On Birds

I wrote this nearly two years ago when I first started reading  Teju Cole’s Open City, and it has appeared on Twitter in some form.

Started reading Open City.. Beautiful:

“..and I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds [migrating geese], with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies & tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.”

Makes me think of V-formations of birds-perhaps not geese- against pink Tasmanian skies. I always hoped they were geese. My backyard was shadowed by the foothills of Mount Wellington, the centre of my world. My anglophilic parents made me grow up wishing for imaginary English meadows. I looked for cardinals, wrens, thrushes and found none. I didn’t even find rosellas. Kookaburras laughed in the distance, at a willow creek.

I grew up with books illustrated by Rene Cloake. Treasuries of poetry. Enid Blyton. Swallows featured heavily in the illustrations. I looked for swallows, everywhere, over the years, the split tale silhouette etched in my mind from Cloake’s drawings. They didn’t come to Tasmania. Nor to Sri Lanka to escape the Northern winter.

In the osiers which fringed the bank he [the Water Rat] spied a swallow sitting. Presently it was joined by another ,and then by a third; and the birds, fidgeting restlessly on their bough, talked together earnestly and low.

‘What, already,‘ said the Rat, strolling up to them. ‘What’s the hurry? I call it simply ridiculous.’

”O, we’re not off yet, if that’s what you mean,’ replied the first swallow. ‘We’re only making plans, arranging things..what route we’re taking this year, and where we’ll stop and so on. That’s half the fun!.. No, you don’t understand, naturally.. First,we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one.. They flutter through our dreams at night.. They fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day.. I moved southwards week by week, lingering as long as I dared but always heeding the call!’

In Canberra, the winters were bitterly cold but the sun shone over frost-encrusted fields. We Southerners don’t have names for these frosts – the English do ,but we are unused to them. Hoar, rime. I walked across the oval from my college to the lab. Sometimes taking a longer route, the better to enjoy the grounds. I don’t recall if it was summer or winter, spring, autumn. One twilight I walked across the damp oval with muddy tyre marks. A bird was wheeling, low,around the oval. Nearer to the ground, them soaring up into the air suddenly. A tiny bird. In the dim light I caught the dark blue. Was there.. was there a tiny red bib? The bird soared upwards suddenly against the fading light. The split tail silhouetted against the sky. The swallow had come South for the winter.

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