Not All That Glitters is Gulls!

Loafing about at the water’s edge is a summer time ritual. Sand, sea air, the fear of sunburn and the cancer that is its bed-fellow. These are all part of a beach holiday. Waters edge loafing, cricket on the radio and over salted fish and chips form the holy trinity of the summer holiday. They restore fathers, sons and everyone’s spirits in a way nothing else does . A tonic in an age of stress.

But sharing the water’s edge with you are birds that are normally over looked or mistaken for gulls or even worse, mistaken for seagulls! These fellow loafers are not gulls, far from it. In the flurry of beaks and legs and wings and squabbles that gulls bring, this is a forgivable oversight.
But if you look you can often find something a little different, a little less predictable. Beyond the treasures that the tide can bring, cast offs, lost goods, mystery made real by the turning of the tide, you can find something that most people don’t see. That most people don’t notice.
And you don’t always have to be at the beach either.

Last week I was sitting at Studley Park Boatshed, a riverside place, a bush-land enclave in the heart of Melbourne. It’s a gentle place, a marrying sort of place if you are of a mind to do so, and in the absence of a grander local landscape, my sort of place. And there, hidden amongst the silver gulls who have abandoned the sea, was another form of treasure.
“What’s that?” said a voice from a row boat “It’s only a seagull” came the twice wrong reply. “I don’t think it is” the first voice persisted. But then the sudden and apparently surprising arrival of a large tree in their boat distracted them. They seemed unready to take on guests and unable to repel boarders. The tree persisted, its willowy branches clutching at oars and arms and sun hats. It was not the tree that ended up weeping. They did not seem to be nautical folk! Not so much rowing as floundering.

But that first voice had been right, it was not a gull at all. It was that often overlooked treasure, a Crested Tern. Sharper in wing and voice. Pointy in all the ways that gulls are rounded. Fine in all ways gulls are robust. Generally polite in a way that their seaside cousins never seem to manage. Although this well mannered bird can be roused to considerable anger when placed under duress. Gulls are routinely ignored; terms go unnoticed in ways that is different from that. Ignoring is about choosing not to look. Terms are missed because don’t see them, even if they do look. Granted, it was unusual to see one at Studley Park, but it was there, and was noticeable if you were inclined to notice. This bird was not yet in its full summer plumage, but it was still clearly not a gull. Well it was clear to me, even if I did have walk over to check. And it had also seemed clear to one of the boaters they it was something different, but they had now switched from boating and birds, to some form of riverside tree climbing project by the looks of it.

In its breeding finery the Crested Tern has a neat black cap and the crest of its name. It looks like it’s wearing a back to front baseball cap, although it seems more interesting than those who normally wear their hats like that. And less likely to ride a skate board. Or cover the wall of my house in graffiti! Curved down bill, rather short legs, long wings. The differences accumulate to make it a bird that floats as it flies. Buoyant when it so chooses, direct when it needs to be. Although this one seemed content to sit and wait. What for? Who knows? These birds are not chip stealers or dump dwellers, although not easily spooked by humans they seemed to have retained a more natural life style than the gulls they are often seen with. They live in the suburbs of human contact, where natural is still an option. Many gulls seemed to have adopted the inner city life style, where natural is just a memory.

This bird was a loner, different, because you normally see them in flocks, in company. They sit on seaside fences, boats, nautical woodwork, at the waters’ edge in the contested ground between land and sea. They gather in angular groups and if there is one they point their bills into the wind. I once watched a group sitting on a small dingy as it moves to and fro in the wind. The birds moved with the wind, not the boat. This way, then that way. Head up wind, tail down wind. Living weather vanes. Keeping pace with the boats movements, sensitive to a change I could barely detect, let alone react to. Pinnacle of evolution – I think not!

Crested Terns were some of the first birds I watched in Australia. Only two days off the plane, marginal jet lag tugging at my sleeves, walking down the jetty at Swan Bay. Why call it Swan Bay? The place was covered in terns! They opened their wings and let air flow and lift do the rest, taking off from their seaside perches without a hint of other movement. I had just spent 18 hours in a plane, burning jet fuel as if there was no tomorrow and here on a windy summer’s day I was taught a lesson about the effortlessness of flight. Icarus may have died, but he spoke for all of us with his wings of stolen feathers and wax. What would we give for that moment of flight that the terns have garnered back through the long ages of their ancestors? Tern after tern, change after change, better and better, slow, incremental, success building on the success of the past, survival being a goal in itself. No plan, no ideal target. Taking what works and sticking with that. Did Charles see these when he was here? Did they help him sort out fact from fiction? Replace myth with a method? Did Australian terns and British terns, so similar, so different, help him see what he saw, back at home, back at Down House?

Watching these birds is generally not that difficult, once you have found them that is. And once you start looking, you can pick them out with ease, lower to the ground than gulls, pointier. They also seem far more trusting than many birds, allowing watchers and photographers closer that most species. In general they are rather cooperative. But watch them in their breeding colonies and this tolerance changes in two ways. Rather than just being tolerant of humans they seem to become crazy brave. Sitting on what passes for a nest with a stubbornness that borders on madness. But once removed any hint of polite behavior evaporates.

I have been able to see this behavior first hand when I have banded these birds – ringed for those in the UK. They nest - if the term nest can be extended to include a meager scrape in the sand with absolutely no ornamentation or padding – in sand dunes perilously close to the high tide mark. Tides pushed by winds or the cast off waves from elsewhere can spell doom for a colony. This is a strategy that put these birds at risk. Higher sea levels and more storms threaten to wipe out colonies that have existed for years. Costal development has robbed them of many alternative locations. They inhabit a shrinking band on land. They probably could do with some help.

The chicks are banded when they are still sat on the sand. They cannot run or fly, so they just sit there. Waiting, pretending to be a stone. The parent birds seem to refuse to leave the nest and at times it feels like you will have to lift the adult off the nest to gain access to the chick. When the do, inevitably, abandon their chicks to our misunderstood hands they hover over head shrieking their protests. Contact between beaks and a banders heads is not unknown, industrial deafness common place. We may not be talking rock concert loud, but these birds can hit notes that opera singers would be proud off – and they have the same intensity as some Wagnerian death scene, and are just about as comprehensible as well. Who needs the Ring Cycle (a question that seems valid to my ears!) when you can have a full blown, opening night, tern opera blasted into your ear from less than a meter away. And I do this for fun!

Seeing the birds this close is worth the pain. In their breeding plumage they are a striking bird, and to have hundreds of them calling above you, landing beside you and just plain staring you down is a remarkable thing. It is not a common thing, but we need to make sure it exists into the future. A world without the opera of terns would be a duller (if quieter) place.

If you take a close look at the terns on the seaside railing you will see that it has been banded. I find to remarkable to think that in the first week of its life, just fresh from the egg, I may have lifted it from the sand, popped a band on its leg and returned it to its parents. Maybe that’s why they seem so patient when I watch them, they are just waiting for me to turn my back so they can peck me on the head and extract revenge. It may be true, but I hope not.

There's danger on the edge of town

The suburbs are supposed to be safe. Each little house, filled with the perfect family, manicured gardens. Lawns lathered and shaved each Sunday, perfection imposed on a chaotic world. A little patch of order.

Then the person next door turns out to be a mass murderer, strange midnight, torch light, diggings in the garden, a garage locked and bolted, a car parked outside it. “He seemed such a normal bloke” “He always said hello to me, most polite” “His roses were a credit to the neighbourhood”. But it’s not just the human world that is driven into a homicidal frenzy by suburbs; nature embraces the serial killer as well. Although in nature you have the saving grace of instinct rather than psychosis. Animal rather than antisocial. Real need rather than some other, darker, less palatable warp of reality.

There are predators in the garden and they have young to feed. Gaping beaks, hungry mouths, empty stomachs. The evolutionary imperative, breed, survive, pass on those genes. The small fry , the targets, must be alert – and probably alarmed as well. Their imperative is no different than the predators, but they sit in the contested ground between the survival of self and the survival of others. This is a challenge that many predators do not face. The impeccably manicured gardens can become a killing ground for small, the weak, the un-armed. Without armour, without much weaponry, the small fry must rely on other means. Stealth. Finesse. Speed of foot , speed of wing. It seems an uneven battle, asymmetrical warfare. But the battle is as old as life itself, a battle that drives adaptation, the head butt challenge of predator versus prey. An evolutionary arms race.

As I was going to work last week I opened the front door to the synchronised calling of blackbirds, their pop rattle alarm call filled the air. Lurking in the bushes by the car was a Currawong, attempting to go unnoticed, and failing. A patch of satin blackness in the tangled greenery. A thin, drawn out crow of a bird with a 6cm bill. A chick eater, an egg stealer. The blackbirds were mobbing it. Overwhelming numbers, versus overpowering strength. David and Goliath, although David had brought along his friends. The numbers win, for a while at least. Currawongs are winter birds, driven down from the hills by wind and snow. I have not see once since this mobbed individual sat in the bushes. Perhaps this danger has passed. Passed for this year at least.

On the same day while walking home a kookaburra flashed past and landed on a garden fence post. Interesting enough of itself, given that I was in Canterbury, which does not strike me as prime habitat. In its beak was a small lizard, lip and unmoving, destined to be turned into more kookaburra in due course. Despite millennia of adaptation it had still failed, it had died that other might live. But this was not self sacrifice, this was not altruism. It was simple life and death. One dies, the other lives. That’s all she wrote.

In these two events we had death avoided (at least for now) and starvation avoided (at least for now). All part of the balance between predator and prey. All played out in suburban gardens.

A number of years ago in a different house, in a different suburb, a pair of blackbirds nested in the bush under our bedroom window. For reasons that I do not care to divulge publically, these birds became know (to us at least) as The Ardens. There were Ardens in our garden, and we rather liked them. One hot night, when sleep came in short, disturbed bursts, the awful reality of life and death in the suburbs came to visit The Ardens. With a terrible shrieking that contained fear and death and failure The Ardens protested as something came and took their chicks away. The Ardens howled their protest into the night. It was like visiting a crime scene. A gaping hole in bush where there had once been protective cover, a few drifting feathers, an empty nest where there once have been three chicks. The list of suspects was long: Cat? Powerful Owl? Possum? Velociraptor? All seemed possible given the volume of noise The Ardens made. The adults hung around disconsolately for a day or two, looking into the nest, sitting on the bush. Were they hoping for the impossible? Where they just locked into a set of behaviours that even the reality of that night could not break. I don’t know how we can know.

This week I found a blackbird nest outside our house, for reasons of desperate predictability these have been called The Ardens too, or possibly The Ardens Two. Their home was a living embodiment of all things nest-like, neat and dry looking. It was tucked between roof and a supporting pillar. They had forsaken trees and bushes, they had adopted the made world. They had adapted to what they could find. True inhabitants of suburbia. Later on the same day I found the mother sitting, and after she had left (with a rather noisy protest) I found 3 eggs. The parallels are clear. I hope they do better than their name sakes, but the odds are stacked against them. It is the order of things.

We had the first cicada night this week as well, incredibly noisy, making nights of record high temperature feel even hotter. Now the blackbirds can change sides in the suburban war of survival. Cicadas are a prize catch, although I can think of much quieter meals. The desperate, broken calls that the cicadas make as they are being eaten alive are noticeably different from their normal deafening calls. These seem to come from nowhere and yet fill the whole world with sound. The death calls, an insect alarm call, is a failing noise, a clashing noise and finally no noise at all. There was a blackbird on our nature- strip this afternoon with a Greengrocer, one of the larger cicadas. First the wings were removed, then parts of the abdomen were pierced with sharp blows, the cicada fell silent. It was now destined to be turned into more Blackbirds in due course..........

These are not the only stories to be told of urban warfare, bats and Tawny Frogmouths (giant night jars!), possums and Powerful Owls add to the mayhem.
And this is not just an Australian story. As I was working on this post an e-mail from America arrive, from Ohio, from an early winter place, where the leaves have fallen and winter comes. It brought with it a hawk. Taken in the back garden of a friend’s house. Consensus has it that it is a Coopers Hawk. But this is based on the skills of two self confessed Bad Birdwatchers, so corrections are welcome.

So there is danger on the edge of town, or the edge of your garden. And each encounter between predator and prey is at the cutting edge of evolution. It’s selection in action. Very natural, very old and very brutal. Life and death. That’s what it comes down to in the end.

Suburban Safari

If you take a walk in a wood you see different plants and animals to when you are by the sea. Its common sense really. Unsurprisingly, sharks don’t do well in leaf- litter; it blocks up the gills slits. Nasty really, especially for the shark. Different habits have different features, so you get different wildlife. No surprise in this either.
But the differences between the suburbs that surround my house do surprise. They seem to form different habitats, and often seen to hold different things to see. Not all that you see could be classed as wildlife mind you, but the point is still valid.
Over the last week I have happened to have walked through three Melbourne suburbs at more or less the same time of day. Mont Albert, where I live, East Melbourne and Richmond. (That’s Richmond, Victoria, not Richmond, Virginia nor Richmond, North Yorkshire, just so we are clear about things!) I may as well have been walking through three different biomes, even though they are all within about 20 minutes drive of each other.
One of the features that make one habitat different from another is their differing histories. Meadows that have not known the plough are places were once common flowers, reduced to rarity by cultivation, can still be found. Damp Victorian gullies, long untouched by fire, may contain Myrtle Beech trees rather than the gum trees of the neighboring, fire prone slopes. Woodlands whose soils have always known the roots of trees have a suite of flowers so typical of Ancient Woodlands that they are known as indicator species. See them and you may be stood in a place that has a direct link back to the Wildwood prehistory. These places are not untouched by man, but they have never lost their trees. Needless to say, although disappointingly, there are no such places in Mont Albert, East Melbourne or Richmond. Old Growth forest can be found in Victoria, but it is distant and remote. Not the least suburban. But even in the suburbs the trees fight back - elm suckers burst through the grass, trying to claim the land. But mowing keeps then controlled, coppiced down to just a few leaves.

The three suburbs came into being in the 1800’s. They were planned, laid out and sold a block at a time. These are not the unplanned, episodic villages of my childhood. The roads are straight, junctions tend to be right angles, streets run parallel to each other. Again, this is different to the plastic, organic feel of childhood lanes and footpaths. Both have a history written in their roads, but growing alongside these roads are trees which can tell a tale. You can fathom the history of each suburb written through what you can see. The trees speak the language of the past if you can be bothered to stop and read it.
East Melbourne is the oldest of the suburbs, laid out in 1837. Hard to believe the house I was born in was well over a hundred years old at that time! It has grassed squares with oak trees, fountains surrounded by regular footpaths. Formal spaces. These form grassy parks, echoes of Bath or Cheltenham. Crested pigeons, galahs, magpies feed on the grass, possums feed in the trees but there are defenses in place. A marsupial Mangiot line, bypassed most nights. The oaks are mature, solid if a little distressed. Many bear the scars of lost limbs, healed scabs of bark. All bear the scars of drought; bunched leaves growing densely from stems, almost like fire re-growth, dead branches stag horning through the canopy. These are trees which were planted with a confidence that time and chance has shown to be misplaced. These are English tress and this is not England.
It really was spring just a few weeks ago, but already the grass has been burnt back to brown by a week of sun shine. Hottest start to November since records began. There are strange green stripes on the grass. There must be water down there. The new street trees look limp and hot – Maples! Why do we do this? There must be no water down there.
East Melbourne also has my favourite paint chip. (OK, so I admit it, I don’t know for any other paint chips, but I am sure this would be my favourite even if I did!) It looks like a dog. It has real a form. It looks designed. Form, function and design are all parts of the claims made by creationists for the existence of God. But this dog has been made by blind chance, by salt crystals pushing out through the mortar between the bricks. If ever there was evidence that we are programmed to seek order in the universe, here it is. It would have been interesting to see how this shape had begun, a small flake and then another. Here we have apparent order without purpose, without external guidance, without target. It makes me laugh each time I see it. And I think of the order that has been created around me without purpose, without external guidance and without target other than survival. Surround by a selection of natural (but alien!) order, I keep on walking.

Richmond is a horse of another colour. Planned just two years after East Melbourne, it is about industry. This is not Bath, this is Sunderland or Cardiff. Going down to the Yarra warehouses and workers cottages were neighbours, not always good ones. The river took away the wastes, but did not remove them. It just left them elsewhere, where they lay to this day. The language the trees speak is one of absence. They are not there. Most street trees are a modern attempt at softening. Many of the warehouses have been converted to flats. I saw one in a different suburb with “Hell is other people” written in the wall – well if that’s the case don’t live in Richmond! One warehouse has been changed into a micro-brewery, a rather good one I have to say. This is a wonderful change, as brewing has become industrial it has moved away from the very heart of the city. But a cottage industry has moved in. Old fashioned beer, in an old fashioned space, supped by people who have forsaken the characterless swill of the new fashioned breweries. And it comes it pints!

Mont Albert first came about 40 years later ,as Melbourne spread and grew. Initially just a stop on the rail line to Lilydale, it was a station without a place. The place came later, but the railway was there first. The plan for the suburb included the railway. The two were one, as if they knew it was pointless to have one wothout the other. Why can’t we do this anymore? Why cant we link transport to the palce people live? We are probably past peak oil already and yet we still build more estates with no public transport. Should these people walk to work? Or go by bike or sea going gondala as levels rise? Or do all architects and planners think everybody will work from home? That may be difficult if your job involves building washing machines rather than web sites!

This is clearly not a natural environment, but the trees are less planned. Street trees are studded with gums, gardens hold trees of considerable vintage. The original vegetation has gone, but is not forgotten. There are fragments, individual trees, little patches. This is possum central! What did they eat before that could find roses or my tomatoes?

And above all this is the sky. The Australian sky. This has not be changed, not subject to planning, the natural ceiling over the suburbs. And what light it brings. Sometimes it can be so bring, so clear that it stops you from seeing. In the summer it can drain the colour from ever the most vibrant scene. Takes the landscape down to a lower tone of colour. Not black and white, but not the Kodachrome of sunset either. In the sky you can still find nature. Flocks of gulls. Bouncing groups of Black Cockatoos, their yellow tails flashing occasionally in the light. The cockatoos are winter birds, once rare over the city, but now regular, no longer reported but always worth seeing. The strange mewing and caterwauling calls float through the air. If these do not drag you from your desk to the window, from breakfast to garden, then you have lost a sense of wonder you need to re-find.

I find in the suburban sky a glimpse of the past and a vision of the way things may once have been.

There and back (memories)

Monday, train there, walk back.

Bag packed and ready, call goodbye and see you later. Opening the door to cool, damp bird song is one of the best ways to start the day. Leaving behind breakfast banter and bad puns, porridge, toast, tea, daily paper. The morning is wet from overnight rain and the path still damp enough for snails. A slipping morning, a gliding morning. The wreckage from last night’s footsteps litters the pavement, the horrid crunch squelch as leather meets mollusc and the mollusc looses. Ants scavenge in the aftermath, valuable to them, moving it along the food chains; the evidence will be gone on my return.

The bird song is the familiar mix of the native and the introduced. Blackbirds, Myna Birds, Britain and India in Australia. Wattle birds, real Australians, flash from bush to bush in search of nectar, driving off other males, fighting with anything that moves. Most savage on their own kind, but hardly less so with others. But the Blackbirds dominate and as I walk through the now I am taken back.

(I tried to make a parabolic reflector with a dustbin lid once, so that I could record the birds. It worked, sort of, but was not much better than a naked microphone. I recorded the dawn chorus, with the microphone wedged in my bedroom window. Woodland birds from Carters Wood, wrens in the back yard, pigeons in the ivy. The click of milk bottles from the dairy next door and the whir of electric milk floats brought it to an end. I tried to do it again the next morning, but slept in!)
The trees are in full leaf – if they ever lost them – and the spring flowers are fading. A dozen shades of green now mark the turning of the season. Green upon green. Layer upon layer. The crab apple blossom in our garden, seemingly magnificent only yesterday, has faded to ginger snap brown over night. The seasons are a figment we try to hang on to, they are never fixed. The world moves without rest and the seasons follow. We can chase them, but if we stand still they pass us by. The bees have moved on and so have the dragon flies. They know the truth. The world turns. The first seeds of the year are drifting in the wind – dandelion heads. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, gone. Up by the roundabout the Horse Chestnut has lost its pink candle flowers of a week ago, their remains slump between the fingered leaves. If they have done their job there will be fruit – conkers – this autumn, but I suspect they will be overlooked, wasted, misunderstood.

(We would drive to collect them, or walk miles to secret trees, for they were an autumn treasure, an annual pleasure. Well worth the effort. Collected in bags and taken home. My bag was torn, behind me my brother was collecting all that fell, leaving me poorer. At home they were holed and strung with care, they were autumn’s play-ground ritual. Two weeks of battles and pride. Losses and deep disappointments. Adding up the lives, claiming your victims. A clean hit you could deal with, but there were other ways, worse ways to lose. The string pulled from your fingers. Stamping on a loose conker barely acceptable, beyond the pale really. No better than chucking, or diving in the penalty box. Cheating.)

The train station is lifeless and busy. A strand of wood, woven in the wire fence, cut off and abandoned, the last memory of a plant long gone. Commuters hug the shelter of the buildings. I am there too. Pigeons gather in sheltered spots as well, puffy from the over-night chill, huddled for warmth. You can hear the beak clattering of the wattle birds as they display and call. Parrots streak over head. Rainbows formed without sun and rain. Pied Currawongs calls from behind the station, a suburban pirate in black and white, with an impressive bill, seeking chicks or so the story goes. The Blackbirds protest. An announcement of the wild, a call of the free. “The next train from platform 1 will be the 8.09 …………….” I board the train, window seat, facing forward if possible. Not backwards, not without a view.

The journey is through the leafy suburbs, back gardens extended to the track edge. Wild by the rail’s edge, planned around the house. An ecotone, a transition zone, a contested zone. An unplanned extension of the new bush, neither native nor foreign, but more natural than the gardens and less alien than the ballast strip. A multi-cultural vegetation taking what it can, holding on where it may.

The line takes me to Surrey Hills – but not to The Oval – through Chatham – although the dockyards are strangely still – and on to Canterbury – where the cathedral must be just behind those trees – and finally to Camberwell. Glimpses through the window, old graffiti, new tags, hopeful slogans. More sleeping pigeons.

But the most interesting viewing is often on-board, travelling with me, not flashing by. Waves of Stephanie Meyer, walls of Stieg Larrson – “The tattooed girl who bit the vampire hornet dragon nests” anybody? The private in public – loud phone calls, the fall out of breakfast time stress, deals so important that the whole train needs to know, delicate makeup in a small mirror, lip gloss by feel. And the public is made private by an iPod world. No conversation, embarrassed eye-contact at best. Interview nerves, test preparation, revision, overdue reading - Truman Capote.

The silence is shattered only by teenagers trying to shock, trying to be adult in a blazer, trying to hide their school bag. Boys in distant circles hover round the candle beauty of the girls from the school next door, drawn, moth like, to the candles glow. Rehearsed disinterest from the girls, over reacting to last night’s news, sending shocked SMS’s to the carriage next door. Is sharing ear-phones a new stage in romance? A public show of affection? Train travel most days. Eight minutes if all is well. It often isn’t.

(A train journey to Sunderland. A degree for free, a freedom of its own. The longest journey I had ever made, a home-body. Door to door it took an even 12 hours. Through counties that were just cricket teams, through towns that were only football teams. Through some I had never heard of at all. Heading north and east. Gloucester, Birmingham, York, Newcastle, Sunderland. It may as well have been another country – and in many ways it was. I left home that day, most of my world in two bags, and I never really came back. From then on I was a visitor on the way to somewhere else. Just passing through. I missed spring for 3 years – it had not arrived when I left for the term break, and 12 hours south and west it was already over, and it would be over again when I returned. It would be a while before I stayed still long enough to let the seasons catch up to me. It would be another 3 years before I set foot in a foreign land and almost 10 before I left Europe. A home-body with nowhere to call home.)

The last few steps to work take me under trees in new leaf. They cannot be lime green for they are elms. The leaves flow over the leaf-stalk on one side, giving their name away if you care to look. Translucent, fragile, probably misplaced, but beautiful none the less. Elms were taken away from me once, but now they are back. Street trees, garden trees, path side trees.

(In 1967 – a few years after I was born – the elms started to die. Over the next few years 25 million would die. Killed by a fungus that was spread by bark beetles. Constables landscape would die with them. There were out of season bon-fires in more fields than you could count. They burnt day and night, but there was no celebration, this was no carnival event. Fireworks did not flare in their unsteady light. The landscape was being reduced by flames, by a fungus. In our back-yard I removed the bark from fire-wood logs, a coal supplement for the long winter nights. There were spreading, many fingered galleries under the bark. The pattern of a beetles spread, the shape of an elms death. They made our fire bright, but the countryside had lost some of its light and shape. It did not recover. The elms never came back into the light of the countryside as trees, they remained hidden as hedgerows bushes, dwarfs, and died if they grew too big.)

I leave work under the same elms, but walk away from the train station, and follow the rail line itself. Side streets and footpaths, a winding way, serpentine now and then, although I do not see the sakes that must be there. The pigeons, warmed by their own fires, flock and display. Males puff out their chests and run in circles, and yet again there seems to be rehearsed disinterest from the females. It really is the same show. Parrots feed in Bottle Brush plants, trashing the flowers in search of nectar. Feathery tongues strip away the precious fluid. But they transport pollen in return, unknowingly doing the job the sweet bribe was made for. The ground beneath the plants bleeds red with scattered flowers, with shattered petals.

The extended gardens have stolen some of the paths, annexed public space for private gain. I retreat to the road. A few small lizards, skinks, flash away from their sunny spots, on stone, or metal or concrete. One pauses, looking back. Who is watching who? Walking home is a familiar journey.

(I would walk home from school to save the bus fare. A friend pushed his bike as I walked. A gesture of friendship that I never acknowledged, but always appreciated. He is still out there, and he may even read this.)

Along the edge of one dead end path the concrete slabs of the railways edge are covered with stencil graffiti, normally annoying, here it seemed to do no harm. One was of a bird, it looks like a pardalote. A wonderful bird of colour and character which the picture only hints at. A flock of thornbills flashes over head. Thorn billed indeed they probe and search with their needle beaks, seeking food, sneaking smacks. The flock zings with contact calls as they move from bush to bush. Just staying in touch. Avian SMS. Real Tweets. Just proving they are alive. A Butcher Bird calls but remains hidden, panic seems to sweep through the Thornbills. The flock retreats from danger, seeking sanctuary in the bushes.

On the nature strips the daisies are out. The days-eyes had not opened on the way to work. Rosette form plants give themselves both an advantage and a prize by spreading out. Shading out their competitors, literally growing over them. Humans are not the only ones to annex property.
As the suburbs become more spacious gum trees stud the gardens and paths edge. In darker spots, where the sunshine does not linger, the bark is still damp, showing off its colours. Magpies stalk, threatening violence. In gardens, pipes weave their way from laundries to bushes, trees, flower beds and veggie patches. Grey water keeping the suburbs green. Local recycling for a global problem, taking action, working at the problem.

More observant on the way home I notice seeds in the Japanese Maple, probably unplanted, unplanned, living next door. Another set of seeds ready for their own adventure. The final steps take me past a Ginkgo, a real stranger from a distant land and a distant time, making me feel far less of a stranger here. I walk through my own front door, home. A work day over and the second half of a family day about to start. Evening all.
Hello D.
Here, there and back again.

A weekend away - the other side of the hill.

On Sunday we drove away from our island cottage back towards the town. From gravel roads to tarmac, from rural peace to a shopping strip. Cafes with coffee. Shops with tarot readings, crystal healing and “Native American Books” (whatever they are). The coffee appealed, the quackery did not. If I want quackery it needs to come with a sense of fun. So I went to the river to watch the ducks. Much better. Very calming. The world is improved by ducks.

Leaving town took us up through thick eucalypt woodlands dense with undergrowth and scattered with houses, some charming, some surprising, some ugly. More islands surrounded by bush. The bush here is not untouched by any means. Logged over many years, but not destroyed, it retains most of its charm and much of its wildlife. A road side tree stump was evidence of former industry. The postbox slot cut into its base allowed a plank to by inserted, and on this a saw-man stood high above the trees flared buttresses. Bypassing the natural support, toppling a giant, felling a natural skyscraper. The road leads to the summit of Mount Donna Buang.

Mount Donna Buang offers the closest snow to Melbourne, but we are deep into spring and the snow has long gone and we were not bound for the summit. We turned off and parked. It was noticeably colder than down on the valley floor. Here the cool of altitude and the moisture of a steep valley come together to make a damp gully full of tree ferns and fire sensitive trees. Myrtle Beech and Sassafras, moss covered and complex. Not the eucalyptus dominated woodland of the rest of the mountain’s slopes, but different, older. A kind of rainforest lite.

These places are an echo of an earlier, wetter Australia. A place where rain was more reliable and fires did not flare. Now they only hang on in special places, where water pools and fire avoids. They are special places, damp places, ancient places. From high above, on a viewing platform, you could look down through the layer upon layer of leaves, each with its own glimpse of the sky above. Each harvesting the sunlight, each making golden sugar through the alchemy of photosynthesis. The green engine that drives the planet.

We left the cool of the gully and headed to the other side of the hill, down a long unmade road, gravel rattle and seeping water. Not a main road, but a direct road. As we traveled on, the bush began to show signs of change. Blackened stems and trunks, patches of untouched green followed by more charcoal. Fire and eucalyptus go hand in hand. They thrive in each other’s company. This is a landscape molded by fire. Many of the trees were coated in a fuzz of green, not dead but regenerating. Tiny shoots growing direct from the trunk of the trees, coating the blackened tree in green. They seem to be gift wrapped in green tinsel, coated in a veneer of recovery.

The tree ferns were growing back as well, not from the edge, but from the centre. If it is the skin of the gums that would bring them back after fires, it was the heart of the tree ferns that survived. Fiddle heads burst up from scorched stems, looking like huge shepherds’ crooks. Or bishop’s crozier. No wonder this re-growth, this resurrection, takes on religious meaning for many. The symbolism blunt, obvious and misplaced.

The further down the hill we went the greater were the signs of fire. More black. Less green. The roadside barriers were dented down into small metal valleys where trees had fallen, crashed into them. There were dozens of these metal valleys on the main road, to the left and right, each one marking where a tree had fallen. In the distance the hills were grey, streaked with black. Bare. They seemed to be without life.

We arrived in Marysville before we realized we were there. Stopping at a junction where the town was not, we realized we had arrived. The town was missing. On February 7th 2009 a fire came over the hill to Marysville and house by house, street by street, took it. 34 people died in Marysville on that day, in their homes, in their cars, seeking shelter, fleeing the flames. 173 people died in the fires in Victoria that day. The images from that day unbelievable, the experience unimaginable.

I spent that day, Black Saturday, in the safety of my suburban home. Less than one hour’s drive from my front door people were dying. The air that day was being torn apart by a dry northern wind, temperature above 40o for the third day in a row. A day full of warnings and fear. As the fires ripped through homes and lives, it also ripped through the certainties we had built up over recent years. Stay or go? Defend or retreat? A fire index that was off the scale.
A scattering of buildings were left intact by the fire. Not undamaged, because nothing could be undamaged by this fire. The bakery on the corner, the café next door. But they are now surrounded by an isolating nothing, not the welcoming isolation of the cottage we stayed in, but a deeper, more frightening nothing. For this is a nothing that was once filled with life and now it is not. These are specks of light in a void. For many they are a marker of hope, but they are also a reminder of what has been lost.

Fire has always cast a shadow over summer, but the Black Saturday fires changed this shadow’s length. It now reaches from the bush into the lives of suburban Australians – into the lives of most of us, for Black Saturday reached out and took something from all of us.

For many it took away the certainty of safety. Towns are not meant to be swept from the map here, such things happen elsewhere, not here. It happens in countries with rotten infrastructure and corrupt governments, countries with plagues and dictators. How can it happen in a town where I took my son for a holiday? Where we stopped for coffee and cake? Where I saw my first King Parrot? In time the bush will recover, and people are determined that Marysville will recover as well.

The days grow warmer and summer approaches. How can people sleep at night without hearing the fires rush? Not the winter fire of hearth and home, of long cold nights and a glass of red wine. But a fire plucked from the pages of myth, a living monster, whips of flame, an elemental force.
But we need the fear to be real. Without it we will be trapped again by a belief that we can handle anything. People who live in bush fire areas – and given what happened here or in Canberra who does not? – need to embrace the fear and make it real. Only when that happens can we know what it really means to live on the other side of the hill, in a fire prone land.