What might we learn from a “conference of the birds”?


All bird photos by Kevin Lynch

You never know what might arise in the eye and mind when you sit and watch other species interact.

Yesterday on the Milwaukee River I saw these photographed scenes, what the 12th-century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar (Attar of Nishapur) might have described as The Conference of the Birds, the title of his famous epic poem. The poem also inspired the great jazz bassist and bandleader Dave Holland, who titled one of his first albums Conference of the Birds, released on ECM in 1973 with wind players Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers and percussionist Barry Altschul (see previous post about Holland).

The title tune (linked here), by the way, evokes birds in a fairly peaceful manner, with the two wind players playing flutes. But listen beyond that, in the ensuing YouTube tracks from the album, for a more complex jazz interpretation of the aviary conference.

An early edition of Attar’s Conference of the Birds

The river scene I photographed is a commingling of seagulls and geese who seem to interact and confer in a fairly harmonious way, even though any given bird — especially the smaller gulls — were free to express their sometimes raucous feelings as they came and went (see first photo, at top).

It also brings to mind a metaphor I have working my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy. I argue for the historical underpinnings of that  titular concept in American culture and politics extensively in the book.
Here, I was primarily struck by the social harmony of the birds, even though there seems to be a Trump-like alpha-male honcho (self-designated?) — the big, fat goose standing on his big rock, at right.

Later, after the gulls dispersed peaceably, I saw several of the geese gathered at the water’s edge (below) then they proceeded upstream a ways in an orderly, fluid and harmonious fashion (final photo). This suggests earthly inhabitants (think of courageous stream-defying salmon) are not simply mere subjects to the forces of nature. The question is how well we employ our energy and resources to our own ends, without damaging those natural forces, ie. the ecosystem that benefits and sustains all of life.




Clearly this scene also suggests that there are tribes in the world of birds, just as there are in humanity, and that tribes tend to flock or stick together, and conform harmoniously with greater ease than do differing tribes in a conference.

But that first photograph suggests the noisy and messy democracy we try to maintain, just as birds maintain their multi-tribe conferences with a common value of enjoying and drawing proper value from our natural resources.

Oh, if human society were this seemingly coherent. But perhaps we can draw wisdom from the Sufi poet’s wide-ranging take on “the conference of the birds,” here translated as “Bird Parliament.”

The alpha goose might symbolize the god-like figure the birds do strive to follow in the poem’s beginning. However, this commentary by Nathan Suri is a reasonable interpretation of the epic poem, which suggests that Islam has something to teach us about our place in the universe. Suri posits the wisdom of a holistic humility: that the universe is “one of intrinsic value being in everyone.” Clearly this may not abide with the American notions of rugged individualism and exceptionalism, but it does not contradict the basic notion of democracy, with freedoms adhering to and enhancing a value system geared to the greater common good of the society and the planet.

Suri comments: “Throughout this entire work, Attar masterfully describes the nature of Islam in a metaphoric way through items easily visualized such as birds. Every anecdote and aspect of the story has its aspects in Islamic tradition. Most importantly, the very nature of the format and pictures presented are based in Attar’s Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam focusing on intrinsic value. The Way is the Sufi’s life, filled with trials and tribulations, in order to attain the realization to view and understanding the universe. The end of it being the annihilation of oneself into the universe merging one’s own energy with it returning your drop to the “ocean of Truth.” The end of the story is significantly profound with the birds realizing that the universe is not an external thing but one of intrinsic value being in everyone.”

Note that there is no earthly god or savior to lead us to a promised land, in this parable. Even American presidents have their limits, as well-intentioned, effective — or deluded — as they may be.

Note also how peaceful and striving for harmony this ancient Islam philosophy is and, I think, far more characteristic of the religion and culture than the extreme radicals we hear so much about.






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