Starlings, bowerbirds, and the “purpose” of art

An exercise in waiting: the morning glories I started from seed indoors in April and moved outside in May have finally bloomed. At most they will have two months before frost sets in, but it is still worth it.

And the straggly “weeds” –goldenrod and wild aster–whose ungainly stalks I have put up with in my garden since June are just now providing nectar for bees and butterflies.

On this 62nd anniversary of the death of my sister Marilyn at the age of 16 from polio I turn to the natural world. Late August is so filled with beauty.  In just two days we will celebrate the birth of our first daughter 37 years ago. It seems to be a time for me when death and birth are closer together than usual.

I have just finished the thought-provoking book The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human by Noah Strycker.  Although he writes about the intelligences of birds like pigeons, turkey vultures, snowy owls, hummingbirds, penguins, parrots, chickens, nutcrackers, magpies, fairy wrens, and the albatross, I was most taken with his discussion of starlings and bowerbirds.

I already knew that starlings together create “murmurations” but did not know that physicists such as Andrea Cavagna have studied the mesmerizing movements of murmurations and linked them to other “swarming” or collective behaviors, including that of humans.  The mathematician John Conway linked the murmurations to a grid/game called the Game of Life.   Strycker writes: “Cavagna’s group found that starlings avoid collisions, stay at least a wing’s length away from one another, and seldom stray far enough from one another to break up the flock—just as the models assumed. Starlings also align with one another, but not quite in the way that flocking models traditionally predicted: Instead of basing directional decisions on birds within a certain distance, each starling uses its nearest seven neighbors to decide which direction to fly in, no matter how far away they are.”

So is such beautiful creativity “simply” a matter of physical and mathematical laws? Strycker writes, “I like to think that life defies physics, and that the beauty of a cartwheeling flock of starlings originates with the birds themselves rather than in a universal law—in the same way that a Renaissance masterpiece may follow specific rules but still takes a real master to produce.” 

But I have said that I do not believe in “mastery.”  I do, however, believe in play and fun, which my sister was the first to encourage. Could it be that the starlings are having the same “fun” as we do when we create flash mobs, as in this example in a Dutch mall last year?  I know the sense of joy that comes when one is part of something that is being created by a group: a chorus, for instance (which is why I think it interesting that the videos of murmurations are often accompanied by orchestral music).

The other example from Strycker’s book that I want to offer is the artistic creations of the bowerbird. (Please note that, in reference to this video, it was his brother Richard, not the naturalist, David, Attenborough who died yesterday.)

Strycker writes: “It does seem a stretch to suggest that bowerbirds consider themselves artists the way we do, given their overt and overwhelming motivation of seduction; the birds’ attention is probably directed more at passing females than creative immortality.[…]They probably don’t see art as some higher discipline. But until very recently, neither did we.[…]It’s only within the past four hundred years or so that art has begun to stand for something other than straightforward craftsmanship. Throughout most of history, people valued art because it was useful[…].”

I find that statement extremely interesting. Is poetry “useful” by today’s standards? Is music? To be “useful” does “art” require an audience? Do the 2,283,184 “views” of Sophie Windsor Clive’s and Liberty Smith’s “official” video make it more “useful” than the murmuration itself would have been? And for whom?

The bowerbird’s “bowers” are “useful” apparently to the bird if his creativity and inventiveness gains him the sexual “attentions” of a female. Is then art linked somehow (through its audience) to “immortality”? Who wants that? Or is it just connection–period–that we seek?

I like to think that bowerbirds are having fun arranging their bowers in the same way that I have fun arranging the lines in a poem, and that all the “revisions” of “drafts” that we see the bird going through in the video are just as satisfying to him as my revisions are to me. And if he gets to mate as a result of it, so much the better!  But though that was perhaps the initial impulse, I like to think that the act of art takes on a purpose and satisfaction of its own to the maker, though audiences and connection are indeed important (please comment!).

The thunderstorm is just about over now, so Elliot and I will soon head out for our walk.

A character in Lee Smith’s wonderful novel Oral History affirms, “Nothing is ever over, nothing is ever ended, and worlds open up within the world we know.”

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