A School is a Type of Shoal

— Isaac Yuen

The very model of a modern Sergeant Major (damselfish) is one that sports five stripes narrowing toward the belly and can fall into perfect formation. To shoal is to sense together, make matters animal, vegetal, and mineral simpler to assess. This is useful when frequenting craggy reefs with ill-tempered denizens, many of whom are keen to nibble on anything animalculous while avoiding being nibbled upon in return. Sergeant Majors proficient at synchronized swimming can potentially graduate to schooling, which is technically a technical form of shoaling. While to shoal is to be social, which permits some degree of ragtag in makeup and disposition, to school is to sweep in unison together, to glint in the faces of would-be-foes together, dazzling the world with coherence. This level of coordination demands constant vigilance, should, for example, a silver sprat take its eyes off its nearest compatriot, it may find itself suddenly not schooling at all but struck against kin and stricken from the collective, beyond which sailfish patrolling for truants may herd it off with sails and speed and general stealthiness. If enough eyes are corralled away, the entire school can lose its accreditation, ceasing to possess those emergent qualities afforded with being legion, like being nigh impossible to capture or comprehend. Even the mightiest major-general, flush with brass pips and jangling medals, would flounder against a prowling swordfish if unschooled, for the apex predator is both quick to the draw and in the drink, brandishing its bill to disarm even the most accomplished duelist, especially one unaccustomed to fighting underwater in wool coats and ceremonial sabres.

Some in life choose to shoal while some have never learned not to school. Atlantic cod and Atlantic salmon congregate only for spawning purposes, while Pacific herring and Pacific anchovies ball together and forever, partly perhaps because they fear being lonely, partly perhaps because they desire safety. The Krøyer’s deep sea anglerfish neither shoals nor schools, being at home in the abyss, having found a surefire cure for forlornness. When a male anglerfish chances upon a female, he will latch onto her belly with his teeth and dissolve into her being, forfeiting form and circulatory freedom to become a part of her skin. He trusts that such a definitive union will work out in the end since it is very difficult for anglerfish to find one another, even with the female sporting a bioluminescent lure. Male anglerfish are minuscule when measured against the vast schemes of the sea, and seizing upon the first hope to glimmer out of the dark, however faint, is one way to ensure that he will never again be alone, even at the expense of never again being apart.

Thus sometimes it avails to be decisive, to chance that first step into the unknown and discover something novel, like the feeling of setting foot on Newfoundland for the first time. Shoring is altogether different from shoaling or schooling—so must have sensed Tiktaalik, an enterprising fishapod who also set its digits upon the coast of northeast Canada, hoisting itself out of the murk and crossing mud flats with limbs devised some 375 million years ago. While there were others early in the Devonian period that could haul themselves onto terra firma with improvised fins, their attempts tended to be tentative, not serious weight-bearing and hip-driven like Tiktaalik’s efforts. To shore surely is to breach the border between worlds and go on; pressing aground and finding support was a boon granted to Tiktaalik and all legged creatures that came subsequent after, whether they chose to locomote on land via ambling or galloping or bunny-hopping ever forward. From the beginning, walking under one’s own power has been an endeavour of trust, founded upon a promise made by each raised paw or claw, each lifted hoof or sole, returning always to greet the reliable earth.

Of course, there are souls who are not content to stop their voyage at the one from sea to land. They were eager to springboard up from ground into sky. Most still tether themselves to concepts, like familial bonds, or to qualities, like being gregarious, while flying farly, forming flocks. Bramblings, also known as mountain finches, gather in the millions to winter on masting Slovenian beeches—taking a page out of their host trees’ overproduction of nuts to overwhelm would-be predators through sheer volume. The sparrowhawk locals can only eat so many bramblings—brambling for breakfast, brambling for lunch, brambling all day every day, and still black heads and white rumps and puffed orange chests as far as keen eyes can see! In this way, satiation is a double-edged sword—feeling full can help pace you through lean times, but it can also keep you from fully indulging in pop-up buffets, even when one descends upon you one day, chirping and a’calling.

Red-billed queleas do not suffer from this problem while migrating across sub-Saharan Africa. Once birds in the back strip bare a section of wild grass or cereal crop, they hopscotch forward to create a new feeding front, forming a conveyer belt some say more resembles a rolling cloud. This would not sound so ominous if queleas were only numerous or only ravenous, but alas, they are usually both, with each member of the million-strong swarms able to pack away half its body weight in grain each day. One morning a farmer owns a ripening field of tef or sorghum; the next, they own an efficiently cropped one, stowed aboard in little bird bellies. What a rain cloud giveth a quelea cloud can taketh away, and neither rage nor flamethrowers nor organothiophosphate poisons seem to make much of a dent in their numbers or appetite.

The European starling also possesses the ability to form clouds of the pesky and poetic nature, the latter of which are called murmurations. Sometimes starlings are desired for waxing to and upon. Mozart taught the opening melody of the third movement of Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major to his pet Vogelstar. Spellbound by a flock flying at dawn over wintry fields, Coleridge could not help but describe the morphing shape in real time, “thickening, deepening, blackening.” With such numbers flying in flux over countrysides and city skies, one would think starling-to-starling collisions would be a frequent tragedy. But it turns out that each bird’s brain only needs to heed three basic rules to keep safe while creating one of nature’s most transcendent displays:

  • Keep up with its seven closest cousins.
  • Give each other a body length or so of space.
  • Always veer right if another approaches head-on.

Now knowing these tips, you too can enact mass synergies more seamlessly, like if on one future post-pandemic day, you should find yourself once more in the midst of a stadium wave cheer or tasked with improving anti-crash systems for drones whirling about an ever-busying sky. Unfortunately, starlings, clever and myriad as they are, have not yet learned the art of murmurating with aircraft, which have proved belligerent to general aviation guidelines. Sixty-two people died in the crash of the Boston Electra in 1960 when the airliner flew into a starling cloud before rolling left (not right) and nose-diving into Winthrop Harbor. A second earlier. A meter more. It is sobering to realize that in our daily doings, how narrow a margin exists between continuation and calamity. Alas life, unlike southern flannel moths, does not usually make plain which encounters will leave you pleasantly tickled (the moth form) and which will leave you wracked with pain and ruination (the caterpillar form).

Faced with such uncertainty, the safest course of action would be to eschew contact of any kind—not with outsiders, not with potential venomous larvae, not with any part of the world. Alpine swifts are like kites that have escaped their strings and spindle-holders, soaring alone and aloft for up to seven months at a time on round-trips from Switzerland to Mali. If you can dine on the wing and nap on the wing, why risk anything that can perturb your superbly streamlined life? Descent, after all, can only saddle one with complications, like hatchlings that need to be fed seven times a day or parasitic louse flies that drain your blood and resolve. But perhaps the impulse to ascend forever runs deeper in a creature that converses closer with the heavens than any other. Maybe as a master practitioner of aerodynamics, the swift is also a student of quantum mechanics, recognizing that physical contact is, in reality, an illusion cultivated by our senses to register the repulsive forces between our electron configurations and another’s. Perhaps the swift has come to terms with the fact that what we tangibly feel is never truly another, but rather a resistance against being occupied, comprising shells and layers forever guarding our innermost cores.

This is a tough thought to bear, especially for those marching and schooling and flocking in solidarity. But while it may ultimately be true that we resemble the shy crowns of Borneo camphor trees more than we would like to admit, ever branching towards each other but never connecting in canopy, other agents may yet sway and shape us. For the ties that bind need not be material. In a universe with so much gap and so much void, there exists a phenomenon that draws everything from everywhere. Some call this gravity. Others call it love. So weak yet so inexorable, stretching across infinity. To love is to beckon in spirit. To love is to come together. Gravity may prove to be the most patient form of love, outlasting stars and their fires, outlasting light and its shine. The only thing it cannot fully capture may be time, although it tries its best to slow it down, which is sometimes what it feels like to be in love.

Gravity is very potent within the embrace of a neutron star, where atoms are crushed and compacted down to be as close as anything can get without risking collapse. Under such pressures we may start to wish for the opposite of what we once desired, aching to fling ourselves far and free like radio waves, to beam our relief outwards at having escaped such intense adoration, such fathomless faithfulness. Such is the tragedy of being beings that are whole and complex and contradictory. We lament about not being able to connect yet cannot bear the thought of being subsumed. Perhaps what we truly crave lies in the act of circling, to orbit each other in darkness and devotion around an unspoken center, apart but never parting, never fully merging yet constant in yearning, to touch, to commune, as stars of a constellation in making.

Read more from Issue No. 30 or share on Facebook and Twitter.