I turned my head to the left and up, catching a fast-moving shape darting above the treeline. The skysmoke bubbled away in a particular shade of orange, I remember. #FA8128, “Tangerine”, if you want to look it up. The fast-moving shape was a seagull, flopping unnaturally and without control. I turned my body to follow the path of flight, and down it went. Pitched slightly off-centre. A clip of a branch. Then, the gull cracked without grace or give on the rocky earth, tumbling once and coming to a stop. Birdfall.
In the first truly dire days of the 2020 phase of the Great Australian Bushfires, I was at the coast on an old, pale beach. The haze was there already, pushed around the edges of the world by seasonal winds and the publicity of catastrophe. The second day quickly turned from haze to fathomless depth, a Rothko without end in all directions. Dads picked up their kids and strode a little faster. Teens on bikes kept the vulgarities to a single file. The sea had a thin film of ash. The entire world seemed to be holding its breath, the one thing you couldn’t do yourself but desperately wanted to.
On seeing this bird tumble into the dirt, I realised I was perhaps the only witness to its final moments. Maybe it choked on the air, or the shock, or maybe it was pure coincidence. I thought about where it wanted to go before the wings started to falter. It was too sudden to be truly sad, but every scintilla of religiosity I had understood it as pure, untempered omen. It fell from the sky, as the sky burned.
In the moments that followed, I thought about where I wanted to go before my own wings started to falter. There would be other gulls to throw chips at, I wanted to believe. But for the first time, I wasn’t truly sure. No fires were close, which was a comfort, but only because nothing at all was close. Nothing emerged from the enveloping tangerine soup, nothing went into it or out of it.
Lockdown walks were an adaptation to circumstance, partially imposed from outside but also made possible by it. 20 months after the fires, the slightest acidity in the air sets off a new keenly-worked sense. Gum fire. Grass fire. Barbeque fire. But also soft, herbaceous and floral smells grew to match their opposite on the olfactory spectrum. As I walked more and more, I grew to recognise subtler and more different plants and flowers, the way that damp city air interacts with soil, with native trees and with the imports. The smells, in turn, took me to longer walks where they were wilder, down by a creek. Learning to focus on my senses on this walks was the entire purpose. No work, no email, no social noise. Just adaptation and sensory information, whenever time allowed.
Down by this creek, the birds became familiar. In time, I looked up the warbles and chirps of the birds I could hear. One day, an old bushy bloke saw me recording a bit of sound on my phone, and moved towards me warmly with his arms folded high.
“Hi there. You’re recording bird sounds?”
”Yeah, this one is really interesting, and I haven’t heard it before this week.”
”Yeah, they’re not supposed to be here, not in these numbers. Shrikes from Brisbane.”
He told me all about the broken migratory patterns of these birds, they’d been lost in the warm air and the coming of a new cycle of cold winds was going to make it worse. He reassured me that he wasn’t a kook, that he’d studied in University, and I reassured him that I represent safe harbour for kooks of all debt levels.
Now I hear the shrikes further away from the creek. I hear them near home. I hear them closer to the big roads. It’s the strangest thing, to have the weave of your street’s birdsong change. I’m glad for the sensitivity that the walks brought me, but the confrontation with my helplessness before the forces of the world was not what I expected to stick in my shoe.
My friend David Surman recently painted this, “Woyzeck”. You can read about the painting and the rest of his show “Fairy Paintings”, here.
David Surman, Woyzeck, 2021, acrylic on canvas, 160 X 140cm
No accrual of cranky, unpleasant jetsam from your living mind can truly bring all the simple pleasures to a stop. The other night, I experienced one of these cutting, fearless joy - the illumination of both birds and bats flying against a moonlit sky. It had the gentle, cleansing brace of a squirt of lemon in a glass of water. A refreshment made possible by a single action. I was reminded of this painting and its double-scale; a dirty atmosphere being peeled away into clouds, and the underside of bats and birds, glinting anything but monochrome - always blue, yellow or red. That feeling of craning your heading up to catch creatures at night, and the creatures reciprocating with a single flap or twist, feels like a collaboration. An agreement.
When I saw the bottom edge of the painting on my computer screen, I knew I would see it one day, years from now, in a gallery in some distant place. It is the gentlest little move, a reminder of the edge of the yellow streetlight that makes the composition’s elements possible. The corona of the streetlight you can’t see past, and the bird knows well enough to stay above. It is a bird in flight, and no more than that. A capability, captured.
I have been thinking about the bird in the painting since this lockdown ended. Coming to terms with a change in life’s seasons again, it feels like hunting for food after a long sleep. To remember what things can be if they’re not essential travel, if they’re not consuming things, if they’re a different kind of hunting. Working out which streetlights to illuminate myself against, on which white edges my red paint should drip against.
To fly again.