We’re not lazy, we’re just waiting

Out the sliding glass doors of my late seventies flat is a small fenced courtyard, one of ten in a row that face out towards the road we can’t see unless we open our gates. What we can see out the ranch-sliders are the crowns of very large plane trees that fill up the top half of the field of vision afforded by our aluminium siding. Because it is winter, the trees are bare and this makes the community of birds that live around this, the other four-storey blocks over the road, and the park next door to them, much more visible. Most are wild birds but there are also domestic birds – budgies, canaries, doves, pigeons, parrots – that have escaped or been released by people leaving the area, or who found they could not keep caged birds.

The park was laid out in a valley sloping down towards us in exotics in the late 1800s and has retained its Victorian design amazingly well, neglected and repelling most people who live and work (in a fairly undifferentiated way) in this mostly gentrified area because it is just too slow, too luridly green and fertile, too dirt-based. It is one of the few parks where people can walk their dog without a lead, so it is populated thinly with odd dog-walkers, bunking students from the adjacent girls’ school, children using the play equipment, and homeless men from the half-way house next door who sit at the curved, conversation-format seating supplied, and on benches further up in the wilder parts. Sometimes in the summer people sleep rough in the tube slides of the playground.

Our block was a later extension to an older complex occupying a whole block across the street of 1960s council housing flats that replaced a large tract of low-rent housing close to the city. Now mostly sold off to landlords and pump-and-dumpers, ours looks like the older ones in some ways, sharing, for example the two-storey high strip windows that light the staircases. It was, however, built much more on the cheap, and closer to the motorway without the lawns and village green-style tree plantings the others have, guaranteeing lower market rents. It is as if our building glares across the road at its family like a teenager from under its mansard roof fringe, as resentful of its bad fittings and chipboard floors that mean the carpet can’t be lifted and the floor polished as of bad skin and unfortunate genetic outcomes.

From my windows a range of species of birds are identifiable by their outline against the sun setting behind them. Exotics include sparrows, yellowhammers, blackbirds, mynahs, starlings, the occasional magpie (although they prefer the park), rosellas and lorikeets. These small multi-coloured parrots, with their long-tailed silhouette and ringing crystal jungle eeeeeep that can be aped by hitting the top key of a resonant piano roughly, or by running a finger over the rim of a crystal glass, are supposedly terribly proficient breeders. If unchecked these weeds of birds will apparently squeeze out the less hardy, less aggressive natives such as the tiny lichen-green waxeyes, the shining cuckoos and the big black tuis with their ecclesiastical white throat tufts. The parrots jump around trees like chattering monkeys and travel in swift groups that enjoy a constant state of drama.

Tuis are surprisingly agile in the air for their size, and as they loop and drop about the sides of trees after insects and each other the sun catches their feathers that are shot blue and green. The iridescence brings on a wash of hyper-lucidity that is like cool water behind the eyes, and the corners of the mouth rise involuntarily. But it isn’t just their physicality, their voice too is counter-depressant, an elating balm to drinking-in eyes and ears. They intone with a huge vocal range of rasps and gurgles and bell notes that are way over the edge of square language in their non-relation to any sort of conventional signification or regular cry pattern. They can be taught to speak, and they were once, before post offices, used to carry messages between chiefs. To inject a bit of horror, I imagine teaching one to say “devil’s own whore” after the Robert Mitchum preacher’s hateful utterances in Cape Fear.

There are many fewer tuis here than there were last year because the body corporate arranged to have the flax bushes pulled out and to replace them with agapanthus. Last week they inexplicably pulled out the twenty-five-year-old gardenias that my Samoan neighbour planted around the side of the building when she arrived to make room for their waist-high clumps with their sticky-up puffy blue flowers that no one wants to pick. They should be confined to roundabouts, but lazy contract gardeners love the way they make uniform choking fields of green with no maintenance requirements or body memory strength of being in this place as a species.

Kingfishers, those turquoise flying fists, are drawn to Tuna Mau, the eel creek they remember flowing down the park’s valley before the landscapers sunk the creek below ground into drains. The sea used to be close by, but since the shore was reclaimed to make way for acres of redevelopment it is now well on the other side of the main motorway north as it passes through downtown. It is as if the kingfishers are invoking the water to return, and I half-expect one day to see an eel slither down this sexy crevice as water begins to gather, strengthen and wash irresistibly through the properties between it and the ocean.

It rains here a lot at certain times of the year. For half the year really. It comes down heavily, and for long periods, and sometimes causes small flash flood in the park and across the road outside the hostel making the traffic crawl. The floods in the park are caused by the drains becoming covered and blocked by leaf litter, and when they do block, the creek reforms for quarter or half an hour at a time, before sinking back into the soil. In the early summer, the high water table along the old creek bed causes the grass to grow greener and more thickly like a dog’s mane. At night, where the grass is thicker, the air is also cooler.

In my courtyard is a small, bare weeping cherry tree in which the waxeyes gather because I have started to feed them in its crown. They come down from the much taller starfruit tree in the far corner of my neighbour’s yard where they peck at the fragrant but astringent yellow fruit (that I am told makes a fragrant pink quince-like jelly) and check for cats. Cats that are any good at hunting know that if they stake out areas of ground that collect wind-fall fruit, they will get the birds with ripe fruit-tunnel vision that come to feed.

I think the yard is a safe enough place for birds as a few years ago I made a point of chasing away the neighbours’ cats that would beat up my feeble young cat that was a stray but is now grit in an urn. The cherry barely peeks over the dark fence and comes into leaf and weakly flowers very late as my landlord, out of a desire for complete privacy, panelled the inside of the horizontally-slatted fence with vertical tree-fern trunks blocking out most of the useful light. I had never known what to feed waxeyes until I learned from my aunt that they like to be fed fat. She had a really nice hanging ceramic bird feeder in a little soft-lawned garden alcove outside her kitchen window.

My first waxeye feeding efforts were expedient. I went for a pile of birdseed and a lump of lard tipped unceremoniously into an empty clear plastic container with a couple of holes stabbed into it to help with drainage and placed on the top of the little umbrella tree. The waxeyes, always sounding like baby birds, pecked the lard to nothing in a very short time and were not interested in the seed. It was so wet that the seed grew in the plastic dish I put it in making a little lawn. I don’t have a lawn per se as any grass that was there has been long overtaken by rampant unscented white and purple ‘Italian’ violets that are much stronger in low-light conditions. Regardless, the clever wedded pairs of blackbirds continue to determinedly patter over the ‘lawn’ beneath the tree, their feet aping the sound of rain to draw the worms upward.

When I replenished the dish I put out the entire remaining package of lard and watched as the numbers of birds grew from about four to well over a dozen. These usually timid, mossy little creatures became whirring, excited, energised as they now actually had calories to burn and to really enjoy themselves. They moved so fast around the block of fat and up to the bigger trees and back again that they were impossible to count. They pecked the white dripping away to strange shapes, their beaks giving it a snow-like texture, first giving the block a waist as if they were tiny beavers trying to fell it.

A little later, we went out and had a look at the small shapes left in the dish before it all went and there were about five little pecked forms, one of which looked like a Mickey Mouse head with pointier ears. The other bird sculptures were like miniscule avian stabs at significant form, and as they pecked, they wiped their beaks on the little branches of the tree as if sharpening them. The little branches had become slippery with fat I noticed as I put the third supply out – this time a butter ball with seed embedded as I had run out of lard and the person at the meat counter of the supermarket didn’t know what it or dripping was. This time the seeds were eaten too.

A friend worried that they might get fat but I really think they just burned off the energy they took in; and besides, it was coming into mating season, so surely they needed all they could get. I even saw two waxeyes fighting, something I have never seen before. They made their bodies very vertical with their beaks high up in the air and, standing very close to each other, beat their wings against their bodies and flew parallel into the air like two little fighter-planes. All hopped up on lipids, they looked like they were not sure whether they wanted to fight or fuck.

Many people complain about winter but I prefer it to summer, mainly because all the mosquitoes are dead, the light is dim, and there are no BBQs to attend. The grey skies and frequent rain seems to make some people desperate and toe-y, but it stops my brain being flooded with the kind of empty—awake feverishness brought on by bright sun and hard exercise. Those brain chemicals make me feel like a someone else I am not terribly interested in, and I look down at my body and miss being fully dressed and cool-skinned.

I come from a temperate climate. After rain I like to stand on the grass at the base of the park where the stream used to gather into a lake and listen to the sound of water draining down through the soil to the phantom underground streams below and imagine rushes. Frogs can still be heard at night by the public toilets, living in the drain system. Creeks all over the city were sunk by the early town planners for hygiene purposes, as bodies of water were thought to carry disease that was more likely caused by poor sanitation and inadequately heated wooden housing. The process of raising creeks back to the surface is now called daylighting.

This year my email is piling up unanswered in drifts, forming dunes between which are hollows I can lie in out of the wind with a friend that I know so well we don’t have to talk anymore. It seems to be so that deep complicity can’t be expressed in language, instead we can look for clouds shaped like wizards. Agoraphobia is less, in practice, a fear of open spaces than a desire to remain inside, or not-in-language, that increases in direct proportion to how annoying outside is. But if the outside is braved, we can discover that we have the ability to blind-identify trees, and that language can be liquid.

Such adult efforts to cultivate autonomy are similar to children’s outdoor huts in their schematic demarcation of an enclosed space with no visual reminder of whatever is outside. Ideally translucent, free of fear and fashioned from worn, patterned sheets, they are site-spells summoning something ancient to telekinetically, silently, make everything else, including the need for company, disappear. The not-taut skin of the hut relieves my own of such responsibilities – here, with eyes closed on piled cushions, warmed by sun, is something most working adults only ever really experience in addiction or illness.

Looking up into high trees, their leaves sighing in the wind, lessens dependence on words and letters, their fluttering shoal-like movements echoing the shimmering and darting of the synapses receiving this information. Not-knowing drives gold cords deep into the earth and high into the heavens, and auras become stronger with flashes of purple and gold diagonals, even spouting etheric head-fountains only visible by infants and cats. I think this is why that rare feeling of everything being right in the world is only found outside.

The waxeyes have stopped coming now that it is spring, and this week the plane trees have burst into leaf obscuring my view of the birds and changing the light that comes in through the window. It is lightly tinted green, refracted off the trees, and less liquid now the sun is brightening. I guess this means that the waxeyes aren’t so hungry, but I hadn’t anticipated their moving on and I miss them. I also wonder where they went and where they go when it rains. The sparrows now come more often, collecting things with which to build structures that are more piles than nests – clumps of cat hair brushings are at a premium as are little pieces of plastic, paper and cotton. The nests of waxeyes are tiny and perfectly woven eggcups made from grasses and lined with moss and then a layer of their own feathers.

I have been watching for a strange bird that comes to visit occasionally that I have found myself thinking of as a miniature vulture. It is a brown mother blackbird that has no feathers from the neck up. I only see it every now and again and when I do I am happy as if it is a harbinger for something magical, like the possibility of miracles against odds, of survival without size, security or architecture. Of simple hearts and abiding partnership. On days when it comes I envy her a little in the way that she is not worried. I am as jealous of that as I am of the power I have to save myself, to pass through the invisible gates, but that somehow I can’t bring myself to use.

In spring the grey warblers return. I can’t see them, only hear their calls as they try to quickly get nests built and eggs in them before the shining cuckoos fly back in from Siberia. The cuckoos lay their eggs exclusively in warbler nests, and I can’t see them either, but their seven-note whistle, each the shape of an affirmative tick, the last note trailing downwards, can be heard over long distances. Apparently, when they arrive on our shores from their migration, they lie on the ground by the beach exhausted, breathing heavily, before some make their way through a network of greenbelts to the edge of the city.

I have a persistent wish that there be a small horse grazing on the grass slope outside my gate, by the bus shelter the guys from the hostel use to smoke in when it is raining. Sometimes a traffic cop waits at the bottom of the hill to catch drivers that come down too fast. He stands there next to his motorbike, tall and young in his high-booted narrow, black uniform, lucky that he is dressed more elegantly than his car-borne colleagues who wear bunchy blue polyester. Once, as I watched from my upstairs window I saw him raise his speed camera to the sky and track the flight of a bird.

I have held that image, and would never approach him. Once, I was standing with my small son on the footpath who was holding a balloon and learning how to walk. I heard a friendly male voice say “nice balloon buddy” and I looked up to see him standing there smiling. I could not start a conversation, not because I imagine that one is not supposed to try to engage agents of the law in this way – which is probably true – or because it felt like
a come-on, but because I did not want to break the self-containment of the earlier act that I felt I needed to protect. I feared it would have been impossible for me to not broach the subject of the bird’s speed once we had begun to talk. So I backed off and shepherded my staring son towards home.

Birds are the arrows of the land (a misheard lyric) and how he tracked one made him more of this world of vectors and being than that of reports and adherence, coping and non-coping, punishment and rewards. He, part of a group dedicated to establishing facts and generating the heat of attention, showed for a moment the blessed absence of established procedure. I valued his act of pure volition and spontaneity, and his joyful gesture gave me an image that could carry me forward. The words fall and lie at my feet as new ones form, none costing, powerful or lasting, like leaves that before long will be dirt that we might one day stand on together in gentle, quiet complicity if I am very lucky.