Birdsong spinning me home
When the branches of Eucalyptus botryoides fall, as they often do, they root again and continue to grow. The tree is its own ecosystem. Currawongs, sleek black birds with their flash of white at the tail, build their nests, made of sticks and lined with soft material, high up in trees like this.
Some months ago, I stood in shock as arborists began to cut this tree on the next block down, over two days of vicious chain-sawing and woodchipping. I filmed the screaming tree, as it shuddered, shook and then gave way, limbs falling with the ‘thunk’ of a human body.
The tree danced a ballet for its dying and the currawongs lost one of their homes.
Many love the currawong for its song, a mix of honey, with a note of uplift, a soaring whip almost, mellifluous on the updraft, ringing from up high. It sounds like an entreaty, a lament and an invitation. The onomatopoeic word, currawong, depicts the sound of their call.
Decades ago, for me these birds were synonymous with NSW, and it was a strange interruption to our urban aural landscape when I noticed their songs in Melbourne. Urban ecologist Gio Fitzpatrick, in his book on urban birds, The Gardener’s Guide to the Birds of South East Melbourne, notes that the currawong, though originally a Winter visitor is now ‘A bird which has flooded into the SE suburbs of Melbourne since the mid 2000s.’
In the past, I had been ambivalent towards these beady-eyed black and white birds, convinced they had displaced my magpies on the beach block; I was disturbed by the thought of them as marauding nest thieves, which, okay, they are. But it was during last year’s lockdown that my resistance to these clattering choristers turned.
Like the birds adapting to their habitat, I found myself somewhat between two places when lockdown hit in 2020, caught in the beach shack where I had been staying before the restrictions came in. I stayed on, and I bunkered down, alone for months.
All around me were the birds. For a time, I worked in a tent in the garden, close to their wings and flight, a front row seat for their singing and feeding. In the air was the sense of propulsion and flutter, as the trees scraped the fabric and the light threw shadows onto the synthetic green walls.
As it got colder, I sat wrapped on the deck, the intersecting flightlines of the birds putting me at risk of a passing wing, with the heavy-bodied currawong clattering around on the eaves behind me.
Where do I fit in? What am I doing here? I began to wonder after months on my own. I wished my family were with me–I had started to feel a pull to home.
But where do I make my home? And then, all around me, the currawongs came swirling, swooping and twirling. A sky show, a flyover, a symphony of sounds. Don’t go ‘home’. You’re already home here! they sang.
The currawongs, spinning me into a sense of who I was, in spirals, like DNA, embodying and recognising me. Yes, I felt alone. But no, not lonely. Home is a place of comfort within. As biologist and author David George Gaskell writes: ‘We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature.’
Not long afterwards, I woke one morning at the shack to the sound of a companion: Hello? It was impossible to tell if it was me speaking or if it was one of my family calling to me; whether it was inside or out. Hello? As I disentangled myself from the sleep zone I lost grip of the word’s existence–it was a call, waiting for a response.
There was no one there, but me; me and the bright birdsong of the currawongs in the inky black morning, their bodies on the fence outside my window, the thunk as they hit the corrugated iron roof above my head.
The word ‘hello’ turned in on itself, an unwinding and an entwining, the fast-flying currawong, with their mellifluous, dripping calls, echoing and swinging as they wheeled.
You are here. You are home. You are not alone.
Now I’m not so surprised by my initial ambivalence to these birds. There is a chance within us to fear and to love. I live with fear embedded in me, and sometimes love feels threatening. At times it makes me jump, startle, with the clatter of its weight on a tin roof. And sometimes it surrounds me and lifts me and takes me to warmer climes, up high, whirling in consort with currawongs.
When the branches drop, they root again. For many of us, we go on daring to make new trees from fallen boughs. Because we must. Because we yearn to somehow feel at home. The currawongs gave me a response–it was contained within me.
Commissioned for The Guardian Bird of the Year 2021. The piece did not fly, partly due to the brutal knock-out nature of the poll which saw the Currawong eliminated in the first week.
Since published in March 2022 Birdlife Australia Magazine
© Words and images Anna Sublet, 2022