Two months after Ivan Illich died in late 2002, more than 150 of his friends and colleagues gathered at Bremen University to celebrate his spirit. Barbara Duden describes this symposion (Greek for "drinking together," as Illich liked to point out) in a short paper.
She relates, among other things, how she herself had told the crowd of "Ivan's extraordinary astrological constellation which Annis Fromm, the widow of Erich Fromm, once had cast in an image."
Annis Fromm had seen Illich as "like a broad leaf-less bush with hundreds of birds squatting on its branches."
"So here they were," Ms. Duden continues, "Ivan's 'birds,' his lame ducks and migrant birds, tippet grebes, paradise birds, eagles and cranes. Nils Christie from Norway, Fjedor Shanin from Moscow, Uwe Pörksen from Freiburg, Christine von Weizsäcker from Bonn, Hanns Steger from Erlangen." And many more.
It was about one year after this event that we first heard Ms. Duden use this figure of speech, while speaking at a celebration of Illich held at Pitzer College. Illich's work, we took her to say, was such that thinkers in all sorts of other fields were able to use and build on it. Illich's explorations delved into many different branches of knowledge, from architecture to medicine, from sociology to economics, from history to theology, from linguistics to education.
We've never forgotten this image of birds gathering on the tree of Illich. We've always assumed it was something Ms. Duden had come up with, but having recently re-read her article about that long-ago symposion, we realize not. (It was only after we chose the graphical theme for this page, one of the stock themes offered by Google, that we noticed those birds up in the corner. A sign of some sort?)
At that same Pitzer College gathering, someone who'd known Illich told us something else quite interesting. It seems Illich's uncle was an astrologer of some renown and one of his clients was none other than Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and social reformer who is perhaps best known for having created the Waldorf school program. Illich spent most of his childhood in Austria and it wouldn't be surprising if Steiner had been a family friend.
(The same person who told us about the star-gazing uncle also recalled Illich saying that had he himself had children, he certainly would have had them attend a Waldorf school. Funnily enough, someone close to this same person told us of Illich having described Steiner's anthroposophical program, the basis of Waldorf schools, as humbug, or some such. Knowing Illich, he might easily have made both remarks.)