If I were to plot my watershed moments on a graph of my life, and draw lines from point to point, the result would not seem to show progress. The inner lessons learned would not plot out like formal accomplishments would: there would be very few straight strokes, and no clear pattern of upward or even forward momentum. Most of the graph would be a scribble of overlapping swoops, back and forth and up and down and around. Frankly, my growth chart would look like a loopy mess.
But the longer I live, the less chaos I see in the tangle. Standing back, days or decades later, I see where seemingly small, unconnected events--a chat with a driver, the gift of a ring, a misdirected email or text--ended up criss-crossing in zig-zaggy, who'd-have-guessed ways. I see astoundingly meaningful patterns, unbound by our notion of time, unlimited by any linear sense of order. I see the proof that what goes around comes around, yet never in one perfect circle. The swirl of synchronicities that says every little thing matters.
This swirling mass of small "insignificant" things forming astounding patterns is an opening image in my friend Julian Hoffman's new book, Irreplaceable. He's describing a murmuration of starlings from underneath a pier, a rise of a thousand-plus birds into a shape-shifting form: "The starlings spiralled, ribboned and wavered, a vast tremulous cloud of intelligence, each curvature and warp in the air a response to their dynamic but precise volatility"--and a stunning show of collaboration and beauty. But the birds aren't performing for humans; none of them is trying to astound. As Julian says:
Each and every starling in the shifting body of birds is constantly moving in relation to its closest companions, regardless of the flock's size. According to an Italian study, orientation and velocity are precisely calibrated to a starling's seven nearest neighbours, so that the orchestral swing of a murmuration is governed by tiny deviations almost instantaneously transmitted by way of a ripple effect through the entire assembly.
The first time I read this scene I was at the beach in Santa Cruz, where ripple effects were at my feet in glittery residue of rocks, and in surging waves from faraway continents. It brought to mind my belief in the connectedness of all things, not only spiritually but elementally, not only laterally but deeply through eons. We are all acting in concert with our neighbors, intentionally or not; every action has repercussive effects. And as that thought arose, so did a murmuration, right in front of me, out of a half-sunken ship.
Awed by the synchrony, I thought of the swirls that my friendship with Julian had created. We had first connected in 2011, when he responded warmly to my comment on his gorgeous, prize-winning essay on Terrain.org--I quickly learned that's who he is, gracious and thoughtful and kind to everyone. Two years later our paths crossed in person at the AWP conference in Seattle, which had awarded his new book The Small Heart of Things their coveted nonfiction award. And the year after that, I had the honor of hosting him during his Bay Area book tour, and of introducing him to the California redwoods and elephant seals.
Three connecting loops in three years--three memorable days in 2014 that got me wondering who and what I needed to be. Three days that lit a fire under me, as a writer, an MFA student, an environmentalist, and so much more, as I wrote about here. Julian's brief visit changed the shape of my life across the next six years, from inspiration to action. The new shape was dynamic, shifting from one role or goal into another, transforming through myriad small deviations, as in Julian's description of the murmuration's flow:
Together they shape-shifted into mystifying forms as evening fell around us--the black coil of a sinuous snake at sea, a bowl set spinning through salt air, a wine glass brimming with the last of the drained light. No sooner had a shape been perceived than it had already morphed into something radically unrelated, as if a sequence of ethereal phantoms, fugitive and fantastic in their unfolding.
In 2019, my year of not-so-tiny deviations, Julian released Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, honoring the efforts of devoted individuals to protect certain at-risk land. His much-lauded, lyrical writing brings to light their network effect on the world, the interconnectedness of all species, the nonlinear consequences of our actions. His timely book makes it clear that everything we do, as individuals and as a species, matters, and our actions have repercussive effects in all directions,
Those effects may not chart out right away; we might feel like we're on our own and going nowhere for a while. But if we do our own small part in the moment, without worrying about "measurable success" or immediate outcomes, it will all add up. This truth pervades all arenas, from external activism to personal choices. When we do what we must to be who we are, we contribute to a greater whole. And when we step back someday, we'll see a meaningful murmuration of collaboration, beauty, and progress.
To purchase Irreplaceable, please consider supporting your local independent bookshop. It's also available on Amazon in hardback and paperback.