The Kingfisher Theory

It was cold, damp and impolitely early when Mick the Taxi said “It’s all good”. My kids had never been up so early unless they were ill. If the truth be told I had not been up this early for a long time either, unless of course the kids were ill.

The journey to the airport was as uneventful as you could have wished for. Melbourne was generally asleep, or only half awake. The world seemed to move in a collective feather warmth, and few of the buildings we passed had lights at the windows. The roads were quiet. The kids were quiet. But you could sense the excitement. When we arrived at the airport all hell broke loose.

There were too many people, there were not enough staff. Instructions were contradictory at best and absent at worst. People were improvising, and people were getting it wrong. The kids were still excited, the staff were flustered. I was both. Simultaneously. The sparrows that had amused me as I stood in line for previous flights were nowhere to be seen. When I found them, they were being forced back against the rafters of the roof by the sheer volume of stress being generated in the queues below. Occasionally you could see them shake their heads, and comment on how poorly evolved people were – “how difficult is it to fly?” Eventually, after being told we had done the wrong thing and then being congratulated for being the best organised family in the queue we checked in and handed over our bags. I think if you could bottle the feeling that getting rid of your bags generates you would be able to sell it hand over fist.

Drinking small bitter coffees we sat and watched the planes come and go. How long will this last? This ability to up sticks and travel? My kids have a combined age that only just breaks double figures but they were about to go on a journey longer than any my mother ever undertook. My father only travelled like this because of the invasion of Poland and the needs of the British navy. We take this for granted and forget that most people have never done this and never will. We seem to live in a bright window of time where all things are still possible, and the consequences of this freedom have only just begun. The next few years will, to say the least, be interesting. And now we will fly for 3 hours. Heading north to Queensland, which would be a whole country, or maybe two, in Europe. To Townsville and then to Magnetic Island. The flight passes with food and books, drinks and iPods, small heartfelt disputes about window seats and who gets to sit with mum. Time slows. Kilometres slide by. The horizon flares bright red, then silver and finally day sky blue.

Townsville is surprisingly cool and sharp without the wet blanket humidity of my last visit. We put on shorts. The locals say it’s cold. We beg to differ, but they only laugh and pull the up the collars on their coats. If it was not for the currency in my wallet you’d have to think you were in a different country. When we get on the ferry I start to think that we may be. There is a “polite notice” that says that alcohol will not be served before 10am. Given that it’s almost mid-day the bar is open and mixed drinks are in evidence. This I should point out is on a ferry which is to all intents and purposes a public transport vehicle! Most people are wearing a jacket and shorts. Almost everybody is wearing thongs – that’s the flip-flop footwear type. These shoes (and I use the term loosely) are cheap, nearly ubiquitous and utterly without a single redeeming feature.
A Brahminy Kite soars around the ferry terminal. Two or three silver gulls drift on the water and fight over food scraps. As the kite turns the sun turns its chestnut body a deep shade of red. It lands on a roof top and settles with a wing flap and a burst of preening. I watch the water. I look for terns. The eight kilometre gulf between land and island shrinks and the Island grows on the horizon. Some people just called it Maggie Island – but I can’t come at that. Too many political overtones, too many shrill speeches, that handbag. We arrive at what I discover is the least attractive part of the island. The foreshore is dominated by an apartment building which is a classic of the “softened Stalinist school” of architecture. It was clearly designed by somebody with a fear of curves and a love for anonymous concrete. It’s with a sense of relief that we pile into the car and head for the other side of the island.

Up over the hill we go and then down the other side. P declares that this place is “just like a twopical island” – and we almost crash with laughter. Another Brahminy Kite drifts into view. We find our house, which is all curves and open space. We unload the car. Lizards dash over the wooden deck and green ants commute along the handrails. Helmeted Friarbirds talk in the tree tops, their calls including a “chack” which sounds like Jackdaw. I look up, confused. The nearest Jackdaw is probably half a world away. Chequered butterflies, that look black and white in the patchwork tree light, scatter from the undergrowth. A kookaburra laughs from a nearby tree and a flock of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos dash overhead calling wildly and flying with tumbling style. Doors are opened, windows slid back, the house is explored. We make some tea, we try the chairs, we settle in.

The beach is a short drive away. Telephone wires hang limp between grey poles, and strung out along them are birds. Fig Birds with bright red eyes, Rainbow Bee-Eaters sweet with blue-green feathers and White-Breasted Wood Swallows, dapper in black and white. And there are also Kingfishers. Bright as blue buttons. None of these birds were there as we drove to the house, and now they are abundant. My mind starts to whir.
We arrive at the beach and park under pale blue skies and palm trees. It’s late afternoon and the light is already different, less intense, slightly warm and glowing. The beach really is a sweep of gold, coarse grained and clean. It’s fringed with palm trees. Far out to sea I see a bird with wide upswept wings; it grows larger as it approaches and it’s clear it’s a White-Bellied Sea-Eagle. It moves over the sea with little apparent effort. Then out of the corner of my eye I see another bird flying directly at the eagle. The birds are on a collision course and the sea-eagle banks and gains height to avoid the incoming bird. It’s an Osprey, closely followed by a second. The attack seems to have worked because the sea-eagle reduces in size as it heads back out to sea. The Ospreys fly back towards the beach, but veer off sharply to harass a Brahminy Kite! This all happens with two minutes of getting out of the car. We walk along the sand, looking for shells and sea dollars. But something is missing. There are almost no gulls. This will last all week. Within an hour I have seen more birds of prey than gulls – what’s going on?
The afternoon light quickly fades, and the horizon glows in a subtle sunset. No clouds. No fireworks. We return home in growing darkness. The early morning has taken its toll and we are in need of sleep. A Pheasant-Coucal, a strange and spiky looking bird walks by the side of the road, I U-turn to see it, but it’s gone. My family protest. They want their beds. Rock-Wallabies rush from the headlights and hide under the house. It really is bed time for the kids. Darkness has come quickly and the condensation runs down the outside of a beer bottle. Circles form on the table top. The night sounds begin. Bush Stone-Curlews scream into the darkness, the calls of local birds are picked up by more distant ones and soon the night is full of their strange song. The wallabies crash through the undergrowth. There is a metallic donk as one seems to collide with the metal poles beneath the house. It wanders off muttering to itself – it’s my first experience of marsupial swearing. To round out the day a bat joins us in the bedroom. After a few laps of the fan it lands on a metal beam and side shuffles into an invisible hole. We never see it again. Despite the primacy of the eye it becomes the ear that lets me know I am not at home.

The soundscape is a mixture of the known and the foreign. And some sounds are the familiar made strange. Familiar Cockatoos call in the distance, and now and then you can hear the song of the sea. Bush Stone-Curlews continue to call, weird and certainly unfamiliar. A Blue-Winged Kookaburra twists laughter into a maniac’s cackle, a broken humour that in humans would be sign of madness or a deep unreachable loneliness. In the end the Stone-Curlews outlast all the others and to their strange and foreign chorus we fall asleep.
By the next morning the sounds have sunk in, leached overnight into my brain, shifted from the frontground to the background. We wake slowly. Soft sunshine. Tree sounds. Small sounds.

There are no kingfishers on the wires. But there are Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos in the paddocks. They feed on the spilt and split grain meant for horses. They don’t seem very brave, flying well before I expected, but they are hungry and soon they return. The urge to feed overcoming the urge to flee. Tiny blue pigeons – Peaceful Doves – walk out of the long grass. Yellow-Bellied Sunbirds flash through the hedgelines, the male with a splendid blue bib, the female two-tone yellow and softened green. On days like this the trip to fetch the paper feels like a chance rather than a chore. When I return there are still no kingfishers. I wonder why. Maybe they are only there in the afternoon – it’s a theory at least. A Kingfisher theory. A theory in need of testing.

Dusk till Dusk - 24 hours in my garden.

This is another experiment - very few words this time. All the pictures shown here were taken between about 4.45 pm on Friday 1st July and 4.45pm the next day. I just wondered what I would see.

The house bricks flare in the setting sun.
The trees shine with the light of green and of gold.

Shadows grow, shadows dance, the sea of night cuts through.

Flowers still bloom, some hidden, some clear, but this is mid-winter?

The bark of trees, leaves fallen and brown, a winter reminder of the summer to come .

By the door, a black spider, a faint flash of red, gathered around it the remains of its last meal.

A long legged fly on the fence, another sits in the sun.

A wood pile knot, the eye of a tree, seems to look out on the passing day. But it can’t really see.

The hours tick over, a day comes and goes.

Moon Shine.

As a kid I could always tell when it had snowed. Not because it was cold - in the winter it was always cold in my bedroom - but because of the quality of the silence. It was a silver silence, gilt edged and firm. Not the kind of silence that follows an argument, or a misplaced word. Not the kind of silence you wished you could fill with the everyday or the common place. Not the feather soft silence of a quietened room, a church, a concert hall, where the urge to shuffle your feet, click your fingers or clear your throat grows by the minute. It was the kind of silence that would bury you and make noise or hearing pointless. The creaks and clicks of a waking house sounded like an intrusion. It was not the kind of silence you heard every day. It was the kind of silence that is important to hear.

I doubt I will ever wake to snow and silence in Melbourne. But I do wake, now and then, into a new kind of light, a silver shadow light, gilt edged and firm. Moonlight washes through the house, gathers in pale pools below windows and doors. Not the sharp beams of an inquisitorial sun, or the sugar soft mood light of designer lamps, placed with infinite care in corners and under arches. In as far as modern houses are designed at all, they are not designed with moonlight in mind. Finding moonlight in your house, in ephemeral pools of silver, slight with the movement of the sky, seems like a gift. A coincidence not to be rejected, a silver stallion of such startling beauty and rarity that to inspect its teeth would be an insult.

The clouds slide across the face of the moon as it plays peek a boo, hide and seek with the faces on the ground. On a cloudy night, with a breeze pushing gently at your hair, you feel as though the sky is still and you are moving through it. Silently whirling through space with only the come and go light of the moon for company. On darker nights the clouds boil around the moon, layer upon layer. A faint patch in a darkened sky.

On some nights bats give in to cliché and fly across the face of the moon, and gather in noisy troops in fruit trees. By day they hang in the tree tops, with noisy frequent squabbles and much wrapping and unwrapping of wings. During the day you hear and smell the bats before you see them. At night, twitching branches, areas of greater darkness against the dull dark sky, lead you to them. They crash and rattle though the trees, clumsy, but still a night creature.

Sometimes the beating night wings are those of birds. A long time ago, in a different kind of place, the wings would have belonged to owls. Brown Tawny Owls sitting on fence posts, listening as much as looking or bright white Barn Owls floating over the road, coming in and going, flying the contours of the land, ghosting up onto their prey. Stealth hunting. Here the wings belong to Tawny Frogmouths, a kind of nightjar that is often mistaken for an owl. They are masters of cryptic disguise, but this ruse fails if they sit on ‘phone wires, waiting for the moths that are drawn to the street light’s glow. Here each thing feels the pull of the light that brightens the night. Moth to the street light candle flame, bird to the moth, me to the bird.

Night and day, life and death, the compass points of a life. Each night we give ourselves over to the little death of sleep. Night allows us to give the day away and know that the next one will come. Did the bringing of light begin the fear of death? With light we could prolong the day, keep the night away and with it postpone, briefly, a little death. And eventually did thoughts like this arise: “if we can find enough light, if we can push back the darkness, we can live forever?” How many religions equate their imagined friends and the promise of forever with light? Did the Sun God become the Son of Heaven? Has making light created demons rather than pushed back the shadows? Has light caused us to fear the very thing we know we cannot avoid? To know you can come through darkness is not to know you will live forever, but to know that death is natural, and final. Did the first man or woman who looked out into the shadow cast by the first fire know that they preferred the light to the dark? Did they crave more and more light? Did they think that the light could drive away the dark forever? And in that did they cast the seed of fear and doubt into our minds? Was that the moment when we started a war on darkness that continues to this day?

I’m not sure that people fear the night, but they do seem to fear the dark. Imagine the time and energy that has been spent on needlessly pushing back the darkness. Streetlights burn through the long hours of the night only illuminating themselves. The Earth viewed from space is a speckled mass of light, each point of light a soldier in the war against darkness, and most of them fuelled in way that seems to be burning tomorrow as much as protecting today.

My walk to work began in the kind of clear light that is only made possible by rain. I spend the day at my desk, altering the patterns of magnetism on a spinning disc and speaking to people in Japan. A day of pushing electrons into new places. The walk home should have been in near darkness, but of course it was not. Light leaks from shop windows and doors, from twisting garden path lights and street lamps, from passing cars, from automated lamps that welcome the unexpected by beating back the darkness. The faces of some people glow from the light of their phones as they talk and walk and talk walk. I walked along streets that had been robbed of their darkness, and instead were robed in a pale, yellow wash of light.

The sky was never really dark on the way home, there was too much light, and too much colour. It stayed blue, but became a darker and darker shade, so in the end the whole sky seemed covered in shadow. The moon was just a thin bright slither, with a dull disc held in the arcs – the old moon holding the new moon in its arms. The face of the moon lit with dull Earth glow and the Earth bright with the shine of our invention.
For almost half a year I lived on the west coast of Ireland, on an island just across the sea from Baltimore. I earned almost no money, so many nights were spent nursing endless cups of tea and looking out over the Atlantic. And between me and my cooling tea and the eastern seaboard of the United States there was almost nothing at all. Just wave after wave of empty sea. On new moon nights it was the darkest place I’d ever been, but because of this I could see more lights than I ever imagined existed. Bright stars, dull stars. Stars without end. The slow track of satellites. The faster, blinking lights of planes. Sometimes the sea itself would glow with the light of uncountable life. Enough stars to count a million million restless children to sleep. But mostly it was dark. This was the first time I’d seen the sky as the ancient stone carvers and architects had seen it. They saw signs and portents in the movement of the lights in the sky, and even today I doubt it’s possible to look at such a sky and not have at least one question come to mind; “Hello, is there anybody out there?” Both religion and SETI are based on the same question; “Are we really alone?”

In the darkness people looked up to the moon and saw a face – I struggle to do this. Some people saw a hare, and the moon goddess they created came to Earth in that form. In countries and cultures separated by sweeps of both time and distance the moon and the hare are linked. Madness and fertility linking the moon and the quick silver dash of an animal that we barely know. We can laugh at such beliefs, but we bring the Moon Hare goddess into our houses each Easter, morphed into a rabbit, formed from chocolate, as we pretend to celebrate something other than the coming of spring and the ending of winter. Easter day itself is regulated by the phase of the moon and a arcane calculation that goes back centuries.
For all that the night has been illuminated by our design, I think it does no harm to walk in the moonshine of a clear evening and consider the things we have done, or the things we have yet to see.