1. A Knot of Snakes
Swarm sounds like warm with the serpentine arabesque of a hiss spiraling around the word. Like the heat-sleepy tangled knot-work of baby garter snakes languorously coiling and uncoiling—corded shoelaces tying and untying themselves on a sunbaked concrete sidewalk.
The hiss a slight edge surrounding the protective bubble of communion to those held within the collective safety of the swarm.
Swarm rhymes with warn, as if to convey a sense of threat—think of the 1978 sci-fi disaster movie The Swarm starring Michael Caine and Katherine Ross, in which a swarm of deadly African bees terrorizes American cities. But it also sounds like sworn, as if to convey agency, intent, determination.
2. A Wake of Turkey Vultures
Late summer afternoon and turkey vultures parabola the Vermillion water tower off downtown’s Main Street, casting smooth shadows on concrete like sleek, dark fish. They like to catch the updrafts from the river bluffs to kettle and roost in the old water tower—sometimes aggregating into a swarm of as many as 60 or 70 at a time. Some Vermillionaires find the turkey vultures off-putting—what with their carrion-hungry ways, their featherless and slightly grizzled red-fleshed heads, and their frankly disgusting defense mechanism of vomiting up toxic stomach acids when threatened. But when they fly, they’re aerodynamically majestic—long-feathered dihedrals, silver shimmer of secondary feathers.
Maybe it’s because I’m half Japanese, but I adore large aggregations of animals—particularly when they intersect interestingly with humans. I’m charmed by the miniature spotted Sika deer in Nara, Japan, for example, that have overrun the park and taken over the streets of the city—stalling traffic, lounging on the sidewalks, appropriating sandwiches from tourists, and nuzzling through purses and pockets for potential treats. Once considered sacred, the deer are nationally protected, and although increasingly rude about food, most have learned to bow after receiving (or stealing) a treat.
In addition to Nara Park, Japan is also home to eleven “cat islands” overrun by roving armies of cats, the most famous of which, Aoshima, seems to be aswirl with marmalade tabbies. Or there’s Zao Fox Village in the Miyagi Prefecture, which is sanctuary to over six species of friendly, very clever, and very mischievous foxes. Or there’s also Okunoshima, Japan’s rabbit island, where visitors can tour a defunct mustard gas factory prior to being swarmed by hordes of gregarious bunnies. In a popular Facebook meme, a young Japanese woman is shown running down a path while being chased by a seemingly infinite mob of exceedingly enthusiastic rabbits!
And so when the local newspaper, Vermillion Plain Talk, reports that a new, smoothly bulbous water tower is being built over by the Walmart Supercenter, I’m quick to sign the Save the Old Vermillion Water Tower petition, not only because the water tower’s over 100 years old and interesting from a historical preservation standpoint, but because I love the swarms of turkey vultures that come to roost on the old water tower. Maybe a turkey vulture roost is not as cute, or kawaii, as an island of rabbits or a fox sanctuary, but still… perhaps in time it could become its own quirky local attraction?
3. A Pod of Walruses
Unusual aggregations of animals can also sometimes function as a warning of ecological imbalance. When a massive swarm of walruses—over 35,000 of them—began congregating on the beaches of a barrier island near Pt. Lay in northwest Alaska this fall, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that this anomalous haulout was due to loss of sea ice in offshore areas, serving as yet another harbinger of rapid global warming and climate change.
The aerial photographs of the walruses swarming the beach are stunningly disturbing—the sand completely covered in a jostling portly corpulence of throbbing walrus flesh, punctuated by pair after pair of dangerous ivory tusks. Not surprisingly, numerous walrus corpses were left behind, apparently caused by stampede.
4. A Fever of Stingrays
From the air, like flickering chips of Formica, from below, a swarm of Pokemon-cute anime smiley faces—their bodies mimicking softly undulant waves. Or sometimes winging their pectoral fins like birds—fin tips flicking through the surface of the water like the up-flipped triangular corners of galette dough.
The movement too cool and smooth to evoke a fever, and so the group name must be because of the serrated barbs on their tails that lash up and release venom when stingrays are surprised or startled from above. Symptoms for stingray envenomation include: diaphoresis, nausea, cardiac arrhythmias, tremors, skin rash, headache, delirium, fever, hypertension, syncope, anxiety.
In poetry circles, the names for groups of animals in the “a _________ of _________” construction has perhaps become somewhat outré, if not downright clichéd. But still! A fever of stingrays! Maybe it’s now my most-favorite-ever group name for animals. Followed closely by a conspiracy of lemurs, which sounds vaguely like the name of an art-rock noise band.
(If you Google conspiracy of lemurs, photographs of lemurs nested and stacked next to and on top of one another come up, gazing at the camera with their strikingly intense, black pupil-studded amber eyes. Their tails are very pleasingly stripy.)
I once lived with a lover who was shy and withdrawn in public, but hilariously gregarious in private. He was clever with accents, and could do hysterical impersonations of celebrities and cartoon characters. Sometimes he would pretend to be The Crocodile Hunter’s Steve Irwin, dangling one of our cats, stripy tales swishing, over a pretend crocodile. “Crikey!” he’d exclaim. “What a beauty! Let’s feed it some chicken!”
Steve Irwin died in 2006 in a freak stingray accident, when he startled an Australian bull ray from above while snorkeling. Stingrays typically like to camouflage themselves in the sand—alert to the natural electrical charges of their potential prey with electrical sensors around their mouths called ampullae of Lorenzini. I feel like this is a ridiculously beautiful name for electrical sensors.
I’m not exactly sure where I’m going with this. Maybe it’s that the swarm of neurons startled by a fight-or-flight response can make even a gentle, camouflaging creature lash out with a barb to the heart. Maybe it’s that to swim in a fever of stingrays could be quite beautiful, and not as dangerous as stepping on one. Maybe it’s that I secretly covet ampullae of Lorenzini.
5. Hive Mind
At first, in the YouTube meme circulating on Facebook, it appears to be a large grayish snake slowly making its way across a sidewalk. But on second glance, it’s much too translucent to be a snake and something isn’t right in the way it moves—too slow, too much of a pulsing. It moves like a gigantic worm. Then the shock of the video camera zooming in to reveal that the gargantuan worm is made up of hundreds of tiny, noodle-shiny larvae, collaborating to migrate in unison. Like a roving meta-narrative. Like an aggregation of metadata.
Further Googling reveals that the ribbon-like mass is made up of darkwinged fungus gnat larvae. Entomologists don’t understand the aggregating behavior of the larvae, but they are apparently considered useful pests in both greenhouses and mushroom cellars. Harmless, even beneficial, yet still the spectacle both fascinates and unnerves. Much like the viral meme of the male seahorse fwoofing out clouds of tiny white baby seahorses from his abdomen—like a series of sneezes expelling clouds of rhinoviruses.
How much of the world organizes, or patterns itself, using an Ouroboros-like feedback loop? The epically spiraling tornadic whorls of starlings in a murmuration, the dark cloud of gnats, a cluster of shorebirds scooting low over the water like a black-and-white silk scarf turning itself inside out, and the schooling behavior of fish all potentially reveal a universal self-organizing process of attraction, repulsion, alignment, and searching by which a single organism functions collaboratively within the aggregate. Interestingly, this same self-organizing feedback loop may also determine how individual cells adapt themselves to environment-specific conditions.
How much of one thing mirrors another? Apparently, the behavior of honeybee colonies mimics the behavior of neurons in primate brains when it comes to decision-making processes, such as scouting out, establishing a quorum, and then relocating to a new nest site. For example, scout bees perform waggle dances to introduce input about desirable nest sites, while sender scout bees (responsible for coordinating the move to the new nest site) send “stop signals” to the waggle dancers by tapping them on the head and emitting a short buzz. These “stop signals” function analogously to cross inhibition signals in primate brains—thereby allowing neurons to weigh input from, compare, and select from different alternatives before establishing a quorum and arriving at a decision.
Attraction, repulsion, alignment, searching. How do we swarm, search, flock, murmur, pod, clat, wake, knot, squirm, and fever in our virtual apiaries and aviaries of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter?
How much of the world organizes, or patterns itself, using an Ouroboros-like feedback loop?
How much of one thing mirrors another?
Even now, your neurons flocking to this and attracted to that.
Swarm of honeybees seeking out a new meme…
This essay originally appeared in South Dakota Review, and is republished by permission of the author.
Header photo garter snake mating ball by Cindy Creighton, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Lee Ann Roripaugh by Cathy Flum.