Then spoke the thunder – T.S. Eliot
Religions don’t interest me but philosophy does. Not so much the scholasticism of Western endeavour, but elsewhere and from ancient time. Aslan tells the children in Narnia: you don’t understand, there’s an old magic, much older, which always rules. One of the principles of Sufism is called time and place. This means spiritual teaching, although in essence unchanging, varies in outer appearance. The water is the same but it might be in crystal glass or a decorated vase. There’s an interesting book called The Songs of Kabir. The poet, Kabir, is less well known than Rumi but related. Both were connected with Sufism, a system where love is elevated over intellect. Kabir describes a hidden universe of sound heard in meditation. Indian tradition calls this Shabda Yoga and it’s the symbolic meaning of Krishna’s flute depicted in Indian art. The Gopis – his female companions – represent the human senses calmed with quietude. We question this now with gender sociology but the meaning, like water in the glass, is far deeper. Kabir refers to notes, melody, music, sometimes birdsong. In his study of musical meaning in Why Birds Sing David Rothenberg says “Music is both mathematical and momentary, following rules to break our hearts and souls.” Break, in a spiritual context, often means the destruction of one thing to realise another. This is based on the idea of a deeper reality.
We share life with birds whereby we also have homes, partners, groups, and a local patch. This recognition is some of the enjoyment of nature. The tiger hunt is our own (healthy and sometimes necessary) aggression. The care of a swan with babies in the water is ours too. Bears resting together, relaxing couples, is something we know. For a few years I was fascinated with wild flower habitats. This one likes acid, that one shade, or specifically being among trees. There are chemical and science reasons for this but surely something more.
Birds correspond to love of music and dreaming, perhaps, of aerial freedom released from terrestrial limits. According to a Zen writer called D.T. Suzuki, society is neurotic because we don’t rest on the earth but live in separated houses. There is some truth to this. I know the power of sleeping under stars and waking in the hills. But there is up as well as down, sky above earth, as a human condition polarity. Rothenberg compares the song of birds to human music making. They surely connect, according to a logic they embody which we formalise with notes and training. Nature is poetry, in addition to science, and he writes:
Although the sound works of birds have many of the same attributes as human music—repeating patterns, themes and variations, impressive virtuosic trills and ornaments, scales and inversions—they also offer radical inspiration to musicians
It seems to me the Pythagorean music of the spheres is a reasonable proposition. If something moves, it generates friction, which has acoustic properties. We may not hear it, but that’s a matter of scale not physics. The Urdu word chatak refers to the unheard sound a flower makes when the petals unfold. It is poetic, but perhaps accurate, just as we know about atomic particles but don’t see them. My favourite is the blackbird song. For Thoreau it was the thrush. He said it was:
The only bird whose note affects me like music. It lifts and exhilarates me. It is inspiring. It changes all hours to an eternal morning
Go to a woodland area near where I live, around nine in the morning, and there are lots of December birds. Robins, coal tits, magpies, pigeons, blackbirds, fluttering but preoccupied with the ground. More birds than I’d seen for wintry weeks because it was breakfast time, food was scarce, but some to be found digging their patch. What are the rhythms of birds. They fly and frolic and sing in spring (oh skylark) then quieten in late summer and live quietly in winter. Blackbird alarm calls, but not that most beautiful of sounds partly, surely, because they can.
The birds are there in winter but we don’t see them much and they don’t want to be seen. Rain, snow, dark, they ruffle feathers and shelter, we imagine, against cold. They don’t have coats. As I write this, ten thirty in my car because it’s raining, a robin suddenly appears as if hears those words.
I write like this is a magazine column. With research, references, and a lot of time. If you like it, perhaps you would support me.