Sunday 31 October 2010

Seeing Birdsong

[A currawong: artist as well as songbird?]

Sound, no longer defined
by our hearing. As though the tone
that encircles us
were space itself expanding.

- Rainer Maria Rilke

I sometimes see bird song. Rilke, and artists such as John Wolseley, have helped me think Im not completely bonkers.

Rilkes poem is about the sound of a bell, but the principle would seem to hold for birdsong too. Somehow sound can take visual shape can paint, sculpt or otherwise craft an image that is not just mental. That seems to also be part of what Wolseleys visual interpretations of birdsong are about. For an exhibition of his bird paintings he writes:

I have been intrigued by how often my drawings do in fact have the appearance of musical notations. The black lines and rhythmic dots made by hitting and dragging the paper against re-bounding twigs and branches often look like a musical score.

I began to realize that some of these marks have a correspondence with sonagrams or graphic representations of bird song. Not just any bird song but that of the Gilbert's Whistler or the Hooded Robin which were singing in the very trees I was moving through. It was as if the song and the carbon marks of those trees were both an expression of the energy fields of that particular habitat.

- from

Wolseleys work prompts me to think that writers too might do more in describing birdsong than offer a straight transliteration. Apart from anything else, this method doesnt always succeed. I once fell foul of a mother for describing the call of a yellow wattlebird as like strangled vomit. She told me in no uncertain terms that her young childs tender ears were offended by such a vulgar description.

[a little wattlebird, whose call is described by Simpson and Day as "harsh cackles"]

So in what sense can anyone see birdsong? I can only answer personally, but to me the voice of a single forest raven casually tears the sky, leaving slender, ragged black gaps. But when I hear a large group of them, perhaps fifty as I did last week, its as though theyre shredding the sky.

Ive read that Jackson Pollock worked with other artists in his drip-style creations, including the famous Blue Poles. In my forest the communal ravens are Pollock in reverse, stripping rather than dripping, scratching hundreds of scrawny black holes in the heavens.

Blackbirds, by contrast, seem to embroider the dawn, their calls now thin and linear, now round and flowing. Their melodic intricacy adds delicate weight to the growing glow of the sky, as perfect and welcoming a way to wake as anything, short of a lovers embrace. I for one can forgive them their feral status in return for that song.

I see other calls too: green rosellas drape their calls across the sky; clinking currawongs scissor and shear; lapwings stiletto; native-hens rasp and saw; pardalotes nip and tuck.

There are liquid visions too. Pied butcherbirds lay a flouncing, fluid layer across the sky; magpies drop globules that ripple deliciously through the heart and onwards to the horizon.

And there is so much else to see and to say, even if all attempts to convey the full feel of birdsong are vain. They are vain in the same way that transliterations are; and they fail just as impressionist painters fail; just as all art, all music, all words fall short of lassooing the wonder of life.

And what a wonderful part of life birdsong is. O Lord protect me from ever being deaf or blind to these befeathered angels, these celestial impressionists!

Monday 18 October 2010

Recovering From Optimism

[Coal Bluff overlooking South Cape Bay, Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area]

[Blog post #100 gets down to some basic issues ... including wild love]

Where would we be without words? They are our way around a complex and often puzzling world. Diane Ackerman calls them ‘small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world.’ She goes on to say:

‘As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse – hopelessly, irredeemably harsh – if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions.’

Personally I am a huge fan, some might even say an addict, of words. I make a living out of them and spend much of my leisure time in their company. They are one way for me to give shape to thoughts and feelings that are really beyond words.

And yet I am aware that words can be wielded to many ends, and can obscure as well as reveal meaning. There is one mental cushion, more accurately a scatter of them, that I’ve begun to find lumpy and uncomfortable. The noun forms are the words optimist and optimism, but it’s the adjectival form – optimistic – that I struggle with the most.

Have you noticed the frequency with which environmentalists, climate scientists, futurologists and the like are asked ‘are you optimistic about the future?’ This optimism question seems to hold such power that if I answer no, I am a pessimist, a doom-sayer, a jeremiah. And if I answer yes, I’m a pollyanna, or a slave of the status quo.

How does the optimistic fallacy get away with it? I wonder if it’s a case of dress well, keep earnest or important company, and you’ll be held in the same regard. So because optimism hangs around with issues like global warming, famine and war, species extinction, and the very future of life on earth, it is taken equally seriously.

I’m coming to see it as a dead-end question, and a poor guide to anything that really matters. The tipping point was hearing and reading 81 year old deep ecologist and Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy. By simply asking ‘Does it matter whether I’m optimistic?’ she pricked the pomposity of the question, and laid bare its false foundation. In her book Coming Back to Life, Macy confronts this demand for optimism. She believes our pain for the world, ‘including the fear, anger, sorrow, and guilt we feel on behalf of life on earth, is not only pervasive. It is natural and healthy.’

She stands against the facile optimism – as well as the do-nothing, introspective pessimism – that seem to be the only choices open to us. ‘We don’t retrieve our passion for life, our wild, innate creativity, by scolding ourselves and soldiering on with a stiff upper lip.’

So what do we do? We do what we would do with anyone we love who is facing crises: we keep loving them. Whether we are optimistic about their recovery has no bearing on our action. The power of love far outweighs the power of positive thinking. Personally if I’m dieing I’d far rather have the love and presence of those I love than all the positive thoughts in the world.

I believe the same applies to wild places. Whether I’m optimistic about their preservation or not seems to me irrelevant. By way of illustration, let me choose a wild place, any wild place: somewhere like South Cape Bay in the far south of Tasmania. Its wildness is exemplified by the ferocious Southern Ocean, which sends swells whose roar may be heard kilometres before you arrive there on foot. And human self-propulsion is the only way most will ever get there.

As a pedestrian my journey to South Cape Bay may show me many aspects of this beautiful place. Perhaps before the roar of the ocean captures my attention, I will exult in the wild flowers through the Blowhole Valley. Possibly I’ll notice rushes and reeds; or ferns and fungi; or the play of water now flowing calmly, now pooling in ponds and bogs. The scale of what I see may vary from vast cloudscapes to squawking cockatoos; from hulking wooded hills to tiny nestling orchids.

[A Caladenia orchid in Blowhole Valley, Southwest National Park, Tasmania]

But there will always be that moment when I top the rise that leads through a tunnel of shrubs and out onto Coal Bluff. Then, especially if I’m a first-time walker, all else is likely to be swept away by the visceral blast of wind, and the aural assault of waves that have not seen land since Antarctica or South America. I will not be able to resist sitting and drinking a long draught of wildness.

Yet if I walk down the steep steps to the sand and cobble beach I may find that not all is feral or fierce. Catch the right day, with the beach at peace and the cobbles warm, smooth and sensuous; with gulls strutting and probing the wrack, and oystercatchers stalking ahead of me like wary cyclists awaiting the velodrome bell; find it on such a day and I might believe that the interaction of wave and sand, cobble and creature, is nothing more than a long story of the deepest, most abiding affection.

[Macrocystis kelp, part of the seawrack on South Cape Bay beach, Tasmania]

For it is all of these things, great and small, and the noticing of them, that bonds us to place. And noticing is vital, because it is far harder for we humans to wreak havoc in a place that we’ve come to know deeply and personally. For what is the sum of those things, if it’s not love, actually. And how inestimably more important it is to love than it is to feel optimistic.

Sunday 3 October 2010

Walking with Murphy

[Sometimes, just sometimes, it does get as good as this! Relaxing on Mt Oakleigh, Tasmania]

Bushwalking and Murphy’s Law go hand in hand. The eponymous Irishman, who was supposed to have stated: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, is a constant companion for most who heft a pack and head bush.

His law applies classically and typically to matters such as weather, and, of course, to the issue of false summits. And there are many other ways in which the law can influence your walk. But a good general summary would be this: a walk is always longer, further, higher and harder than you expect or remember.

However … every now and then Murphy takes a vacation, and everything about a walk goes unimaginably well. On such a walk the weather forecast will be for rain or showers, but the precipitation will hold off. Instead you’ll only have cloud when you need it (on the steep uphill sections), and the sun will shine at all the right moments.

On the first day you will be walking to a hut. Just as weariness begins to set in, and you start hoping that the hut is no more than an hour away, you’ll turn a corner and there it will be. There will be no-one in the hut, but the firewood will be dry and neatly stacked. The fire will be set in the wood heater, and a box of matches will be ready on the mantel-piece.

[How you hope you'll find the firewood in the hut!]

After you’ve settled in only one other group will arrive to share the hut. That party will include a final-year massage student looking for people to practise on, and a generous European walker with an oversupply of good red wine that s/he insists on sharing with your group.

After a wonderfully convivial night, you will awake refreshed – surprisingly so given that extra mug of red you probably shouldn’t have had. The day, according to the track notes, will have you climbing uphill for 4 hours to reach the summit of a dolerite mountain. There’s nothing for it – mountain tops by definition must be uphill. So you necessarily strain hard, but not too hard, to get to what looks like the top. Experience in Tasmania should have taught you that this is a false summit. But this time it will turn out to be the true summit.

What cloud there is will part just as you reach the summit, with just a few wisps lingering on the neighbouring peak to give your photographs the requisite amount of atmosphere. As you lounge about the summit, the generous Belgian – or was s/he French? – joins your group, this time offering camembert and crackers. For one fleeting moment you wonder if champagne will follow.

When you return to the hut, the massage student – who decided not to go for the summit – is so glad of some company, that she quickly offers to massage each member of the group. But first she insists on handing you a hot cuppa and some hut-made damper with raspberry jam.

Of course such a bushwalk has never actually happened. Life, and certainly bushwalking, wasn’t meant to be that easy. Yet strangely each of these little fantasy walk surprises – or something like them – has happened to me while bushwalking. Just occasionally Murphy will be busy elsewhere while you bushwalk. My advice, when it happens, is just to smile and take it!

Footnote: a delightful variation on the law has been named “Muphry's law” (read it carefully!) It states if you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a mistake of some kind in what you have written. Let those who comment on this blog bewhere!