On New Year’s Eve, seeking to escape 2020 and draw a hopeful line between it and the future, my husband and I drove from Santa Fe, where we live, to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 95 miles south of Albuquerque. Established in 1939 on the western bank of the Rio Grande, its 57,000-plus acres serve as a resting place for migrating birds. The fall’s high season, with mass ascensions of cranes at dawn and roads clotted with birders carrying long-lensed cameras, was over. There were few cars, few people.
We arrived in the late morning. The land had the distinctive palette of the southwestern winter, muted gray-greens, tans, yellows, dark tamarind orange. Leafless cottonwood trees bared their black trunks. Mountains west and east undulated gray and mauve. The sky above was a flawless blue, the marsh water below reflecting it to the point of glare. Despite the interstate a few miles away, everything was still.
Once the West was all open space like this and humans the anomaly. Now the situation has been reversed. In the grand scheme of western things, 57,000 acres is nothing. Beautiful and laudable as it is, the Bosque is a kind of zoo, a place where people can come and see what once was everywhere. We slowed at the sight of a raccoon up a tree, busy gnawing on something. Unafraid, it held my gaze as if to say, Yes, not all wildlife is domesticated, imprisoned, or endangered. I was glad to be reminded.
We inched along the levee roads, gazing out across fields and water. A few ducks, fine. Then, rounding a corner to a cornfield, we came upon hundreds of cranes poking around in its harvested stubble, periodically taking flight in elongated pairs. And thousands of starlings. As we watched, those starlings rose in a dark cloud that wheeled, thickened, thinned. Individual birds were hard to make out, but I could sense specificity in the collective, the distinct energies that make up a crowd. Then they dropped to the ground to forage before ascending again.
The internet is full of footage of this phenomenon, from England, the Netherlands, San Francisco. A murmuration, it’s called, after the onomatopoetic Latin murmuratio, the sound like water moving, only with more clicks, the exuberant scratching of a thousand twigs against a resistant surface. A shape-shifting, swooping, pulsing mass, emergent behavior, hive mind.
How to describe the thread connecting what was in front of me and the leap in my chest, the tick of expansion and recognition some kinds of beauty bring? I took out my phone. It’s what we do, isn’t it? Freeze our lives in order to reassure ourselves that what happened, happened? I filmed the murmuration to preserve it and by doing so diminished it. It was no longer a wonder unfolding in real time, an experience uniquely mine, but something flattened and bled of its uniqueness. Immediacy and subjectivity were erased. The unshareable could now be shared. I sent the video to friends, revelation as product.
I’m a child of New England, though I’ve lived in New Mexico for 40 years. In the East, nature is tamer, the fields divided by stone walls, the mountains soft and round. I remember driving across the country for the first time in my early 20s, seeing with astonishment the Rockies rise behind Denver, the vast skies of Montana. Also, the raw cuts of interstates, the trailer parks and strip malls, the heaps of rusted cars. So much of what people had done to the land was ugly to me. If they would only look up, I thought with youthful intolerance, be inspired by the grandeur and mystery around them. But it seemed they were determined to look down, wanting smallness that could be controlled.
There’s an economic twist to that observation, I know now, and it doesn’t apply just on this side of the Mississippi. Junk in a yard doesn’t mean people don’t appreciate nature. Maybe they don’t have the money to cart it away. Life is expensive, and often aesthetics come last. But beauty doesn’t have to cost. So much of it is free. The West is big, it’s wild, it invites profound questions and reflection. I know for myself all that space, internal and external, can be scary.
We sat and watched those starlings for what seemed like an hour, though it was likely half that. I decided my New Year’s resolution was to be like them, responsive to instinct, aligned with the realities of any given moment, ready to pivot on a dime. I’ve learned since that those bird movements are likely ways to share information about where food is and to avoid predators. The starlings follow those closest to them. Their behavior suggests the physics of magnetism. We humans could learn a lot.
We moved on. Another marsh was full of ducks, some bottoms-up, backsides resembling tulips just beginning to unfurl. Look, my husband said with quiet wonder, pointing further. What I had taken for light on water was thousands of snow geese, white backs reflecting the sky.
It’s easy to appreciate a scene like that, gorgeous and nonthreatening. But COVID-19 is part of nature and so are wildfires, drought, and hurricanes. We can’t cull them from the whole. Sentiment about the way we want things to be, nostalgia for the way they once were (though they were likely not that way, at least in their totality), builds a fence around what is, domesticates it, robs it of nuance and vitality. It’s also a characteristic of our society, not least the West with its many myths. We romanticize nature, take pictures that tell only part of the story. The Bosque is lovely. I wish it didn’t have to exist.
We stayed several hours, though that time seemed both shorter and longer. At the end of our visit, we walked through thicket to the Rio Grande, flowing wide and muddy with more water than expected in a drought year. Then back in the car and onto the interstate north, past outdated political billboards and dun-colored subdivisions, shuttered multiplexes and office parks with For Sale signs, gradually reentering human time and the arbitrary prospect of a new year. Sandia Crest hunched over Albuquerque’s unlovely sprawl. We were halfway home. The memory of murmuration began to fade.
About the top photo: With their dark swarming patterns, starling murmurations are perhaps the most stunning presentations of this phenomenon. Birds may fly as a flock for safety from predators or perhaps to stay warm. The image at top was captured in Gretna, Scotland. In addition to the murmurations taking place in San Antonio, New Mexico (as described in this essay), acrobatic starlings have been wowing audiences recently in Marin County.