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

Sunday, September 30, 2012

59) Dog

Canis lupus familiaris 

We’d followed the news all week, those many of us lucky enough not to be in the terrible centre of it.  With hope slowly withering to horror and sorrow we’d read and discussed each new awful development.  On Friday we awoke to the news that overnight police had found her body.  Even as late as Thursday night we’d been hoping, against hope, for the best.  On Friday morning thunderclouds rumbled over the city, darkening the sky, dimming the early spring light, as if the sun itself could not bear to break over a new day.  On Friday morning, on the train into the city, on our way to work, we barely spoke; and the silence was heavier than silence ever should be.

On Saturday we paused in our sorrow, because that is the great privilege of those many of us who did not know her, and we watched Sydney beat Hawthorn in the AFL grand final.  The last Saturday in September.  A community has its rites.  On Sunday, though, through our hangovers, we remembered once again, with a horror that wouldn’t give way to numbness, and we talked to each-other in voices hushed and bowed, and we gathered in Brunswick at midday beneath a sky that threatened rain.  Thousands of us.  Tens of thousands of us.  Somehow an entire city of us.

As we turned the corner into Sydney Road to begin our sombre march police ushered us into one lane of the street, to allow trams and traffic to pass in the other direction; yet even so no vehicles moved.  No vehicles dared to move.  There were so many of us that crowded into a narrow column we seemed to stretch the entire length of Brunswick, from Moreland Road where we began to Brunswick Road where the trams waited patiently for us to finish our procession.  As we began to walk some of us talked to each other but more of us were silent.  For some of the men in our number it was as close as we had been to women we didn’t know all week: a sense of shamed propriety has fallen upon us, and we’ve been keeping our distance, lowering our eyes.  Now though our very presence is itself a sign of respect, and even contrition: for one of our number had done this awful thing.  It is always one of us.

The march takes us an hour.  All of us, men and women alike, together.  There are so many of us, and we are walking so slowly.  People are people, and so some of them turn slowly to chatting to friends: about life, about daily frustrations.  There are so many of us that friends cannot find each-other, and phone calls are made: the landmarks of the nightly news, the places she stopped on her last awful night, are used as points of reference: “I’ve just passed Bar Etiquette” one man tells somebody on his phone.  He’ll be with his friend soon.

“I think we’re nearly at Hope Street” another man says.  He sounds as if he has momentarily forgotten himself, as if he is touring historical landmarks; but it’s forgivable.  It is, in its way, understandable.  Later, in a pub in the city, a female friend asks me why I had marched.  “I don’t understand the point” she says, and I gasp and stumble for a reply before muttering something about solidarity; but I think perhaps we marched because we needed to see for ourselves something that had hovered all week somewhere between the abstract and the horrifyingly real.  We are human, and only through seeing something of it for ourselves can anything begin to make sense to us.

There are many families marching.  There are women and men, of all ages, and – if one can judge such a thing from appearance alone – of all backgrounds.  Many people have brought their dogs, because in some ways a community is bound together by its dogs.  There are whippets and retrievers and Labradors; mutts and mongrels and purebreds alike.  They are all on leads but they don’t need to be: dogs have a better sense of propriety than most animals; than many humans, for that matter.  A dog can read the mood of an occasion and adapt its own behaviour to suit, and the dogs on the march are silent, their heads down, their pacing as slow and stately as the thousands of humans around them.

Yet they are dogs, and sometimes they can’t contain themselves, and when the path of one dog crosses with another there is a burst of activity: the dogs wag their tails eagerly and sniff each other all over, raising their noses in keen excitement.  Everybody on the march knows that dogs will be dogs, and their small transgressions against the sombre mood of the procession are forgiven; and so the dogs begin for us, in their way, the process of healing; they begin the long task of pulling us through our collective grief.  Each dog in the crowd is a small burning star of happiness and joy and because they are dogs we can forgive them for it, even today, even at the end of this awful week.

By the time we reach Brunswick Road the sun has come out, and people have begun to talk to each-other.  A policeman with a loud but not unkind voice instructs everyone who finishes the march to move off the road, to clear the way for traffic; and so there is no lingering; the crowd disperses as if at some stage in the past hour the march had become a pilgrimage.  On the corner of Sydney Road and Brunswick Road, where we leave each other, is a pub.  It is called Bridie O’Reilly’s.  Its sign proclaims “An Irish tradition”.  We leave each-other, and walk into the sun, into the cold southerly blowing off the bay of our beloved and wounded city, and if we feel a keener sense of sorrow over the murder of Jill Meagher than for any of the other too-many women who have died in our city in similar circumstances, perhaps it is because she was not from here, but had come from Ireland and chosen to make her home among us.  Perhaps we feel that we have failed her.  We cannot now make it up for her, we can never, ever, tell her that we are sorry; but we can tell it to each-other, and together – only together – can we reclaim and rebuild our city.

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Monday, September 17, 2012

58) Butterfly


The butterfly enclosure is not quite as I remember it: I’m surprised to find it where it is, immediately next to an imitation Thai village in the middle of the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus) enclosure; I do not recall at all having to enter the butterfly enclosure through heavy black plastic curtains, as if entering an abattoir or a butcher’s fridge.

I am at the Melbourne Zoo.  I’ve been here only once before, nearly two years ago, in summer when the city was hot and humid.  I had a beard then and at the sight of me one of the male Gibbons (Hylobatidae) in the zoo’s carefully constructed Gibbon enclosure became hysterical, gaping and screaming at me, passing me again and again to bare its teeth.  My friend and I laughed, and joked about the Gibbon’s anger; we were on the right side of the glass, and laughter came easily.  We spent the afternoon at the zoo.  It was a weekday, and not too busy.  I had never been to the zoo before; my friend, a Melbournian by birth and upbringing, had not been for a long time.

Now I’m back, and I’m reacquainting myself with favourite animals, and rediscovering animals that I’d forgotten about or that had not been on display the last time I was here.  On my previous visit the seal pool had been under construction; now it is built, and I and the friends who are with me now step into the dark enclosed space and gasp in astonishment at the grace and effortless movement of the Australian Fur-seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) as they swim beneath the artificial waves.  I’ve only ever seen them on land before, where they are slow and ungainly; beneath the water they are a different animal entirely, and I can barely tear my eyes away from them.  I wonder if there can be a more beautiful sight than a seal or a sea-lion at swim.

Elsewhere we wonder why the Bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus), antelopes described on the plaque by their enclosure as living in the dense undergrowth of African rainforest, have been housed in an environment that looks more like the savannah.  We linger by the Small-clawed Otters (Aonyx cinerea), watching them play and swim and tumble over one-another; after my friends move on I stay a little longer, and notice that one of the Otters, the one on the bottom of each fight, has a tail that is raw with cuts and bites and scars.  Suddenly it seems doubly imprisoned: caged, and persecuted by its fellows.

Before entering the Elephant enclosure, which is surrounded by dense bamboo, we pass by an historical monument: a recreation of the zoo’s original Tiger (Panthera tigris) cage.  Enchanted by the animals, aware that with afternoon commitments my time at the zoo is rapidly running out, I try not to think of the generations of animals that lived and died pacing back and forth in bare concrete cells, with nothing to hide behind but bars.  Earlier we had seen the zoo’s current Tigers, surrounded by a replica forest, and for a moment I had been unable to tell if they were in the cage we were peering into, or in the next cage along: the lines of the bars dissolved into the foliage.  Only the Tigers know.

As we pass the Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia) my friends’ young son says “cat”.  It is his third word.  Later, holding him while my friends eat lunch, I try to impress upon him other words: “Bird”; “Seagull”; but it is half-hearted, and I disguise my efforts as an attempt to amuse my friends.  Earlier my friends and I had watched a baby elephant tease a family of Wood Ducks (Chenonetta jubata), the two parent birds herding their dozen or so ducklings from side to side of the small pond in the elephant’s enclosure, the ducklings paddling desperately to keep between their parents.  The elephant grew bored of the ducks and instead began exploring its environment, the environment given to it: it clambered up onto some low rocks, and when it bent its leg awkwardly and raised itself on its knees onto the rocks I was reminded of my own efforts to clamber up onto raised surfaces.  I have just turned thirty-three; though I am still young my body has already peaked and begun to deteriorate.

Time is running out.  It is twelve-thirty already.  I insist that we go to the Butterfly enclosure.  It is not as I remember it: the warmth inside is heavier, denser, more oppressive, and though I’m compelled to linger amid the Butterflies I’m not unhappy when we emerge again into the cool early-spring air.  It’s a Sunday, and the zoo is crowded: on buying my ticket I’d asked the woman at the ticket booth if it had been a busy day.  “Not so far” she’d said; but when I’d bought my ticket it had only been ten-thirty, and there was still plenty of time for crowds to arrive.  Walking through the zoo just after entering, waiting for my friends to join me, had almost been like walking through a park or garden; but then as I passed a cage three African Hunting Dogs (Lycaon pictus) trotted past briskly, on the other side of the bars, and I felt an extraordinary excitement, some ancestral thrill of danger tempered by the realisation of my complete safety.

The feeling inside the Butterfly enclosure is something entirely different: joy, wonder, astonishment.  These are not primal instincts; or if they are, they are instincts that perhaps date back to the moment when humanity first began to create culture; they are almost indecipherable instincts towards the recognition of beauty.  Stepping into the Butterfly enclosure is stepping into a world that humans have built and designed almost to exclude themselves: it is a world built and designed to make ourselves feel secondary.  The heat and stillness of the enclosure suits the butterflies in their brief lives, and there are so many in such a small space that my friends and I joke that the exit should have a mirror, so that visitors can check themselves for Butterflies before leaving.  No butterflies land on us, to our regret, but they land on seemingly everything else: on leaves, on rails, on the many colourful hexagonal feeders placed throughout the enclosure.  A young intellectually disabled woman shows off the prim brown Butterfly that has landed on her hat: she is carrying the hat in her hand, not daring to put it back on her head; she walks through the enclosure and shows everybody she meets.  Her hat has a brown foam elephant’s trunk protruding from the cap.

The Butterfly enclosure is full of people, it is the most popular exhibit at the zoo.  They talk and laugh and gasp and the more time they spend in the enclosure the more Butterflies they see.  I am the same, and though I try to hold a conversation with my friends it is constantly interrupted by my own excited pointing and exulting as I see another extraordinary insect: this one green; this one blue; this one yellow.  When I was a child there were only two or three Butterflies that visited my parents’ garden, and thus entered my life; one was the Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae) and it was the first animal I ever learned to revile, though I never knew why.  Some gardener’s lore had been passed down in feeling from generation to generation, but the information had gaps: I hated the Cabbage White, but only because everybody I knew who could identify it and name it hated it too.

When we enter the Butterfly enclosure I tell my friends that on my previous visit it had been so quiet inside that the only sound had been the fluttering of the Butterflies’ wings.  This is true: the air had been full of tiny zephyrs.  Today it is far too noisy and crowded for such delights; but the noise and the crowd is a delight in itself.  There is something in us that wants to admire animals; there is something in us that wants to see creatures other than ourselves.  There is something in us that returns us again and again to animals in captivity, though the troubling reality of such situations gnaws at the edges of our joy.  Early in the day I had watched for several minutes as the zoo’s Brown Bear had probed and pulled and sniffed at the walls of its enclosure.  Upon leaving the zoo I had experienced a momentary confusion as the exit gate appeared to be shut; but it sprung open as a sensor detected my presence and the presence of the man and his young son who were in front of me.  We laughed and the man explained to his son how to push the heavy turnstile so that he could step back outside the zoo’s high walls.  Overhead, in the tall eucalypts of Royal Park, Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus) investigated potential nesting sights for the coming breeding season.  Inside the zoo birds of the same species huddled together beneath the domed roof of the aviary.  They will never have to search for food.  They will never have to hide from predators.  They will never have to go from tree to tree, looking for appropriate hollows in which to nest.  Their wild fellows are forever noisy, screeching to the skies; in the zoo, the Lorikeets sit still and silent on the branch of a dead tree; but there is so much to see at the zoo that the silence of two birds common in the parks outside is easily ignored.

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Thursday, September 6, 2012

57) White Goshawk

Accipiter novaehollandiae

Like many cities (though fewer and fewer every year), Melbourne has two daily newspapers: a tabloid and a broadsheet.  The broadsheet is called the Age, and in the Saturday edition of that paper there’s a “lifestyle” lift-out; lifestyle in this case encompasses everything from reading books to going to movies to eating at cafés.  Last Saturday the cover story of this section of the Age was about bird-watching: coinciding with a panel at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, the story dared to suggest that bird-watching had somehow become cool.

Bird-watching will never be cool.  It may be accepted; it may be pursued more broadly and more openly than has usually been the case; but it will never be fashionable.  Still, that shouldn’t concern us – by ‘us’ I mean those of us who can in an instant identify any small bird that flies across our field of vision; I also mean, broadly, people – as there is very little in human life that is more useless than the concern with what’s “in” and what’s “out” at any given moment.

Nonetheless, we all trade in guilty pleasures.  In an age of mass-market irony and insincerity, the idea of taking genuine and undisguised pleasure in something is unsettling, for ourselves and for others.  Yet it’s wearying, this constant watching of our backs, this looking over our shoulder to see if anyone’s laughing at our joy.  I’m going to be thirty-three in a week’s time; I’m tired of underselling my love for the various idiosyncratic pieces of cultural flotsam and jetsam that make up my particular emotional and intellectual landscape.

As a child, of course, I didn’t have nearly such a thick skin when it came to other people’s bemused or disapproving responses to my enthusiasms.  When my classmates asked me, with a tone somewhere between confusion and astonishment, if I was a bird-watcher, I’d always downplay my answer: sort of, sometimes, not really.  I was, though: for a long time in my childhood there was nothing that gave me greater pleasure than borrowing my father’s pair of Zeiss binoculars, putting my copy of Simpson and Day’s Field Guide to the Birds of Australia in a bag, throwing the bag over my shoulder, and disappearing into the bush for several hours.  I can still remember vividly the sensation of picking grass-seeds off the thick knitted cotton of that bag.

More than anywhere else, this passion manifested itself at Brogo, my parents’ holiday house, about which I’ve written many times before on this blog.  I’d sleep on the window seat in the sitting-room of the house, even though it meant having to pack up my bedding each day and remake the bed each night, because by the windows there I’d get woken up by the rising sun, and I could rush out of bed, hurriedly get dressed, and head out up the road through the forest as the birds around me began to awaken.

The road was ideal for bird-watching not just because it provided easy access to the forest, but also because it went through a number of habitats: it skirted along the top of a rainforest gully in which could sometimes be seen shy but beautiful Wonga Pigeons (Leucosarcia melanoleuca); Satin Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus); even Spotted Quail-thrushes (Cinclosoma punctatum); near the gate it passed through a patch of dry acacia forest which, though less rich in birdlife than other habitats, was more open and thus provided better lines of sight.

Most of all, though, the road passed through – and still does pass through – wet sclerophyll eucalypt forest, which covers the great majority of the property.  The tall, thin trees of this forest hosted innumerable birds (I eventually catalogued nearly one-hundred species across the whole property) from Crested Shrike-tits (Falcunculus frontatus) to Varied Sittellas (Daphoenositta chrysoptera) to Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) of all kinds – but there was one bird that I saw in those early years of my bird-watching life that though it had no markings at all was as beautiful a bird as I’ve ever seen.  It was as pale and as silent as a ghost, and it haunts me still.

It lived in only one patch of forest, or at least I only ever saw it there, and I only ever saw it in the early morning.  It was a White Goshawk, a name as evocative as it is simple: in the muted, toned-down colours of the Australian bush it shone as brightly as a beacon, and thinking back to the bird now I wonder how it ever managed to catch and eat another creature at all; it’s not so fanciful, recalling the astonishing sight of it, to imagine that animals were simply mesmerised by its beauty.

The White Goshawk is a mutation, of sorts, but it’s not an albino: it’s a variation, a sub-species of the Grey Goshawk.  It’s the only all-white raptor in the world – the kind of fact that is simultaneously useless and captivating.  Being the same species, Grey and White Goshawks interbreed freely, and after observing the White Goshawk for years I started to see a Grey Goshawk, too; but it was never as entrancing as its white cousin.  There’s a particular brightness to the white feathers of birds – perhaps it’s because birds are so meticulous about bathing (they have to be: there’s scarcely a more favourable habitat for parasitic lice and ticks than the warmth beneath a bird’s tightly-packed feathers), but the white of a bird is unlike the white of any other animal.  It’s astonishing; it’s dazzling.  When the White Goshawk shone from its perch on the branch of a thin eucalypt it was instantly noticeable, even if it was still, and silent, and watching.  Whenever I raised my father’s binoculars to observe the bird it always seemed to be watching me back, with eyesight that was so keen as to be beyond my imagining.

Children are scattershot in their passions, but wholly devoted to them while they last: like the white beam of a torch their minds focus on one interest, examining it thoroughly, before moving onto the next; and the next; and the next.  I was an avid bird-watcher for many years, but eventually, in my late teens, I drifted away from it.  I can’t say why; I don’t love birds any less now than I did then – I suppose I found other things to maintain my interest.  It’s only when we’re adults, I think, that we develop the ability to balance our passions alongside each-other; to pursue various curiosities with equal attention.

But I suspect that most of us never quite recapture the intensity of those youthful fascinations.  I love few things more than reading, but I don’t read now with anywhere near the intensity that I read in my childhood and my teenage years, when summers would pass spent prone on the sofa, reading for five or six or seven hours at a time; when books would be finished in a day.  (It’s not entirely a bad thing that my reading habits have been tempered with age: back then, in the manner of children, I prided myself more on the volume of books read than the degree of appreciation or understanding I got out of them.)  Likewise, though nowadays I’m still given to periods of passionate devotion to particular books or films or bands or hobbies, for the most part those passions are gone in a few days or a few weeks, leaving only a faint but lingering glow in my mind as any evidence of the bonfire they once lit in my imagination.

I noticed when I saw the Grey Goshawk, but when I stopped seeing the White Goshawk I didn’t notice at all.  We don’t think of the lives of wild animals; we don’t stop to imagine that those lives must end.  By the time the White Goshawk disappeared – silently, unobtrusively – from the forest around my parents’ holiday house I’d already moved onto the next bird, I was determined to build the list – and then by the time I started to drift away from bird-watching I hadn’t thought about the White Goshawk in years.  I’d almost forgotten that it had existed at all, that bird that had so dominated my imagination just a few years before.

I was growing then, and changing: hurtling along that unmappable road from childhood to adulthood.  I was discovering things that are defining parts of my life now: music, in particular, and cooking.  I’d never had the slightest interest in cooking as a child, and then, in my teenage years, suddenly something clicked.  Perhaps it was simply that I cooked a meal, and enjoyed the process; but I began to love cooking.  I began to become incapable of living a life that didn’t involve cooking dinner every night.  I enjoyed nothing more than spending two hours in the kitchen, when my family had gone out for the night, and cooking an amateurish curry while listening to music turned up so loud that I could barely hear the sound of oil sizzling in the wok.

I’d discovered music some time earlier than I discovered cooking, and by the time I began cooking in earnest I’d discovered – through reading a review in the newspaper of his album Fairytales for Hard Men – the Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven.  A bought only a few albums of his – I had almost no money, and all of it was provided my parents ostensibly so that I could buy clothes, and Leven had a bewilderingly large discography of which only a small amount was available in Australia back then, in the nineties – but those few albums I came to possess dominated a period of my life and, I realise now, changed who I was and influenced who I became more than any other musician has been capable of doing before or since.

Through Leven’s habit of featuring poetry readings on his albums I was pulled deeper into a love of poetry that had already been created by exposure to my fathers’ books; many of the poets Leven featured or mentioned in his liner notes and who I hadn’t previously heard of became favourites, such as Anna Akhmatova; Osip Mandelstam; James Wright.  Leven’s music – yearning, heartbreaking, sometimes almost embarrassingly heartfelt – touched me deeply then, when I was first starting to become aware that the world was too often marked by disappointments; yet suffusing his music there was also something that I’d never heard in music before, and have rarely heard since, certainly not music in the broad field of “rock”: a strength and resilience that came not from obstinacy, nor from stubbornness, but instead from tenderness.  Leven’s songs are full of weary, broken-down, hard-won goodness that’s astonishing to encounter in any work of art.  The nineties was the decade of the Sensitive New-Age Guy – they’ve become a joke since, but they were a real and genuine cultural force back then – but Leven’s songs stood apart from that sometimes feckless and easily maligned group; the kindness in Leven’s music came from pushing through bitter experience and emerging on the other side; to borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney, writing about the poet John Clare: he “resolved extreme experience into something gentle”.  I don’t think there’s a phrase I’ve ever read that’s made a deeper impression on me than that phrase has: it elevates gentleness to a position of nobility.  Trying, in my late teens, to figure out what it was to be a man, I discovered Jackie Leven striving through his music towards the same position.

We live in an astonishing world, though, and there are more things to discover and to love than we could ever exhaust in a hundred lifetimes.  I loved Jackie Leven’s music deeply and passionately and ravenously for several years, and then I moved on.  I’d remember him every now and then, and feel that I ought to listen to him again; but somehow it never quite happened.  There’s nothing more difficult to recapture than a faded passion.  I continued to love Leven’s music – but I stopped listening to it.

Then, last November, dispirited by a search for employment that had gone on for six months, disheartened by the effort of trying to get a novel about decency and kindness published in a harsh publishing environment, flicking in boredom from webpage to webpage, I came across news that was shocking, and heartrending, and saddening, not just because of the facts of what I read but also because those facts conjured ghosts of memory that had long since faded into the trees, their absence unnoticed.  With a pang of nostalgia, sorrow for my lost childhood, I read that Jackie Leven had died.  He’d had cancer.  He was sixty-one.

For the first time in years I went to my CD collection and I pulled out my copy of his great album, Forbidden Songs of the Dying West.  I had it on my iPod, too, but it was essential to listen to it, after all this time, and in memory of the man, on CD: to slide the liner-notes out from the CD case, as I had so many times all those years ago; to flip that little booklet open and read again Leven’s impassioned and direct blurb on the first inside page.  As Leven sings, in the second verse of the album’s opening song, “Lonely in a café/Staring at an empty plate/In the sorrow of the traffic/I felt my mind disintegrate”, I read once more his recounting of the news of the death of Gerald Durrell, whose books I borrowed – stole, for I never gave them back – from a girlfriend of my brother’s and read avariciously as a child:

I was listening to BBC Radio News, and the man announced the death of the much-loved naturalist Gerald Durrell. He talked about how Durrell had avowed that he preferred animals to people.  Asked why this was Durrell said something like this: ‘Well animals don’t drive cars, they don’t make nerve gas, but most important of all, they don’t go to cocktail parties’.

This was at 3 pm.  At 5 pm the news item was repeated but now the reference to animals not making nerve gas had disappeared.  Quite apart from why, where had the nerve gas gone?  Even in death, especially in death, Gerald Durrell’s song about nerve gas had become forbidden – a Forbidden Song of the Dying West.

I’d be lying if I said that in the last ten months I’ve listened to no music but Jackie Leven’s; or even that I’d listened to his music very much at all.  I listened to those few albums of his that I still possess, and I searched the record shops near me for others, but he’s even less well-known now in Australia than he was in the nineties; I could have ordered some online, but I’ve never been overly fond of that; and besides, I didn’t have very much money.  But now that I’m older I find that memories of my youthful passions appear from time to time, brightly, like a white bird in a forest; like a message of tenderness in a culture of casual fury.  Whether we’re the sum of our parts or more than that I don’t know, I’m still too young to say; but one way or another those parts make us up.  We move, and move on, and move on again; we gather as we go.  Many years ago, starting form little more than an impulse, I gathered Jackie Leven’s music to me, and I’ll have it with me always: from time to time I’ll raise my eyes to Jackie Leven, and I’ll find him staring right back at me.

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