A quarter of an hour's walk from my parents' house in Yarralumla, Canberra, is a patch of remnant Yellowbox eucalypt woodland called Stirling Ridge. It edges the southern shore of Lake Burley Griffin; at its western end is Yarralumla Mosque, and on its northern slope can be found a few ruined buildings, the remains of a now-extinct suburb named Westlake, where the builders who constructed Canberra ninety years ago lived with their families.
I used to go walking up Stirling Ridge all the time. Only half an hour in a loop from my parents' house to the top of the ridge and back again, it was a convenient walk to do at the end of a school day, or a university day, or a work day, especially in winter when the grass was without seeds and the weather was cold and invigorating. I'd try to time my walks so that I walked back home, to my parents' house, facing into the winter sunset. I walked to Stirling Ridge so often that I can remember the different sections of the walk without even trying: left out of the driveway and down Turner Place; across Novar Street, where you often had to wait for a car or two to pass and which thus qualified as a “busy street” in Canberra; through the small stand of pin-oaks on the fringe of Yarralumla Oval; then onto the broad stretch of grass of the oval itself, where before the practice was legislated out of existence the community would gather every Queen's Birthday long weekend to burn an enormous bonfire. Across the narrow bridge on the far side of the oval over the storm-water drain where once in primary school a classmate of mine, an American kid, nearly drowned while trying to retrieve a basketball; through another stand of pin-oaks, a much larger stand, which stood alongside a row of bungalows designed by the renowned architect Harry Seidler, under whose name I once had a story published (“Harry was hoping to make a name for himself”, my high-school English teacher quipped); quickly down and up the other side of another storm-water drain, nearly always dry but for a narrow smear of algal water; across Hopetoun Circuit and then through long grass and up through pines and a makeshift mountain-bike track until finally I was climbing the ridge into the eucalypts. From there I'd walk for barely five minutes along the ridgetop before descending again through a long field of grass in which were two diverging tracks, and on which I sometimes saw Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus). Then as now if you kept a trained eye out while you were on Stirling Ridge you might see an unassuming plant with yellow flowers like tiny starbursts: the critically endangered Button Wrinklewort. Then it was back home, hoping for a spread of pink and orange and red across the wide Canberra horizon before darkness came and it got properly cold.
I don't know how many times I took that walk: hundreds, easily. Nearly every day while I was at school and university. All through school and university my mind was fizzing. No different from now, I guess; no different from anyone else. Trying to figure out the world and my position within it as I graduated from childhood to adulthood; worrying about tests or assignments or essays or exams. When stress made the walls press in on me I'd march up to the ridge and back. There's nothing like a walk to clear the clutter of the mind, to pare thought back to a lean, straight line, and before I was even halfway across the oval whatever was worrying me would have burned away like the fog of a midwinter Canberra morning – at least for a little while.
Some time between primary school and high school I started taking an interest in birds. I started birdwatching in earnest, too young to worry about whether it was cool or not (and honestly never much interested in such notions anyway). Walking across the oval towards Stirling Ridge I usually saw Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen) foraging in the grass, watching me warily. Often on the powerlines just on the other side of the first storm-water drain I'd see Galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla), or later when they arrived in the city Crested Pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes). All these birds were commonplace and of little interest to me; but as I approached the ridge I'd begin to get excited at the more interesting birds I might see. In particular, in the oaks outside the Seidler houses I'd often see a Scarlet Robin: just one, a male, his immaculate black-and-white back acting as a painterly backdrop to the extraordinary blaze on his chest of the reddest red you'll ever see. He was smaller than the palm of my hand but even when he was motionless he was impossible to miss. I didn't see him every time I walked up to Stirling Ridge but I saw him often enough that he became a welcome and familiar sight, like a nodding acquaintance you see on the same street every couple of weeks.
But I never stopped to admire him, not for more than a few seconds anyway. By the time I got to the Seidler houses I'd be feeling the sun begin to set behind my back, or in front of me just out of sight if I was on the return leg, and I'd be eager to finish the main body of my walk and get back onto the open expanse of the oval to get the best view of it. Also, when I walked up to Stirling Ridge and back I'd always be accompanied by my family's dog, either Bonnie, or Jessie, or Tess – whichever one we had at the time – and if I stopped walking the dog would begin to grow impatient.
All my family's dogs have been kelpies, a breed of Australian sheepdog, each with degrees of variation: Bonnie was a kelpie-fox terrier cross, and when Yarralumla Oval hadn't been mown in a while she'd jump vertically in the foxie manner to see over top of the grass. She died when she was hit by a car on Schlich Street, only a couple of blocks from our house; I was only in primary school when it happened and when my dad told me I ran to the trampoline in our back garden, my favourite thing in the whole world, and wept and wailed and shouted at him because he was the one who'd brought me the awful news and I was only a kid so I didn't know who else to blame. Jessie, a kelpie-border collie cross with red kelpie markings and long collie fur, lived til the age of fifteen and then suddenly stopped, as sheepdogs sometimes do: we took her to the vet when she had difficulty breathing and she died overnight.
They weren't the first pets I'd had who had died, though their deaths were the most deeply felt; before them my brother and I had had innumerable Mice (Mus musculus), so many we didn't get attached and barely noticed when they died; we'd had a pair of Guinea Pigs (Cavia porcellus) which live on for me only as an anecdote: they escaped from their hutch one day and pushed themselves underneath it until the crushed themselves to death. In primary school I'd had an Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) which I named Myrka, after the Doctor Who monster of the same name; when my Myrka fell ill and died I convinced my mother (who perhaps didn't need too much convincing) that I was too ill to go to school – in truth I wanted to spend those last few hours with an animal I didn't understand and didn't really rate very highly as a pet but for which I nonetheless felt a deep affection.
When you have a pet you expect it to die. It's an unspoken part of the deal: you will outlive your companion animals, whatever species they belong to. Children, of course, often learn the hard lessons of death through the demise of beloved Dogs, or Mice, or even Guinea Pigs. Death in a domestic setting like this is implicitly expected, if not the first time around then certainly the second or the third.
The death of a wild animal, though, is something different. Wild animals live outside our awareness for all but a few fleeting seconds; they come and then when they go again we give no thought to where they've gone. Whenever I saw that male Scarlet Robin in the oaks outside the Seidler houses he was a welcome sight, but just a sight: no more. He may as well have been a tree himself, or a house, or grass, or the sky. And because I didn't see him every time I walked to Stirling Ridge I didn't notice it at first when I stopped seeing him altogether.
I don't know when it occurred to me but it must have been after a few months at least. I hadn't seen the robin in all that time. No flitting flicker of wings; no flash of red. Just the trees and their silence. Walking through those trees, ducking under the leaves, I realised with a start that the robin might have died. Probably had died. I'd seen dead animals before, of course I had: roadkill, animals electrocuted on powerlines, fish washed up on the pebbly edge of Lake Burley Griffin. Meat on my plate. But the absence of the robin from the oaks outside the Seidler houses was the first time – the very first time – that it ever occurred to me that wild animals have lives, that those lives have a passage: from birth, to maturity, to death. That the lives of wild animals follow the same inevitable paths as the lives of any other creature.
If from our pets we learn the lessons of everyday domesticity, its ordinary tragedies and placid happiness, perhaps from wild animals we learn the more ephemeral lessons of the greater world outside our embrace: that transcendence can come at any moment; that life and death are beyond our ken and the gains and losses of our span of time are outside our control.
Things end. We learn this in childhood and begin to realise it as we grow into adulthood. For better, and for worse: everything ends. Tess, my family's third dog, almost pure kelpie and close enough that it makes no difference, is getting old now – she's slowing down, she sometimes limps, she's going grey; but still, for now she's very much alive, and I took her for a walk up to Stirling Ridge just last Sunday week. I'd gone up to Canberra for only one night, less than a full weekend, to attend a party at my parents' house – the house that used to be mine, too, at least inasmuch as it was the house I grew up in.
The party was a farewell. After living in Turner Place, Yarralumla, for more than thirty-five years, my parents have sold the house. They're moving. They're packing boxes this week; my father says that he's looking forward to living for the first time in four decades in a new house that doesn't require constant maintenance. They've got a couple more weeks but I, living in Melbourne, won't set foot inside the old house ever again. When I return to Canberra the house that I lived in for most of the first quarter-century of my life will no longer be a physical part of my life. Everything ends.
So while I was there two weekends ago I decided to do some valedictory walks. One last turn around the old neighbourhood. Of course I went up to Stirling Ridge. Across Novar, over the oval, through the oaks and past the Seidler houses. Through the pines, though most of them have been cut down now. Up into the eucalypts. Back down, past the Seidler houses and through the oaks again on the return journey.
And there, astonishingly, for the first time in nearly twenty years I saw a male Scarlet Robin. Bright and clear and eye-catching as ever, perched in the bare tree outside somebody's garden wall. I tried to get a photo of him but he flitted away to the next tree; I crept forward and tried again, but again he flitted away again. And so it went, me approaching and him retreating, ever away, ever away. Everything ends. We cannot stop it, we cannot recapture it; we can only accept it with good grace.
I'd been trying to photograph the robin with a telephoto lens I'd bought days before that fits onto the front of my phone's camera. It's cheap but good enough for the price. On the final leg of the walk back from Stirling Ridge I paused in the middle of the oval and peered through the lens, trying to get the hang of its focus mechanism: turn this way to focus nearer, turn that way to focus further away. I was trying to make the movements automatic, practicing for a camping trip over the Queen's Birthday holiday the following weekend. As I looked at the blurry trees, all other vision blacked out, I felt a light pressure on my leg: it was Tess, muzzling my jeans such that I could feel only the movement of the denim and not the touch of her nose. It was an unfamiliar action for her but I've known her for long enough to know what it meant: it meant come on, keep moving, we're almost home. She was hungry, or thirsty, or cold, or just old and tired. But it felt also as if she was snapping my attention back into the present, as if to say: stop living in the past. Stop living in the future. Just live now. I lowered the lens from my eye, and patted her on the head, and turned back towards Turner Place. One last time. It was late morning. The sun was not setting.
Image sourced from http://bird.net.au/