On the 21st of December, just a week and a half ago, I was a few hours out of Melbourne in the air-conditioned carriage of a V-Line train, travelling through the midst of a 40-degree heatwave that had settled malignantly over Victoria for the day, when I was struck by an unexpected thought: I hope I see a Brown Falcon this weekend.
It seemed a possibility; it seemed, really, as though it should be an inevitability. I had a lot of travelling ahead of me that weekend in the hectic days before Christmas: from Melbourne to Canberra via a train and then a bus, nine hours in total; the next day, from Canberra to Sydney in a car with my brother – three hours – then back to Canberra the day after; finally, on Monday, another three hours from Canberra to Bermagui, on the far south coast of New South Wales, where my parents had rented a holiday house for the Christmas week.
When you’re on a train or on a bus by yourself, or in the passenger seat of a car, there’s not much to do beside stare out the window at the passing landscape. More often than not in the inland of south-eastern Australia that landscape is grass: the land has long been cleared for farming, and what trees there are are scattered and often distant. Still, this grass is home to numerous small animals, and consequently it’s a given that any long trip through that part of Australia will provide the opportunity to observe numerous birds of prey. So it should have been a given that during my many hours of travelling over the weekend before Christmas I’d see a Brown Falcon. Why I suddenly hoped so fervently to see one, though, I wasn’t sure.
There’s nothing exciting about a Brown Falcon. Even its name is dull. The bird has none of the visceral thrill of its near relative the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus); nor the skill and elegance of the Nankeen Kestrel (Falco cenchroides), though it sometimes attempts its own ungainly version of the Kestrel’s signature hunting technique, hovering in place above a field of grass. The Brown Falcon doesn’t have the puckish violence of the Australian Hobby, a bird that can send other birds into a panic incommensurate with its small size; nor does the Brown Falcon have the mystique of the Grey Falcon (Falco hypoleucos) or Black Falcon (Falco subniger), which are something like ghosts of the vast Australian inland. Unlike just about any other falcon the Brown Falcon doesn’t outfly its prey, nor dazzle its human observers with feats of aerial precision. Its hunting technique is simply to sit in a tree, or on a powerline, above great swathes of unengaging grass, and stare at the ground until something catches its eye. That this is a hunting technique practiced by many other birds of prey doesn’t let the Brown Falcon off the hook: it’s a falcon, the most revered of all the raptors. It should be more exciting.
But it’s not, and in a way that’s part of its charm. I used to see Brown Falcons – in all the shades in which the species manifests, from deep chocolate brown to pale beige – virtually lining the drive from Canberra to the New South Wales far south coast, when I was a child and I’d sit in the back of my parents’ car on our regular weekend trips to their holiday house on the Brogo River near Bega. The birds were so unobtrusive yet so ubiquitous that their absence from my life, for over a decade now, has passed almost unnoticed by me until relatively recently.
I guess I stopped seeing Brown Falcons when I stopped going to Brogo. Monthly visits to Brogo were a constant of my childhood; as I grew older and more independent I found other things took my interest. I no longer had to do something – regardless of how much I enjoyed it – just because my parents suggested it. Childhood, I suppose, ends when a person’s daily life stops being dependant upon the decisions of his or her parents.
In which case adulthood begins, in part, when a person starts to understand the financial pressures that his or her parents withstood. Every now and then a memory will come into my head of how, when I was very young, my parents would regularly shop at Franklin’s, a no-frills home-brand supermarket, and how they’d drink cask wine; it seems so many worlds away from how we live now that it’s hard to fathom, yet I think it speaks not only to the upward mobility of middle-class Australia over the last quarter-century but to the trajectory of parenthood, of familyhood. At the time of my earliest memories of childhood my parents were in their thirties, the age I am now; I moved out of home – and interstate – almost a decade ago but it’s only now that I’m starting to understand how much of a struggle it must have been for my parents, in those early years, to keep their family fed and clothed and housed.
When I return home from Melbourne to spend time with my family I tend to revert a little into childhood. Suddenly I’m freed, momentarily, from the mundane realities of day-to-day adulthood: I no longer have to cook meals for myself, I no longer have to wash up after myself or make sure the house is kept clean. There’s someone else who can do that for me. It’s not something to be proud of, but it feels like a break and I fall into that mindset unconsciously. Yet returning home also reinforces for me that my life has now become my own, for good and ill: my financial struggles are my own; my attempts to understand the world are my own. This is what a parent does, I suppose: raise a child until they’re old enough to feel that everything they have or don’t have is a result of their own decisions.
But I’ve lately come to realise, too, that my parents are deeply invested in my life. It feels foolish to only realise that now, at the age of thirty-four. When I go home now and hear my parents talk about their friends, the stories inevitably involve weddings; daughters- or sons-in-law; grandchildren. I become acutely – painfully – aware that I’ve failed, so far, to provide these things – these markers of happiness – for my parents. In the past, when my mum asked whether I’d found a girlfriend, I took it as nagging; now I realise that it’s much more than that. She’s raised her children, and sent them out into the world; a great part of her happiness now is dependant upon what her children bring back into her life. A child must provide for his or her parents, just as he or she was provided for. A parent expects a family to grow and prosper and become entwined with other families. I haven’t been able to provide that. I don’t know why. It hurts too much to think about.
Driving with my father from Canberra down to Bermagui just before Christmas, staring out the window, I saw a smallish, brownish bird of prey. It may have been a Brown Falcon, or it may not have been; I took it to be, without much evidence and perhaps too eagerly. The last time I saw a Brown Falcon, life seemed a lot simpler – when my parents asked me about my private life I assumed they were just being nosy, and I became silently annoyed at them. My life was my own. I can’t be entirely sure that my desire to see a Brown Falcon last week wasn’t a yearning, in some way, for that easier childhood mentality, for a time before I fully understood my parents’ humanity, and all the heartache and hope for joy implicit in that. But the bird I saw probably wasn’t a Brown Falcon, and you’ve begun to understand life you can’t go back to how you saw the world before.
Happy new year. In the year to come, and in all the years after it, may we all make our loved ones happy.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org