Tuesday, August 5, 2014

81) Golden Whistler

Pachycephala pectoralis

Two or three summers ago while visiting my family in Canberra I was walking through the suburb of Narrabundah, at whose eponymous college I’d spent the last two years of high-school, when a piping, piercing song caught my attention.  I knew what it was immediately, I’d heard it often enough before – but even so I didn’t believe my ears at first: even in Canberra, the “bush capital”, it seemed too urban a setting for such a forest-loving bird.  Yet there it was, in the top of a small eucalypt planted as a street tree: a male Golden Whistler, as cheerfully bright a songbird as exists, singing his song against the wide blue Australian sky.

Like many birds the Golden Whistler shows a strong sexual dimorphism: the females are unremarkable, their plumage various shades of brown; but the males are as colourful as their name suggests.  With yellow torso, olive-green wings, white cheeks and black hood and throat-ring they look remarkably like the Great Tits (Parus major) of the Northern Hemisphere – but they’re considerably larger, and seem somehow neater and cleaner and more pleasing in their colouration: bespoke plumage, to the Great Tit’s off-the-rack attire.  They’re common throughout the forests of south-eastern Australia – but never so common that seeing them can be taken for granted, and happening upon them is always a pleasure.

I wouldn’t normally have been walking through Narrabundah but it was a nice day and I was on my way from Manuka to Fyshwick, where my mother and brother had recently opened a small patisserie.  My brother had abandoned an unloved engineering degree to become a pastry chef, and my mother was supposed to have retired – but retirement isn’t what it used to be.  “The best laid schemes…” On my walk I’d passed Narrabundah College, where I’d almost become one of the first students to complete a combined major-minor in biology – before bad grades, the fallout of unremarkable teenage rebellion and angst, had forced me to drop the subject at the death and by doing so game the system, boosting my Tertiary Entrance Rank to 61.4.  I needed 60 to be eligible to study science at the Australian National University.  I scraped in.

I stuck the science degree out, graduated, even managed an honours degree of sorts from the Department of Botany and Zoology – BoZo, as it was known – but I wasn’t even half way through my degree before I realised that I’d never make it as a scientist.  It turns out that a childhood of absorbing every David Attenborough documentary the Australian Broadcasting Authority screened wasn’t enough to make a biologist: you needed a head for numbers, too.  I’ve never had that – words are my thing, but you can’t write your way out of a statistical analysis of genetic diversity within a given cohort of animals.

But that’s another blog post for another time.  Back to Golden Whistlers, because I stray too often on this blog and I’m haunted by a sense of disrespect towards the animals I used for my own imaginings.  In the second or third years of my degree I volunteered to help one of BoZo’s PhD students trap birds in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, just over the road from the department.  I rode through icy Canberra mornings along the lake from my parents’ house, twenty minutes from Yarralumla to the university; I passed lively European Hares (Lepus europaeus) at Lennox Gardens, marvelled as those shy animals scattered from my bike in such numbers as I’d never seen before.  Arriving at the university at dawn I’d get in the student’s van and we’d drive the deparment’s nets over to the Gardens, and there we’d set them up: mist nets, named because they’re as fine as vapour; once they’re up you can only really spot them by the poles that hold them vertical – or, after a few minutes, by the birds that hang suspended in their soft embrace.  You have to remember where you’ve strung the nets, and check each one no less frequently than every twenty minutes, because other birds – Laughing Kookaburras (Dacelo novaeguineae), for instance – will take the opportunity to pluck the helpless birds from the net and eat them.

You get a lot of by-catch with mist-netting, and most of the work is in releasing the unwanted species.  We were netting for Speckled Warblers (Pyrrholaemus sagittatus) but we caught anything that happened to be flying where we’d strung the nets.  One time we caught a Common Bronzewing (Phaps chalcoptera), and as it flapped to free itself from the net the pigeon released great clouds of downy feathers.  It was low to the ground, at the bottom of the net: any lower and it would’ve gone right under.

And one time we caught a Golden Whistler.  A male, bright as can be.  I could hold him in my hand – his head between my index and middle fingers, his legs between my ring and little fingers, his wings cupped in my palm, that’s how I the PhD student showed me to do it – and when I held him his feathers were softer than anything I’d ever touched, and the mass of his body was almost nothing.  We don’t realise how light birds are: a Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) weighs only around ten grams; a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) only a few kilograms.

But the Golden Whistler didn’t want to be held.  He was scared or he was fed up or likely he was both and as I extracted him from the net he turned his head in my grasp and gave me a resounding bite.  He clamped his short black beak firmly on the fleshy part of my finger and applied all the pressure he could.  What a privilege, to be bitten by a wild bird!  I probably exclaimed, in surprise as much as in pain, and I finished untangling him and set him on his way.  The impression of his beak upon my finger lingered for a while.

That’s all there is, just a distant memory of being bitten by a songbird.  That’s all I’m really writing about here.  I barely even remember how it felt now; I remember only the fact of it having happened, once.  What I wouldn’t give to have been older, and more aware of the fleetingness of each instant of life, and to have felt the moment just a little more keenly, to have been bitten more to my core.  But things don’t go to plan, I guess, least of all in hindsight.  Still, every time I see a Golden Whistler singing from his perch I can content myself with the thought: once, just once, we were joined – in enmity, true, but joined.

Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org

Monday, July 21, 2014

80) Red-necked Wallaby

Macropus rufigriseus

In the year 2000 I went to see the film the Dish.  It was a well-reviewed film with a good pedigree: the second effort from the people who’d made the universally beloved Australian film the Castle, in addition to numerous acclaimed TV series.  I went with some anticipation.  I came out angry.

The film tells the story of how the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales was responsible for receiving footage of the moon landing and transmitting that footage to the world.  When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed, with Michael Collins in orbit around them, the earth’s spin had turned the USA away from the moon; only NASA’s tracking stations in Australia were in a position to receive the pictures beamed from Apollo 11.  The world only saw that first moon landing, and only heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words, because of Australia.  Before the Dish was made and released it was a story most people didn’t know.  It was a story well worth telling.

Yet the Dish angered me.  Not because of the weaknesses of the film’s structure or screenplay – though in truth the film is a half-hour sitcom episode stretched to feature length – but because of its dishonesty.  The film claims to be a true story.  It is not.

I’m writing this post on the 21st of July 2014.  Some dates stick in our mind easily, because of their immediacy – either a temporal immediacy (today’s date), or an emotional immediacy (“Where were you when...?”).  That emotion can be cultural as well as personal.  I wasn’t anywhere on the 21st of July 1969, forty-five years ago today, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon – I wouldn’t be alive for another ten years.  But because I grew up in the world after the moon landing, the moon landing is part of my life.

It’s not possible for me to remember the moon landing, but I can remember walking to Honeysuckle Creek campsite, in the Australian Capital Territory not far outside Canberra.  I can’t remember what year it was but I can remember on the approach to the campsite seeing a Red-necked Wallaby – the first I’d ever seen – and then I can remember seeing scores more at the campsite itself, feeding on the soft grass in the open spaces there.  I can remember lying next to my father in our tent that night, being kept awake by the sound of wallaby teeth tearing at grass just a few feet and a couple of thin layers of tent material from my head.  I can remember, too, looking at the heaped and terraced earth at that campsite where buildings used to be, and I can remember reading the plaque affixed at the edge of the old buildings’ foundations.

I can’t remember exactly what that plaque said, but I remember one phrase precisely: the Honeysuckle Creek deep space tracking station had been closed down in 1981 as part of NASA’s “worldwide consolidation program”.  In the manner of all razor-gang language it’s a phrase that tries so hard to be opaque that it becomes transparent: budget cuts.  Keeping Honeysuckle Creek open was uneconomical.

The Honeysuckle Cree tracking station opened in 1967; it was operational for only fourteen years.  It’s a short life for such a major installation.  But the highlight of its career came just two years after it began operation: forty-five years ago today, on the 21st of July 1969.

As depicted in the Dish, the Parkes radio telescope did indeed play a vital role in bringing the moon landing to the world. The majority of the mission’s images and sound were received and relayed by Parkes, which had the clearest signal.  But the iconic moment, Neil Armstrong’s descent down the ladder, his “one small step” – when the world heard and saw that extraordinary moment of history, it was because of Honeysuckle Creek.  It was to Honeysuckle Creek that the words and pictures were beamed, and it was from Honeysuckle Creek that they were disseminated into the humanity’s collective consciousness.

It’s a story that hasn’t been adequately told.  It’s a story that was pointedly denied when the one major depiction of Australia’s role in the moon landings was told.  I came out of that screening of the Dish fourteen years ago angry because I knew the story and I was outraged that the makers of the film had so thoroughly obliterated it.  They couldn’t have made their film at Honeysuckle Creek – unlike the Parkes installation, Honeysuckle Creek’s dish has long since been demolished – but they could at least have acknowledged its role.  Even its existence.  They could at least have made an effort to tell the true story just as they claimed to be doing.

I saw the Dish in Canberra, where I grew up.  I saw it in the Greater Union cinema in the Civic bus interchange.  If you search for that cinema in Google Maps now you get the subtitle “permanently closed”.  Consolidated, I guess.  Center Cinema, just around the corner from Greater Union, has closed too; so has Electric Shadows at the other end of Civic.  In a couple of generations few people will remember them but they might remember somehow that these places once existed: for communities, large and small, pass on such information, and it’s by the slow accumulation of such parochial stories that communities gain their identity.

Such stories are important for all communities; but they may be more important for some than for others.  Ask any Australian what they think about Canberra and nine times out of ten you’ll hear the same list of scornful complaints: it’s boring; it’s freezing; it’s a parasite on the rest of the country.  I’ve had people say to my face that Canberrans aren’t “real” Australians – as if the life of any person can somehow possibly be more or less real than the life of any other.  When I tell people here in Melbourne that I grew up in Canberra their response is almost always the same: they smile and congratulate me on “escaping”.  And sometimes, to my shame, I play along with it – after ten years of living in Melbourne I’ve heard the line so many times that I can’t always be bothered to resist it; I don’t always have it in me to explain that actually I adore Canberra; that I moved to Melbourne largely because all my friends had; that one of the persistent small tragedies of human life is that we can only live in one place at a time.  So sometimes I just sit and listen and bite my tongue while the people around me tell the same old rote jokes about politicians and roundabouts and a supposed lack of nightlife.

These are the stories that Australia tells itself about Canberra, over and over.  But Canberrans know that the stories of their city are greater and more varied than that.  Stories are important.  They give us roots and they bind us to the places that we love.  They bind those places – a city, a valley, a farm, a river – to us, too.  They give us confidence in our homes and they give our homes a place in the wider world.  They assure us that our homes, our beloved places, have worth.  Sometimes they provide a counterpoint – a truer view – to the stories that the world tells us about our homes.

But no matter how well as we know those stories we want other people to know them, too.  We want other people to appreciate the places that we love instead of just unthinkingly dismissing them.  The story of Australia’s role in the moon landing has been told once, and told untruthfully.  The reach of this blog is tiny, and compared to the reach of a feature film it’s as our moon is to the Milky Way; but all the same, I’d like to tell you a story.  It’s a story about a place just outside Canberra, where there’s a big mound of grass and a brass plaque and so few people or human activity any more that the wallabies are bold and plentiful.  It’s a story about how a place helps make history and history helps make a place.

Image sourced from http://uk.wikipedia.org

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

79) Scarlet Robin

 Petroica boodang

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/

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

78) Cat

Felis catus

I’ve been re-watching the West Wing.  I don’t know how long it’s taken me: a year at least, I guess, on and off.  I’m only half a season now from finishing it, and I’ve picked up the pace towards the end: the sixth and seventh seasons, unpopular though they are, are my favourites, with all their excitement of campaigning and bright hope and optimism.  The West Wing always did optimism much better than the real world.

Usually when I watch it I’m sitting in bed, with the DVD in my laptop, and I’m trying not to fall asleep; and inevitably as the small night-time cycle of my house winds down I hear a bump and a shuffle and the soft tinkling of an old bell and before I know it my cat has pushed her way into my room and up onto my bed, into the crook of my arm.  There she’ll lie, purring loudly, kneading her claws into the flesh of my arm if she’s feeling particularly affectionate, turning her enormous eyes up to me; more often than not blocking the screen.

I’ve had her for about five years now; she was eight or nine months old when I got her from a cat shelter in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.  She was skinny then, grown but not yet filled out, and she was as shy as a mouse with everybody except me.  When I first got her she used to hide behind the windowsill of my room and growl at people walking past on the street outside.  If I had friends over she’d disappear under my bed and not come out for hours.

I got her only a few weeks after my previous cat died.  I’d had him for a decade or more until he died of kidney failure – the fate of most cats.  He’d once been bitten by a brown snake and perhaps that had hastened his death several years later.  I was perhaps too hasty in getting another cat but I found that I needed the companionship: a pet’s affection is an uncomplicated thing, constant and easily interpreted.  Having an animal curl up peacefully on your lap or at your side or at your feet grounds you, brings you into an ease with the world.  There have been times when a head-bump from my cat has brought me out of a moment of introspection and into a more immediate, more restful kind of living.  A pet is a balm.

Yet it’s a risk, too.  A cat in particular is an animal liable to get into trouble: in addition to the snake bite, my previous cat was hit by a car; he became caught on a fence and was left dangling and immobilised for the best part of a day in midwinter Canberra; he was stung by a bee to such an extent that his face puffed up like a balloon; he went missing for two weeks and was found in somebody’s back garden, starving and hysterical and stinking of a kind of panic-musk that cats exude when they’re in dire straits.  The day after he was bitten by the snake he returned home from the vet, dopey and enfeebled, and had a vertebra dislocated by our family’s new and energetic ten-week-old puppy.  At a certain point it became apparent that my family was spending far more on the cat’s health than we were on our own.

My current cat hasn’t had any such calamities, fortunately; but I live in fear of such events.  Of course, it would be disastrous for her if such misfortune should befall her; but I’d be lying if I said that a large reason for my concern was not also what impact such a calamity might have on me.

I don’t have a lot of money.  I work full time in a white-collar job in a workplace I like but it doesn’t pay very much.  I’ve lived in Melbourne for exactly ten years now and in that time I’ve gone through two periods of uncertain employment which have put me on the back foot financially; money trouble escalates exponentially such that a month of difficulty may take six months to recoup, and a difficult year may make its effects felt for many years to come.  Australia is an expensive place to live, and it doesn’t take much to slip behind.  One trip to the vet, one surgical procedure or overnight stay for my cat, could be catastrophic.  I live on the edge, month to month, and there is absolutely nothing remarkable about my predicament – it’s so common as to be banal.

On Tuesday last week here in Australia the conservative government led by Tony Abbott presented its first budget since it was elected to office in September 2013.  A budget, particularly a first one, is an opportunity for a government to put forth its vision both for and of the country: where it thinks we should be going; where it wants to take us; where it thinks we’ve gone wrong.  Prior to the budget being delivered the government took the unusual step of creating a Commission of Audit to identify where and how Australia’s money could be saved.  Australia has a AAA-rated economy; its handling of the Global Financial Crisis (under the previous Labor government) was widely hailed overseas as a model example of how to steer a country away from the rocks of economic disaster.  We’ve been helped considerably by a resources boom that has seen China in particular buy huge quantities of Australian iron and coal.  Anybody who has been to Europe or to America in the last few years will have a sharp appreciation for how lightly Australia was touched by the GFC.

Nonetheless, despite all evidence to the contrary the political narrative persists that Labor governments are bad at handling the economy.  This narrative has in recent years been driven particularly strongly by the conservative Liberal party, now in government; it’s a narrative that persists to this day against any logic or common sense.  It’s a narrative that was at the heart of last week’s budget.

The most common epithet used to describe the budget has been “brutal”.  Health, education, the arts, and welfare have all been brutalised, their funding cut severely.  Even as the government wrings its hands about Australia’s supposedly ruined economy it pledges to spend 58 billion dollars on fighter jets that are widely regarded as lemons.  The government lies and its own actions put the lie to every pronouncement it makes; yet the government doesn’t care.  More than any Australian government I can recall, this government transparently just doesn’t care.  It doesn’t care about the sick; it doesn’t care about the elderly; most especially it doesn’t care about the young.

Under the Abbott government’s budget if you are under thirty, and become unemployed, you will be ineligible for welfare payments for the first six months of your unemployment.  After that your unemployment benefits will come and go in a six-monthly cycle: six months on, and six months off.  Six months on, and six months off.  And what does the government expect you to do in those six months when you’re receiving no government assistance?  In the words of the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, interviewed shortly after he gave the budget speech: “I would expect you’d be in a job.”

I’ve been in my current job for one-and-a-half years: I began it in August 2012.  Prior to that I was working part time for a year: my previous job, a public service contract (and, incidentally, under the budget 16,500 federal public servants are to be sacked), was in mid-2011 reduced due to (Labor) government cutbacks from full time to only two days – fifteen hours – a week.  I scraped and saved where I could; I borrowed heavily from my credit card so that I could pay rent every month; I took short-term or occasional work where I could find it.  I worked as a scribe, taking minutes of meetings once every month or two.  A friend’s mother gave me a few months data-entry and research work.  An acquaintance of mine who owns a bar gave me work hosting beer tastings once a week, even though I’d never worked in hospitality before.  I checked the job ads every day, put in more job applications than I can recall; I struggled to sleep and became short-tempered with my family.  I depended on the kindness of friends just to have a night out.  There are jobs in Australia but – particularly in Melbourne, a city whose population is booming – there are many, many more people seeking jobs.  It’s an employer’s market and with so many people looking for work very, very few employers are willing to do on-the-job training: without experience you have almost no chance of finding work.  The era of the foot-in-the-door is gone.  Every job you apply for requires its own cover letter; many prospective employers require that you complete a lengthy questionnaire or address in writing numerous selection criteria; all this is time-consuming and if you manage to find a part-time job it leaves you with almost no time in which to adequately complete your application for a full-time role, the window for which is often vanishingly small.

In the second episode of the fourth season of the West Wing Toby Ziegler, the White House Director of Communications, is engaged at a bar by a man whose daughter is about to go to college.  “I like that it’s hard, it should be hard”, the man says of the struggle to fund his daughter’s education, “but it should be a little easier”.  Listening to this homespun wisdom Toby is inspired to craft the administration’s new education policy – but like everything else in the West Wing, this is a fantasy.  High-level government staffers don’t create policy based on chance encounters with strangers in bars.  Politicians in government don’t give any heed to their constituents more than once every election cycle.  And politicians lie egregiously and shamelessly to get into power.

I try desperately not to be cynical about politics but Australia’s current federal government makes that almost impossible: they are maliciously ideological, cruelly vindictive, and they will do enormous damage to this country and its citizens if they get their way.  It’s no exaggeration at all to say that people will die as a consequence of this government’s decisions – decisions which have been made to a large extent for no greater reason than to sustain a lie based solely on ideological hatred.  I’m in the enormously fortunate position of having loving and supportive family who I know will do everything they can to help me if I should ever get in any serious financial trouble.  I have no genuine fear of being left out on the street.  Yet a great many people in Australia are not so lucky.  This country’s youth suicide rate is already a national tragedy, and I’m terribly fearful of the decisions that a young person might make if he or she is unemployed, and unable to access government welfare, and does not have a support network of friends or family to catch them when they fall.  Australia is a wealthy country.  We tell ourselves that we are a generous country.  We need now to prove to ourselves that that is still the case: that this is not a country which insists that people must earn the right to live.

Image by the author.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

77) Albatross


The weekend started with Musk Ducks in the harbour. I saw them from the road, a pair of them: dark and flat on the grey water, only five metres offshore from a narrow beach, birds of lakes incongruous there in the sea.  The immensity of the town’s aluminium smelter was behind them.  I didn’t know what they were at first but I had an inkling, a sense or an instinct for their identity, and as I skirted the beach I willed the male of the pair to lift his head from its resting position beneath his wing and so show me the defining throat-pouch that would confirm beyond doubt the animal I was looking at.

The Musk Duck (Biziura lobata) is sui generis: found only in Australia, and unrelated to any other duck in this country, in fact related only to long-extinct New Zealand species, it is in a genus by itself.  It’s a heavy duck, so heavy that it must starve itself before it can fly; perhaps unsurprisingly, it rarely chooses to do so.  Nor is it inclined to go on the land, as other ducks do.  It spends most of its life on the water, where it sits low to the surface, metal-grey like the ironclad warships of the nineteenth century.  It’s large for a duck, sixty centimetres or so from tip to tail, and its body is broad, and its beak is stout, and it’s an excellent diver and swimmer; the first time I ever saw one, in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra, it was beneath the water and I thought at first that I was seeing a Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus).

That Musk Duck had been in an enclosure, though – albeit an unusually spacious one.  The pair I saw in the shadows of the smelter were the first wild Musk Ducks I’d ever seen.  They were in Portland, on the very eastern edge of the Great Australian Bight and about as far west along the Victorian coast as you can go without crossing into South Australia.  I was there with a good friend, her infant son, and her mother-in-law (also an old family friend).  Nobody had told me that there would be Musk Ducks in Portland.  We’d travelled there, three or more hours drive from Melbourne, because I’d read that it was the best place in Victoria from which to see whales.

In particular I’d read that in the summer months there was a possibility – remote, but a possibility – of seeing Blue Whales (Balaenoptera musculus).  The largest animal that have ever lived on the surface of the earth, at least as far as we know, even at a distance you can identify a Blue Whale – so I read – by the fact that its water spout goes some twelve metres into the air.  All you have to do is scan the ocean, and hope.

The Blue Whales come to Portland – come to the Bight in general – because they’re drawn by a phenomenon called the Bonney Upwelling.  This brings cold, nutrient-rich water from Antarctica up to the surface of the ocean, just offshore from mainland southern Australia; feeding on the nutrients are microscopic algae; feeding on the algae are Krill (Euphausiacea); feeding on the krill are Blue Whales.

Feeding on the Krill, also, are fish, and the fish in turn are devoured by other animals.  The waters around Portland are home to several thousand Australasian Gannets (Morus serrator), a population so robustly healthy that some several years ago it overflowed from its home on Lawrence Rocks, two kilometres offshore, and colonised Point Danger, just six kilometres from Portland – the only mainland colony of these birds in Australia.  Mainland Australia’s largest population of seals, too, is found in the area: two populations, really, separate colonies of Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) and New Zealand Fur Seals (Arctocephalus forsteri) occupying secluded rocks far below the cliffs of Cape Bridgewater, about twenty kilometres west of Portland.  Numerous seabirds scour the waves: Gulls (Laridae), Terns (Sternidae), Petrels and Shearwaters (Procellariiformes).

Albatrosses.  Only a week or two before going to Portland I read that they could frequently be seen from the region’s cliffs and headlands and I immediately realised that if I saw an Albatross it would be just as exciting for me as if I saw a whale – even more exciting than seeing Musk Ducks, for which I’d been unprepared.  I’ve long adored birds – most animals lovers do, I think, birds being the most easily observed of all the higher animals – and Albatrosses are birds par excellence.  Only the Swifts (Apodidae) are so well suited to flight; Albatrosses are, in a manner of speaking, Swifts the size of Eagles.

They’re pelagic, too, spending most of their lives flying above the remotest parts of the deepest oceans.  Fishermen see them; sailors see them; the rest of us probably never will, unless we seek them out.  They can most readily be seen on the remote islands on which they nest – but if an animal can be seen the “wrong” way then seeing an Albatross ashore, grounded and clumsy, must surely be seeing it the wrong way.  An Albatross at rest, terrestrial, is not the bird that inspired the American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy to exclaim in 1912 “I now belong to a higher cult of mortal, for I have seen the albatross”.

When I saw the Albatross, when I joined that cult – when my life changed, for that’s how it felt – the bird was flying.  I was standing near the Blowhole, a coastal feature beyond Cape Bridgewater, and I was as I had been for days mesmerised by the steady heaving of the Southern Ocean.  You see by looking, and you look by staring; I was staring at the water, one hundred metres below me and somewhere between shore and horizon, and hoping to see something.

When I saw the Albatross, and raised my binoculars to it, and watched it bank and turn, showing me back and then belly, back and then belly, long stiff wings never beating – I gasped.  I sighed.  I shouted out loud in joy and exhiliration to myself.  How do you describe the flight of an Albatross?  It’s a dance.  It’s a pas de deux in which one of the partners is utterly indifferent.  As the ocean moves, so moves the Albatross – and yet not entirely, not exactly.  The Albatross rises with each wave’s rise, descends with each wave’s fall, as if held on a wire only a few inches long connecting it to the surface of the ocean – and yet scanning the ocean I found to my surprise that I could pick out the Albatrosses (Albatrosses!  Eventually I saw four or five of them, each alone) easily, for they moved at cross-purposes to the sea: as the waves pulled unceasingly towards the land, the Albatrosses circled above them, as if wiping them clean – or scouring them, as we say, for food, for that’s what they were doing.  An Albatross in flight is a hungry Albatross.  So great was the movement of the sea, so uniform in its immensity, that even a bird – a large bird, with a two metre wingspan, but tiny by comparison – stood out instantly for the way it moved in its own patterns.  The Albatrosses were at once bound to the ocean – depending on the miniature thermals lifting of its waves to give them lift – and thrillingly liberated from it.

I don’t know to which species the Albatrosses I saw belonged – they were Albatrosses, and that’s all that mattered to me – but the most commonly reported Albatrosses in the Portland area are the Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) and the Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta).  Both are mollymawks, a group of medium-sized Albatrosses.  The mollymawks boast more species in their ranks than any other single group of Albatrosses, and all of those species belong to the same genus, Thalassarche.  The genus was named by the German ornithologist Ludwig Reichenbach in 1853; the name means “from the sea” or “having command of the sea”, and it could not be more apt.  Yet mollymawk, too, has a meaning: it’s a derivation of a Dutch name meaning “foolish gull”.  From foolish gull to commander of the sea – between them these two names encompass our entire attitude to nature.  In the abstract we are in admiration, even awe, of wild animals – but this is tempered by a more concrete disdain.  It’s a signal feature of the human intellect that we can hold these two attitudes in our minds at the same time.  We love the idea of wild animals – we’re just not prepared for the inconvenience of actually sharing a planet with them.  Albatrosses, those foolish birds, those children of the sea, circle the waves looking for fish; they are animals, and will take easy food when they can.  They are killed in their tens of thousands every year on long-line fishing hooks, in trawler nets, by floating rubbish which they mistake for food.

When I watched the last of the handful of Albatrosses that I saw that weekend in Portland, just a month ago as I write this, it was isolated in the narrow field of my binoculars.  It was circling, unwavering, effortless, long wings shining in the sun, and I held it in my gaze until my arms grew tired.  The only sound I could hear was the sound of the ocean, heaving and surging, seemingly limitless.  I felt as if I was looking not through binoculars but through the looking-glass, into another world; I felt that no two beings could be more disconnected from each-other than me, flat-footed on a rocky cliff, and the Albatross, suspended above the waves and held by nothing more than air. Yet there was an invisible wire connecting us, too, and it can never be broken. Humans touch the world as no other animal ever has or can.  This is to our immense gain, and the Albatross’s great peril.

Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org

Sunday, April 13, 2014

76) Arctic Jaeger

Stercorarius parasiticus

Port Phillip Bay is huge. With an area of nearly 2000 square kilometres and a circumference of around 260 kilometres, it’s large enough to accommodate two sizeable cities on its shore: Melbourne, with a population of four million people, and Geelong, home to nearly one-hundred and eighty thousand.

Yet the size of the Bay is deceptive: despite its breadth it’s never deeper than twenty-four metres; much of it averages only eight metres deep. The Yarra and Werribee Rivers flow into Port Phillip Bay; they flow, too, through the Bay, and the meandering submarine passages of the rivers create shipping channels for vessels coming in and out of the Bay. Around the ancient river beds the Bay is shallow, and that shallowness makes it unusually susceptible to drying out: research suggests that the Bay has dried out and refilled several times in the last ten thousand years.

The most recent of drying these events, which took place perhaps as recently as one-thousand years ago, may have been due to a sandbar blocking the Bay’s sea entrance.  That entrance, between Point Nepean on the eastern Mornington Peninsula and Point Lonsdale on the western Bellarine Peninsula, is only 3.2 kilometres wide; this passage of water is so treacherous that it’s known simply as the Rip.

The same sands that once rose up to block the Rip and seal off the Bay emerge from the waterline about eight kilometres east of Queenscliff to form the Mud Islands.  The islands are poorly named, not just because they’re made of sand and not mud, but because – in the manner of Australian landmarks – the name makes them sound desultory, despairing, tossed off and temporary.  The Mud Islands are ephemeral, they shift and slide in shape and geography as the tides and the winds adjust the sand, but in essence they are permanent: a circle of three islands, with a circumference of five and a half kilometres, enclosing a central lagoon.  Temperate Victoria’s own tropical atoll.

The Mud Islands are invisible until you’re almost alongside them.  They rise only a metre above the waterline; the sea around them is so shallow, sometimes only a foot deep, that no vessel greater than a small-drafted speedboat can come near them.  Landing on the islands means dropping anchor offshore and wading in.  Once on the islands you’re at the mercy of the Bay and its infamously fickle weather: there is no shelter out there, all the vegetation is hardy stunted coastal shrubbery that in most places barely reaches your knees.  The only canopy is the sky.

But the Mud Islands are extraordinary, because what’s out there are birds.  Thousands of them, in ever-changing congregations: Terns (Sternidae) crowding the beaches with nests at the turn of each year; Black Swans (Cygnus atratus) in their hundreds feeding in the seagrass beds off the islands’ northern perimeter, the towers of Melbourne just visible behind them; Swamp Harriers (Circus approximans) quartering the air above the islands; Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and White Ibises (Threskiornis moluccus) thronging the edges of the lagoon; and in the lagoon itself, in enormous numbers every summer, small birds at the edges and their larger, longer-legged cousins in the deeps, the Charadriiformes – the migratory waders.

More than any other group of birds, the names of waders evoke just how deeply ingrained is our fascination with birds: Knots; Godwits; Greenshanks; Stints; Snipes; Sandpipers; Sanderlings; Curlews. They’re ancient names: they speak of ancient people in the bleak landscapes of seabound northern Europe anticipating the annual bounty of these great travellers, which fly in their millions from the southern to the northern hemisphere and back again every year.  The Aboriginal people who lived around Port Phillip Bay must have had names for them, too – and it’s pleasing to imagine these birds, which live dual lives at each end of the planet, moulting from their breeding finery in the northern summer to their drab off-season plumage for their southern hemisphere retreat, passing also from one language into another as they fly.  The Knot gets its English name from Canute, or Cnut, the tenth-century king of northern Europe, who is said to have commanded the tide to stop rising.  The Knot, like all its kin, feeds at the edge of the sea; it parts the tide with its beak as it forages for tiny invertebrates in the mud.

This information was imparted to me by the guide who led me and twenty or so other people on a tour of the Mud Islands in the middle of February.  Sturdy and jovial, she’d been to the islands many times before and displayed an astonishing facility for bird identification that left me embarrassed.  With my cheap pocket-sized binoculars I was by far the least equipped of the whole tour group; whenever our guide set up her telescope, carried on her shoulder all the way around the islands, I was the first to line up for a view.  Truth be told I couldn’t tell one species of wader from another except by size, but I didn’t mind: I was happy just to be told what I was looking at, and to know that after twenty years of yearning for these birds I was finally gazing upon them.

We lunched among them.  Turning inland towards the lagoon we sat upon something like a meadow, what passed for a meadow on that remote sea-shaped landmass, and we unwrapped our sandwiches or rolls or whatever we’d brought along.  Tiny Red-necked Stints (Calidris ruficollis), all red long since vanished from them, pattered along the lagoon’s shore.  Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica), huge beside the other birds, probed the deeper water one-hundred metres out.  Right beside our picnic spot Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea), long-necked and elegant, dabbled in tiny ponds set amid the heath.  The activity of the birds was endless: no basking in the midday sun for them, no sleeping through the heat.  No more than a month after we visited their islands they’d open their wings again and turn north-east, following the coast and then the open sea all the way back to vast summer swamps of the Arctic, there to breed and raise a new generation of migrants.  It’s an enormous flight and it requires enormous amounts of food to fuel it.

Even when we finished lunch and crossed the lagoon, wading past the waders, they broke at the last possible instant: they watched us warily as birds do but they allowed us to approach more closely than most birds would.  Perhaps every second counts when you’re feeding to fly the length of the world.  In the distance a great cloud of White Ibises lifted into the sky, and beyond them, high above, approaching the island on broad wings spread over the bay, we saw a young White-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster), speckled and brown in its juvenile plumage.  The sands around the lagoon were scattered with the remains of long-dead ibises, bones and feathers and briny stink.

We completed our circuit of the island quickly; we arrived back at our starting point half an hour before the boat was due to return.  The company that organises the tours runs them once a month throughout summer; the previous month, our guide told us, the beach upon which we landed had been filled with thousands of Crested Terns (Thalasseus bergii), each pair with a near full-grown chick.  The beach was empty now, with no sign that such a hatchery had so recently existed.  Walking across the sand was quick and easy.

Travelling back across the Bay to Queenscliff was easy, too, when the boat came.  We sat and did nothing and in twenty minutes we were back.  Yet that ease was deceptive: when the boat came we watched from the beach as the men piloting it ran out two anchors to secure it in the undulating water; then we had to wade out to it one by one and clamber up the ladder and into our seats; don our lifejackets, ensuring they were properly fastened; try not to move too much as the small boat rocked from side to side.  Once the anchors were up we turned around sharply and raced back towards Queenscliff, our ears full of the roar of the engine and our faces splashed by the salt-water chopping and sluicing up over the sides of the boat. Travelling the nine kilometres between the Mud Islands and Queenscliff might have been conveniently managed but it was nonetheless a cumbersome affair, an awkward and unnatural movement across an alien environment.  Our small boat smacked the water, jolting us with every wave, tracing a hectic and jerking line across the Bay.  When, midway through our journey, a dark gull-like bird briefly flew parallel to us and just out of reach, its ease of movement, wings beating at the air like oars, brought into relief the absurdity of our quest to be among the birds.

We idolise birds for their flight; it sends us into raptures.  Even as we recognise how unlike us they are, we envy them.  I visited the Mud Islands because I’m earth-bound.  Having become accustomed to travelling overseas every few years I now find myself, after a period of financial uncertainty and employed in a low-paying job, unable to afford to fly anywhere.  I live month to month, paycheque to paycheque.  Migratory birds accumulate fat before their great flights; humans save up money in order to fly, but I cannot do so at this moment in my life.  So instead this year I’m staying closer to home, to see the places I’ve previously ignored for their proximity.  I’ve been living in Victoria for ten years now; I’m finally getting around to visiting it.

From the boat, approaching Queenscliff, our guide immediately and uncannily identified the dark bird at our shoulder, just as she had been doing all day.  It was an Arctic Jaeger, she announced – a small species of Skua, a piratical group of birds who make their living by forcing other seabirds to relinquish their food.  “Arctic Jaeger” is an old name for the bird: nowadays it’s more properly called the Arctic Skua or the Parasitic Jaeger.  But bird people hold sentimentally to the old names: I still call Fairy-wrens (Maluridae) “Blue-wrens”, and our guide named the bird that briefly joined us as an Arctic Jaeger, so an Arctic Jaeger it was.

It had bred in the northern summer, six months before we saw it.  As the early chill of the Arctic autumn had begun to grow, the Jaeger had opened its sharp wings and turned south.  It had crossed the equator some time in September, flying down Australia’s east coast, taking shelter in bays, always looking for other birds returning from a feed.  It had chased and harassed numerous other birds – gulls, terns – until they’d dropped or disgorged the food they were carrying.  It had seen many boats, and on one warm fine day it had, briefly, flown alongside one, paying it no particular heed, at the edge of a great bay, from where it could see through a narrow gap in the land the wild sea beyond.

Like so many of the birds I’d seen that day, the Jaeger would soon be going north again, flying the many thousands of kilometres back to the Arctic.  The journey is not without danger and nor is it without cost; yet millions of birds the world over do it every year, and have been doing so for uncountable generations.  Measured against that scale of life the impression made by one dark bird on one happily wind-blown human is nothing at all; yet it’s the only metric I have by which to measure the experience.  When I saw the Jaeger – and more so, when I heard our guide name its species – a thin, bright line was traced for me half way across the world, from the high Arctic to southern Australia.  I’ve been to the Arctic twice, once ten years ago by myself on money borrowed off a credit card, and once four years ago with my father on a trip he paid for and for which I always intended to reimburse him but have never been able to.  The Arctic is vast and to describe it as a single place is absurd – the Arctic I know, inland, among hills and valleys and fresh water, is radically different from the Arctic known to the Jaeger and its migratory fellows – yet there is a connection, for in our naming we have made it so.  The Arctic is the Arctic, and increasingly I feel its pull on me, as if I need to return to it every few years.

In all likelihood I won’t get to go back there for many years yet.  I’ll have to hold tight to my memories of its silence, its crisp air, its wildlife.  But it’s a comfort to know that it comes on feathers to visit the part of the world I live in, every year; it’s good to know that I can travel only a few hours from home, and by proxy find myself transported to the planet’s highest latitudes.  The birds are strong enough to fly that great distance, there and back, every year – to carry me with them is not so great an ask.

The Jaeger turned with the wind and flew away, out over the Bay, as easily as we might turn a corner on a footpath.  When we returned to Queenscliff, and dry land, having left and then journeyed back, a couple who I’d met on the tour offered to drive me to Geelong; from there I got a train back to Melbourne, and less than two hours after stepping off the boat I was back in my bedroom.  Homebound again, all too soon.  I’m already planning my next trip to the Mud Islands, at the end of the year, on the other side of winter, to meet the birds again upon their return.

Image sourced and adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/