattern changes. When a flock turns in unison, it’s called a phase transition ~ the same phenominon that causes water to become ice instantly, when it reaches the correct temperature. Turns out, laws of physics apply to biology, too.
There is no better metaphor for understanding collective consciousness than a murmuration.
Humans use different words for this phenomena: we call it shoaling in fish, flocking in birds, swarming in insects, herding in land animals. In human behavior, it’s useful to view society as a large-scale murmuration.
From ideologies that societies hold, to patterns of behavior we belief, adopt and accept because we are influenced to do so by our neighbors, mom and dad, marketing agencies, politicians, and so forth.
In human society, we witness ideological murmurations.
What scientists do not understand about the murmuration of starlings is how “critical mass” is reached. How, spontaneously, does the entire flock turn on a dime, and instantaneously create a new form? This is not a choreographed ballet, and no one has filed a flight plan with the control tower. It just happens, spontaneously, and all individuals are affected, all at once.
All water, at 32 degrees F, turns to ice. No individual water molecule has any say in the matter whatsoever. To the extent that Starlings have free will, a rogue flyer or two or 10 could opt-out of the murmuration. Or could they? Is group behavior so strong when it reaches critical mass that it overrides free will?
And how does this apply to human behavior?
When we’re living in a society where the zeitgeist of norms no longer serves us, when enough individuals agree to disagree with the patterns of behavior we have been living with for so long, that we achieve critical mass, then, a new pattern arises.
And society undergoes a phase shift, just as Starlings create a new shape in the air.
That’s the best metaphor there is for the transition human global civilization is undergoing in our lifetimes. We are witnessing a great murmuration, perhaps the greatest one since the Renaissance of DaVinci; perhaps the greatest one since the evolution of Homo Sapiens.
This societal phase shift is precipitated by nothing less than the convergent crises of global warming, the end of the age of fossil fuels, the collapse of the patriarchic systems of control.
The Zen Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, one of the most influential spiritual leaders on Earth, has said that the 20th century has been characterized by war, violence, hate and greed.
If we are to survive, the 21st century must be one of peace and spirituality.
That’s the direction of the phase shift I am working for.
Possibly our great murmuration could go another direction, but it’s important to look in the direction we want to go, to influence the great human murmuration.