Bet you didn't see that one landing did you... and when Scribe Books asked if I would be interested in seeing a copy of a book about Australian birdlife written ninety years ago, I'll be honest, I wasn't sure what to say really.
I mean how interested could I possibly be in anything that didn't land on my own bird table??
And anyway how many birds can Australia possibly have??
In the end I told myself not to be so parochial, and with the Kayaker working and travelling around Australia for the last eighteen months we feel as if we have half-lived there anyway, and we do actually have a very incongruous inherited eucalyptus tree in the garden. I'd be thrilled if a Pallid Cuckoo or a company of dapper green Lorikeets flew out, as it is the best it has managed is a stray budgie. So I said yes please to the book and a lovely hardback copy of Mateship with Birds by A.H. Chisholm arrived and as I started reading I realised I was going to have turn the seasons on their head a little...
'Towards the end of July, when blossom by blossom the Spring begins...'
then I read this...
'An almond tree in full bloom is a pageant in itself, excelling in pure radiance the magnificently assertive jacaranda and flame tree of Queensland.'
...and at the mention of almond trees I knew there was only one thing for it.
I am very grateful to Scribe, an Australian publisher now branching out and developing an interesting list here in the UK, for very kindly sending a copy of Mateship With Birds to Jude in Adelaide. Jude regularly comments here, offering a welcome Antipodean antidote to my seasonal musings, but Jude also farms almonds and last year sent me some...
and I have to tell you they were utterly delicious and we had them in everything. Every so often I would blanch a batch and we'd sit and munch our way through them, but Jude has also been known to have the odd curse about the birds...
'...the keen Lorikeet notes the invitation of the opening buds and very soon then - for news of this nature travels quickly in Birdland - every branch has its bird,'
And I had this funny (to me) vision of Jude running up and down the avenues of almond trees going 'shoo...SHOO...' but maybe not quite that sedately.
So this week Jude goes to the top of the class for doing her homework and with grateful thanks from me, here are her thoughts on A.H.Chisholm's book. The upshot is that I am now green with envy about Australia's birds and want to see a Fairy Wren in my garden right this minute...
Last December, early in summer before the great heat set in, a lovely book arrived courtesy of DGR which she thought I might be interested to read: “Mateship with Birds” written by Alec Chisholm and first published in 1922, foreword by the great C.J.Dennis – one of Australia’s finest “bush” poets and reprinted in 2012 with another foreword by Sean Dooley from the conservation group Birdlife Australia. By coincidence I had been listening to Mr Dooley the week before on radio in a segment relaying the results of a competition to decide Australia’s favourite bird and was delighted to hear that the Superb Fairy Wren – a gorgeous blue tiny thumbnail size bird with a big fantail and an attitude to match – had won. A pair live in our garden and it’s dazzling to catch the iridescent blue flash (of the male) as they flit through the hedges.
I formed an immediate and strong affection for Alec Chisholm and this book from the outset. First sentence:
“I like to think that O. Henry was not altogether facetious in laying it down that the true harbinger of Spring is the heart. “It’s just a kind of feeling” he confides…”it belongs to the world.” “
Six pages in and, living as we do on a small almond orchard, I was hooked:
“An almond tree in full bloom is a pageant in itself…and when its bird guests are present the very air breaks into flower.”
Reading about Alexander Hugh Chisholm in the Australian Dictionary of Biography I learnt that he was a remarkable man. Born in 1890 in the Victorian goldfields he left school at 12 and started writing to spread his passion for birds, initially for the ornithological journal Emu, then for general newspapers. His first story of note was a plea to stop the killing of egrets for the fashion designers of the day, who used their plumes as fascinators. Chisholm went on to become editor of several newspapers and the editor-in-chief of the Australian Encyclopaedia. He was also a sports reporter in Melbourne and press officer for the governor-general. In 1976 he wrote a foreword for the Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds.
Mateship with Birds is in two parts. Part One, A Pageant of Spring, travels through the seasons detailing encounters with “Rufous Song-Larks, Pallid Cuckoos, New Holland Honeyeaters, Yellow Shrike-Robins, Reed-Warblers, on it goes. Some names have changed from “Chis’s” time and very sadly some of the birds named are now rare or even extinct but the racket in spring certainly hasn’t! When I first came to Australia from New Zealand nearly 40 years ago it was one of the first differences I noticed – the noise, the colour and the sheer number and variety of birds here in Australia is truly astonishing. At any given time over summer in our small orchard will be rainbow and green musk lorikeets, rosellas, pink and gray galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos, black yellow-tailed cockatoos, white corellas by the hundreds, black and yellow honeyeaters, wattle birds, silvereyes, finches, willy wagtails, magpies, piping shrikes, crows, kookaburras down by the creek, sparrow hawks, an occasional wedge-tailed eagle, not to mention the foreign imports; house sparrows, starlings, blackbirds etc. Deafening!
Part One concludes “With Children In Birdland” a delightful chapter about the Bird Day movement in Australia – similar in intent to Arbor Day which Chis was very instrumental in promoting. It is full of his joy and love of teaching about his life’s work and has the funniest set of school howlers I’ve read in a long time;
“The Magpie is black-plumaged, with white feathers.” Etc. Another more innocent world.
Part Two is entitled Biographies of Birdland and heads into chapters variously entitled “the idyll of the blossom-birds’, “the aristocracy of the crest”, “days among the robins”, and a whole chapter on black and white birds entitled “the Spirit of Australia” in which Chis – writing a mere four years after the end of the First World War – puts forward his idea that the spirit of the Anzac soldier can be seen in the spirit of Australia’s birds quoting a poem by E.S Emerson:
“For I’ve seen a nesting Magpie swoop undaunted on a man,
I have watched the ‘Burra kill a tiger snake.”
Chis’s book is a period piece and his style, to our modern taste, can be a bit overblown at times and full of the autodidact’s showing off of a hard-won education. Its individual and definitively upbeat style though was very reminiscent of another Australian classic – “Such is Life” a novel by Joseph Furphy published only a few years before - wry, humorous and independent of mind. And any defects fade away with the last chapter as the Paradise Parrot tragedy is relayed to the reader – a parable of species loss as pertinent today as it was then. The Paradise Parrot was one of a number of ground-nesting birds making its spectacular nests in termite mounds. The fatal introduction of feral foxes and cats into the Australian bush has seen the gradual extinction of all these type of birds with the last sighting of the Paradise Parrot in Queensland in 1927. Chis did get to see a nest before the end but never came to terms with its demise.
“Mateship with Birds” was a joy to read. This lovely, funny, learned, passionate book is a paen of love and affection by one of Australia’s early 20th century ornithological pioneers - “a conservationist before the term was even thought of” – to the birds of the Australian bush, the great glory of Australia’s unique wildlife. If , as Robert MacFarlane and many others today urge us, we are mindful and take notice of the natural world all around us , we will not become, as Chis says “gentleman who mix fatalism with finance” but rather we will be “mates” with our world and the better for it.