One late night I swerve to miss a Kookaburra in the middle of the old highway, just sitting there. I chuck a u-ey, park, grab a towel from the boot. The bird shuffles and squawks, its fearsome bill opening wide, a wing hangs. I lay the towel over the kingfisher and carry it, quiet as a mouse, bones angel light, to the back seat. Too late to ring WIRES, I leave it in the garden with glucose in water, hidden behind the gingers. The noisiest bird in waking the forest with a cacophony of laughter, at a hint of light, bold as brass at barbecues, now so quiet. I feel powerless.
Sixty mls of rain fell overnight. Water squats on the pebbles of our Japanese garden. I can hardly see the trees or the forest, out of the fog of rain a large bird beats straight overhead, long neck straining left and right. It’s a Black Swan looking lost, a vision transferrable from Lorenzetti’s nightmare fires on the walls of Sienna’s Palazzo Pubblico, or the foul air now rising above Western Mosul. I’m suddenly concerned about the stability of life, the state of the glue that holds these words together, the distance this text has to travel and how art cannot compete with living things.
Next morning I look at our bird. Nothing seems to have changed. It stares back, unreadable, anonymous, genderless. Those brown eyes are well acquainted with death in our garden stabbing countless worms, crickets, skinks, snakes (one). Kookaburras are fiercely independent, not pets where, ‘in this relationship the autonomy of both parties has been lost.’ Nor belonging in a zoo where, ‘people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them [which is] a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.’ (John Berger, Why Look at Animals?) Have you read Helen MacDonald’s wonderful H is for Hawk? Her intimacy is unnerving.
An Aboriginal story says the Kookaburra’s early chorus signals the sky people to light the fire that illuminates and heats the earth, but in our world it is entirely fictional. You hear their distinctive call reverberating through Africa’s dark interior as Tarzan swings in from his estates in East-Africa.
Just as Flamingos are visual exotica, a kitschy joke from the early 60s, robbing the birds of their spirit, Kookaburras are used as aural exotica by the rest of the world. They are shorthand for the wild and uncanny.
You hear them in the Amazon rainforest (Raiders of the Lost Ark); East Indies (the Swiss Family Robinson wrecked on their way to Sydney, filmed on Tobago, West Indies); in the Himalayas near Darjeeling (Black Narcissus); on the Borgo pass, Transylvania (Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula); and the cannibal infested South Seas (Black Adder, ‘Potato’). As Berger wrote about animals in general, animals are being replaced by their signs.
I have found a diary from when I was 12, I had forgotten my ambition was to collect animals like Gerald Durrell. I love animals but keep my distance, I find the intimacy in Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ unnerving. This failed rescue is a reminder of how distanced we have become from the natural.
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