Above the Wintry Fields

The poem “A Murmuration of Starlings” is by Heathcote Williams, the narration by Alan Cox.

After a visit to the Wordsworths in the Lake District,
Coleridge caught a glimpse from his stagecoach
Of a gigantic flock of birds as it swooped, rose then fell
Above the frozen, wintry fields of a passing farm.

It was November 1799 and he described the phenomenon
As “a vision” in his Journal, then detailed the way
This “vast flight” drove along “like smoke, and expanded
Then condensed”, then continually shifted shape.

First he saw the starlings as an arc, then as a globe –
A force field of matter that changed from an oblong
Into an ellipse, “glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy,
Now thickening, deepening and blackening!”

The vision stayed with him all his life – a mystery as to how
“The one be many.” How thousands of creatures
Operated as a single entity, performing extreme stunts
Of swirling acrobatics – free from gravitational pull.

Coleridge was at the time devising an ideal community,
A utopia, which he called a Pantisocracy,
And which, together with his fellow poet, Robert Southey,
He planned to introduce to America.

Now here were starlings creating a miraculous order
Just by instinct. It was an object lesson,
Spelled out by nature herself, as to how human beings
Might happily interact and co-operate.


Watching starlings, on Otmoor, two hundred years later
I saw them spelling out the same lesson:
A towering organism was moving in perfect formation
With no discernible leader. No President.

It whooshed through the air at forty miles an hour.
Each bird reacted to another bird’s movement
In a hundredth of a millisecond. They tumbled and banked
In synchronized, spatial symmetry – collision free.

They moved like iron filings drawn by a magnetic field
To create their sophisticated, aerial society;
A society that flies, instead of creeping along, suborned
By unnatural pressures and alien orders,

And the flock’s structure echoes the physics of magnetism
With each particle’s electron spin
Aligning with its neighbor’s in a symbiotic harmony
Like a metal entity becoming magnetized.

It hints at the discovery of a universal principle
Which seems to tap into a natural order:
A physiological mechanism, happening almost simultaneously,
In birds that are separated by hundreds of feet.

Since they can mimic us with an unusual facility
It shouldn’t be too hard to mimic them:
To rise high on nature rather than wrecking it;
To enjoy a life that no one can condemn.

There are no controlling starlings exercising force;
Not a single bird’s left behind in isolation.
Not one wastes time voting – they’d lose height if they did
It’s anarchy in motion, and a glorious revelation.

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