by Amanda Higgin
Xanda and I sit at a coffee shop window overlooking Cornmarket, exchanging forecasts for the term ahead as we warm our hands around drinks. Xanda is drinking green tea; I’m in dire straights with my collections revision, so I’m on coffee. I’ve been complaining about the need to make life choices, although right now that mostly means internship applications. The prospect of irrevocable decisions is intimidating, okay?
My cup rattles in its saucer as the table vibrates.
‘Sorry,’ Xanda says, reaching for her phone.
‘No, don’t worry about it,’ I shrug. ‘I’m just glad there isn’t an earthquake coming. Or a stampede. Or a really heavy monster that takes inexplicably slow steps. What is it?’
‘Nothing important. I keep forgetting to turn off the notification for ‘Word of the Day’!’
‘Oh? What is it today?’ I drain my coffee. It has a lot of sugar in it.
‘It is…’ she checks her phone again, ‘murmuration: one, an act or instance of murmuring; two, rare, a flock of starlings.’
‘Oh, I know that one. Murmurations are those huge aerial displays of starlings, when they seem to just hang around in a flock forming these amazing, flowing patterns. I’d love to see one, one day. I’ve no idea how.’
‘I heard a really interesting segment on murmurations once,’ Xanda puts her phone down. ‘Nobody’s quite sure why they form, or at least the presenter at the time didn’t know. One theory was that they form over areas where the flock’s going to roost. The murmuration needs to descend, but the bird that moves first is vulnerable to the predators that follow the flock. So the whole group hangs around until one of the birds has the courage to go first, and since they can’t stay still in the air they end up forming these elaborate patterns.’
‘Wow. That’s pretty cool. So, unless a single starling decides to take the risk, the whole flock can’t roost?’
‘Basically. Those photogenic patterns are just starlings being indecisive.’
‘That sounds a lot like social reform. Or any kind of ideology, come to think about it. Somebody has to be the pioneer, because until they do all the people who agree can’t make the move.’
‘True. There has to be one starling pioneer to let the murmuration do what it has to do and roost. But it’s still true that the first starling to move is in immense personal danger from predators, and might get eaten. Bearing that in mind, it takes almost as much courage to go second. You’re slightly less likely to be eaten, but once the pioneer is then suddenly you’re in charge.’
‘Ah, yes, the eternal glory of the person who goes second,’ I raise my empty mug in salute.
‘The person who goes second, who earns no glory if they just follow in the clearly extremely easy path of the person who went before them, but earns unending misery if they somehow manage to fudge what was a perfect start. It will always take courage to follow the pioneer, and you never get any credit for it.’
I consider the point for a moment. ‘If the person who goes first has found a perfect opportunity, gone first, whatever, and everyone follows them, then how is that especially commendable? At that point, it’s just going along with the crowd.’
‘I’m not really talking about that. I’m talking about the first follower, or the first few. When you see that someone’s proposing a good idea, and you hope that everyone will jump on the bandwagon and make it a safe bet, but you have no idea. At that point, you don’t know whether you’re going to be supporting the next leader of a cultural movement or just putting your own head on the block next to theirs. But, if a pioneer makes a move and nobody follows then their efforts have been wasted. They’ve been eaten by a peregrine falcon without anybody getting any closer to roosting. The followers are necessary in order for the risk to be worth it, and they also grant a degree of safety to the one who went first.’
‘Well,’ I tap my nails on the table top for a moment, ‘here’s to the followers: the unsung seconds-in-command, the right-hand men, the starlings who went behind.’
The table vibrates again, and Xanda checks her phone.
‘What is it this time?’ I ask. ‘Another pertinent, nature-based metaphor for social revolution?’
‘An email,’ Xanda sighs. ‘Apparently the central heating’s broken.’
I smile, ‘I suppose even the roost isn’t free of troubles.’