Three animal encounters all happened last week that merge in my mind and involve coordinated movement of birds, fish and horses. You decide if my capture of “wild” horses qualifies as an “athletic achievement.”
The video above (start at 30 seconds) of a murmuration (flock of starlings) was sent to me by my cousin Alan. Of course I thought how much the birds looked like a school of fish, which also move together with millisecond feedback responses.
Then I reread the short story Mar Nueva by Mark Helprin in his collection The Pacific about an 11-year-old boy who fishes off a Mediterranean dock. Helprin writes:
“In the deep and luminous world of the sea, fleets of huge fish circle the globe, neither breaking the surface nor touching bottom but suspended in silent layers of shadowy green and blue, rising a mile or falling two, fighting noiseless battles in great societies of which we have never even dreamed.
…a vast school of bluefin passed by…the waves were broken by their churning, and they crowded the entire bay, seething underwater for as far as I could see. For all I knew, the school was as wide as five days’ sailing and as long as ten…”
The boy catches 30 bluefin that he tethers to the pier. “They weighed as much as I did (up to 110 pounds)…I was afraid to fall among them. I even wondered if they might destroy the pier…I had a strong urge to let them go. Because freedom can be understood only as the absence of restraint…I valued freedom insufficiently…their movements were so sad and aimless that I knew I had to cut them loose…they had become as patient as dogs on a hot afternoon.” When freed, “they would circle in confusion among the pilings until they found an opening to the sea and sped away.”
Then two days ago I looked out my second floor window to the hayfield and saw two horses roaming freely in the five-foot high grass, giddy escapees from their customary paddock. Needing to corral them before they ran down the road to passing cars or into the forest to be lost for hours, I entered the field, while a friend with grain in flip flops at the edge told me where they were in the uneven terrain. With both arms out wide like a living cross, I attempted to aim them back towards the barn, but they kept turning in perfect synchronization, left, right, back, left, right. In the undulating terrain, they would disappear for long periods, and my higher-perched friend would yell me their location. A stranger appeared who though concerned was also delighted like the horses: “Free and wild, free and wild,” she sang out melodiously while smiling. She turned out to be a substitute vet.
Though I did hear crashing in the forest, it must have been deer, because I eventually found the horses, who had exited one end of the field through a barway in the stone wall and were eating grass on the lawn near the vegetable garden. With grain in hand, I was able to seduce these giant Cleveland Bays to let me close enough to rope their necks and return them to their stalls. On the way, I could see the break in the fence, where they had pushed past a rotten post while leaning over the wood for fresh grass. The whole adventure lasted under an hour, filled with tension, beauty, and the sensation of being in a dream, a hair commercial, and an outtake for the movie, Horse Whisperer. Wish these magical moments of poetry and challenge had been filmed. Above is a generic photo of what these rare, endangered horses look like.