Australian writer of books for younger readers, young adults, verse novels and poetry.

Art, Anxiety and a Long Walk – a review of sorts.

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this is where they all sing the first daylight

whether or not there is anyone listening

from, ‘The Laughing Thrush’ – W. S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius.

For Christmas last year, a colleague gave me a copy of Kyo Maclear’s beautiful collection of – notes? observations? meditations? Birds Art Life Death; A field guide to the small and significant is part-journal, part-memoir and part survival manual for all of us who find ourselves needing to ‘value the fractured moments as something more than “sub-time” or lost time or broken time.’ It’s a hesitant, reflective, discursive journey through the five seasons during which Maclear bird-watched with a man known in the narrative only as ‘the musician’.  (The seasons are divided in the book with photographs by the musician.) The fragmentary narrative is formed from glimpses of possibility, of human nature, of family history and of the always-anxious struggle to be an artist in a world which doesn’t prioritise art of any sort. In the background, after two strokes, Maclear’s father has ‘exited the land of presto cures and illusions of recovery.’ And, of course, central to everything, are the birds.

Most birders, we learn,  have a ‘spark bird’ – the bird that turns them into bird watchers. In one way, the book is all about sparks – or the search for sparks which will make Maclear’s life more manageable as she confronts the inevitable death of her father. These are not just birds, although bird sightings are recorded throughout the five seasons, but also observations, lists, small chronicles of family life which create a pause – for thought, gratitude or simply a moment’s rest for the sake of just that moment.

My colleague could not have known when she bought this book for me how pertinent it is to my own life – she knew only that we share a love of watching birds and, she possibly knew that like myself, Kyo Maclear writes for children. But what she could not have known is that, like Maclear, I have been mourning that lack of ‘formless and spacious quiet, anti-social daydreaming, time away from the consumptive volume of everyday life’ and, again like Maclear, I suffer from anticipatory grief – the legacy, I think, of losing a parent in my childhood.

I’m also caught in the loops of anxiety that undermine the artist’s relationship with the social, political and – critically – the economic world. I veer from a stubborn hard-won optimism that everything will be okay to yearning for a regular job with holiday pay, sick leave and a secure fortnightly or monthly salary that meets the Australian average. My optimism, like bird sightings, is seasonal. The post-Christmas period is filled with gloom – uncertain work prospects, scrappy jobs that put together don’t quite make enough money and dwindling savings edge me into a depression that I fight against with all my arsenal.

Like Maclear, this includes birds. We live in the Hills outside Melbourne in a lush garden my husband planted with tree ferns and plants indigenous to the area when he bought this place, more than thirty years ago. Looking out my window from where I am typing this, I can see grey field wrens flicking through the greenery, the regular scruffy rosella at our bird feeder and two wattle birds picking insects from the ferns. We have bird baths scattered around the property – high up so stray cats won’t make them hunting places. Yesterday a spine bill fluttered in the bath outside our bedroom window, taking its turn after the wrens. Outside my study window is the territory of a blue wren who bathes there with his mates, outshining them with his iridescent disco-blue plumage.

I wouldn’t call myself a birder or a twitcher – I’m short-sighted in one eye, long-sighted in the other and have never been able to use binoculars successfully –  however, I remember my spark birds, a pair of Friarbirds a boyfriend pointed out to me on a trip we took to Canberra one year. Since then I’ve always looked out for birds wherever I have been, bought and consulted bird books and learned that sightings – even casual, from-my-window-sightings – lift my heart immeasurably and remind me that the world continues, with or without me.

On the weekend my husband and I walked through Sherbrooke Forest – there are a number of walks we used to do regularly, and then he had some health issues, I spent time overseas and by the time I returned his health issues had cleared up but the swimming season at the outdoor pool had started. This was the first big walk I had done since coming home. And, half-way through it, we sighted a young male lyrebird – heard him first, working through his lady-attracting repertoire of mimicry. Then we saw those outrageous tail feathers flung up and over like some drag queen’s extravagant and gorgeous Mardi Gras headdress. He was stamping and shaking his booty. I crept as close as I dared and watched until, either acknowledging failure (there was no hen visible) or sensing my presence, he folded his tail and stalked away on dancer’s feet, his tail trailing behind him.

Yesterday I repeated the walk, collecting some kangaroo apple berries along the way. I’ve heard the toxic leaves of this plant make a green dye with alum as a mordant. (I’ve just started doing some eco dyeing – more on that in another post.) There’s no information that I can find on the berries, other than that in their green, unripe state they are also toxic, however when they ripen to a dark orange they’re edible and that they were used by the Australian Aborigines for dyes and face paint. The walk soothed me. I felt as though my ruffled feathers had been patted into shape. You can’t fail a walk – you can turn back earlier than you expected, develop a blister, run out of water – but a walk has still happened.

If you have to live a crazy patchwork life of different jobs and the familiar tug between should have and want to, between work and art, art and family and all the anxious spaces in between, perhaps Birds Art Life Death; A field guide to the small and significant is the kind of inadvertent user’s guide you need. The next step is, of course, to compile your own – two talismans to hold against hard times.

Eco dyeing experiment, the perfect present, avocado seed & peel dyed roving.

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