Extraordinary, mysterious and beautiful. And happening live, in front of us, right here, right now.
At the beginning of part two of his autobiography, Clive James comments on his first sight of snow and the English cityscapes, noting: ‘what I was seeing was a familiar [sight] made strange by being actual instead of transmitted through cultural intermediaries’. Replace the word ‘strange’ in that sentence with ‘make-you-weep wonderful’ and you have something of what it was like to see a murmuration of starlings. I’ve seen them on TV and youtube, seen the images reproduced in magazines and greetings cards—and they were all lovely. But seeing it live? “Another Level”, as they say.
Seeing a murmuration was an early entry on my list of Things. A couple of years ago I had an arrangement with a friend to go to Leighton Moss nature reserve to see one… only it was Saturday 5th December 2015, and no-one in Cumbria was going anywhere that day. Desmond. Then last year, one afternoon in November I was stomping back up the hill to my house to see some clients, and bumped into another friend. Her face lit with excitement and possibility, she told me she was on her way to watch a murmuration. I hope I didn’t betray quite how ungraciously envious I felt inside as I wished her well. But she was the person I asked if she’d like to try and see one this year. In much the same quietly kind way as she’d helped out at my birthday party, she did lots of research, and kept an eye on relevant websites, and eventually was able to suggest a day when we could both make it, and the chances were good. (When you live on your own, you so much appreciate people doing things for you. Getting the bin taken out is marvellous, never mind something like this, which involved all sorts of planning and finding out and checking.) All I had to do was make sure that I had enough layers on. For someone as flushily peri-menopausal as I am, probably a t-shirt and shorts would do.
In the event, the acupuncture and red clover seem to be doing something about my temperature regulation, and it was a darkly-grey and icy day, so we did need quite a few layers. My sister happened to be staying, so we shared out the warm clothes between us. I ended up with 2 long-sleeve t-shirts, 2 coats, a scarf and some gloves; Susie had a thermal vest, a thick, cowl-necked jumper, the deep-green fake-fur coat, a fleece, a scarf and gloves, all crammed underneath her trademark, startlingly-pink cagoule. I didn’t dare look to see what I looked like. Susie reminded me of a toddler forcibly wrapped up by a concerned parent; also of the illustrations of Violet Beauregarde after she’s eaten the chewing gum and turned into a giant blueberry—all unaccustomed rotundity, with teeny limbs poking out at odd angles at the corners. Friends, we were making sure.
When we arrived at the site, there were already a few cars parked up at the side of the single-track, cattle-gridded road. Encouraging. It was the kind of road that has snow markers at the side of it, with various black lines banded across them, and a red zone at their top (if snow’s there, it means get the fuck home. Now). There was a large, elegant white bird at marshy section of the fell just near the road’s edge. To my highly untrained eye it looked like a white heron—I don’t even know if such a thing exists—but according to some highly-binoculared bystanders, it was some kind of egret. I didn’t really care what it was; it was beautiful, and it felt special to see it. That’s enough for me.
We strode up and down the track for a while, to keep warm. Grass in the large, frozen puddles was white-rimmed, arrested in elegant horizontal waves, clearly-articulated beneath the thick ice. The sky lowered, the sun merely a lighting-effect behind pewter-grey crowds. A small group of birds flew across, left to right, towards the copse where the starlings roost… HEY!!! A small group of birds. And then another, larger group! And then another! Slowly it built, with streams of birds coming in from different directions, each group having its own separate celebration in the sky and then becoming a part of the great and glorious moving mass which swirled and clustered tightly and expanded and rolled and clumped into a ball and lowered and rose high and swooped and swept and danced on and on and on. The shape of the murmuration reminded me of the way ink (or blood) will move in water, an unplanned and yet somehow co-ordinated blossoming and expansion of beauty which flows and twists and lilts. It was also like a shaken blanket, a moving, living ripple which ceaselessly reconfigured itself into new and extraordinary shapes of beauty. Wow, Susie said under her breath, just about exactly the same time as I did.* (That’s twice, recently, I’ve got to hear her moved to a quiet recognition of the beauty of the world. My cup, already brimming, overflowed.)
The murmuration also brought to mind a moment I had when snorkelling in Cyprus this summer. I was within 20 yards of the rocky beach, swimming over groups of rocks very near the surface and moving in and out of pockets of sun-warmed water. Turning round a “corner” of some rocks into an unexpectedly deeper, colder stretch of water, I surprised a shoal of thousands upon thousands of small, silver-yellow fish, which one moment were hanging every-which-way in the water, quietly going about their fishy business and the next moment, on seeing me, had instantly and mysterious realigned themselves with each other, like filings around a magnet. They swam-swarmed over and round me, the many in some unintelligible way having become one. With the fish, the added dimension was that I was in the same world as these mysteriously co-ordinated beings; so numerous were they that I actually felt the water move as they flowed past me. The unexpected delight with the murmuration was the noise. Nothing was noticeable at first, but as the mass gathered the sound of song grew louder and louder. It was hard to believe that this small copse could absorb these massed thousands of birds as they settled to roost; but it did, and by the end of the event the whole wood was throbbing and pulsing with their calls, loud as a waterfall even though the copse was a good 300 yards away. Hard to believe this was all real, and we’d been there. The sense of privilege was enormous.
It didn’t hurt that the murmuration-site was about ten minutes’ drive from a great tea-shop attached to a handmade chocolate workshop, where—although it was 5 minutes till closing—the kind waiting-on staff brought us fragrant tea and gently-warmed cakes to comfort us as we thawed. But even without such luxuries, this was a truly marvellous experience. Crying tears of joy and wonder while wearing a snorkel doesn’t work; I can confirm that. It means spluttering, snot and a rapid re-surface. This time, the tears of wonder froze on my cheeks as I wept them, glittering and unspeakably precious, like diamonds. How good it can be, to be alive on this wonderful earth.
*For more about the importance of delight and amazement, see ‘When Death Comes’.
**My photos are not good, though they serve their purpose of reminding me. To see someone’s else’s film of a murmuration at this site, look here.