Monday, January 9, 2012

Unwrapping the Gift

On a January morning during rush hour in the Washington, D.C. Metro station, a non-descript young man wearing jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt, and baseball cap positioned himself beside a trashcan, opened his violin case, and began to play.

Over the course of an hour, close to 2,000 people passed by him. Only seven stopped to listen before hurrying on; 27 dropped money in his open case, totaling about $32. Only one person recognized him.

The street performer playing in the metro station that morning was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing a priceless violin handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari.

It was a social experiment arranged by The Washington Post to see if we perceive beauty in commonplace environments at inconvenient and even inappropriate times. And if so, do we stop to appreciate it? 

A hidden camera captured the steady march of an indifferent human parade. There was no applause and no acknowledgement; just the awkward silence after his music stopped.

So what did the experiment teach us? That if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing as we rush through life? The world unwraps itself to us again and again. Do we pause to accept the gift? Do we invite beauty to transcend?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Murmuration

Is there a word in the English language lovelier than murmuration? It’s one of nature's most phenomenal sights: the incredibly beautiful group behavior of thousands of starlings swishing and swooping together like one living, breathing entity. Why do starlings gather in these odd flash mobs?

The mesmerizing act is typically seen at the beginning of winter, right before dusk, as the birds look for a place to roost for the night. It’s actually a survival function. Numbers build up slowly near the roost, and by late afternoon there is a huge swirling, living cloud. Essentially, it's an epic battle to determine who in the flock survives, and who's a target for predators. It’s all about safety in numbers — none want to be on the outside and none want to be first to land. Each bird tries to copy the bird next to it exactly, which results in a stunning rippling effect with uncanny coordination that biologists don’t yet understand.  

Survival can be a gloriously beautiful thing. And starlings may be the most visible example of the beauty that can happen when we work together.