Chameleon Eyes

2020 vision

Sadie Plant, Biel/Bienne, April 2020

In Man-tiq ut-tayr (The Conference of the Birds), a poem written by the twelfth century Persian sufi Farid ud-Din Attar, the birds of the world get together to discuss their desire to go in search of a leader. The hoopoe offers to be their guide. “We have a true king”, she tells them: “His name is Simurgh and he is the king of birds. He is close to us, but we are far from him.” The birds long to find this king. But as the hoopoe talks and it dawns on them just how long and hard the journey will be, many of them weaken in their resolve. The wagtail, the parrot, the partridge, the falcon, the quail, the nightingale, the peacock, the pheasant, the turtle dove, the pigeon, the hawk, the goldfinch: all of them find reasons not to go. “The journey to the Simurgh is beyond my strength”, says the nightingale. The peacock has no wish to leave his earthly paradise. The duck does not want to leave the water. “My passion for the sea is enough”, the heron says. “I have not the strength to go in quest of the Simurgh, so I ask to be excused.

”To most of Attar’s modern readers, this is a story about birds in only the most metaphorical sense: sufis refer to the language of mystical experience, that which cannot otherwise be said, as the language of the birds, and Attar simply uses them as screens on which to project human archetypes and desires.

Or is this indeed the kind of thing the birds discuss when they sing at dawn or gather in the evenings? Are they really only talking about food and sex, territory and defence, as the ornithologists suggest? How much are these prosaic explanations also projections of our own lives? Look, we say, they too are carrying seeds and diseases round the world, claiming space and fighting for it; just like us, they learn and remember, call and recall, recognise the seasons and navigate by what we know as features of the landscape, patterns in the stars. Are we sure? Is this all? What else might they be about? Can we even begin to imagine how they live, what they perceive, with what senses they operate, on what frequencies they broadcast, how they tell their secrets, if they have them? Might they be summoning the sap to rise, singing flowers into bloom, charming berries to ripen, calling on channels we can’t recognise, spreading news and messages and rumours on matters totally beyond our ken?

Could we ever tell them what we think we have learned? Would they even want to know all that we have studied and researched? Do they know that we follow them so closely, ringing and tracking and tracing them, trying so hard to capture them, to grasp what they are doing, get a grip on them? What would they make of all the ways we classify their attributes: the forms of feathers, colours of plumage, sizes of beak, dimensions of eggs, distances travelled, dinosaur ancestors, courting rituals, nest-building behaviour, feeding habits, migratory routes, all the questions we love to ask: “What are the figures? What’s the percentage?” In Der Kongress der Pinguine (The Conference of the Penguins), a 1993 Swiss film that is also like a long poem composed by Franz Hohler and the director Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf, these are the questions posed by humans, after which come other thoughts: “What questions would the penguins ask? Maybe these: What colour are thoughts? What number expresses pain? Do you know what we dream about?”

And what about the starlings as they wheel around at dusk, great swarms of them, effortless and elegant like nothing else: are these murmurations dances, performances, displays, celebrations of unknown rites, something utterly unthinkable? The artist and the poet have even fewer answers than the scientist. But they are more likely to know what to ask. “Were the penguins dreaming about us?” For all their qualms and in spite of their fears, Attar’s hoopoe finally persuades thousands of the birds to set off with her on the journey to find the Simurgh. The way proves long and treacherous, and most of the travellers do not survive: “out of all those thousands of birds, only thirty reached the end of the journey. And even these were bewildered, weary and dejected, with neither feathers nor wings.” Had their voyage been in vain? What had they achieved? Where had they arrived? Not at a place, but an awareness: si-murgh is the Persian word for “thirty birds”, and what they find is a reflection of themselves. “When they gazed at the Simurgh they saw that it was truly the Simurgh who was there, and when they turned their eyes towards themselves they saw that they themselves were the Simurgh.” Together they are what they were looking for.

And now: it is the spring of 2020. Have they noticed that so much has changed? Do the birds now wonder why the skies are clear, why theirs are suddenly the only intercontinental flights? Do they ask themselves why the world has quietened down, why so many people have disappeared from view, why their normal patterns of migration, feeding habits and so many of their other rituals have changed as the days grow long and the pink moon glows and the birds can feast with an abandon they have not known for years? Are they worried? Are they curious? Or simply pleased to have the skies to themselves, the storks and swifts and swallows who for once can travel north without attending to the planes that churn up the air space, trailing their debris across the sky? And to sing and hear each other with so little background noise, the sparrows and warblers and tits, the blackbirds and finches, the magpies and crows, the ducks and the seagulls so far from the sea, just like the people who have all flown home and now with their windows open, can hear their own voices in the air, echoing around the neighbourhood, murmuring and chattering, just like the birds.

This text is dated, like the moment: it won’t last, and this strange season will soon seem far away. Has the pandemic been forgotten? Do the effects continue to be felt? Has it changed the world? Has normal service been resumed? Is the air still fresh, the water clear, the sky as deep as it is this year? As it happens, while it is still happening, this spring is something special, a rare sighting of a break in time, a breathing space, not only for the birds.


  • Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds, rendered into English from the literal and complete French translation of Garcin de Tassy by C.S. Nott, Pir Press, New York, 1954
  • Der Kongress der Pinguine. Dir. Hans-Ulrich Schlumpf, Switzerland, 1993