Joint winner of the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival/Blurb Inc Blog-to-Book Challenge.
"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

85) Window Spider

Badumna insignis

I first notice the spider some time early in the New Year. Or perhaps I’m mistaken: perhaps I notice it first before Christmas, in the rush to finish the old year’s fading business. In any case the spider is unremarkable and so its presence and the exact moment of its arrival in my bathroom window goes unremarked upon. It is large and classically spider-like. Its legs curve to a sharp point like cutlasses. Its abdomen is half the size of the fingernail on my little finger. We fear spiders and this spider appears fearsome.

I’ve seen its type before, this species. One lives, or lived, in the cavity in my front door left by the long-removed letter slot. One lives, or lived, at the top of the window in my bedroom; another in the equivalent position in the sitting-room window. Their webs are messy and fulsome, simultaneously dilapidated and fussily maintained. Much like the old weatherboard terrace house they live in. The spider in the sitting-room window lives in the gap between the flyscreen and the pane, and for fear of crushing it I haven’t fully shut that window in years, even in the middle of winter.

The spiders in the windows are on the outside of the house. The one in the front door rarely shows itself. They may all be dead by now for all I know. The spider in the bathroom, the newcomer, is directly above the toilet, in the gap left by the sliding mechanism for the bathroom window – and on the inside of the window. It is inside the house. It is inside the bathroom. It is above my head when I am in the bathroom.

It’s not alone. There are two Daddy Long-legs (Pholcus phalangioides) living under the bathroom sink. There are regular intrusions of tiny Jumping Spiders (Salticidae), strays from the garden. There are Houseflies (Musca domestica) everywhere, the descendants of the flies that appeared from nowhere in their scores during last summer’s heatwave. It is summer again now and the world is full of life; the house is full of tiny life; the bathroom is full of predators.

I am loathe to kill any of them. The flies, those that aren’t caught by the spiders, die off after three or four weeks, having reached the natural limit of their lives. In another three or four weeks their children hatch; mate; die again. In the time between generations the Daddy Long-legs under the bathroom sink die: perhaps they, too, have reached the end of their natural lifespan. Perhaps in the sudden absence of prey they have starved to death.

The spider in the window is more hardy. I watch it every time I enter the bathroom – first cautiously, then curiously. It rarely strays from the dark hole above the sliding window in which it lives. It stays within the perimeter of its messy web, though not on the web: it lurks beneath the surface of the web like a shark beneath waves. I wonder at its species. From the flotsam and jetsam of my mind, from the tide of information, a name surfaces: Window Spider. I type it into Google: Badumna insignis. Native to Australia. Common in urban areas. More commonly known as the Black House Spider.

Harmless, as these things go: “Black House Spiders are timid animals and bites from them are infrequent. The bite may be quite painful and cause local swelling. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sweating and giddiness are occasionally recorded. In a few cases skin lesions have developed after multiple bites.” So says the Australian Museum’s website, and that’s good enough for me. I stop being cautious around the spider. I look forward to seeing her whenever I go into a bathroom.

The spider is a her. It is a she. Like many spiders Badumna insignis demonstrates marked sexual dimorphism and the individual in my bathroom is unquestionably a female. So why shouldn’t I call her “she”? Am I becoming sentimental? Yes, undoubtedly. I am becoming fond of her.

It is summer. I am currently living by myself and so I’ve advertised my spare room on AirBnB. It is summer in Australia so I have more booking requests than I can keep up with: emails go unanswered, the turnover is high, people come from all over the world to visit Melbourne, in summer, and stay in my house. I worry about the flies and I worry about the spiders: what will my houseguests think? Australia has a reputation abroad and we play up to it but the truth is that it is easy to live here if you’re sensible with the wildlife. If you know what can hurt you and what can’t. If you don’t go around provoking things. I tell my guests when they arrive that it is summer, in Australia, and so there are many spiders, but that they are all harmless – even the big black one in the bathroom, the scariest-looking of the lot. The spiders go unremarked upon. Everyone is fine. Even the woman who sees a Mouse (Mus musculus) in the kitchen and becomes so scared of it that she cannot bare to stay another day in the house makes no mention of the spider in the bathroom.

Perhaps she doesn’t see it. The spider is cautious, and stays mostly hidden during the day; though if you look carefully you can see the tips of her legs, those things that look like they should be weapons but which aren’t, protruding beyond the lip of the hole she hides in.

But she – the spider – is quick to move when she senses prey. In the bathroom one morning before leaving for work I see her rush out of her hole as an injudicious fly approaches her web. The fly is underneath the silk canopy when it sees the spider advancing towards it. It stops. The spider stops. The fly cannot take flight: if it does so it will become entangled in the web above it. It cannot retreat by foot: the spider is faster by far than it is. I don’t know what will happen. I have to go to work. When I return ten hours later neither fly nor spider are in sight. I do not know how the standoff resolved and I cannot imagine it.

At night she is bolder. The house is quieter at night; hours go by in which the bathroom is undisturbed. The flies are more listless at night, too. The spider emerges more readily from her hole at night, and often when I go into the bathroom before going to bed I see her, whole, framed against the moonlight coming in through the window: eight long legs, fleshy abdomen, stubby head, classically spider. I stand on the lip of the bathtub to take a photo of her; I have to get in close and even then the camera on my phone refuses to focus on her, preferring the light in the window behind her. The first time I lean in she takes fright and flees back to her hole; on subsequent occasions she remains still, implacable. If a spider can think I do not know what she is thinking; I do not want to ascribe sentiment to her. I would like to imagine that she feels safe, as I feel safe with her. I like to imagine that by sheer volume of exposure we have each overcome our fear of the other.

I want to be sentimental. I am sentimental. I name her: I give the spider that lives in my bathroom a name. I cast about for suitable options, I ask people for suggestions, I have in mind something like Boadicea because it amuses me to name this predator after a famous warrior. It is probably disrespectful. I know it is absurd. I can’t shake the thought. Suggestions come in and none of them fit. I do some research and find that the Window Spider’s genus is Badumna. It feels right. It feels appropriate. I name her Badumna.

It is ridiculous to name a spider but this species, I read, can live for up to two years. It can experience a summer, and another summer; it can witness the changing of seasons, the shortening and lengthening of days. In light of that it seems not quite so ridiculous to name this individual. Why shouldn’t I? She’s only been living with me for a few months but I have become fond of her.

Summer rolls on. It’s a cool summer, and grey, but people come to Melbourne as if it was a summer like any other. They are drawn by the name of the season, it has a magic. Houseguests leave and another arrives: French out, Chilean in.

His flight landed at 9:30pm last Saturday night. He came straight from the airport and arrived at 10:15: he had cousins in the city and they gave him a lift. They all arrived together and then left again straight away, his cousins eager to show him the city, he eager to see it; all of them eager to spend time with each-other. I have cousins overseas, I know what it’s like to see each-other only once every few years.

I had a busy few days. I was out most nights. In my houseguest’s first few nights with me I saw him for only five minute, and we laughed, and shook hands, and agreed that we’d spend time together soon. He’d be staying with me for a week and a half, there was no rush. I wrote the WiFi password down for him, showed him the kitchen, gave him the spare key. We didn’t have time to talk so I didn’t get a chance to tell him about the spiders in the house, or perhaps I forgot to. I didn’t have time to reassure him that despite what he’d heard about Australia the spiders in the house were harmless, even the big black one in the bathroom.

He’d just flown from Chile, all that distance across the world. He was jetlagged. He got up at strange times, used the bathroom late at night when he was awake and I was asleep. Sometimes I heard him walking down the hallway. I didn’t mind. Live and let live.

On Monday morning I woke up to go to work, and I went into the bathroom, and there was a hole in Badumna’s web. It looked as if the heart had been torn out of it. There was no sign of Badumna herself, not beneath what was left of her web, not in the darkness of her hole. I left for work and hoped that she’d just got a fright from the newcomer to the house, and would re-emerge.

When I returned home there was still no sign of her. There was an emptiness against the window-pane where I had become used to seeing her, black, sharp-legged, classically spiderish. I slid the window open, hoping it might stir her from hiding. Something fell out of the window and into the garden, something dark and bundled in silk. Was that her? Had she lost her balance as I’d slid the window unexpectedly and fallen out? No, unlikely. The remains of some old meal, probably. I slid the window shut again. By opening and shutting the window I destroyed what was left of the web; the loose strands fell and clung to the edge of the pane, the white sprawl that had covered a whole corner of the pane was gone. I looked for the tips of her legs, poking out of her hole. Nothing.

When I’d asked for names for her one of the suggestions had been Charlotte. I’d know it would be. We all learn when we’re kids about the noble spider, we grieve at her death. We learn that lesson young and I don’t know when we unlearn it. The night before she disappeared Badumna had been unusually bold: stalking a fly, she’d been further out of her web than I’d ever seen her. I stood on the lip of the bathtub, I got a photo, the camera wouldn’t focus on her. Spiders are the most patient of predators: they can stay in place for hours, waiting for their prey to make the wrong move, present the right opportunity. When I went to bed she was still out in the middle of the glass, unmissable.

The next day when she was gone I checked the dustpan-and-brush for spider silk. Nothing, but still: I imagined my houseguest entering the bathroom late that night, seeing the big black spider. I imagined him standing on the lip of the bathtub, swatting at the spider with the dustpan-and-brush. I imagined him dropping the spider into the toilet, flushing it. I don’t understand this need to kill. I don’t understand what possesses us when we see a spider, or a fly, and we feel that it is our obligation to kill it though it poses no threat to us at all. I saw my houseguest briefly last night, we said hello to each-other. I didn’t mention the spider to him, I didn’t ask him about her – how do you ask somebody if they killed a spider, and why? He didn’t mention anything, either. Killing spiders requires no remarks. It does not need to be commented upon. It’s a household chore, like putting the bins out, or washing the dishes. It is unsentimental.

Louis MacNeice wrote a long elegy upon the death of his cat. You’ll only find it in his Collected Poems. Too much sentiment to ever be Selected. Nobody wants to see a master Modernist grieve for an animal. So this is an epitaph, goes the poem’s final stanza:

            … not for calamitous
            Loss but for loss; this was a person
            In a small way who had touched our lives…

Tonight I got home from work just after eight. I went into the bathroom. I looked up to the window, hoping against hope. You’d barely even know now that there was anything living there just a couple of days ago. I put a load of laundry on. The broom was in front of the washing-machine door so I moved it, and as I did so I flipped it on end the better to lean it in the small gap between the washing-machine and the wall.

Covering the bristles of the broom was the web. That hole punched in the white above the window. Silk sticks like blood. Is that too much? Much too much, yes. Too sentimental by half. But there it is, nonetheless. So now I knew. Now I understood how. Not flushed, not bundled out the window. Stomped, smashed. Disposed of in a matter of moments with the tools at hand. No need for thanks. Just another household chore, just being a good houseguest. I won’t raise it with him: what would be the point? How do you explain to someone that you have formed a bond with a spider, that there exists a place between pets and wildlife in which animals may sometimes find themselves, safe, cherished? How do you tell someone that you wish, more than anything, more than you can ever say, that they hadn’t killed a spider? I know it is eccentric to become so attached.

I looked closer at the broom. I don’t know why. I think I was hoping that somehow, in the gap between the bristles, she might be cowering. I think I was hoping that I might find there some evidence, somehow, that she had dropped off the broom and rushed off behind the washing-machine to start another web, another life, out of sight, out of the way. I don’t know why I looked. I wish I hadn’t. Oh no, I said to myself. Oh no. Beneath the bristles, suspended in the silk: two legs, long, curved, pointed like cutlasses. Just the legs. That was all that was left.

Image by the author.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

84) Microbat

Three blocks from my parents’ new house in the unfinished Canberra suburb of Wright there’s a streetlight that rises above a roundabout like a four-leaf clover.  Four bulbs project from the central stem and pour into the darkness a light that is of such intensity that when you stand beneath the lights and look up towards them everything beyond them vanishes. The streetlights that line the adjacent roads, that illuminate the edges of the construction sites and empty houses, are dull by comparison, and seem subordinate to the light above the roundabout.

In the way of Canberra, nearly 600 metres above sea-level, the nights are cool; but it’s summer, all the same, and the days are warm and long; the mornings are gentle. Insects are hatching. Beneath the streetlight above the roundabout near my parents’ new house Christmas beetles (Anoplognathus pallidicollis) are swarming in their hundreds.

Across the road from the roundabout is a plantation of eucalypts – brittle gums, to be precise, slender young trees with beautiful smooth bark. They’re planted on rutted, muddy ground, and if you follow the mountain bike track that winds through them you might before too long arrive at the ACT Bushfire Memorial: twelve years ago, in another summer, the area which is now being redeveloped and built was burned to ash in the Canberra bushfires of 2003, a cataclysm which killed four people and destroyed 500 houses or more.

It burned out miles of bush, too; the trees here are young. This landscape seems many years away from providing refuge to wildlife – so many Australian birds and mammals depending on the hollows of elderly trees in which to live and nest.

Yet there’s wildlife here, the more adaptable animals settling as they do into disturbed ground, making use of small niches.  Walk through the gums and you’ll see Superb Fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus), Yellow-rumped Thornbills (Acanthiza chrysorrhoa), Crimson Rosellas (Platycercus elegans). In the middle of a dam adjacent to the brittle gum plantation there are currently a pair of Hoary-headed Grebes (Poliocephalus poliocephalus) nesting atop a PVC pipe. On the grass between the gums and the Cotter Road there are scores of Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus). And at night when the Christmas Beetles swarm beneath the lights, Bats emerge from the night to feast upon them.

There are two broad groups of bats, and beyond the superficial fact of both being flying mammals they are so different that taxonomists have at times struggled to elucidate their relationship to each-other. They have, certainly, been evolving in separate directions for many millions of years. The most conspicuous of these two groups are the Megaobats (Megachiroptera) – the fruit-bats, or flying foxes, generally large and with excellent eyesight and sense of smell.  Yet when most people think of bats it’s probably, unconsciously, a Microbat to which their mind turns.

Microbats are the gargoyle-faced animals, the tiny flitting things, the voracious carnivores, the cave-dwellers that we learn at an early age to associate with the word “bat”.  Overwhelmingly insectivorous – though not universally – they have poor eyesight, tiny bodies (the smallest is just the size of a person’s thumb; most you could hold easily in one cupped hand), and an extraordinary way of perceiving their surroundings.  Flight places great demands on an animal’s metabolism, and bats have had perhaps 100 million fewer years of evolution than birds, so while the White-striped Mastiff Bat (Tadarida australis) may weigh up to forty grams, the White-plumed Honeyeater (Lichenostomus penicillatus), a bird of similar or even slightly larger size, weighs only around twenty grams.  Compared to other mammals bats have delicate bones, but when it comes to flight they are not nearly as highly adapted as birds; so they must compensate by consumption.

A bat in flight is constantly feeding: a single Microbat can eat thousands of insects every night, as much as half its own bodyweight.  Such activity requires the animal to have an acute perception of its surroundings – and it’s this requirement which has led to the Microbat’s most distinctive feature.

Microbats navigate by echolocation.  When humans developed technology to allow us to do the same thing, we called it sonar.  Sounds are emitted, and from the time at which their echoes return to the source of the sound a picture of the landscape is created.  Bats call constantly and so get a constant sense of the environment in which they fly – and by doing so they are able to detect immediately even the slightest change in that environment.  Change such as the passage of an insect through the air – and when a Microbat detects an insect its rate of calling increases to an excited chatter, akin to a human opening his or her eyes wide and staring straight at something that’s caught his or her attention.

Microbats in popular culture are screeching, shrieking, chattering things – yet to the human ear, the great majority of Microbats are silent.  So much so that for the most part we don’t even realise they’re among us: we may, if we’re lucky, glimpse a distant tiny shape flitting around the crown of a tree at dusk, its flight not quite bird-like; or we may see an animal just slightly too large to be a moth dart through the lights at a sports stadium – but such sightings are fleeting, and rare, so we don’t realise how full of life the night is.

Yet every night when we walk the streets, everywhere on the planet except Antarctica, we’re walking beneath a throng of bats.  If we could hear them it would change our perception of the world utterly.  But we can’t: human hearing is limited, as all senses must be, and save for a handful of exceptions the world’s approximately 1000 species of Microbat call at a frequency that is beyond our ability to hear.  Perhaps this is for the best: the calls of some species can be louder than 100 decibels – easily enough to drown out all other noise, were we able to hear it.

But – we can hear Microbats; because human hearing may be limited, but human ingenuity is limitless.  With a device called a bat detector, we can tune into the sounds of bats that would otherwise be lost to us.  We can listen to the night.

I first used a bat detector more than a decade ago, when I was at university.  I went on a week-long field trip to Mulligan’s Flat, at the northern edge of the Australian Capital Territory, the purpose of which was to survey animal and plant species of all kinds.  One night we did a bat survey, and the lecturer who was leading the field trip introduced us to bat detectors.
We walked a long quadrant, tuning the detector, listening to it.  A bat detector is, in principle, simple: it has a microphone at one end, which is sensitive to what in human terms we call ultrasonic frequencies; at the other end is a speaker which broadcasts what the microphone picks up, but at frequencies that humans are able to hear.  The workings of the machine are more complicated than that, but in effect what the bat detector does is this: it hears bat calls and plays them back so that we can hear them.

I used a bat detector all those years ago, and yet I didn’t buy one until just over a month ago.  I’d been thinking about it for years, I’d been circling the idea.  I am, often, extraordinarily slow to act.  When I ordered the bat detector – the simplest and cheapest model money can buy, about a hundred Australian dollars and ordered from the UK – it arrived in only a week and a half.  The rest of the world does not operate on my time scale.

The bat detector has been revelatory.  Standing beneath that street light near my parents’ house I heard, night after night, as many as half a dozen different species.  The air was filled with their calls, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to get a bat detector after thinking about it for so many years.

But that’s been the pattern of this year for me, more than most years: 2014 has been a year of slow culminations and abrupt changes.  Getting the bat detector – and by now my friends and acquaintances, though they politely say otherwise, must surely be sick of hearing me talk about it; travelling around Victoria, my home state for this last decade though I’ve never considered it as such; finally seeing my writing career start to take off.  Though December started with a situation which seemed catastrophic at the time, and still sometimes does – a situation in which I was partly culpable, and from which I cannot yet tell how quickly I’ll recover – my year has nonetheless been overwhelmingly positive.  2014 has been a good year.

Yet – the rest of the world does not operate on my time scale, and nor does it accord to my experience.  By any measure which takes in more than one person’s life this has been an awful year, a year filled with a litany of disasters both ordinary and extraordinary which it will do no good to repeat here.  I’ve been aware as the year has progressed, as one piece of personal good news has been shadowed by more horror from Australia or overseas, of a tension between my own life and the wider world.  How does one reconcile that?  How can we hold in our head an awareness of the tragedy in the world, and still celebrate personal triumph?  I’m not sure; except that we do.  Except that I have.

The bats flew around the street lights near my parents’ house again last night.  I took my father up to see them.  Through the bat detector their chatter sounded like the crackle of distant fireworks; some time between ten PM and midnight they descend from above the lights to below them, and my father and I watched as one and then another and then another darted hard and fast and straight through the dimness at the light’s periphery.  I rejoiced in them; yet as I grinned at the activity of the bats I was aware, too, of the insects being devoured in the night, of the thousands of tiny deaths just above my head.  When does an insect’s death begin to weigh on us?  When do we consider it of consequence?  Is there a number – 50 dead, 100 dead, 500 dead?  Ah, but I was here for the bats.  I put it out of my mind.  It can seem callous, to so selfishly ignore the calamity, but sometimes that’s all you can do.

Image sourced from

Sunday, December 14, 2014

83) Eastern Rosella

Platycercus eximius 

In Clifton Hill, next to the bike path along the least spoiled stretch of the Merri Creek, on a flat expanse of grass at the base of a small cliff, there is a labyrinth. Made from the same bluestone that further up the creek was quarried to build Pentridge Prison, the Merri Creek Labyrinth consists of folds of concentric circles, wrapping around each-other one way and then the other, from the outside inwards inexorably to a small chamber in the centre. In ten or fifteen minutes you can walk the labyrinth slowly from the entrance to the end; once you’ve finished you can, if you wish, step in a straight line across the low stones briskly back out onto the grass.

A labyrinth consists of only a single path. You follow it to the end; you cannot get lost in it – unlike a maze; unlike life. The point of a labyrinth is not to puzzle but to simplify: when you walk a labyrinth you hope to strip your mind of its clutter, to make of it something leaner and clearer; like paring a branch back to a walking-stick. Entering the labyrinth one walks in a broad curve, mindful of the path, seeing the world only in the periphery; as one turns the corners so the world reorients itself; and again; and again; and again; until the rhythm of this constant turning and retracing begins to assert itself on the walker: from the feet up; from the mind down.

The first time I walked the Merri Creek Labyrinth – the first time I’d walked any kind of labyrinth – was just last month.  I was alone but I was imagining myself with company; I had been doing so often, lately, and in a heightened but peaceful state of mind I walked the labyrinth to calm my excitement and to make myself be patient.  You can only walk a labyrinth slowly: the path is too narrow to allow any but the most careful steps; and besides, as with any walk that is poised between meaning and aimlessness the action is a slow one.  As I circled and turned, circled and turned, I saw in the corner of my eyes the world blur and turn about me and I fancied that I could hear the stone beneath the grass around me grinding, like stones in a mill.

In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit summarises the many symbolic uses of labyrinths: as representations of holy pilgrimage; as metaphors for the journey from life to afterlife; as charms to bring safety or good fortune; to simulate or encourage courtship.  Of the experience of walking a labyrinth in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, Solnit writes:

That circle became a world whose rules I lived by, and I understood the moral of mazes: sometimes you have to turn your back on your goal to get there, sometimes you’re farthest away when you’re closest, sometimes the only way is the long one.

The Merri Creek Labyrinth has no specific meaning or purpose.  Descriptions of it usually mention “meditation”, that catch-all term of secular spirituality, and the labyrinth’s setting has been chosen to enhance and encourage thoughtfulness in those who walk it: next to the labyrinth is a wishing tree where people write wishes and prayers on scraps of cloth or paper and tether them to the branches; the Merri Creek itself runs close and almost wild past eucalypt saplings just below the level of the labyrinth only twenty or thirty metres away.  The creek flows for dozens of kilometres through Melbourne’s northern suburbs, acting as a migratory route for birds and fish and so connecting the urban to the natural just as the sealed path that follows its course connects friends to friends, lovers to lovers.  A few hundred metres from the labyrinth the Merri Creek flows into the Yarra River; in ancient cultures some rivers were believed to be greedy for life, and it was considered terrible bad luck to rescue a drowning person and so rob the river; walking to the labyrinth I wondered if a creek, being a subsidiary of a river, might also in its small way thirst for human life, might just as eagerly subsume a part of a person’s life.  Perhaps if we allow it a creek can gently wash our troubles away.

When a week and a half ago I returned to the labyrinth I was seeking solace.  I needed to walk; I could feel it.  The days before had been confusing and disappointing and frustrating and I needed the bright, clear line that a walk can provide.  When I arrived at the labyrinth I was alone, as I had been before, but the company I had allowed myself to imagine on my previous visit was now gone, a forlorn hope, a never-to-be.
I faced the labyrinth.  Cyclists whirred past on the bike-path; friends and couples walked or jogged as I wrote a baffled wish on a piece of paper and tied it to the wishing tree.  Solnit compares a labyrinth to the stations of the cross, and this stretch of the Merri Creek is heavy with symbols and memorials: the labyrinth and the wishing tree but also the site of an old Aboriginal school dating back to Melbourne’s early colonial history; a giant heron (Ardeidae) carved into a hillside in imitation of the horses (Equus ferus caballus) carved into chalk hillsides in the UK; a stone memorial to an Irishman murdered here some years ago.  In an environment so freighted it may be asking too much for a simple walk between low rows of stones to offer any kind of healing.
Yet my mind was filled with none of those things when I stepped into the labyrinth that second time.  My mind was full only of the questions and confusion that had been cluttering it in recent days and upon which I had been circling and turning, circling and turning, creating for myself a knotted maze from which I could not find an escape.  I walked the labyrinth slowly, hoping for clarity, hoping for the good clean line promised by that single path; but I did not find it.  My feet and my mind could not connect.  Only when I noticed, on the back leg of the labyrinth closest to the cliff, a pair of Eastern Rosellas – red and white, yellow and green – flash past in flight did my mind step outside itself.  These birds are common by the creek, where the urban accommodates the natural, but they never venture towards the nearby houses.  Outside the city they inhabit the open fields of cleared farmland and shun the unpeopled forests.  They exist in between places, in the small space humans allow between clutter and peace.  It is, perhaps, something to aspire to, to find and inhabit and thrive in that imperfect place.

You can become so used to disappointment that you become determined to expect it, and so save yourself the pain of hoping. You can become so used to disappointment that you resolve to deny it, and so spare yourself the acid of self-loathing. You can become so lost in the maze that you can’t find your way out again. Can you untwist the maze just a little and make of it a labyrinth instead?  Can you walk that long, clear path until you arrive safe and content at the centre of it?  I don’t know. When I walked the labyrinth the second time it did not help; I felt nothing.  I exited it as confused as I had been when I entered.  These are the things help me: the river; and the creek; and a pair of rosellas, calling tenderly to each-other as they fly, fast and fleeting and bright as life.

Image sourced from

Sunday, October 12, 2014

82) Australian Hobby

Falco longipennis

The week before I broke down crying in my bathroom I’d been standing on a train on the way home from work, the late-winter sun pouring through the window and my mind so full of excitement that I could barely focus, feeling myself suddenly moved to cut my finger open on the paper of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and press my blood onto the page.

At the time I attributed it to a particularly intense manifestation of the urge that sometimes moves me to lay my hand flat on the cover of a book I love, or press a book to my chest; a heightened reaction prompted by the visceral nature of Macdonald’s book, particularly the early parts of it.  A memoir of grief, and of loneliness, and also of falconry and the necessary violence inherent in that ancient art, H is for Hawk seemed to bypass my buzzing brain and go right for the blood and sinew; reading it at that time was an intensely bodily experience.

I’d been riding high.  In the previous week I’d entered at the last minute a competition run by the Melbourne Writers Festival to turn my blog – this blog – into a book, and I’d been chosen as one of the three winners.  Things were going unexpectedly well in my personal life, too.  I was operating on adrenaline and caffeine and barely any sleep – I’d been too excited to sleep.  I’d been working on the book in every spare minute and I’d surrounded myself with friends in anticipation of my birthday and I’d barely stopped grinning in two weeks.

But the wave began to break. In the week after the Melbourne Writers Festival finished I started to feel off-kilter: since the day after the Festival’s close, two days after I’d met and chatted to the other two winners of the competition, I’d felt like there was a tear forming in the corner of my eye.   I was still deliriously happy but my right eye was perpetually damp.  It felt as though tears might start streaming out at any moment and I’d have no idea why.  I joked about it with a friend.

At the same time I was reading H is for Hawk, and finding it extraordinary.  Among many other things the book is a reassessment of TH White and his book the Goshawk, an account of a hopelessly and perhaps wilfully doomed attempt to train – to break, really – a member of that species (Accipiter gentilis).  The Goshawk is a psychodrama, as White sought retreat from the human world in the seemingly simpler and more readily understandable world of animals.  In fact animals only seem easier to understand to us because we understand so little of them – as White, sadly, tragically, discovered in his troubled relationship with the hawk he named Gos.  Helen Macdonald returned to White’s book in the aftermath of her father’s sudden death, the event which is at the core of H is for Hawk, and before reading H is for Hawk I’d read the Goshawk, the better to appreciate both books – but perhaps it was too much, the tormented head of White’s prose and the riven heart of Macdonald’s; perhaps it was too much, in that particular moment of my life.

The day before I broke down crying in the bathroom I was sitting in a park with a friend, trying to ignore a feeling of foreboding that had been building up in me since the start of the day.  I was waiting for a particular piece of news and I anticipated that it would be bad: a sense of doom, of history repeating itself, hung over me, and I felt heavy, and frightened, and despairing.  I was uncertain whether to embrace the feeling and so steel myself against the bad news I felt coming, or whether to shun it lest it should become a self-fulfilling prophecy; I was too much in my own head, and needed a way to escape, when suddenly out of nowhere my friend and I heard a commotion just above us. Looking up we saw two birds locked together in mid-air; the smaller of the two was a Cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus); the larger was an Australian Hobby, the smallest of Australia’s six species of Falcon (Falconidae).  The Hobby had a grasp of the Cockatiel and the smaller bird, the hunted bird, was squawking and shrieking in alarm.

The Cockatiel is one of the world’s most popular pet birds, second only to another Australian native, the Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus).  Cockatiels in the wild are grey, but the Cockatiel in the park that day was white.  White is a common morph of captive-bred birds.  Cockatiels are also birds of the arid and semi-arid regions, a long way away from Melbourne.  It’s almost certain that the bird that was almost killed by the Hobby in the park that day had escaped from an aviary.

Amazingly, the Cockatiel escaped.  The falcon let go.  My friend and I watched as just five metres directly above our heads the Cockatiel broke free like a rubber band snapping; the two birds retired to separate trees.  The Hobby seemed unaffected by its failed hunt: I left my friend to go and stand under the tree it was perching in and for several minutes I watched as it scratched itself, tidied its feathers, picked its talons clean.  Eventually I turned away for a moment and when I turned back it had disappeared.  Meanwhile, in a tree next to where my friend was sitting, the Cockatiel was still as a ghost, conspicuous white against the dark grey-brown of the bark.  I wasn’t sure at first that it was the Cockatiel, it was so still.  I glanced at it from time to time, over the course of the next couple of hours, and I never saw it move: after having almost been killed in mid-air it had clamped itself to the safety of the bough and was frozen there, rigid.

When six days before the Hobby’s failed hunt I’d felt the impulse to cut myself on H is for Hawk, it had in the moment felt entirely normal.  Now, a month later, I can recognise it as the kind of urge that I hadn’t felt since I was in high school, nearly twenty years ago, being treated for depression and mild obsessive-compulsive disorder.  The drugs I was prescribed then, in the course of tweaking my brain chemistry into a more manageable configuration, pushed me into bizarre urges to buy a packet of cigarettes when I’d always reviled smoking, or to start writing with a black pen when I’d always previously used blue.  I never acted on the urges but they were there, and they were strong, and in the moment they felt entirely normal.

Mental illness is a thing that never entirely goes away, but you can manage it and you can minimise it to the extent that it ceases to be a meaningful problem.  The drugs worked: they retrained my brain enough that eventually I felt myself changed.  I stopped taking the drugs cold-turkey, mid-way through my prescription, and I haven’t taken them since; obsessions and compulsions return to me from time to time, some that I can’t shake or can’t think my way out of, but it’s been a very long time since the disorder has been a dominating factor in my life.  In truth it was never so bad, and though I don’t like to talk about it the reason is not because of the stigma of mental illness but rather because I know that obsessive compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses ruin a great many people’s lives, whereas I was lucky enough to be touched by the illness only lightly: at the peak of my obsessive compulsive disorder I’d have to wash my hands a dozen times before they felt clean, or double-check to see that the door was locked five or six times before I could go to bed.  It seems churlish to draw attention to such a thing when other people are afflicted so much more severely.

As I watched the Cockatiel in the park that day I wondered: what is its state of mind?  Will it be traumatised by being so closely brushed by death?  Mental illness is one way by which we try to differentiate ourselves from other animals: our sense of identity is so intrinsically tied to our mental lives that we tend to think of it as a uniquely human affliction.  If we allow that non-human animals can suffer from mental illness, we have to allow that they are in some way sentient; that they have minds; that those minds can be bent and broken.  Yet mental illness has been observed in animals, particularly in captive animals, and as our conception of animal lives slowly changes so do we see more parallels between their minds and ours.  In the worst stages of my teenage illness I grew my fingernails long and I would clench my fists as hard as I could, trying to draw blood, because the immediacy of the sharp pain was sometimes the only way that I could clear my mind of the intrusion of unwanted thoughts.  In behaviour that is closely analogous to what in humans we call obsessive-compulsive disorder caged birds have been known to self-harm, repetitively pluck the feathers from their own bodies.  Even if rescued, animals that have been mistreated in captivity can exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder long after their liberation.  Parrots, being highly social animals which when caged are normally caged in solitude with no contact with others of their species, are particularly susceptible to long-term mental illness and signs of stress such as violence, repetitive behaviour, and self-mutilation.

An amateur and unpractised falconer in the early 1930s when he had possession of Gos, White tried to break the hawk by use of the long-discredited, centuries-old technique of keeping it awake for days on end.  This necessitated White staying awake, too, and so White’s cruelty towards the hawk that he so admired became mirrored in cruelty to himself, and vice-versa.  White’s Goshawk eventually freed itself; it took its opportunity when White carelessly left it unattended and tethered to the earth by just a fraying line – but when it did so, what was its state of mind?  Throughout the Goshawk White painstakingly records every attempted escape, every panicked “bate” – the falconer’s term for that moment when the tethered bird attempts to fly free.  Gos was born a wild hawk; his first experience of humans was being caught, and stuffed into a basket, and transported across Europe to England where White bought him, broken feathers and all.  The Goshawk’s wild and ferocious reputation in falconry – a reputation which Macdonald does much to discredit in H is for Hawk – obscured from White the nature of his bird’s troubled mental state.  It is ever thus: the behaviour of caged birds that we take to be normal– pacing, repetitive actions and movements, loud vocalisation, obsessive destructive behaviour – are increasingly being recognised as manifestations of severe mental distress.

By the time Gos escaped, White, survivor of an abusive and violent childhood, self-denying homosexual, a man trapped in a labyrinth of loneliness into which he had walked himself and which he could not find a way out of, had systematically abused the bird for many weeks.  Man hands on misery to man – and not just to man.

We become trapped in our own minds.  It’s been observed – not least by Helen Macdonald – that many of those – of us – who write about nature do so as an attempt to flee from some previous trauma, or sadness, or bruising.  Nature is the bright sharp shock that cuts through the cage of our unwanted thoughts.  When I saw the Hobby chase the Cockatiel in the park that day it jolted me from the black foreboding that had engulfed me that day.

After watching the Hobby for a while I trotted happily back to my friend and sat down.  Soon enough my phone buzzed.  It was the news I’d been anticipating, and in my anger at myself I felt as though I’d worried the news into existence.  I told my friend.  We opened a bottle of wine.  I became silent.  I knew what this was, I’d been through this all before: the same news, the same situation, over and over.  My mind, churning up until then, became now very, very still.  This is the trap: that the mental state we hate for its inescapability is also the mental state we take comfort in for its familiarity.

But I had escaped, briefly, or at any rate I’d bated, and when I woke the next morning and felt the trap snap shut around me, felt the line pull me back to the earth, everything broke.  In the privacy of the bathroom I began sobbing; the wave had crashed.  Watching the Hobby groom itself in the tree – noticing, too, the Cockatiel still and terrified on its own bough – I had been lifted out of myself.  Perhaps White had also felt himself transported in the presence of Gos.  Macdonald, reeling from her father’s death, turned to a Goshawk – an animal she confesses to never having previously been tempted by in all her years of falconry.  Animals can do this for us, can relieve us of ourselves – but it is too great a burden to place on them; when we demand so much of animals it’s unfair to expect them also to be our saviours.  They have, as the saying goes, minds of their own.

We must learn instead to live with ourselves, and to recognise our darker thoughts for the illusions that they so often are.  Two weeks after the episode in the bathroom I began to appreciate that though it had had a specific trigger, it had also sprung from the out-of-kilter emotions of the weeks before it: it was the inevitable reversal of two weeks of living in a maniacally elevated state.  Three weeks after the episode I learned that the trigger for it had been a misunderstanding, or a misinterpretation of a misunderstanding: trapped in my own mind I had created a situation out of nothing and had bent the facts to suit it.  Now I’m back to normal: I have a happy disposition, I can’t help it.  I’ll be all right.  But of what became of the Cockatiel, and of what became of White’s Goshawk Gos, nobody knows.

Image sourced from

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

81) Golden Whistler

Pachycephala pectoralis

Two or three summers ago while visiting my family in Canberra I was walking through the suburb of Narrabundah, at whose eponymous college I’d spent the last two years of high-school, when a piping, piercing song caught my attention.  I knew what it was immediately, I’d heard it often enough before – but even so I didn’t believe my ears at first: even in Canberra, the “bush capital”, it seemed too urban a setting for such a forest-loving bird.  Yet there it was, in the top of a small eucalypt planted as a street tree: a male Golden Whistler, as cheerfully bright a songbird as exists, singing his song against the wide blue Australian sky.

Like many birds the Golden Whistler shows a strong sexual dimorphism: the females are unremarkable, their plumage various shades of brown; but the males are as colourful as their name suggests.  With yellow torso, olive-green wings, white cheeks and black hood and throat-ring they look remarkably like the Great Tits (Parus major) of the Northern Hemisphere – but they’re considerably larger, and seem somehow neater and cleaner and more pleasing in their colouration: bespoke plumage, to the Great Tit’s off-the-rack attire.  They’re common throughout the forests of south-eastern Australia – but never so common that seeing them can be taken for granted, and happening upon them is always a pleasure.

I wouldn’t normally have been walking through Narrabundah but it was a nice day and I was on my way from Manuka to Fyshwick, where my mother and brother had recently opened a small patisserie.  My brother had abandoned an unloved engineering degree to become a pastry chef, and my mother was supposed to have retired – but retirement isn’t what it used to be.  “The best laid schemes…” On my walk I’d passed Narrabundah College, where I’d almost become one of the first students to complete a combined major-minor in biology – before bad grades, the fallout of unremarkable teenage rebellion and angst, had forced me to drop the subject at the death and by doing so game the system, boosting my Tertiary Entrance Rank to 61.4.  I needed 60 to be eligible to study science at the Australian National University.  I scraped in.

I stuck the science degree out, graduated, even managed an honours degree of sorts from the Department of Botany and Zoology – BoZo, as it was known – but I wasn’t even half way through my degree before I realised that I’d never make it as a scientist.  It turns out that a childhood of absorbing every David Attenborough documentary the Australian Broadcasting Authority screened wasn’t enough to make a biologist: you needed a head for numbers, too.  I’ve never had that – words are my thing, but you can’t write your way out of a statistical analysis of genetic diversity within a given cohort of animals.

But that’s another blog post for another time.  Back to Golden Whistlers, because I stray too often on this blog and I’m haunted by a sense of disrespect towards the animals I used for my own imaginings.  In the second or third years of my degree I volunteered to help one of BoZo’s PhD students trap birds in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, just over the road from the department.  I rode through icy Canberra mornings along the lake from my parents’ house, twenty minutes from Yarralumla to the university; I passed lively European Hares (Lepus europaeus) at Lennox Gardens, marvelled as those shy animals scattered from my bike in such numbers as I’d never seen before.  Arriving at the university at dawn I’d get in the student’s van and we’d drive the deparment’s nets over to the Gardens, and there we’d set them up: mist nets, named because they’re as fine as vapour; once they’re up you can only really spot them by the poles that hold them vertical – or, after a few minutes, by the birds that hang suspended in their soft embrace.  You have to remember where you’ve strung the nets, and check each one no less frequently than every twenty minutes, because other birds – Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), for instance – will take the opportunity to pluck the helpless birds from the net and eat them.

You get a lot of by-catch with mist-netting, and most of the work is in releasing the unwanted species.  We were netting for Speckled Warblers (Pyrrholaemus sagittatus) but we caught anything that happened to be flying where we’d strung the nets.  One time we caught a Common Bronzewing (Phaps chalcoptera), and as it flapped to free itself from the net the pigeon released great clouds of downy feathers.  It was low to the ground, at the bottom of the net: any lower and it would’ve gone right under.

And one time we caught a Golden Whistler.  A male, bright as can be.  I could hold him in my hand – his head between my index and middle fingers, his legs between my ring and little fingers, his wings cupped in my palm, that’s how I the PhD student showed me to do it – and when I held him his feathers were softer than anything I’d ever touched, and the mass of his body was almost nothing.  We don’t realise how light birds are: a Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) weighs only around ten grams; a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) only a few kilograms.

But the Golden Whistler didn’t want to be held.  He was scared or he was fed up or likely he was both and as I extracted him from the net he turned his head in my grasp and gave me a resounding bite.  He clamped his short black beak firmly on the fleshy part of my finger and applied all the pressure he could.  What a privilege, to be bitten by a wild bird!  I probably exclaimed, in surprise as much as in pain, and I finished untangling him and set him on his way.  The impression of his beak upon my finger lingered for a while.

That’s all there is, just a distant memory of being bitten by a songbird.  That’s all I’m really writing about here.  I barely even remember how it felt now; I remember only the fact of it having happened, once.  What I wouldn’t give to have been older, and more aware of the fleetingness of each instant of life, and to have felt the moment just a little more keenly, to have been bitten more to my core.  But things don’t go to plan, I guess, least of all in hindsight.  Still, every time I see a Golden Whistler singing from his perch I can content myself with the thought: once, just once, we were joined – in enmity, true, but joined.

Image sourced from