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

Sunday, June 24, 2012

48) Indianmeal Moth

Plodia interpunctella

Almost exactly two years ago I was forced to move house.  It was daunting, dispiriting – but also exciting, in a way that only moving house can be: the promise of a new start, the purging of old habits; however illusory these expectations, they have a powerful grip, and after six years of living in one place, of growing through my mid-twenties into my early thirties in a house that remained stubbornly the same, I was ready for a change.  I was beyond ready.  I could no longer recognise the house that had given me so much peace of mind when I’d moved in.  Instead the house felt oppressive, and I found myself becoming angry at it as if it was an entity rather than a thing, and after initially trying to find a new house in the same neighbourhood the realisation that I couldn’t possibly afford to stay where I was was liberating rather than upsetting.

As I packed my belongings to move I quickly became aware of just how many possessions I had: an embarrassing number, for somebody who at the time was only thirty years old, though most of them were books and CDs.  I purged what I could, which was mostly food: a fridge full, a pantry full of inexpensive things which did not need to take up room in my new house.  Twin jars of mustard, each opened and forgotten about and each still perfectly good; neither necessary.  Old tubs of ice-cream.  Open bags of flour, bags of rice, bags of pasta.

These last three in particular I was eager to eliminate.  For several years before I moved my old house had been host to a fluctuating population of Indianmeal Moths, also known as Pantry Moths.  At their peak they covered the ceiling of the kitchen all summer long; even at their lowest numbers they managed to pollute and spoil sundry bags and containers of food.  Their capacity to infiltrate even the most tightly sealed containers was astonishing, and I quickly learned to recognise amidst opened bags and boxes of food the tiny black dots that were the moths’ eggs.  I learned to recognise the pilling of infested flour, the sticky strands of white silk that lined the rims of jars and boxes in ever-thicker beds.  Jars of food became like terrariums as generations of moths played out their lives within them: from eggs to larvae to cocoons to adults.  In jars of flour the larvae burrowed through the loose grains creating tunnels which occasionally touched the inside edge of the glass and so revealed, as in a worm-farm, the hidden lives of the tiny inhabitants within.

For an animal which thrived so easily within the dark of the kitchen cupboards, the adult moths seemed startlingly incompetent at the simple business of being alive: if there was a heat source they flew to it, and so died in their scores in pots of boiling water, in pools of hot oil in the bottom of woks, beneath the flames of the gas cooktop.  If startled to flight they took to the air clumsily and with what seemed like great effort, and once aloft their flight was cumbersome and slow.

Yet they thrived, and contaminated everything they touched, and so when it came time to move house I threw away nearly everything that had been in the pantry, whether it showed signs of infestation or not.

I was successful, my efforts were worthwhile, and since I moved house the Indianmeal Moths I’ve seen have been few, and isolated.  Only twice in my new house have I opened a container to find it infested, and after several years of keeping opened bags of flour or rice or pasta in the fridge to keep them safe from the moths I now house them in the pantry, comfortable – as comfortable as I can be – in the thought that they will remain untouched.  On those rare occasions when I’ve found an Indianmeal Moth in my house – before I moved I found them nesting, also, in my bookshelves, under flyleaves and in the spaces beneath hard-cover books – I’ve used their slowness and their lack of agility against them, trapping them in jars and releasing them outside where they fly, startled, into the open air, before invariably crashing to the ground or into a bush.  I’ve kept in mind always Uncle Toby’s dictum, upon catching and releasing a bothersome fly in Laurence Sterne’s great novel Tristram Shandy: “This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

Yet the struggle is ongoing and requires constant vigilance.  Such is the nature of human habitation: our houses are forever being assailed by unwanted visitors; and of course we’re not alone in this, as each animal on earth must live in intimate company with other species whether it wants to or not.  It’s easy to think of each of our irritations as a new discovery, our own unique trial; misery loves not company but isolation, and the delusion that each ordeal, however large or small, is an ordeal apart from all others.  But the people who lived in my house before me undoubtedly discovered moths in their muesli; and likewise the people before them; and the people before them.

Who those people were, I don’t know: a collection of recent names on errant mail that still turns up in my letterbox from time to time; owners of a Dog (Canis lupus familiaris), most recently; owners of the house, going back some time further.  Before that, who knows – generations of ghosts and memories scattered to distant houses and distant lives.

It can seem as though we know more about our houses themselves than their past inhabitants: if the people are largely anonymous, the houses boast easily remembered and casually ascribed nomenclature: Victorian terrace; Edwardian cottage; California bungalow.  There’s an impersonal note to this, as if the permanence of the houses casts the contrasting transience of the human lives within them into such insignificance that those people, generations of city-dwellers, remain unnamed and unremarked upon.  With the memory of them goes the memory of the city itself, until facts of history are nearly obliterated, to be shaken back into our consciousness at unexpected moments; when looking for houses in North Carlton, near my old house, I noticed a real estate agent’s description of one rental property as a “miner’s cottage”.  Miners?  In North Carlton?  Ah, but wait, I see now: there’s the Quarry Hotel on Lygon Street; there’s the old quarry itself, now a playground in a pit at a local primary school on Nicholson Street.

Such realisations are a jolt.  There’s no sensation that I can think of that is quite as strange as the sensation of being in a familiar place and suddenly noticing something that had until then completely escaped your attention.  A shop previously unacknowledged on a frequently visited block; a view of a distant hill from a road traversed daily.  Not long ago I was entering my bedroom – I say “my” bedroom though I’m only renting it and only a couple of years ago it housed somebody else altogether – and I saw on the doorframe faint marks, scrawled in pencil on the painted wood.  The lower of the two markings reads “Alana 170cm”; above it is “Mark, 180cm”.  I know neither Alana nor Mark; I’ve never heard the names before in connection to this house.  Living by myself as I do I struggle to imagine the house – a rental property for many years according to my neighbours – as a place in which children were raised, in which parents marked out the height of those children as they grew.  Having seen the markings now, though, having imagined in my mind Mark and Alana standing stiff and proud against the doorframe while their mother or their father held a ruler or a book flat on their head and pencilled their height onto the wood, I find scores of children coming to my mind: flitting delicately into the light, as if hatched in the dark cupboards and crevices of this old house.

So attached do we become to our houses that it can be discomfiting to imagine other people inhabiting them before us, loving them with an equal fervour, or perhaps hating them and wishing themselves far away.  It’s an irrational feeling, it’s the fear of ghosts; yet if I confront it in myself I find that it disappears completely, replaced by the very opposite feeling:  a comfort in knowing that many other eyes have gazed at the walls that now shelter me, that countless people before me have huddled before the heater in the sitting-room on the longest night of the year and dreaded the moment when they have to open the door and let the cold air rush in from the rest of the house.  I can imagine the pride of the house’s very first residents, how excited they must have felt when they turned the corner of this small street and saw the new building shining in the southern Australian sun.  They couldn’t have known how long they would live in the house, and perhaps their children remained after them, and their grandchildren.  They would have worried about having enough food; they would have worried about keeping what food they had from spoiling.  They would have admired the singing of the birds in the trees outside as much as they reviled the pests that invaded their kitchen.  Eventually they would have vacated the house, one way or another, and the next generation would have moved in, grateful for the sturdy walls and eager for the discovery of their own lives.  And so on, and so on, in every house and on every street, until gradually by an accumulation of lives this city gained an invisible but indelible history.

Image sourced from

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

47) Peregrine Falcon

Falco peregrinus

There’s a split-second when you see a Peregrine Falcon scything low across a city sky in which you realise that it is a Peregrine, and not a Pigeon (Columbidae) or a Gull (Laridae); and that split second is one of the most exciting sensations that a casual observer of the animal kingdom can experience.

The Peregrine travels fast, exceptionally so, even in a straight flight from point to point, and when one stops to alight on a pole or a TV antenna or on any bare, elevated position, it’s almost a disappointment to see it stationary.  Part of the exhilaration of seeing the animal is in its flight: in being witness to, to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing about another Falcon, the Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus): “The achieve of, the mastery of the thing”.

If birds move writers to write, Falcons (Falconidae) stir a special eloquence: as if those people who choose to write about them would feel ashamed of not doing them justice.  So much, both in volume and in quality, has been written about Falcons, and about Peregrines in particular, that it’s perhaps a folly to try to add anything at all to the collection; and yet I see a Peregrine and I feel moved to words, as if words could bear me aloft to take a position alongside the animal for even a few moments.

Seeing Peregrines in Melbourne is a surprisingly common experience: just by looking up in the sky every now and then I see one at least once every couple of months; and if not a Peregrine, then its smaller and no less ferocious cousin, the Australian Hobby (Falco longipennis, a bird reputed to have been observed diving into a flock of Pigeons and emerging with a Pigeon in each claw).  Finding out information about Melbourne’s Peregrines, though, is surprisingly difficult.  A search online yields only a handful of useful articles, and most of those simply repeat the same information: that in 2007 a Peregrine’s nest, complete with nestlings, was discovered on a known nesting site in Melbourne’s CBD, the first successful use of the nest since 2004 – coincidentally, the year I moved to Melbourne.

I’d seen Falcons occasionally in Canberra before then, though usually they were Kestrels hovering by roadsides – a charming, even enchanting site, but lacking the visceral thrill of seeing a Peregrine in full flight – but it wasn’t until moving to Melbourne that Falcons became a regular part of my life.  Since arriving in Melbourne I’ve moved house three times but I’ve kept within five kilometres of the CBD; the radius of a Peregrine Falcon’s hunting territory can stretch to five times that much, and it’s delightful to imagine that the birds I’ve seen since moving to Melbourne have all been the same individuals, or at least of the same family.

How fanciful such a thought is is difficult to ascertain: no matter how many variations of the phrase “Peregrine population of Melbourne” I type into Google I can’t find an number.  It’s not important, though: for now, for me, the point of Peregrines is not how many of them there are, but that they’re here at all.  In 1962 Rachel Carson published her famous and incalculably important book Silent Spring, and for the first time the general public was made aware of the horror unleashed on the environment by the widespread usage of pesticides, most famously DDT.  The book took its title from a parable, related in the first chapter, of a town “famous for the abundance and variety of its birdlife” – birdlife which is ultimately killed by poisoning.  The Peregrine Falcon is not a particularly vocal bird, and certainly not a songbird, but it is the bird that is most emblematic of the evils of DDT: through thinning the shells of this apex predator’s eggs, DDT caused the Peregrine to become endangered in many parts of the world.  It seems that no article about the Peregrine is complete without mentioning this fact; it bears repeating, and it demands to be remembered.

DDT was banned in the US forty years ago, though, and in most other countries subsequently, and as a consequence Peregrine numbers have steadily increased.  It’s a happy irony that Peregrines, of all animals, have adapted readily to the presence of humans, happily taking up residence in metropolitan areas: high-rise buildings in city centres, hosting both numerous ledges on which to nest and an abundance of Pigeons on which to feed, are as well-suited to Peregrines as a human construction can aspire to be.

But I’m not saying anything new here.  So written about are they, so studied are they, that it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything new to say about Peregrines at all; except, perhaps, to recount the effect that seeing one has on me – for the soul of a person is always new to other people.  I like to say that no day in which you see a Peregrine Falcon can be a bad day, and though it’s facetious as all such comments are there’s an element of truth in it: catching even a glimpse of a Peregrine so lifts the spirits that all other concerns seem earthly and facile.  The last one I saw was in the most mundane of places: above the fenced-in courts of the Clifton Tennis Centre, in Clifton Hill, as I walked up the ramp from the pedestrian underpass beneath Hoddle Street and Clifton Hill train station.  The sky was stagnant and overcast, and it was in the dead hours of mid-afternoon, and the Peregrine flew hard and fast just above the autumn-stripped trees and it was silhouetted against the sky so precisely that its wings seemed liked sabres, its body with its short head and long tail seemed like an arrow.  It was present in the sky for just long enough for me to recognise what it was, just long enough to grasp me and root me to the spot in stunned admiration.  It was there for just long enough for me to wonder what strange urge or instinct had led me to lift my head at the precise moment that it was passing – and then, before I could begin to even fathom the surprise of it, it was gone.

Image by Paul Randall, sourced from

Sunday, June 3, 2012

46) Eastern Quoll & Red Squirrel

Dasyurus viverrinus & Sciurus vulgaris

We’d set up camp, had our dinner, and were preparing to go to bed before the dark grew so absolute that our eyes could no longer adjust to it, when we heard a series of curious yaps.

Ours was a small group: my father; an old friend of his; the son of another friend; and me.  We were on the last night of a hike of several days’ duration through Tasmania’s small but mesmerisingly beautiful Walls of Jerusalem National Park.  We’d entered the Park by following the presumed course of an unmarked and long-lost trail which tracked through delicate sphagnum bogs from Pine Valley in the adjoining Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, and now, three days later, we were leaving via the main trail, picking our way between a long network of rocky tarns through a flat, sparsely vegetated pebble field.  It was not comfortable country to sleep in.  We were too tired from days of walking to care.

Before sleep, though, an unexpected encounter: by the time we finished eating our dinner it was growing dark enough to ensure that we’d give our dishes only a cursory wash, yet before we had a chance even to do that the dirty dishes, smelling of and scattered with the remnants of our dinner, were discovered by the local wildlife.

Most Australian animals, mammals particularly, are shy, and it’s highly unusual to see one close at hand, let alone have one voluntarily enter the midst of a group of humans.  This goes doubly for animals in the deep wild.  When finding oneself in such a situation, adding the further implausibility of the animal in question being one which most people, even inveterate bushwalkers and campers, will never see, pushes the whole situation over into the realms of the scarcely believable.  That was certainly how we all felt when we raised our eyes above the line of our tents and realised that the source of the strange yapping noise that had got our attention was not one but several Eastern Quolls.

Picture-books of Australia’s ancient and extinct megafauna, such as I sometimes browsed when I was a child, are full of monstrous creatures: carnivorous kangaroos, giant diprotodonts.  Animals with short, ugly snouts and vicious fangs.  Carnivorous marsupials are relatively rare in Australia now, though: the national consciousness is haunted by the flickering black-and-white ghost of the last Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), filmed in Hobart Zoo in 1933, which upon its death in 1936 took with it the heartbreakingly lovely form of its entire persecuted species.  Nowadays, if one is to mention the words “carnivorous mammal” to an Australian, his or her thoughts will likely turn to introduced pest species: Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), feral Cats (Felis catus).  If, however, that hypothetical Australian grew up curious about animals, he or she might also give thought to a group of small and incongruously pretty creatures: the Quolls.

Quolls are carnivorous marsupials whose most characteristic feature, apart from their diet, is their spotted fur: a Quoll’s coat is painted liberally with large white blots, as if the animal has been caught in the spotlights of a hundred eager wildlife-watchers.  As if to counter the attractiveness of their markings, the wildlife books of my childhood seemed always to depict Quolls with some unfortunate creature semi-chewed between their jaws: Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus eximius) in the case of the Tiger Quoll; small rodents or large insects for the Eastern Quoll.

The Quolls so depicted were invariably orange-red in colour, though, and until I saw the Eastern Quolls in Tasmania I had no idea that the animals existed in any other colouration.  I can’t recall now how many Quolls there were on that night – of course my memory insists that it was ten, twenty, fifty, but it’s likely there were a mere handful.  What I recall clearly, though, is that although the first Quoll we saw had the expected russet coat, others had pale sandy-coloured fur; or brown fur so dark as to be almost black.  It seemed that each animal that came out of the sparse undergrowth, out of the twilight into the perimeter of our camp, was a different colour.  Only the large white spots were uniform and exactly as depicted in those books of my childhood.

Campers the world over are discouraged from feeding wildlife; but what’s to be done when the wildlife helps itself?  We were astonished when the Quolls appeared; shocked; and when our shock abated we quickly dashed to recover our pots and pans, plates and knives.  It wasn’t out of a concern that we might tame the wild animals: we merely wanted to prevent our possessions from being scattered through the Tasmanian bush.  Yet as I recall there was a pause of more than a few moments as we admired the rare and beautiful animals before us: none of us had ever seen an Eastern Quoll, and perhaps none of us had ever expected to.  If we felt annoyed that the Quolls had invaded our camp, if we felt chastened that they might grow fat and slothful on our carelessly left foodscraps, we also felt delighted, and perhaps even proud, that we’d managed – even inadvertently – to lure such animals out of hiding.

September 2009: we’re in the Arctic.  There is nobody else with us; it’s just my father and me.  Every animal is novel to us: no sighting is so mundane that it doesn’t fill us with wonder.  We’ve sat on a bus for seven hours travelling northwards through kilometre after kilometre of unchanging birch forest; the land around us barely rises above the horizon, and it’s easy to imagine that the forest never ends.  As Australians we’re inclined to imagine that Europe is small, confined; but this landscape is vast.  A week later we’ll be on another bus, just to the west, at the same latitude but in a different country, in Sweden, and the bus will be stopped by men on the road, men of the indigenous Sami people, and we’ll wait patiently and watch the unknowable forest until abruptly those short, thickset trees disgorge a great herd of Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus): one-hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred, four-hundred of them, pouring across the road from gaps between trees that scarcely seem to be there at all.  The Reindeer will pass, the road will clear, the men will leave, and the bus will continue.

For now, though, we’re in Finland, and we’re passing through ever smaller towns until eventually we get a ride in a school bus which shuttles through various hamlets amid the trees and finally drops us at our destination, Lemmenjoki National Park.

The Lemmenjoki River (a tautology, actually: in Finnish “joki” means “river”) has a history of gold prospecting, and when we shut our eyes gold is all we can see: it’s high autumn, and the yellow birch leaves glow in the clear Arctic air.  We’re in the midst of a great forest but in places where the birches dominate there’s almost no green to be seen at all.  But then we’ll turn a corner on the track we’re now walking, and some change in the terrain’s aspect will see the birches recede and be replaced by pines, and the world becomes deep and dark with the sombre green of their needles.

Beneath our feet there is no earth, just a shagpile carpet of dwarf berry bushes: blueberries, crowberries, cloudberries . . . Like the birches, these plants are preparing to shed their leaves ahead of the coming winter, and the ground is splashed with red and purple and even black.  Through this scene cut rivers and streams that are cold and steely blue.  Often the sky above is so clear and cloudless that I’m reminded of the unwarm blue sky of Canberra winters, the sky I grew up with.

There are few animals here, mostly birds; their calls and the sounds of their movement reverberate through the crisp air.  Thus do animals give themselves away in this dizzying forest of colour, and when we come upon them their appearance is like a maelstrom of movement and noise in the still, quiet world.

How must we appear to them, then!  Two creatures, carrying their lives on their backs, lumbering noisily and breathlessly, slowly and ponderously, making no secret of their presence.  Is it any wonder the animals of the forest scatter before us?  Is it any wonder we see so few of them during our week amid the trees?

But these animals are not automatons with routines and constrictions; they are beings with lives that are ever subject to disruption and distraction.  One day, midway through our time in the National Park and being in no hurry, we make a side-trip up a poorly marked track to a high and pristine lake.  Along the path we disturb two Red Squirrels having a violent dispute: perhaps territorial, perhaps amorous; there’s no way for us to tell.  We watch as the tiny animals, having given themselves over momentarily to ferocity, run across the path, scale a tree, jump from branch to branch: one pursuing the other, then pursuer becoming pursued, then back again, the chase punctuated by bites and scratches and screeches.  The animals move so quickly that they almost trace a red line through the forest.  They are wholly absorbed in their fight, they’ve crossed the track right in front of us and have not even noticed our astonished presence.  So fast and relentless is their angry movement that they disappear into the forest after only a few moments, taking flight to the tops of the trees and away.  Their world is their own and it excludes us, absolutely: we will never see them again, and these two Red Squirrels have not seen us at all.  They will never know of us and our existence will never imprint upon theirs.

The Red Squirrel is a small animal, and timid; we continue our walk through the forest, far from our home, and though I can’t say if my father feels the same way, to me it is strange, and yet strangely fitting in that landscape, to be so humbled by such a creature.

Eastern Quoll image sourced from / Red Squirrel image sourced from