Joshua Lobb | 1 October 2016
“You cannot stand on sky, but you can be in it as you can in water or in sleep…
this will do, this walking with only one’s head in the clouds”
(Treddinick 2007, 137)
I say to people: “I’m writing stories about birds.” But that’s not true. Birds were my starting point. The first birds I noticed were three black cockatoos, floating overhead, as I walked over the highway bridge near North Wollongong station. I was a jumble of worries; the cars clanged and hissed passed me. I could see the schoolkids on the platform below: plucking and pinching, smickering and shoving. Car doors slamming in the carpark. Underneath the train tracks a stormwater drain, tentacled with graffiti, the remnant of a creek. As I plodded, the cockatoos wafted down, hovered at eye level. I watched them, suspended in the air. Then, one by one, the cockatoos dropped lower, under the highway bridge and away. They were bewitching, unfathomable, oblivious. They were in another world.
Freya Mathews writes that engaging with other animals “enables us to imagine how odd or arbitrary our human priorities might appear from a non-human perspective” (Mathews 1997, 5). Birds, in particular, offer a different point of view. Julia Martin observes: “Birds move. They fly. The bird’s eye sees the world from above as well as from below” (Martin 2007, 74). Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching different birds—lyrebirds, seagulls, kookaburras, magpies, tawny frogmouths, sparrows, rosellas, budgies—trying to comprehend their Umwelt: “the radically diverse sensory worlds that [birds] exist within” (Blas 2012, 33). But I’m always watching, it’s always my imagination with them in the clouds: as I try to write the birds’ stories, I’m only ever telling my own. As Linda Alcoff puts it, “representation is never a simple act of discovery” (Alcoff 1991-1992, 10).
In my writing, I’ve noticed two ways “the bird and its ecosystem are influenced by [my] very presence” (Mattern 2016, np). The first is a tendency to anatomise: to classify different species, plumages or behaviours. I read books called Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird or articles like “Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows”. I scan the internet for images and recordings, my head in a different kind of cloud. The stories become a kind of guide book, as if they’re presenting “color schematic diagrams with ‘field marks’, or small lines, that highlighted the species’ most salient features” (Mattern 2016, np). They’re specimens: pictures on the page; captives in a cage. The second tendency is more damaging: the birds are not-really-birds; they’ve become analogies for human experience. Writing about a bird, as Thomas Nagel might say, is not writing like a bird. Anne Collett reflects that even when birds appear ‘other’—what she calls “the sheer quality of the fantastic and the alien”—they also “lend…[themselves] so readily to anthropomorphism” (Collett 2007, vi). My birds become “tropes of human concern” (Desblanche 2007, 180). Magpies swooping become synonymous with workplace bullying; chickens pecking at the dirt become symbols of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The antiphonal call-and-response of the whipbird—two birds making one sound, the division indiscernible and almost inconceivable to human ears—becomes an anthem to romantic human love. I feel like I’m doing what nineteenth-century traders in New Guinea did to birds of paradise: after killing them, they stuffed the creatures and cut off their legs for easier transportation. When the ornithologists examined the specimens, they developed an elaborate theory about a species that was always in flight: feeding, sleeping, copulating and laying eggs in an elegant dance above the ocean (Goldsmith 1825, 487). As Susan McHugh argues, “the animal’s sacrifice (i.e., its real and representational consumption) supports the human.” (McHugh 2009, 489)
Sometimes though, if I’m in the right location, a bird might swoop down and carry me away. In his mimicry of a human’s call, a lyrebird might also tell me something of his own experience. Planning a story this week about a koel—the four-in-the-morning, passive-aggressive whoop universally loathed by Illawarrans—I’ve been trying to listen to the call on his own terms, distinct from the irritation of the human ear. In really listening to the Koel, I’ve almost-discovered the beauty of it. It’s not easy. Perhaps I should let him sing his song without me eavesdropping.
Then again, perhaps it’s necessary for me to keep listening; necessary, even, to try and respond to his call. In postcolonial or feminist writing, there’s often an argument that if we don’t provide a space for the ‘other’ in mainstream discourse to be seen or heard, even if only in a representation, we’re erasing them completely. It’s could be seen as a kind of extinction. Talking about the domestication of Australian native animals, Mike Archer comments that:
one of the ironies is that some of the most suitable ones…are actually endangered, and while we watch our endangered animals declining to the point of extinction, some of them vanishing forever, thinking that we’re doing the best we can by leaving them in the wild and leaving them alone, in fact by not valuing them, by not getting closer to them, by not integrating them into our lives and ours into theirs, the indifference that we have in effect to their wellbeing, leads to many of them being lost (quoted in Franklin 2007, 121-122).
Maybe it’s all right to tell stories about birds—rosellas, kookaburras, Gould’s petrels—even if their flight is only being observed through human binoculars.
I say: “I’m writing about humans. I’m trying to write about birds.”
Alcoff, L. 1991-1992. “The Problem of Speaking for Others” Cultural Critique 20 (Winter), 5-32
Blas, Z. 2012. “Virus, Viral” Women’s Studies Quarterly. 40:1/2, Spring/Summer, 29-39.
Collett, A. 2007. “Editorial” Kunapipi. 39:2, vi-vii.
Franklin, A. 2007. “Relating to Birds in Postcolonial Australia”. Kunapipi. 39:2, 102-125.
Goldsmith, O. 1825. A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, Volume 3. William Charlton Wright, London.
Kaplan, G. Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird. CSIRO Publishing/UNSW Press, Collingwood.
Livia, A. 1996. “Daring to Presume” in Wilkinson, S.; Kitzinger, C. (eds) 1996. Representing the Other: A Feminism and Psychology Reader. Sage Publications, London. 33-42
Mathews, F. 1997. “Living with Animals”. Animal Issues. 1:1, 4-16.
Martin, J. 2007. “A Poem about a Bird Can Be a Picture of the World: Reading ‘Heron’s Place’ by Jeremy Cronin” Kunapipi. 39:2, 65-75.
Nagel, T. 1974. “What is it like to be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review. 83:4. October. 435-450.Treddenick, M. 2007.
Tredinnick, M. 2007. “Days in the Plateau” Kunapipi. 39:2, 135-141.
von Uexküll, J. 1957  “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds” in Instinctive Behaviour: The Development of a Modern Concept. Ed. C. H. Schiller. New York: International Universities Press, 5-80.
Weir, A. A. S., Chappell, J., Kacelnik, A. 2002. “Shaping of Hooks in New Caledonian Crows” Science. 297:5583, 981.
Escher, M. C. 1955. Rind. Wood engraving and woodcut in black, brown, blue-grey and grey, printed from 4 blocks. http://www.mcescher.com/Gallery/gallery-recogn.htm
Escher, M. C. 1938. Two Birds (No. 18). India ink, pencil, watercolor. http://www.mcescher.com/gallery/switzerland-belgium/no-18-two-birds/