Category Archives: birds

This (invisible) body

It’s ten to eleven pm on a Thursday night. Am I really going to start my post at this late hour? I suppose the answer is yes. I’m still limping around, Googling “meniscus”, rubbing my right knee. My moment with the 422 bus continues to haunt me. It’s funny – having survived much worse bodily assaults over the past year or so, it’s this minor injury that’s getting me down. I don’t like to limp. I like to dart. I like to dart across the room when a student calls me over to their computer so we can peer at the thing that won’t work together. I like to dart from one end of the house to go and get the thing I forgot to bring from the other room, and dart again because I got distracted and still didn’t bring it. I like to jump into the car with nine seconds to spare, get there, slam the car door and hurtle into whatever it is with no seconds to spare, breathing hard from the exertion. All of that has been impossible over the past ten days or so. I have to move slowly and limp. This body. This &^%$# body. This temple, this vale of tears, this jewel, this England. Nar, not England. Just knee. Stiff. Sore. Making me limp. Making me feel more like the other slow, stiff, limping people of the world. They come out after morning rush hour to do a bit of slow shopping, a bit of slow post office and bank.

I walk slowly across campus and meet two juvenile magpies who don’t bother to move because such a slow-moving being is unlikely to be dangerous.

A lot of other people have bad knees. They’re all over the Internet, next to pictures of knees with red halos of pain.

Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be rehearsing for Invisible Body, a short  performance piece three of us are doing for the Bathurst outpost of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve been learning my part by sitting on a chair, doing the movements from the waist up. If worst comes to worst, I’ll do it on stage like that, on a stool. But I do want to be up on both legs for this one. And then on the Sunday, I’ll be part of a panel titled The Joy of Blogging. Note that blogging isn’t always a joy. Sometimes it’s oh-hell-it’s-Thursday-and-I-have-to-write-something. But mostly it’s a joy.

Oh yes, and not one but two people in my Thursday morning TAFE class have only one knee. Both have prostheses for their other leg. There’s always someone worse off, as they say. But then, there’s always Arlo Guthrie’s last guy. The one for whom there’s absolutely nobody worse off. Here it is on YouTube. He starts talking about the last guy at about 2.22 minutes in on this clip.

On being stared at


Photo by Jean-Francois Phillips/Flickr Creative Commons.

As children we’re told not to stare. Being told not to stare begins as yet another arbitrary and baffling instruction among the dozens of arbitrary and baffling instructions of daily life. You have no idea why you shouldn’t but if you’re good, you try not to do it.

It’s hard, though, when it’s something you haven’t seen before: a man with a hole in his throat that he uses to breathe through; a penis; a woman from India who appears to be wearing her curtains. After a while you understand that it’s rude to stare because it makes the staree uncomfortable. There’s not just you in the world, looking out. Other people have feelings. It’s all right, however, to stare at things. They don’t have feelings.

My body, under my clothes, is eminently stare-able. Some things are missing while other things have been added. The first time I went to the swimming pool after surgery, I changed into my bathers in the toilet cubicle, because there were young children there with their mothers and I didn’t feel like adding my strange naked body to the mix. The next time, I just changed with my back to the room (my back looks normal) and by the third time my new body seemed normal to me and anyway, if people stare or ask questions they can go right ahead. (It would appear that nobody’s looking/nobody’s noticing/they’re all being discreet.)

Normal. Such a loaded word. We are heavily socialised into what’s normal. We spend our school years practicing normal, sifting normal from odd, inventing and applying new rules, including and excluding. Bullying.And sometimes people are regarded as things, so it’s okay to stare. The days of the human zoo are not that long behind us. Aboriginal people are still working on getting back the heads of relatives that were sent overseas to museums.

And then there are bones and Egyptian mummies and people from thousands of years ago whose bodies have been beautifully preserved in icy peat bogs. Surely it can’t hurt to stare? And yet, as we stare (even if just on a computer screen) there’s a presence. The wisp of the presence of that person, a trace, perhaps, of their feelings.

As I get older, I get twitchier. By which I mean, I’m getting more interested in bird watching. If I go for a walk, I notice the birds. I sometimes remember to take my magnificent binoculars, a present from Steve. I spy on the birds.

On a visit to Shark Bay ten years ago, I followed a twittering sound to its source – a small spiky bush. I pushed a branch aside and there, in plain, easy view below me, was a nest of baby birds, now suddenly silent. For a split second I was pleased to find the nest, to see the birds up close, but then I felt bad. It wasn’t just that I might have frightened the baby birds. It was a different feeling, more like being embarrassed when you barge into the loo when someone else is in there. It felt wrong to be peering into such a hidden, domestic space.If I were a fox, I’d have just enjoyed the buffet.

Anyway, here’s a giant tortoise who was busy mating with his girlfriend when a film crew rudely interrupts. Piss off, says the tortoise, and gives chase.

A morning with wrens

UntitledThere’s a particular crispness we get in the air in Bathurst at this time of year. This morning I found myself at my sock drawer, because my feet were cold. This is right on cue. This is almost the last day of summer. On Sunday it’ll be autumn. The garden just outside the back door is now a messy tangle of growth and decay and impossibly juicy, sweet, tangy, big red tomatoes. The tall withering sunflowers throw jagged shadows against the fibro shed wall. Busy brown fairy wrens, tails sticking straight up or swaying from side to side, land on the giant brown leaves and take rapid sips. Sip, sip, sip. They’re sucking up the tiny insects that are coating the dying leaves. A couple of weeks ago we had a luminous red and green king parrot standing on the great saucer of the sunflower head, binging on the seeds. Orange-backed beetles join at the tail and walk around like Siamese twins. There’s the hum of bees visiting the small yellow flowers of the straggly thin-leaved rocket that has gone wild, filling in all the spaces. The bees are wearing little yellow pantaloons of gathered pGarden at the end of summerollen. A wren lands on the windmill my nephews got at last year’s Easter show. She goes for an unexpected ride as it twirls under her weight. She rights herself with a bit of a flap and flies off stage right. I think back to the end of last winter when I planted seeds and tried to keep the seedlings alive in a wonky plastic greenhouse from Bunnings. Just the tiniest cotyledon leaves, then. And now – this tangled mass attracting swarms of insects and birds that you can harvest for lunch.



I’ve been running around like a chook. As the year got going, it picked me up and took me with it. Last year it left me alone, and I did my own illness thing. People shuffled themselves around me and my illness. Now I’m back in this general stream, out and about in town, sitting in committee meetings, work meetings. It’s all about talking things up, talking things down, opposing, celebrating, organising. People persuade me to get involved in their projects; I persuade others to get involved in mine. We’re all in there, haggling it out. So this morning it was good to just stare at the garden.


My Afternoon Teal went off brilliantly. The oven had conked out, so Larissa, up from Sydney, whipped things up in her giant brown mixing bowl and took everything next door to bake. She got the timing absolutely right, going back and forth, pulling things out at exactly the right time. Meanwhile Steve and I gave the house a once-over from front to back that still really only scratched the surface of a year’s dirt and dusty corners. Then, suddenly, everyone was there, eating cupcakes, drinking tea and bidding on the merchandise. A teal pencil sharpener, worth $2, sold for $30. It went on like that. My sister Deb, her husband Bernie and their two kids, Max and Joey, were enthusiastic auctioneers, thoroughly fleecing all present. We made a thousand dollars in one afternoon for Ovarian Cancer Australia. More money has been coming in since. This money will go into medical research and support for those who get this stealthy disease. In order to nurture and protect life. All life on earth has to end – we bloom and droop and die – but it’s nice to stretch it out a bit.

Craftivist frenzy

I’m in a craftivist frenzy. Craftivism is a blend of craft and activism. When you put them together you get people like the Knitting Nannas who are campaigning against coal seam gas (aka fracking). After an interval of a couple of years, I’m back on the 1970s ring-pulls. These were ripped from beer and soft drink cans to disappear in to the grass to cut bare feet at barbecues. These days ring-pulls are of a gentler design, and mostly stay put on the can. Mount Panorama, home to wild beer-drinking car-race fans for generations, is still studded with the old style ring-pulls. I pick up a few just about every time I walk up there with Bertie, the black Labrador. It was gorgeous up there tonight. The air was particularly soft; there was a gentle breeze; and the last golden rays were picking out the shapes of the town below. I should have been lapping up the view or looking up into the trees at the crimson and eastern rosellas, but I was scanning the dirt at my feet. The pickings are best after a heavy rain. They get washed out like specks of gold. They go into my pocket, and when I get home, into a jar. I got three in my haul this evening; one had lost its tail. And now I’m mulling over how I’ll use them in this year’s Waste 2 Art exhibition up at the Flannery Centre.

I’m thinking I’ll use the ring-pulls to represent carbon dioxide. It’s carbon dioxide that causes the fizz when a can of soft drink is opened; it’s carbon dioxide that’s emitted when the oil is burned up in those giant V8 engines. And, like the ring pulls of the 1960s and 70s, it hangs around. Some of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere over the last two centuries will stay there for thousands of years. Last year was planet earth’s hottest year since we started keeping records; this year is quite likely to be hotter still. So, how do I get my ring-pull collection into a piece of climate change craftivism? Mulling, mulling.

Just a few beers on a hot day. Pic from our local paper, The Western Advocate. Getty Images/Mark Kolbe



This year marks the two hundredth year since Governor Lachlan Macquarie pitched a tent beside the Wambool River while his aide, Captain Henry Antill, declared the place a delightful spot for a town. The bicentenary of white settlement (the river is now known as the Macquarie) will be celebrated in a number of ways, including the naming of 200 “living legends” about town, and the dressing up of 200 cardboard cutouts to represent pioneers and other worthies. In the midst of all this celebration of Important Persons, I feel the need to honour the place itself – this place, as it was and is, with its particular plants and animals and bodies of water and layers of rock. It’s threatened and extinct natives, as well as the newly-arrived sheep and cows, pet dogs and cats. Birds. Insects. All these creatures, barely noticed, with whom we’ve been living. Yesterday, at the first BCCAN meeting for the year, I said I wanted us to collect 200 pictures (photographs, drawings, paintings, specimens) of different local plants and animals and display them somewhere. Big job. Need a committee. See? Frenzy.

Bathurst, 1815, showing British flag and Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s tent. State Library, NSW.


Jack and the tattered weed

sunflowerI’ve been having a lot of trouble getting out of bed in the morning. As I’m working from home, there’s no need to be up at six, or seven, or eight. Or nine, or even ten. And having begun the day late, it’s impossible to sleep early, so each day is starting later, ending later. In the 1990s I had friends who lived in Philpott Street, Marrickville, who had let this process reach its logical conclusion: they awoke just before dusk and went to bed again at first light. I remember being there at about one o clock in the morning while they ate and chatted as if it were one in the afternoon. I can’t let things get that bad, I tell myself. I’ll have to start getting up earlier. But then, suddenly, it’s  morning again. I feel like I only just got to sleep ten minutes ago. I decide to snooze a little bit longer.

This morning, at a time that felt like the middle of the night, I heard a short, sharp buzz. It was a text message from a friend inviting me to have morning tea at ten o clock, two hours hence. I went back to sleep. At five minutes to ten, I hauled myself out of bed and got around the corner to Fiona’s place. I told her that while I was physically present, my mind was not actually awake. She fed me a cup of coffee and the rich smell offered a magic carpet ride to the land of youthfulness, wakefulness and vigour.

She read me Shakespeare’s second sonnet.

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held –

It’s about what happens when one is over forty, and one’s brow is furrowed and one is just a tattered bit of seaweed washed up on some godforsaken shore and nobody can even be bothered to look at you …

The solution to this grim state of affairs, says Shakespeare, is to have lots of children. That way, you can continue to be young and beautiful because your children will be young and beautiful. You can gaze upon them and that will comfort you in your hours of pointlessness. Fiona’s brow has been besieged by forty winters; mine ten more. Between us we have not had one child; we are without remedy for the cruel ravages of time’s scythe.

Except for coffee. The coffee did the trick. I’d come as a tattered weed but I was leaving as a strong, bright sunflower like the ones that are growing against the fibro wall out the back, reminding me of all the other sunflowers of my life. They’ll grow anywhere. Galahs love the seeds. I may not have children, but I can always find a galah or a sunflower to get a dose of cheerful, hardy things (unlike, say, the white rhino, whose days are definitely numbered).

MBJBack home, as I did the dishes, I listened to a program on ABC Radio National about George Johnston’s My Brother Jack. It’s fifty years since the book was published. George Johnston and Charmian Clift and most of their children – non-hardy creatures – are long gone, but the book lives on. I’ve carted my copy around since I first read it as a teenager. Images from the book are companions through my life. Insects still drop out of the  dollicus*. Prosthetic limbs and a gas mask clutter the hallway. The gum tree in the front yard that Helen didn’t like because it was messy grows tall and strong in the Australian light; a broken man, falsely accused of murder, tends his roses. The green eyeshades worn by the copy editors at the Argus and the crumpled trench coats and pork pie hats worn by the reporters. When I told my English lit teacher how much I loved the book, she sneered: “What about the development of the female characters?” I was taken aback. I had so thoroughly identified with the tortured David Meredith (endlessly contrasted with his brave, straightforward brother Jack) that I had barely noticed Johnston’s two-dimensional portrayals of Sheila and Helen and Cressida.

lucky_countryThe book keeps company on my bookshelf with Donald Horne’s Lucky Country, published the same year. My Brother Jack has a digger painted by Sidney Nolan. The cover of Horne’s slim paperback is by Albert Tucker. It’s a craggy painting of a bloke with a beer in his hand, an Ace of spades in his pocket and the glorious deep blue sea behind him. In the sea there are bright triangles that might be the sails of boats or the fins of circling sharks. Both books were searing critiques of Australian life that became, as the decades rolled on, part of the pantheon of Australian mythology. The Australia Johnston and Horne both loved and deplored began to vanish and as it vanished, a fantasy took the place of all the messy details. Australia was a wide brown land inhabited by sturdy, uncomplicated Jack Merediths. It is this Australia – this fantasy lucky country – that is brooded over and celebrated in drunken, flag-covered binges on Australia Day. It is the Australia evoked by those who say Fuck Off We’re Full and by John Howard when he laments the “black armband” view of history. It’s a sentiment that spiked during Monday’s Sydney siege but was tempered by Tuesday’s #illridewithyou.

Tracy_Deb_Jetty_early_70sSpeaking of history, I have been besieged by forty years and ten. My brow is not that furrowed, but there’s a whole part of me – recovering from cancer, missing body parts – that is definitely doddery. And like George Johnston in exile on Hydra, I miss the Australia of my early memories. A child’s world is a simple world. Some people are good and others are bad. Your legs can run you up the side of a levee bank or down a burning sand dune. Your abdomen contains its full quotient of pink organs that slide easily over each other as you go into a handstand. The deep blue sea meets a clear blue sky that arches over a wide brown land with a blue EH Holden moving purposefully across it.

It’s driving into tomorrow, where things are different.

* The dollicus is the name the Meredith family gives a creeping vine in their back yard.