You place a wreath on the front door and decorate a tree in the front room.  You don’t open the main presents until after breakfast, but you can open the ones in the stockings in bed, all together, over-excited and a little short of sleep.   The night before I completed the Pocket Stories – an illogical tale based on the contents of our Advent Calendar, full of recurring characters and standing jokes.  I did it once, who knows how many years ago, thinking it a one off, but it has become a December staple.  A better marker for the journey to Christmas than the decorated shops, which begin in late October and finish on Boxing Day.   Slowly we build our own ritual landscape that marks this time of year.  We borrow bits from here and there, appropriate pieces we may not agree with, but make sense in the broad brush strokes of all that is around us and sometimes, and if we are lucky enough, we add parts that are new and ours.  Parts that make perfect sense to us, but seem strange, even crazy, in the telling to other people.  But that’s the whole point. Such things are the smoke and incense that binds people together and makes them a family.  They are the kind of thing that you find surprising when other people don’t do them.  

All of us live in a ritual landscape that has been passed down from generation to generation.  Not all of us are happy with the rituals was inherit and some of us reject the ones we are given and make our own.   And before people rise up in arms against what I am saying, I’d like you to think about this:  the landscape around Stonehenge, on the open chalk plains of southern England, is connect to a wooden circle – now only known as a series of post holes – by sites whose exact function has been lost.  Rather than see them as isolated and separate they are now seen as a connected ritual landscape.  People moved from the wood to the stone in a ritual transition from the living – the wood – to the dead – the stone.   And we still put flowers (the wood) next to a headstone to remember the dead.   It is why plastic flowers seem so wrong on a grave; they linger on beyond their appointed time and make a mockery of the duality that they represent.  Remembrance is about a memory of life, and a pledge that we will not forget.   We need to place the living and the dead together, in a ritual most of us no longer see but most of us observe.  It’s a ritual that made sense in the past, and seems to make sense still.
Whiskered Tern
But some rituals seem to persist well past their use by date, yet they are held so tightly by some you would think the whole world depended on them.  And this is not just the preserve of the religious – the right to bare arms is part of the American ritual landscape that made sense when people had muzzle loading muskets and Canada was seen as a threat to the fledgling republic.  But today people buy assault rifles and prepare for an Armageddon of their own imagination and no longer look at Canada with fear in their eyes. Barricaded within their fortress homes they play out the rituals of Wild West frontierism and paranoid anti-government independence.  But the reality of these rituals causes death and loss on a shocking scale.  Rituals can only be tolerated when they do not force others into positions from which they can never recover.  When the ritual becomes the reality, and not a tool for the exploration of the real, then you have entered a very dark place indeed. 

So Christmas, that most ritualized and charged time of year, consist of cards and trimmings for some, and much, much more for others.  It clearly consists of fun and family for many, but it probably contains obligation and a reminder of promises made and broken for most people as well.   The rituals of giving and receiving, of gathering and celebrating can be more difficult in the observation than in their abandonment.  And for me, layered in alongside all the other, more traditional things, Christmas means wader banding at a sewage works.

Whiskered Tern
A half dark sky sits low over the houses, some still sparkle with Christmas lights, but most are blank windowed and sleepy.  No matter how hard you try, you cannot shut the back of your car quietly and I wince at the slam.  The roads are almost empty and the lights are on green.  For once I can drive at the speed limit.  A rolling sign spells out the words “light” for the traffic on the freeway – and it is not wrong.  I could change lanes with impunity.  The sky lightens but remains grey and heavy.  On the city side of the Westgate Bridge three hot air balloons drift, caught between the hardened industrial landscape and the solid sky.  Flames flicker and dance in the mouths of the balloons, making them glow brightly, but casting the swinging baskets into a dark silhouette. They really do look like lanterns. I pass almost directly under one of them and see faces looking down at me.  Its good job the traffic is light.

Red Necked Stint
A silver light grows over the flat land between Melbourne and Geelong, I sip black tea and listen to the radio.  I pull off from the freeway and park by the side of the road.  There is nobody else to be seen.  But I don’t really mind.  The thing about rituals is that you don’t need to confirm them to check that they will occur.  They happen because everybody does them at the same time and place (more or less) year after year.  And without fail cars start to arrive – admittedly they start to arrive after I have waited about an hour, but nothing is perfect.   There are familiar faces and ones which I have never seen, but when Clive – the circus master of this gathered troupe -  arrives he says hello in a way that suggest he expected me to be there, as I always am.  It seems a greeting of community and continuity. We have gathered to trap migrants, waders, eggs in the northern summer and visitors to us in the southern. Even by Australian standards the number of recent human migrants in our group is high.  England, Hungary, South Korea, China, the Philippines.  Accents blend and merge, as we all gather together.   Maybe it’s the pull of the feathered migrants that attracts in the humans; a kind of acknowledgement of self and a recognition of the journey we have all made. 

We drive in convoy through the dust to arrive where the nets have been set over night.  All looks good except for one; there are no birds anywhere near the net.  Armed with walkie talkies – or as they are being used in mud “wadey talkies” banders spread out around the pool to try to push the birds gently towards the net.  This is, of course not called “pushing the birds towards the net” – it’s called twinkling.  And twinkling has rules, the most important of which is that you should never be separated from your lunch, because you don’t know how long you could be out there.  So we have special language and secret rules – ritual anybody?

Red Necked Stint
Eventually a flock of Whiskered Terns gathers in front of the net.  Predictably some of them are too close to the net, so it cannot be fired.  But we use the jiggler   - a series of small rags tied to a long string and left in front of the net – to move them into the catching zone.  More arcane language and behavior.  “OK everybody stop twinkling.  Ted, just pull the jiggler.   Good.  Good.  Arm.  Three.  Two.  One. Fire”

The canons (I’m not kidding) fire the net over the flock.  The magic carpet shoots out and lands over most of the birds.  Every other bird in earshot takes to the wing in protest.  We run to net and start to extract the birds – these are easy; “like shelling peas”.  The terns may grab a misplaced finger, but they are really all bluster in circumstances like this.  The wonderful white, grey and silver birds are gently placed into darkened shade cloth keeping cages.  After a few moments they calm down.  They can’t know that they are safe, but they seem to.  It’s a relief that they seem so relaxed.
Red Necked Avocet
We gather into small teams and start to process the birds.  “Processing” in the food industry is a polite term used to hide the fact that the food is either being converted into something inedible, or worse, is being produced from something already inedible.  In banding it means that the birds are being banded and measured.  Bill length, length of head and bill combined, wing length, weight and age are all gathered and recorded.  A uniquely numbered metal band is placed on the leg, and in our group and small orange plastic ‘flag’ is also added.  This tells anybody who is anybody that the bird comes from SE Australia.   See a bird with an orange flag and its one of ours, it could be even be one of mine.

The whole process takes about an hour.  Twinkle, boom, process, free.  We  move on to the next net and the whole game happens again.

We all know the rules, we all know the language.  And like all good rituals, we all look forward to the next time we can do it.

Golden Headed Cisticola


Beth said…
A very informative post.
Boobook said…
A beautifully written blog, as usual.
Indrani said…
This is interesting, the whole process.
Wish you and your a very happy new year!
Anonymous said…
Profoundly moving words, Stewart. There's a rhythm to your skilled writing style that is music to my ears.

Well said, thanks for sharing.
amanda said…
Stewart, I have visited here, your "other blog" before, but somehow my "following" must have failed in the past.
I've corrected that issue, and am now a successful follower, and thoroughly enjoyed the writing & information in this post.
Thank you for sharing this vivid image of your ritual.
I am glad to be here catching up. It is like coming back to another chapter of a favorite book.

What a great thing to do around the Christmas Holiday; a ritual full of joy that means something for sure. Good stuff to share with your kids.
Lesa said…
As a new follower, I realize you don't post frequently. Having read several posts already, I believe the wait will be well worth it. Beautiful, thought-provoking writing.
Pat Tillett said…
Another great combination of photo and word. Both beautiful...

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