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Friday, August 24, 2012

56) Water-rat

Hydromys chrysogaster

My university days – four-and-a-half years of them – were spent on the edge of water, more or less.  The spacious grounds of the Australian National University are split by a trickle of polluted water called Sullivans Creek; whether by accident or design, which side of the creek you studied on marked you out, in those days at least, as an Arts student or a Science student.  The creek was disdained by all on campus except those dedicated few who committed themselves to cleaning it up; where the creek ran past the Chemistry Department it wasn’t too much of a stretch to watch the erratic behaviour of a Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) on the water’s edge and speculate about mercury poisoning; lead poisoning; some chemical taint in the poor creature’s brain or central nervous system.  One of my biology tutors once told us wide-eyed undergraduates huddled ’round a Bunsen burner horror stories about the mutated micro-organisms found in the creek’s meagre flow.

Scarcely less polluted than Sullivans Creek, but much more celebrated, was the other body of water which partly defined my university career: Lake Burley Griffin.  The Australian National University sits on the northern edge of the lake; on the southern shore, in the old Canberra suburb of Yarralumla, is my parents’ house.  I lived with my parents for the entire course of my degree – who would want to move out of free lodging in the most beautiful suburb in Canberra? – and to get from house to university or from university to house was a twenty-minute bike-ride along shores of the lake.  That’s how long it took via the eastern route, anyway, crossing Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, the greater of two concrete spans that link Canberra’s Southside to its Northside, the Parliamentary Triangle to Civic (or, at the north end of King’s Avenue Bridge, the other of the pair, the Parliamentary Triangle to the suburb of Campbell, the Department of Defence, and the infamous “Bunny Ears”, an enormous statue of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) given to Canberra as a gift by the USA and scorned by generations of Canberrans as a symbol of American hubris and arrogance.  At least the Americans got the building material right: concrete, the material of choice for civic monuments and grand edifices in Canberra).

It wasn’t unknown for me to ride home the other way, around Lake Burley Griffin’s western basin, if I wasn’t in a hurry: this route takes at least twice as long as the eastern route, though it’s a much more beautiful ride – at least, it was until the Canberra bushfires of 2003 destroyed the pine plantation that protected bike path from the sight of the adjacent Tuggeranong Parkway.  Those pines made descending the numerous corners of that section of the path into a test of bike handling skills and of nerve: sharp bends and a thick carpet of fallen pine needles made for an uncertain surface on which to control the precarious balance of a bicycle.  Now the pine needles are gone, and the path meanders through a landscape as bare and unwelcoming as the scar from any burn.

The hill is still there, though, and at the bottom of that brief descent the bike path crosses over Scrivener Dam.  Charles Scrivener was the Surveyor-General of New South Wales and later the first Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys; his surveys and maps of the Canberra region were used as the basis of the competition to design the city.  The foundations (concrete, of course) of the hut from which in 1908 he surveyed the land that became Canberra can be found in an inconspicuous location alongside another bike path and next to a picnic table below State Circle, one of the busiest (a relative term) roads in Canberra.  It’s the oldest federal building in Australia’s national capital.

The dam that bares Charles Scrivener’s name is no less significant: when it was placed across the Molonglo River in 1963 it created Lake Burley Griffin – though the actual filling of the Lake took a while, as Canberra was at the time in the middle of a prolonged drought.  The creation of the Lake was perhaps Canberra’s greatest acknowledgement of Walter Burley Griffin’s original design for the city, the design that won the competition before being half-abandoned – though in typical fashion Canberra’s patriarchs fudged the compliment by misnaming the Lake: Walter Burley Griffin did not have two surnames; “Griffin” was his middle name.

Yes, Lake Burley Griffin was designed, planned, and forced upon the landscape.  It is an entirely human creation (save for the water itself).  Sometimes people refer to it as an “artificial” lake, but that’s not accurate: the Lake is subject to blooms of blue-green algae; it gets sick when the storm-water drains that feed into it deliver pollutants from all over the city after a heavy downpour; it houses untold numbers of Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) and Redfin Perch (Perca fluviatilis) and Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and Black Swans (Cygnus atratus) and Pacific Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa); the reed beds along its banks shake in spring and summer with the activities of the aptly named Clamorous Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus stentoreus), which binds its delicate nest high in the reeds, just high enough to be out of reach; just low enough to be out of sight.  Lake Burley Griffin is as real as a body of water can be.

One day, on a sun-speckled whim, I decided to take a minor detour on my ride home along the eastern route: I turned my bike off the path and rode around Lennox Gardens, a small park across the road from the back of the Hyatt Hotel, a low and refined building first opened in 1924, when Canberra was newly born.  The sun played off the small waves of Lake Burley Griffin and I was seduced into riding along the very edge of the water, atop a stone retaining wall about a metre high.  The water beneath was shallow and filled with large rocks; to lose balance and fall into it would have been disastrous.  Yet there’s something about water that the eye can’t look away from.

I rode around the edge of the park often after that, every few days, if the weather was good and my university day had finished early, and then one day I saw it: a splash of movement in the water, a flash of bubbles clinging to dense fur like sequins in a coat; a Water-rat.  I’d seen photos of Water-rats before so I knew the animal instantly from the long white tip of its tail; and from its ease in the water, as it saw me and dived into a pipe.  I glimpsed its webbed feet before it disappeared.

I’d once, years before, thought I’d caught a glimpse of a Water-rat hunched amidst the willow roots near the bay by the Water Police station just down the road from my parents’ house; but it had been dusk then, and the world had been made of silhouettes, and I’d never been quite sure if what I’d seen had been animal or vegetable, just another tree root.  This time, though, there was no mistaking it: in the bright light of day, just below my feet.  The trip around Lennox Gardens suddenly became a daily necessity, something to look forward to, and I saw the Water-rat often two or three times a week.

It never got used to me, it always fled the instant it saw me.  I never got used to it, either: I always stopped and gaped and then glowed for the rest of the ride home.  That ride took me past many wonderful sights, over the years: on some winter mornings the lake disappeared completely behind a thick fog, and Ducks (Anatidae) and Moorhens (Gallinula) quacked and yelped from behind the white curtain; one summer a group of White-winged Trillers (Lalage tricolor) took up holiday residence in a stand of Eucalypts below Stirling Ridge.  Nothing, though, was ever as good as that Water-rat.

Rodents are as unloved in Australia as they are anywhere else in the world, and many Australians aren’t aware of the fact that this continent actually boasts numerous species of native rodents.  The Water-rat – recently renamed Rakali, both to honour Australia’s indigenous people and to distinguish it from better-known European and American species – is surely the grandest: weighing sometimes more than a kilogram, and sporting handsome chestnut-brown fur.  In a country whose wildlife, mammals in particular, is so relentlessly, dazzlingly sui generis, it’s a peculiar comfort to know that there is at least one group of prominent animals that we share with the world.

I graduated from university in 2003; I haven’t seen a Water-rat since.  Until just last week: I started a new job three weeks ago, and to welcome me and another newcomer to the office last Friday my colleagues and I set the afternoon aside and went to have lunch together.  The venue chosen was a pub in an old boathouse on the banks of the Yarra River.  I was chatting to my new co-workers, and more often listening to them chat to each-other, when suddenly one of them – my boss, in fact – pointed to the water and asked “What’s that?”  Everyone else at my table had their backs to the water, and we couldn’t see what he was talking about.  There were Ducks there; leaves, too, and plenty of rubbish.  There was nothing of note.  But – “There it is again!” my boss said, getting more excited, and more confused.  We all assumed he was talking about a fish, until suddenly the creature surface.  Unmistakeable.  A round head, held determinedly above the water.  Whiskers.  A long tail.  A Water-rat; a Rakali.

It disappeared beneath the wharf.  We returned to our conversation.  I’d barely thought about Water-rats in nearly ten years.  The empty chip-packets kept bobbing on the Yarra; on the opposite bank from the pub a sign advertised the services of a water taxi to the nearby Melbourne Cricket Ground.  The Yarra has as turbulent a history as any other body of water when it comes to human use and abuse, yet still it persists.  Birds swim on it; water-rats swim in it.  There is no such thing as artificial water.

Image sourced from

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

55) Dipper

Cinclus cinclus

For my whole life I’ve been travelling from Australia to the UK.  Ever since I was a young child, much too young to remember: every few years I’d get on an aeroplane with my family and fly for a whole day, up above time zones where sunrises and sunsets lose all their meaning, and land dizzy and dazed at Heathrow and emerge into the crisp, sparse air of southern England.

Sometimes these visits to the other side of the world have been for family reasons: weddings, funerals, anniversaries; sometimes we’ve gone to the UK simply because it was time to go, because in that distant country were dozens of friends and family members, and they missed us, and we missed them.  For the great majority of these trips my memory is hazy and indistinct: it’s formed of sensations, up until only ten or fifteen years ago when, thinking back, I suddenly find that I can ascribe years and precise events to the trips.

Because my mother is from Surrey and grew up in London and outside Woking, most of my visits to the UK over the years have been to southern England.  When I was a boy I would wave to the train drivers from the footbridge over the railway on the public footpath that led from my grandparents’ house to the village of St John’s, and the train-drivers would hoot their horns in reply – every time.  My family and I would divide our time between Surrey and Kent; Kent and London; Chelsea and Bloomsbury.  We’d wear ourselves out going in ever-smaller circles, trying to fit in as many visits as we could.

Then, at some stage of the holiday, my mother and my father and my brother and me would all pack our bags and get on one of those trains I used to wave at and let it take us up to Hereford, and from there to North Wales, to visit my aunt and uncle and cousins.  Though my cousins have since moved out of home, my aunt and uncle are still up there, in an area whose name I can’t recall and could never pronounce, in a valley that lies in the long shadow of Offa’s Dyke.  When exactly they moved to Wales I can’t recall: I have no memory of ever having visited them anywhere else except in North Wales, though I know that I must have.  Memory is fallible; sometimes it just gives up.  Often the human mind is so overcome by the idea of being in a foreign country that it simply neglects to remember things.

I have a few very vivid memories of visiting my aunt and uncle in North Wales: lying in bed early in the morning, staring through the skylight into the Welsh clouds, listening to the sound of children laughing in the title song to Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister on an iPod I’d bought myself duty-free in Bangkok airport; walking alone up into the hills, along more public footpaths – an institution I regarded then and regard still as the UK’s greatest glory – until I was cushioned in low clouds and stepping past the sunken ruins of ancient circular forts; listening to the polite and delicate songs of British birds in my aunt and uncle’s back garden.

Most vivid of all, though, most lasting and most penetrating, is the memory of meeting my aunt in a wood on the border between England and Wales in high summer.  We, my family and I, were transferring from the care of one group of loved ones to the care of another; soon we would all get into my aunt’s car and drive into Wales.  Before that, though, we had time for a walk: we turned into the woods and immersed ourselves in the shade of the trees.

I had a friend in high school who disdained the Australian bush.  He couldn’t abide its wonky shapes and asymmetrical growth, the roughness and haphazardness of its growth.  He stated a preference for the straight lines and neat orderliness of European trees, European forests.  Yet with his comments echoing in my mind I’ve found the wooded areas of England and Wales to be anything but orderly: in spring and summer they detonate with chaotic growth, trees and shrubs and wildflowers alike splay themselves in a headlong dash for the light.  To an Australian, used to the care-worn pace of growth in this continent of ancient plants and ancient soil, the palpable eagerness of European plants to grow and grow in their few brief months of opportunity is astonishing: we have nothing like it.  We have nothing like the way the shade of a European woodland deepens and darkens as the leaves of the birches and oaks and other trees turn from lime-green to emerald to jade to the colour of green-dyed leather.

The particular colour of a European wood in full leaf doesn’t really exist in Australia.  It’s a colour we know well, however: our visual culture is still almost entirely derived from the northern hemisphere, and an Australian could recognise anywhere the bright luxuriant green of European leaves.  In Australia that’s the colour of grass after an exceptional period of rain; it’s the colour of an artificial food additive.  Our forests are muted in shades of khaki and dusted lightly once a year with the brightness of pallid green leaves that have to mature and toughen and become full of toxin before they’re eaten by the multitude of hungry animals that somehow contrive to glean a living from the Australian bush.  Our forests are resilient but rarely verdant.

So I met my aunt in a forest that was at once familiar and profoundly alien.  Such is the nature of dual citizenship: of having family on either side of the planet.  You always feel at home; you always feel, to a degree, like you miss home.  I followed my aunt through the forest, and I wondered at the extraordinarily pungent smell that pervaded the forest, and she told me that it was wild garlic: I had no idea of the existence of such a thing, I was still so young back then that I didn’t think of food as a thing that grew wild anywhere.  The smell made me dizzy; it made me cough; it made me understand a thing that until then I hadn’t even realised that I didn’t understand.  People say that when we’re children we think we know everything; I wonder, perhaps, if it’s not so much that we think we know everything, but rather that we simply forget that there are more things to know than we can wonder at.

At some stage I broke away from my aunt: children can’t be contained to the pace of adults, not for long.  I came to a stream, and I saw there a bird that was unlike anything I’d seen before or have seen since.  It most immediately struck me as being like a wren, and because memory is malleable that’s still how I think of it, though I know now that it’s about twice the size.  Perhaps its body-shape suggested something wren-like to me: round, with a cocked tail, and a neck so short as to be non-existent.  Yet whatever it was, it was doing something no wren would ever do: it was swimming.

The stream was running swiftly, over and around rocks (streams, at least, are the same the world over), and this bird, with its dainty white bib, was standing on one of those rocks and hopping into the water; then hopping out, back to the rock; then in, and out, and in, and out.  It appeared at no stage perturbed by the speed of the water, though it seemed to me that such a small bird ought to be swept downstream in a heartbeat, dashed helplessly against the rocks upon which it so nonchalantly perched.  Instead it bobbed in the water like a buoy, and dived and re-emerged at its leisure.

It’s difficult for an Australian to imagine a bird from Europe, from the UK in particular, being so unusual and so exotic that simply putting its form into words is a struggle.  Australian birds are colourful and loud and boisterous; their European cousins are demure, and restrained, and polite in their vocalisations.  (Only much later would I spend hours marvelling at the circus-clown make-up of the Woodpeckers (Picidae) that flew to the stunted apple trees in my grandparents’ garden; later still, in Italy, I’d be rendered speechless by the sight of a Hoopoe (Upupa epops), a bird which I’d previously seen illustrated and yet stubbornly believed to somehow be a fiction.)  Yet some things – many things – are stranger than we can imagine.  In a forest on the border of two countries that were somehow one I was dizzy on the smell of wild garlic and watching an overgrown wren swimming like an Otter (Lutrinae) in a wild stream.

Sometimes the very fact of being in another country is so astonishing that the mind doesn’t know what to do with it.  Sometimes a place you thought you knew reveals itself to be completely alien.  Sometimes a place can be completely alien, and yet when you leave it and return to the home you love you nonetheless feel somewhere within you a slight tinge of homesickness.

Image sourced and adapted from

Sunday, August 12, 2012

54) Wolf spider


It was night-time, and my Cat (Felis catus) was banging on the front door, the sound of her claws in the metal screen a familiar rasping that told me she’d had enough of being outside.  She shouldn’t have been outside in the first place: it is, I’ll admit, irresponsible of me to let her go out after dark.  Long before I ever owned a cat I was as scornful as most Australians are of cat owners who let their pets stray into the night: though there are a handful of predatory mammals that are native to this continent, Australian wildlife on the whole has never had to deal with anything as efficiently lethal as a cat, and feral cats have wrought devastation upon populations of native birds and mammals.  Yet as aware as I am of such concerns, they remain abstract to me, and the imploring – and, frankly, annoying – way that my cat wails and hurls herself against the door at night when she wants to go out is more than I can resist.

I justify it to myself in various ways.  There are numerous cats in my neighbourhood, any of which can be seen prowling the streets after dark; could one more among their number really make such a difference?  I’ve only ever seen my cat killing a mouse once, and other than that to my knowledge she’s never caught anything larger than a moth – and insects and their like are creatures whose deaths fall lightly on our conscience.  She only ever goes out for a few minutes – before long she clamours to be let back in (before, inevitably, demanding to go out again a few brief moments later).

She’s only the second cat I’ve ever owned, so I can’t claim to be an expert on feline behaviour; but if I was to hazard a guess (which I do, frequently), I’d attribute her unwillingness to be outside for more than a few minutes at a time to the fact that she’s a rescue cat: I got her when she was less than a year old from the Cat Protection Society, a shelter in Melbourne which takes in many thousands of cats every year.  I’m inclined to imagine that my cat was a street cat, a stray, the progeny of an illicit feline coupling (she has wonderfully luxurious fur which suggests the presence of some carefully selected ancestral genes somewhere in her lineage); when I got her she was almost too afraid to go outside at all, and would hiss at passers-by on the street.  She was a cat desperately seeking shelter.

I, of course, am more than happy to provide her with that shelter.  A friend’s mother once told me that rescue cats never forget that their owners have saved them, and the level of affection – clinginess, one might also call it – that my cat displays towards me puts the lie to all of the stereotypes about the aloofness of cats.

So when I heard her scratching at the door I rushed to let her in.  I opened the door and there she was, looking up at me imploringly – and, by her feet, scuttling hesitantly out of the way, was a small Wolf Spider.  The brown and cream stripes running lengthways across its carapace played against the dark wooden surface of the small front veranda on which it crouched.  There was nothing remarkable about it – yet for some reason that I can’t quite fathom the sight of it struck me, and has stayed with me.

Initially I was simply surprised to see it: it was midwinter, a time when we expect small invertebrates to hibernate or to die off; yet there it was, this spider, still very much alive, and hunting: for what else could a Wolf Spider be doing in the middle of winter?  Wolf Spiders are more active predators than most spiders, pursuing or ambushing their prey rather than relying on webs.  Yet what could there be for a spider of any kind to eat and catch in Melbourne, in July, in a particularly cold and bleak winter?  I wondered over the spider; I pitied it.

What lingers now, though, several weeks later, is something about the particular confluence of lives in that moment: me, poised in the doorway, the house’s warmth at my back, safe in shelter and comfort; the cat, allowed to come and go as she pleased yet aware to some degree of the haven available to her; and the spider, which appeared frightened or even panicked at the presence of two animals which existed to it on a scale that we humans can’t possibly imagine.  We seldom give thought to physical space in which other animals live: most of them are dwarfed by sundry other creatures, and have to negotiate the clumsy presence of those giants daily.  We seldom give thought, for that matter, to the sheer number of animals around us and beneath us, much less to the part our presence plays in their lives.  In that moment at the front door I wanted nothing more than to be able to provide the spider with the same kind of shelter I was offering the cat – but of course such a thing would have been impossible.  Even if I’d managed to catch the spider the act of doing so would, I’m sure, have caused it great distress.

I was getting cold.  The cat was inside and had started pleading for something else, for food or for something more inscrutable and mysteriously feline.  I shut the door and returned to the warmth of the heater in the house’s sitting-room, and the dull comforts of the television.  Of what next became of the spider, alone in the cold night, I cannot know.

Image source from

Friday, August 3, 2012

53) White-browed Scrubwren

Sericornis frontalis

I’m sitting in the sunroom of my parents’ house in Canberra.  This is the house I grew up in, and as if mimicking the literal and diagnostic naming conventions of Australian birds this room has been known for my entire life as the TV room: the television in the house – the main television, though there have at times been as many as four scattered in various rooms – has always been in the corner, against a partial wall dividing the TV room from the sitting-room.  Now, though, as I begin to write this, the TV is off and the winter sun is streaming in through the window, and it seems more appropriate to call this room the sunroom.

Wrens are leaping and twittering in the garden just beyond the window.  Wrens have always leapt and twittered in that garden, for as long as my family has been living in the house; doubtless since before then, too, when this old weatherboard house – a Canberra original, though changed over the years – was inhabited by builders or labourers.  That was before Lake Burley Griffin was created, and before Yarralumla – where my parents are lucky enough to have lived for nearly the entire time they’ve been in Canberra – became home to Canberra’s wealthiest citizens.  Back then Yarralumla was known as ‘the suburb that built Canberra’, and the ruins of that old Yarralumla can still be seen on Stirling Ridge, the local branch of the vast and disjointed network of remnant bush reserves that make up the Canberra Nature Park.  On Stirling Ridge grows an endangered native flower, the Button Wrinklewort; on Stirling Ridge, too, can be found the overgrown, tumble-down remnants of Westlake, the suburb that became Yarralumla.  Westlake fell to ruin in 1965, a decade before my parents moved to Canberra; walk on the slopes of Stirling Ridge now and it seems scarcely credible that people lived in that area so recently.  The settlement has vanished almost completely; the cheerful bell-like calls of Crimson Rosellas (Platycercus elegans) echo through the spaces left empty by fallen buildings.

Few people know now about Westlake; few outside Canberra know the name Yarralumla, and those who do probably associate it with the property of that name, the Australian Governor General’s official residence.  Canberra is haunted by Governors General: many people here still curse the name of Sir John Kerr, the man who sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the 1975 constitutional crisis; in Primary School my school house at the annual sports day was named after Field Marshall Sir William Slim (Governor General from 1953 to 1960).  Governors General are remembered fondly in Canberra for their activism and civic-mindedness, or scarcely remembered at all for their anonymity.

Yarralumla, the property, is at the opposite end of Yarralumla the suburb from my parents’ house, a ten or fifteen minute bike ride along the western arm of the lake.  Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus) graze with impunity on the Governor General’s lawns; beneath the pines outside the residence’s gates I’ve seen Common Bronzewings (Phaps chalcoptera), plump bush pigeons with elegant white eyebrows drawn across their face like stage makeup.

There’s nothing elegant about the eyebrows of the White-browed Scrubwren.  They’re straight and harsh and give the tiny bird an appearance that suggests it would brook no disagreement.  Australia is replete with wrens, so-called: the beautiful Fairy-wrens, the colourful and amusingly shaggy Emu-wrens (Maluridae).  Only the Scrubwrens are little-regarded, burdened with an undignified name and ignored in their labours beneath hedges and in dense bushes.  They’re always heard and little seen: they’re not shy but they prefer to labour in the gloom, and their stern visage and scolding call lends to them an air of officiousness that would suit any humourless Departmental Secretary in Canberra.

As I sit on the window-seat in the sunroom of my parents’ house, the royal blue upholstery there unchanged in years, the trafficless silence of a Canberra mid-afternoon is interrupted by the twittering of Superb Fairy-wrens (Malurus cyaneus) bouncing and bobbing through the vegetable patch outside the window; over the lattice-work fence with its white paint shining bright in the sun; into the lower bows of the young blackwood growing on our side of the fence.  The tree is thick and sturdy, having taken root in the woodchips and sawdust of its parent which once grew taller than the house.  As a child I used to stand on the balcony outside my parents’ bedroom, on the second storey they added to the house in the 1980s, and I’d stare into the deep shade of the old blackwood’s evergreen branches and there spy King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis); Pied Currawongs (Strepera graculina); sometimes even Satin Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), young ones dispersing in summer to find their own homes.

Though the tree overhung our house, it was planted on our neighbours’ side of the fence, and our neighbours chopped it down.  It was the one action they took that sat ill on this side of the fence, though it was impossible to fault their arguments for removing the tree: it shaded their house all year round, and in winter the western side of their house, starved of sun, became cold and damp.

The new tree is growing on this side of the fence.  I don’t know what will happen to it when it reaches the size of its parent.  That’s an event that exists in a future far beyond my family’s association with this house, long as it’s already been.  There are new neighbours on the other side of the fence now; the neighbours who were there before have long gone.  One died and the other, her nephew, moved out of town.  People are still apt to misquote Robert Frost, and declare blindly that “Good fences make good neighbours”.  My parents’ house and that of their neighbours were divided by a fence at the back, and a hedge at the front; I don’t think it’s an accident that the front of their house was kind and inviting, while the back was mysterious and foreboding.  The wrens that hopped and flitted along the boundary line always seemed to be moving from back to front, from the barren fence to the thick and bountiful hedge.

They still do.  The Fairy-wrens outside the window are shrill and handsome and clannish: they move in threes and fours and each of their movements is accompanied by a trill and a flurry.  They know they are beautiful.  In their wake a White-browed Scrubwren chatters in the dank leaf-litter as if in constant disagreement with the world.  He hops briefly into the sunlight and I see by the bold white line above his brow that he is a male: the females are more ragged, their markings less distinct, as if they deem even such modest ostentation to be excessive.  The Scrubwren is sturdier than the Fairy-wrens, more rotund, less delicate and less lovely.  He is always alone though he often trails in the wake of Fairy-wrens or other small birds, as if hoping that some of their glamour will rub off on him; though he seems a bird with little use for glamour.

In this window-seat in the sunroom I’ve listened to Louis Armstrong so loudly that my father told me to turn it down; I’ve watched games of rugby on the television.  I loved to watch the rugby, the shambolic semi-professional games of the Sydney club competition, broadcast with a minimum of fuss on the ABC on Saturday afternoons.  There was more glamour somehow in those muddy suburban affairs than in the tense adrenaline-fuelled Test matches.

Once when I was much younger than I am now I saw in a cafĂ© in Civic – in Canberra it’s always Civic, never “the City” – a waitress lean over to collect empty cups off a table, and as she did so she held the tray on which she intended to place them above her head with such poise and elegance that my foolish, sentimental heart twisted itself inside-out yearning.  In the words of Saul Bellow, from the Adventures of Augie March: it made my soul topple over.  Unsure what to do with a toppled soul, I surmised that the waitress in question worked on Saturday afternoons, at the exact same time as the ABC showed the Sydney Club Rugby.  I’d race into Civic on my bike, twenty minutes from my parents’ house each way, and get a coffee, and smile at the waitress and if I was lucky receive a smile in return, and then I’d leave again, hoping to at least make it back for the second half of the game.  I was trying to have everything and in the process ending up with none of it at all, or perhaps only scattered fragments of what I sought.  Perhaps my fault was that I was seeking above all else a feeling, a sensation; but of course sensations of an instant can never be recreated.  We can turn over every leaf and explore every shadow and never find again something that was once only grasped at fleetingly.

The White-browed Scrubwren moves always with an admirable sense of purpose.  It seems to be forever foraging, always busy.  It’s not really stern, it’s only our lack of imagination that makes it appear so; I say lack of imagination, because we see a thing and by its appearance ascribe to it a fixed idea, without ever pausing to consider whether we are right or wrong.  The Fairy-wrens are gone but the Scrubwren remains, it is no longer concerned with following its distant relatives.  It will live its whole life in this one small area, it will forage beneath this hedge outside the window of my parents’ sunroom again and again; it will live without sentiment and without nostalgia.  Whether that is to its loss, or to its gain, it is beyond me to say.

Image sourced from