Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
So begins “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. Rereading this poem is, for me, the perfect way to unwrap the winter season. Start with the ribbons — great flocks of blackbirds twisting in the early November sky.
Nothing brings stark definition to the pale light on the cold side of the equinoxes quite like blackbirds. Stevens, himself an odd bird with a poet’s heart stuffed inside a lawyer’s dark suit, stuffed inside an insurance office in Hartford, saw this so clearly. He got it all down in 13 quick stanzas — an odd dark number — that perfectly captures the strange dance of animus and bleakness that is winter. Some of it is achingly beautiful.
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
I have stopped several times in recent weeks to look at blackbirds. Not by fours and twenties, but by four and twenty thousands. Usually, you hear them before you see them. It sounds like Yankee Stadium pitched upwards a few kilohertz. Look up and you will see them taking the place of recently departed leaves in great naked trees. If you are looking straight up, it is best to move out from under; when birds overhead number in the thousands, you are soon to be anointed.
I remember walking with friends through a stand of sycamore trees near a rushing river on a rainy day in rural Pennsylvania many years ago. The sound of the rain and the river blended with the cacophony of tens of thousands of blackbirds overhead. So, as we moved along rapt in conversation, we weren’t immediately aware of what we had walked into — literally. The ground was white with bird droppings. We bawds of euphony cried out sharply once we understood what we were standing in, startling the great assembly above. The black horde launched itself at once, and the reflexive beat of a hundred thousand wings cast a mighty freighted downdraft upon us. But for our slickers, we would have been lost.
It is one of the great sights in nature when one of these metropolis-sized avian populations takes wing at once to fill the sky. It roils and coalesces, rolls out, and turns in on itself, finding direction as a whole with thousands of independently moving parts. Somehow it locates the next cornfield feed or tree-top roost.
The cohesion of these flocks has always intrigued scientists. Back in the 1930s, one prevailing hypothesis was that the group constituted a kind of telepathic cloud, communicating movement and intention instantaneously between the individual members of the flock. But that raised the question: Is there one conductor bird somehow making all the decisions? “Left, no right! Up, c’mon, higher! No, wait, let’s land over there!” This was a theory that was still seriously considered as late at the 1970s.
In recent years, mathematicians and computer animation experts have gotten into the act. They suspected that there are some simple rules that transform the chaos of thousands of independent birds into the order of a flock. Using computer models, they were able to try out various flocking theories.
Craig Reynolds, an MIT grad and Academy Award winner for science and engineering in computer animation, created flocking computer entities called “boids,” and he gave them three simple rules to follow: maintain a minimum distance from other objects including other boids; steer toward the perceived average heading of the flock; and move toward the average position or center of the flock. The resulting simulation, which you can see at www.red3d.com/cwr/boids, mimics exactly flocking birds in nature.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
Wallace Stevens reminds me of why these three rules of flocking seem so familiar. They are rules of the road: keep your distance; stay on the road; and don’t speed or stop suddenly. If my fellow commuters and I were freed to roam the skies in our cars, it would feel quite natural for us to pitch and yaw between horizons en masse like blackbirds.
But in the pale light on the cold side of the equinoxes, the road is not where I want to be. Every road has a destination, and ultimately my road always leads home. That is where my little flock is. That is where I want to roost as winter closes in. And that is how “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” ends.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.