Friday, April 13, 2018

Emergence

Flock of Sandhill Cranes at Rowe Sanctuary, on the Platte River in Nebraska. April 8, 2018
Dawn, erupting. This morning there were about 70,000 cranes in the flock. At the peak of this migration, there were 650,000 cranes at the sanctuary. This breezy, chilly morning, they were roosting in the river, standing idly on sandbars and sandy shallows squawking to one another. 
About an hour after sunrise, the birds at the western end broke ranks and flew. This initiated a wave of bird flight that washed over the entire flock of roosting birds, covering 8,000 feet in two minutes. You can watch it here
This may remind one of an Esther Williams water ballet or a college football card stunt. Maybe it can explain how it is possible that elderly knitters can form a mob and proceed to burn down an entire business district and loot all the appliance stores. Like these cranes, at dusk, they settle into their wingback chairs and knit until dawn. 
This is how that can be: Regarding great works of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright once stated, "Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union." This is true in the case of the individual crane - or any bird, mammal, fish, reptile, amphibian, insect, or plant, for that matter. They are all at the intersection of science and art, a sweet spot, electrifying the mind and heart.  
A mob emerging.
(© Daily Herald Archive)
But once 70,000 individual cranes are aloft, the individual cranes vanish, subsumed into the flock. They cohere, become a unit, and this becomes another entity, a new creature with 70,000 organs. Confined in space, with discreet boundaries, and moving in unison, it behaves like a mile-long cobra, a sprinting cheetah, a Shastriya Nritya dancer, or a seething mob of Molotov cocktail-throwing octogenarians.
This is called Emergence. This organismic property of flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of animals, and swarms of insects is a property that is not shared with the individual members of the group. It arises or emerges from the interaction of the members. This is one of those constructs where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Here, the added energy is from interactions between the parts. 
As the science goes, the members of the flock, herd, school, or swarm follow certain rules, namely, Separation, Cohesion, and Alignment. 
Separation: They keep a certain distance from one another, like birds on a wire or passengers on a plane flight. 
Cohesion: At the same time, they steer toward the average position of their neighbors, keeping a certain closeness to one another, which maintains boundaries and group identity. This we are able to perceive, it is ostensive. 
Alignment: Each moves in the same average direction. 
Following these rules of interaction, the result is an elevated state, a higher being, the organic shape that moves across the sky like a giant flying snake. In turn, this electrifies humans, who, in turn, feverishly churn out photographs, paintings, and grandiose prose. 
Emergent beings were once common in North America. On April 18, 1804, near the confluence of Corvus (American) Creek and the Missouri River, south of Oacoma, South Dakota, an electrified Merriwether Lewis stood on high ground and wrote these words:

This plane extends with the same bredth from the creek below to the distance of near three miles above parrallel with the river, and is intirely occupyed by the burrows of the barking squril hertefore discribed; this anamal appears here in infinite numbers, and the shortness and virdue [verdure] of grass gave the plain the appearance throughout it's whole extent of beatifull bowlinggreen in fine order...a great number of wolves of the small kind, halks and some pole-cats were to be seen...The surrounding country had been birnt about a month before and young grass had now sprung up to hight of 4 Inches presenting the live green of the spring. this senery already rich pleasing and beatiful, was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of Buffaloe which could be compreed at one view to amount to 3000.

A great naturalist, not a spelling bee champion. The numbers vary, but it is estimated that, prior to European settlement, North America had forty million bison, forty million pronghorn antelope, ten million elk, two million bighorn sheep, one billion prairie dogs, billions of Passenger Pigeons. Today, there are a half-million bison, one million antelope, one million elk, seventy-thousand bighorn sheep, twenty million prairie dogs, and no Passenger Pigeons. Similar sharp declines can be shown for American Golden Plover, Red Knot, Sage Grouse, fifteen bat species, wolverines, fishers, pine martens, grizzlies, wolves, and many more. 
Imperiled species, thousands of them, are listed with various environmental organizations - Red List, Working List, Natural Heritage Inventory, Endangered Species List. But we find no Emergents on any of these lists. No mention of threatened or extinct herds, flocks, schools, swarms. Resource agencies may refer to "herd management" but rarely does it consider emergent properties. Lowered expectations, apparently. This is not a surprise; when Lewis scanned the horizon, there were no fences, roads, cities, transmission lines, dams, livestock, or croplands to thwart herd, school, swarm, or flock behavior. Emergence hadn't been obstructed.  
So it is, as the Sandhill Crane habitat shrinks, and flock behavior is restricted, we don't expect to see the Sandhill Crane Flock make any Red List. Poor folks, they don't have a union and management sure doesn't seem to care.

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