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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 café 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.

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