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Title: The Singing Garden
Author: C. J. Dennis
eBook No.: 2100471h.html
Date first posted: 2021
Most recent update: 2021
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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C. J. Dennis
The versatile C. J. Dennis has done it again! And this time he veritably couldn’t help it! For, after revealing himself as a great lover of mankind by his sympathetic presentation of such whimsical characters as The Sentimental Bloke and Ginger Mick, then restoring us to a proper spirit of humility by cleverly convicting us all of outrageously Gluggish behaviour, he at last enters into his true kingdom.
More than one hint of the ardent nature-lover had already been given in his earlier books; but here, for the first time, we discover the essential C. J. Dennis who, like Mrs Browning, sees “earth crammed with heaven and every common bush a-fire with God,” and hears, with Robert Burns, sweet hymns of praise “from choirs that lurk in hedge and birk.” As he unrolls for us the varied pageantry of the seasons in his forest home at Toolangi, we feel again how literally true it is that
We are nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.
Many good folk own gardens—sometimes quite elaborate ones—to whom this revelation has not yet come. To such there is now given the privilege of walking with the poet in his Singing Garden, of learning to glimpse through his eyes something of the glory hitherto unrevealed, and of sharing in the very real joy and satisfaction that have come to him from his close communion with the birds and flowers and trees that he loves so well and knows so intimately.
I like the note upon which the book draws to its close. Indeed, it is not a single note, but a full-throated chorus of joyous bush birds who “vie with flutings rare” to proclaim to the listening world that, even while Winter is still with us, “Spring surely must be near.”
Thus, once again, Dennis proves himself to be not only an unshaken optimist, but a sound and sane philosopher. Let us all, as good Australians, be profoundly grateful to the writer who has done more, perhaps, than any other to correct the distorted vision of those earlier seers who declared the dominant note of Australian scenery to be “weird melancholy,” and pictured the Australian bush as “funereal, secret, stern.” Marcus Clarke’s gloomy challenge—“A poem like L’Allegro could never be written by an Australian. It is too airy, too sweet, too freshly happy”—finds a triumphant answer in The Singing Garden with its unmistakable flavour of just this very freshness, sweetness and happiness. I should like to see a well-thumbed copy in every school library in the Commonwealth.
16 September 1935.
The Way of the Vandal
Forest Sanctuary (Verse)
Green Walls (Verse)
Morning Glory (Verse)
Blandishing the Birds
Songs of Bush Birds
The Wedge-tailed Eagle
The Coachwhip Bird
The Welcome Swallow
The Wattle Bird
The Eastern Shrike-tit
The Spinebill Honeyeater
The Flame-breasted Robin
The Firetail Finches
The Pallid Cuckoo
The English Blackbird
The Bronze Cuckoo
The King Parrot
The Tawny Frogmouth
This Lonely Forest
North Wind (Verse)
Heat Wave (Verse)
Songs of Bush Birds
The Grey Thrush
The Rufous Fantail
The Scrub Wren
The English Goldfinch
The Grey Goshawk
The Grey Fantail
The Little Black Cormorant
The Golden Whistler
The Gang Gang
The Singing Honeyeater
The Boobook Owl
The Black and White Fantail
The Dusky Wood-swallow
The Kookaburra Murder Case
Indian Summer (Verse)
First Frost (Verse)
The Case of Long John Silver
Songs of Bush Birds
The Magpie Lark
The Crimson Parrot
The White Cockatoo
The Butcher Bird
The Blue Kingfisher
The Ground Thrush
The Indian Myna
The Yellow-tailed Thornbill
The Wonga Pigeon
Birdland on the Dole
The Tree (Verse)
The Besting of Bombastes
Songs of Bush Birds
The Blue Wren
The Black Cockatoo
The Satin Bower Bird
The Bronzewing Pigeon
The Crow (Australian Raven)
The Yellow Robin
The Pink-breasted Robin
Promise of Spring (Verse)
The Quiet Hour
Here in soft darkness where, the long watch thro’,
Dreamless, my quiet garden slumbered well,
Night’s soothing fingers, all adrip with dew,
Crept in and out, to weave a mystic spell
O’er wilting bud and bell;
Now, with deft touches, deepening tints anew,
Now lifting up some languid suppliant who
Had wooed the sun too well.
In the grey twilight tall trees seem to yawn
And, waking, stretch their mighty limbs on high.
A small bird cheeps; and, silver in the dawn,
The jewelled wattles to a soft wind sigh
Hard etched against the sky
The timbered hill-tops stand forth boldly drawn . . .
A sunbeam, laughing, trips across the lawn,
And smiling day is nigh.
The kindly offices of night are done.
A grey thrush carols forth his morning hymn,
Then proud, triumphant of a new day won,
The magpie’s trumpet tops a lofty limb.
By the pool’s mirrored brim
The drowsing daisies open one by one:
“Wake, brothers, wake! Here comes our lord, the Sun!
Look up and worship him!”
“Never kick a bird.”
I was well on the way to middle-age before I became aware of that entirely humane maxim attributed to the dear old lady who sought to reprove a petulant small boy, who had aimed a kick at his pet magpie.
“Willie, be kind to animals; and never, never kick a bird.”
How much more pleasure might I have derived from the first quarter century of life had I known and heeded that maxim and all that it implies. For I fear that, during that period, my sole interest in birds had to do with their destruction.
As a small boy I had my inevitable but fortunately brief enthusiasm for egg collecting. And I still retain a vivid picture of a gang of country urchins, myself among them, each with his trusty catapult, ruthlessly hunting a purblind and stupid snowy owl through the sunlit gums on a pleasant river bank, because an equally stupid lady teacher desired the wings to decorate a hat.
Some time later, and while I was yet in my late “teens,” I became aware of the brilliant scientific attainments of a certain legal gentleman in our town. I remember him as a somewhat taciturn and unconventional legal gentleman who disliked—in fact, affected to despise the pursuit of law. He spent, on an average, about three hours each day at his legal office and divided the remainder of his time between alcohol and ornithology, with a slight bias in favour of alcohol.
During one expansive hour he condescended to show me his quite remarkable collection of bird-skins, for some of which he had travelled far afield. Each skin, with plumage intact and unruffled, was filled neatly with cotton-wool and, each in its neat paper cylinder, duly labelled with its Latin tab, was stored in a large cabinet.
There were, I think, some hundred skins in the collection, some of them rarely beautiful still, as to colour. But I never troubled to discover whether my savant drank at intervals to get away from the remorse his silly hobby evoked, or whether he went after the birds to get away from the alcohol.
But the mere sight of that cabinet and its paper cylinders and particularly the Latin tabs had immediately fired my young enthusiasm. Here, I felt, was the highest expression of scientific achievement. Here was deep learning and a high-road to a place far above my earthly associates. Oh, human vanity!
Noting my interest, the savant consented to instruct me in the painfully tedious process of separating a dead bird from its useless skin.
“One must,” he explained, rather apologetically, “in one’s uttah aisolation, so to speak, faind some kaind of—ah—culchahed employment in this awful place, or one would go quaite insane. The natives are, of course, quaite——” He shrugged despondently. (He had never been out of his native Australia, but he affected an exaggerated “Oxford” accent and a tired manner by which he sought to suggest altitudes of erudition).
Then he grew more animated as he proceeded to instruct me in the details of his repulsive hobby. First, exactly where to make the incision, how carefully to draw forth each thigh-bone, strip it of flesh, replace this by a winding of cotton-wool and gently push the bone back into place again. Then—most ticklish and tedious process of all—how, with the pathetic little body hooked to a “gallows,” to draw the skin inside out over the skull, extract the brain, and so on, ad nauseam.
I cannot understand now why the poor man did not give the whole of his spare time to alcohol. I imagine he must have had a weak stomach for some things. For that gratuitous butchery strikes me now as an utterly asinine, futile and filthy business.
But on that night “Science” was knocking at my door. Within a week I had bought a small rifle capable of taking dust-shot cartridges, also an inaccurate book on birds, forceps, arsenical soap, and what not. And, going out into the pleasant places of the land, I slew beauty wherever I came upon it, and silenced song even as it lifted to its triumph.
I had collected, I think, some twenty-five or thirty “specimens” when the iconoclast, or Nemesis or somebody made a sudden and dramatic appearance.
He came in the shape of a small, bald German chemist who also had a lot of spare time, which he divided between alcohol and the painting of atrocious pictures of bush scenes and bush birds. This pharmaceutical gentleman disliked the legal gentleman and scorned his ornithology; while the scientist derided the artist and scoffed at the glaring inaccuracies of his art. In each the degree of enmity was controlled largely by the measure of his cups.
On the day of the crisis, as I remember, I had trudged many weary miles to the slaughter of my first and only bee-eater, or rainbow bird, that shy bush beauty with the remarkable tail feathers and raiment in which so many vivid warring colours miraculously harmonize in a triumph of art that is beyond all Art.
Merops ornatus I had already printed neatly on a gummed label (after consulting my book) as, early on that winter evening I sat in my room absorbed in the unclean rites of amateur taxidermy.
While I was so engrossed, the door was roughly thrust open and Nemesis entered—small, bald and decidedly “blotto”; but still acutely sentient and unpleasantly active. Ignoring entirely my falsely jovial greeting, he swayed in the doorway for a time, very solemnly taking in the details of my unlovely employ.
“Vy it iss?” he asked, quite suddenly and passionately. “Vy it iss you do dis—dis butcher veeork?”
Seeking discretion in silence, I went on with the job.
“Chah!” he said, scornfully, and somewhat wetly. Then, tacking around the table, came suddenly to anchor on a chair opposite. I did not glance up and, for a time, but for the pleasantly rhythmic cadence of his hiccoughs, I might have thought he slept.
When he spoke again, his voice had found a note of pathetic entreaty.
“Ah, dose beeootiful beeords!” he almost wept. “Vy it iss?”
I had to glance up, and was astonished to encounter his staring eyes awash with tears of pity. Seeking to hold my regard, he threw out his hand in a wide gesture of appeal, and it came to rest and closed nervously upon my learned book on birds.
“Vy it iss?” he pleaded. “Dose beeootiful, beeootiful beeords! You kill him und peel him und dere iss nodding—nodding only silly skins. Vy it iss you do not paint him, und he iss alife mit his leedle vuns yet, alreatty.”
I considered a reply, thought better of it, and turned back to my work which was just at that critical stage when, with forceps and scalpel, I was engaged in the delicate task of drawing the skin over merops’s skull, and the job claimed nearly all my attention.
But, shortly afterwards, I became aware that my sozzled German friend had begun to breathe heavily. Knowing him of old, I toyed with the idea of sudden violence, delivered more in kindness than in anger, before matters became too heated.
But I decided otherwise; and fierce rancour sounded in his next remark.
“Dot man!” he bellowed. “Dot man it iss who teach you to do der veeork of der wicious wandall. Vot iss it but butcher veeork, und der teachings of der slaughterhaus? Dot man, mit der brain of a lice, he kill, he vount, he maim der lofty beeord dat iss for songs und der beauty of dis airt!” He paused. breathing hard. “Und now you; you so young, so foolish. Ach! Vy it iss?”
Merops was proving a little difficult. The skin and skull were parting reluctantly and, intent upon my horrible trade, I replied absently. I forget exactly what I said; but certainly it was nothing in the least degree provocative.
But, next moment, my book on birds came hurtling across the table, reduced the cadaver of merops to mere mangled remains, scattered my tools about the room, and smashed for ever my frail and filthy “gallows.”
Before I could arise in wrath, my bald accuser had rushed to my beloved cabinet and, dragging precious paper cylinders from the shelves, crumpled them and their contents with strong hands, savagely.
As I rushed around the table to rescue what remained of my treasure, the berserk pushed me in the face with one of my largest “specimens”—as I had time and wit to notice. (It was Theskiornis spinicollis, no less—a hardly-won straw-necked ibis.)
Then I fell backward over a footstool and sprawled upon the floor.
Before I was minded to rise, the destruction had been completed. Some he cast into the fire; others he trampled viciously underfoot; the remainder he tore to pieces with his teeth in his rage to have done swiftly and beyond repair. And all the time he was wailfully vocal, spluttering skin and feathers, as he voiced a multilingual threnody that had for its burden “Dose lofly, beeootiful beeords!”
When at last I was up and ready to do him violence, he had sunk upon a couch and was weeping in bitter and unashamed abandon.
The room was littered with feathers; and it was as if the martyred birds would do honour to their avenger. For, as he sat and wept, his bald, pink head was encircled by a conqueror’s chaplet of fine feathers and down which clung to his nimbus of sparse fair hair. All that remained of Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris was there with the last of Patroica phœnicea to crown the triumph of their champion.
And above his anguished brow there glowed, exactly central, a scrap of that cerulean gem which had once bedecked in glory a radiant blue wren.
Even an outraged ornithologist, baulked in his beloved necrophilism, hardly ever becomes quite savage enough to use violence upon a small, bald German who offers no defence and is indifferent to the fiercest and coarsest recriminations. So I left him there, and resuming my seat, glowered upon the wreckage of all my scientific hopes, while sobbing wrung his vitals.
After a time, I think he slept briefly, for he was very still. I gazed upon his sagging body with “eyes of brooding hate.” (This was the phrase which occurred to me at the time as singularly apt.)
Then, quite suddenly, he got up and, navigating around the table, put a gently affectionate hand upon my resentful shoulder. Tears were still in his eyes.
I looked up sulkily; and the last impression I had of him on that stormy evening comprehended two light blue eyes wide with that damp, appealing pathos which one sees sometimes in the eyes of too abjectly affectionate dogs. A button of a nose glowed pinkly between and, beneath that, his little blond moustache was festooned with tiny feathers of many hues. They reminded me quite absurdly of those little multicoloured flags with which he was wont to festoon his shop veranda when the town celebrated some gala occasion; and they fluttered gaily in the gentle zephyr of a long, soft sigh as, patting my shoulder with rare forgiveness, he turned and went out into the night, closing the door with elaborate care for silence, as upon one who watched beside his dead.
A great ornithologist may have been lost to the world that night; and the world is no worse off for that. It was the end of my high dreaming of a collection that would far surpass that of my legal friend. And, whether it was that I was discouraged by the prospect of beginning all over anew, or because the girl whom I was seeking to impress with my deep learning left the district about that time, or because I had really been moved by my bald friend’s display of gross sentimentality, it is now difficult to say. But after that night I never skinned another bird.
And I have since been deeply grateful to my tipsy sentimentalist, for it may well be that he rescued me in time from that paralysing fate which, since that day, I have seen overwhelm so many good and earnest men who, in their plastic youth mistaking erudition for insight, have lived and ossified and died with nothing won.
So once again birds went out of my life until I built my house in this forest place and learned the value of their shining friendship.
In this book no attempt is made to add to man’s scientific knowledge of our birds. I write rather as one would write of valued friends, seeking not to analyse their physical attributes, but accepting most of them for what they are—trusting friends whose faults I am eager to overlook, while their virtues I extol.
In the procession of seasons in this green land birds play an important part, and it is of them that I write chiefly—but only of the birds I know.
For nearly thirty years I have lived here in my Singing Garden, seeking patiently to win pleasure from its every aspect of sight and song and scent. If, now, I can impart some of that very real joy to my readers this book will have achieved its purpose.
Seek you sorely, for a space,
Respite from the world’s dull fretting?
Come then to a secret place—
Man’s entanglements forgetting—
Deep within the forest dreaming,
Deep within its shadows cool,
Where the mountain waters streaming
Broaden to the placid beaming
Of a quiet pool.
Making here a great green tent,
Tea-tree bough and wattle bending—
As strong lovers’ arms are bent
Shielding beauty—droop, defending
This green sanctuary sleeping
In its soft green twilit day;
And a scrap of bright sky peeping
Thro’ the tall trees, sentry keeping,
Seems a world away.
Rage the tempest as it may
O’er the tree-tops, writhing, broiling;
Burn as may the burning day,
Frailer loveliness despoiling;
Summer’s scorn and Winter’s bluster
Seek in vain this hallowed spot
Lending its translucent lustre
To the nodding ferns that cluster
Many a mossy grot.
Steeply slope the banks above,
All the outer turmoil muting;
Softly, bush birds’ songs of love
Match an organ’s mellow fluting.
Here is peace past all conceiving
In this forest chancel, here
Spreads a grace that transmutes grieving
To hushed wonder, to believing
God is very near.
I love all gum-trees well. But, best of all,
I love the tough old warriors that tower
About these lawns, to make a great green wall
And guard, like sentries, this exotic bower
Of shrub and fern and flower.
These are my land’s own sons, lean, straight and tall,
Where crimson parrots and grey gang-gangs call
Thro’ many a sunlit hour.
My friends, these grave old veterans, scarred and stern,
Changeless throughout the changing seasons they.
But at their knees their tall sons lift and yearn—
Slim spars and saplings—prone to sport and sway
Like carefree boys at play;
Waxing in beauty when their young locks turn
To crimson, and, like beacon fires burn
To deck Spring’s holiday.
I think of Anzacs when the dusk comes down
Upon the gums—of Anzacs tough and tall.
Guarding this gateway, Diggers strong and brown.
And when, thro’ Winter’s thunderings, sounds their call,
Like Anzacs, too, they fall . . .
Their ranks grow thin upon the hill’s high crown:
My sentinels! But, where those ramparts frown,
Their stout sons mend the wall.
Singing morning has begun.
Where the wooded ranges run
To far summits, there the snow
Lingers yet. But down below
In the quiet, green-girt places,
Where full many a swift creek races
From the snow-lands to the sea,
Now breaks sudden harmony.
Where this tree-walled clearing dreams,
First a rosy promise beams
As a young dawn steals up the sky
Where the frozen ramparts lie.
Now from dew-wet leaves a-glitter,
Comes a little drowsy twitter,
And the first swift spear of light
Wounds at last the stubborn night.
Flashing now, bright javelins
Pierce the murk; and now begins—
As day’s gleaming ranks deploy—
Morning’s canticle of joy.
First a sleepy chuckle, breaking,
Tells of Laughing Jack awaking,
Pausing; then, from tree to tree,
Leaps unbound hilarity.
Here’s the signal . . . Morning’s hush
Sweetness shatters, as grey thrush,
Vieing with the seraphim,
Lifts his liquid matin hymn.
Golden whistler joins him then,
Now red robin, now blue wren;
Magpie’s clarion, sounding, swelling,
Caps the eager chorus welling,
As a wealth of varied notes
Pouring from these tuneful throats,
Lifting, drifting, soars on high,
Up to greet morn’s glowing sky.
The honourable company of bird-lovers, we are told, is rapidly increasing in numbers in all parts of the country; and while one delights to observe this growing interest in our native songsters—many of them rare and exquisite beauty that reveals itself sometimes only after long and intimate observation—it must be recognized that there are bird-lovers and bird-lovers. Quite possibly, there are also more than a few bird-lovers; but, so far, I have succeeded in isolating only two of these groups.
So long as one manages to keep one’s enthusiasm within reasonable bounds, and refrains from being an absolute bore, much virtue may lie in bird-loving.
But when your bird-lover, ignoring the restraint, develops into a bird-bore and a pestiferous crank, he or she is something to avoid.
Perhaps you know the sort of thing I mean. Imagine yourself a week-end guest at the country shack of a family, all of whom have gone perfectly potty about native bird life; so much so that you expect them to break out in feathers at any moment themselves.
With an appetite made keen by the country air, you are seated, let us say, at breakfast, and, having taken the raw edge off your hunger, have launched off confidently on your favourite conversational topic.
Just as you are about to make the first and most important point, demanding close and intelligent attention, the host suddenly sits bolt upright in his chair, as if he had been shot, and, forefinger erect, and head cocked knowingly aslant, burbles rudely and irrelevantly: “Pst! Hush! Listen! Surely that was the call of the red-rumped Athanthisa! How unusual at this time of year. Let’s go out and investigate”
The whole family rises forthwith and rushes out of doors; and you must either sit tight and breakfast boorishly alone, or go out with the rest and develop crick-in-the-neck gazing foolishly up innumerable trees, while the bacon lies in rapidly congealing fat, the kidneys grow cold, and the ants gleefully discover the marmalade. Finally, at the end of some twenty minutes, when one has bruised both shins and tripped over every protruding root in the paddock, the amazing discovery is made that the songster is not a red-rumped Athanthisa at all. It is a short-tailed stint, or even, perhaps, a yellow-bellied shrike-tit.
Then everyone troops hack to a ruined breakfast, exclaiming brightly: “Fancy making a mistake like that! So absurd, you know.”
Brother, have you, too, suffered?
But this brings me to the rather humiliating confession that even I and my household at one time came dangerously near to developing this terrible malady.
In this country cottage, we had cajoled and fed and fraternized with certain robins and grey thrushes and magpies until they fearlessly took food from our hands. Already the virus was working insidiously within us, when an artist friend came to stay and observe, and remained to heap scorn on our Arcadian employ.
“Blandishing the birds,” he called it, and waxing ethical and psychological and ornithological, he proceeded to read us a severe and chastening lecture.
He held that all this feeding and unnatural friendship—especially with very young birds—was merely pauperizing, for our own selfish satisfaction and love of display, a free, independent and hitherto happy race of people who were far better left to their own devices.
It was, he said, undermining insidiously their natural self-reliant qualities, teaching them laziness and mendicity and generally upsetting the beautiful balance of nature.
He pictured the painfully crude efforts of this inept sissy-bird to dig up a living for himself thereafter, his fumbling attempts, with undeveloped vision and ineffective beak, to acquire, at the age of six months, a trade which every self-respecting “uncivilized” young bird begins to master before he is more than a few weeks old.
He painted, in glowing word pictures, the despair, the shame, the growing inferiority complex of this unhappy fledgeling—a complex magnified by the ribald mockery of his normally efficient fellows, whose derision mounted to savage contempt and ended at last in physical violence.
We were almost in tears when our friend had finished his harrowing recital, and I, for one, might have been wholly convinced had he not utterly stultified his own argument early next morning as we observed him through a window.
Thinking himself unseen, he spent half an hour in patient but clumsy efforts to induce a yellow robin to accept from his hand a soggy lump of cold rice pudding—a food which yellow robins very rightly scorn and despise.
But still I am left with my quandary, which some real nature student may be able to solve: Can man improve upon nature, and does a blandished bird lose caste?
Scarce am I of the earth;
But lord of the air am I,
In the heights I had my birth,
And my range is the broad blue sky.
Soaring, ever a-wing,
Swooping down to the kill,
I fear no feathered thing;
None may oppose my will.
Lonely I am, and proud,
Savage and fierce and strong.
Afar is my keen gaze bowed
Where the meek earth creatures throng,
My prey, my meat are these;
Larders of living food
To pluck from their sheltering trees,
And bear to my hungering brood.
I watch grey dawns arise
Where my storm-swept ramparts frown;
Cradled in painted skies,
I watch gold eves go down.
For the chase are my arts employed—
To harry and hunt and seize;
Then back to my vast blue void
In the vault of the mysteries.
What do I dream of there,
Where only the eagles go?
What are my joys, my care?
None but the eagles know.
Up from dull earth I lift,
From the lowly things of the sod,
And into the zenith drift
Questing my meat from God.
Early on a soft spring morning
As the dawn climbs up the sky,
With its radiant light adorning
Hill and tree-top, here am I,
Urging on my phantom horses
Where no road has ever run,
And the laughing river courses
Merrily from shade to sun.
Ere the earliest sun-shafts peeping
Paint the gum-trees’ furthest tip,
I arouse the bush from sleeping
With the cracking of my whip.
First a long-drawn swish ascending,
Then, as it swells to the crack,
Like an echo at its ending,
Promptly my hen twitters back.
Crest erect and proud tail spreading,
Perched upon a myrtle-tree.
I am coachman at a wedding
In a cockade and livery.
For now wed with soft embraces
Ardent sun and blushing earth;
While my team tugs at the traces
To the kookaburra’s mirth.
You may hear the coach wheels rumbling
Over stones upon the road
In the mountain waters tumbling
By my trackless bush abode.
Tumbling by green banks and ferny.
Who’s awake? The hour grows late,
Who begins the glad day’s journey?
All aboard! The horses wait.
They know me not to praise and love aright,
Who only pause to mark my headlong flight—
A swift and slender crescent wheeling by
Athwart Spring’s softly amaranthine sky,
And yet am I
Named “Welcome,” joyously by even these
Who, missing all my soft amenities,
Still speak the words that ever heartened men,
And say, “The swallows have come back again.”
No braggart I, no shouting chorister;
But, when the bees ’mid blossoms are astir,
Into the quiet day my song is spent,
A rare, sweet minstrelsy of gladness blent
With calm content.
Content is in my pose; my tawny throat,
Swelling anew to every twittering note
Speaks to the heart of him who listens then:
“Peace reigns; the swallows have come back again.”
Who knows me well could never love me less
For having sought and won my friendliness,
In my sleek coat of unsuspected hues—
Russet and fawn and darkly gleaming blues—
I bring glad news,
Bland harbinger of hope; to him who grieves
I chirp my message from the sunlit eaves.
And, with the sun returning, turn from men
Fate’s frown. “The swallows have come back again.”
Where the blossom glows I follow,
Sipping nectar as I go.
Timbered hill and wooded hollow,
Shore and scrub-land, these I know;
Following the floral river
Flowing down a scented land,
Voyage I, where the Great Giver
Strews His gifts on every hand.
Where my honey-sipping cousins
Fill the day with melody—
Tho’ I count them in their dozens—
Song, alas, is not for me.
But, these meeker minstrels scorning,
Rather am I prone to brag;
To the chorus of the morning
Shouting, “Quock! Up with the rag!”
These my cousins, pert or gracious,
Trim or tuneful, claim all man’s
Admiration; I, pugnacious
King of honey-eating clans,
Ever bragging, ever brawling,
Seem to flaunt the bully’s air;
While my rough, discordant calling
Matches ill my dainty fare.
Yet, by wooded hill and hollow,
He, the Giver, knows full well—
As His bounteous way I follow—
All a grateful heart would tell.
Where the floral stream, o’erflowing
Banksia boughs and wattle banks,
Spills its beauty, song not knowing,
Pour I forth my raucous thanks.
I am brightly alert and exceedingly pert,
And my livery’s easily seen;
With a bright golden breast and a black-and-white crest,
And a back of indefinite green,
A conspicuous bird; and, I give you my word,
I am neither incautious nor shy.
Native wit may be read in the cock of my head
And the glint in my shrewd little eye.
“Ho, knock at the door, knock at the door,”
I shout from the top of a tree.
The bushland’s soprano, but never “piano:”
“Fortissimo” ever for me.
My repertoire’s long; and I’ve many a song
When spring is abroad in the land;
And, whatever my call, ’tis the clearest of all.
And as gay as the best in the band.
I take life with zest, and, when building my nest.
Then the scientist wakens in me,
I work with a will, with my stout little bill,
And I peel the green bark from a tree.
Then I wait, when that’s done, till the heat of the sun
Curls a neat little hook at the end;
So, when woven and bound, there’s a home, strong and sound,
On which any wise bird may depend.
Ho, cheery and bright, with a heart ever light,
I sing to the joy of the day;
And my toil, high above, is a labour of love,
For I turn every task into play.
With my confident air, I am here, I am there,
With my proud little head full of lore,
A melodious note ever swelling my throat,
I’m an optimist. “Knock at the door!”
I come in blossom-time,
Singing days and sunny days,
Flitting like a fairy thro’ a nectar-laden land,
Flashing o’er the underbrush;
Happy days and honey days
Hear my cheery calling when the springtime is at hand.
Foxglove and pentstemon
Know my harmless ravishing,
Lucerne and lavender and Canterbury bell;
Hollyhock and honeysuckle,
All their sweetness lavishing,
Lure me to the banqueting and hide my wooing well.
Hanging now, or hovering,
Flitting, light as thistledown,
Thro’ my towered banquet hall where Beauty points the way,
Pausing now a little while
To send a joyous whistle down
An avenue of loveliness, to hymn a perfect day—
I come in blossom-time,
Singing down the sunny days,
All their sweetness proffering, the flowers bend and nod,
With bee and butterfly
Sharing now the honey days,
I sip the cup’s kind offering and sing my grace to God.
Now upon the trellis sitting,
Now along the fencetop flitting,
Meekly modest in my attitudes and poses;
’Neath my breast incarnadine
Can this midget heart of mine
Hold one half the vanity my song discloses?
First a nervous little flutter,
Now a chirp and now a stutter,
Then I lift my snow-flecked crown to the refrain
Of my plaintive little ditty:
“Oh, the pity! What a pity!
Oh, and isn’t it a pity my poor Jenny is so plain!”
See, my burning front of flame
Puts the crimson rose to shame;
And my singing leads the chorus of the morning;
But my silent little mate,
Mute upon the garden gate,
Sober Jenny, hasn’t any such adorning.
Tho’ I’m handsomer than others,
Do not think I boast, my brothers;
I’m the meekest little chorister a-wing.
Still, I’m tuneful, wise and witty,
Can you doubt, who hears my ditty?
“Ah, but isn’t it a pity that my Jenny cannot sing!”
Like little children out from school
We come in bevies, primly gay;
On sunlit lawn, in shadow cool
With meek propriety we play
And in and out about the grass
We weave, not for a moment still;
Determined, ere the daylight pass,
To make our fun and eat our fill.
Our crimson kirtles bob about
As here and there we bend and prance;
And in and out, and in and out—
Like little children at a dance—
We never weary; nothing strange,
We’ll tarry with you all the day,
Providing that you can arrange
Good faring, and a field for play.
We build our quaint nests, swinging low
Like childish stockings from a peg—
Hung topsy-turvy by the toe,
The snug heel holding many an egg.
We set them in the scrubs remote
Where no trespasser rude may roam,
And sit and sound a plaintive note
To call a laggard help-mate home.
Watch when the late spring days are here;
Watch in some meadow by a stream,
When cobwebs drift and disappear,
And every drugged day is a dream;—
Watch till a crimson kirtle’s spied
In sunlit grass or shadow cool,
Here comes our bevy, straggling wide,
Like little children out from school.
Dolefully and drearily
Come I with the spring;
Wearily and eerily
My threnody I sing.
Hear my drear, discordant note
Sobbing, sobbing in my throat,
Weaving, wailing thro’ the wattles
Where the builders are a-wing.
Outcast and ostracized,
By the feathered world despised,
Chased from tree to tree.
Nought to do the summer thro’,
My woeful weird a dree;
Singing, “Pity, ah, pity,
I’m the menace and the warning,
In the harmony of morning
Out of tune am I—
Out of tune and out of work,
Meanly ’mid the leaves I lurk,
Fretfully to sing my sorrow,
Furtively to spy.
Outcast and desolate,
Earning ever scorn and hate
For my treachery.
Shiftless drone, I grieve alone,
To a mournful key
Singing, “Sorrow, ah, sorrow!
Sweet singer of an older land;
Thro’ countless centuries
A greener and a colder land
Loved well by melodies;
And with her venturers came I
To seek beneath a sunny sky
A home, and croon my lullaby
Amid these alien trees.
No interloper, scorning here
The unfamiliar way;
No exile, ever mourning here
Joys of an older day;
The feathered folk have welcomed me
Into their joyous company
To join their chorus, fluting free
My ever liquid lay.
At dawning and at evening
Up from the gully floats
My song, a gentle leavening
To wilder woodland notes—
Up from the gully ’mid the gums
Where mountain torrents roll their drums
I join the chorusing that comes
From twice a hundred throats.
Alien no longer, merrily
My melodies I’ve brought;
The bushland offers cheerily
The sanctu’ry I’ve sought.
And, where the swift creek sings and turns
’Mid wattle-trees and nodding ferns,
My brood awakens and relearns
The songs old England taught.
I come at caterpillar time
While Spring lags in the air,
And little caterpillars climb
To strip the wattles bare.
Then I, in my striped guernsey clad,
High in the wattle-tree,
Gorge deeply, and go singing mad,
“Pee! Ree!” I call. “Pee! Ree!”
I wear an air of innocence;
And, while the green grubs last,
My singing vigour is immense,
My appetite is vast.
But who would ever think that I,
Garbed in my gaudy vest,
Was all the time alert to spy
Some unattended nest.
And, when the nesting birds appear,
I draw the hunt on me,
And, with well-simulated fear,
To lure them on, I act my best,
And loud for mercy beg,
The while my wife drops in their nest
Her surreptitious egg.
We come at caterpillar time
Calling. “Pee! Ree!”—“Pee! Ree!”
And, while the grubs are fat and prime,
Then off, when scanty grows the fare,
To richer fields afar,
Leaving to others all our care
Like vagabonds we are.
When the wattle curls are browning,
When the blackwood’s bloom is done,
When the gloom of Winter’s frowning
Flees before the waxing sun,
When the forest’s tears have ended,
Regally arrayed and splendid,
Come I, like a gem afloat,
In my royal scarlet trousers
And my green tail-coat.
Few among the singing gentry
Note my royal presence there;
Quietly I make my entry
With an unassuming air;
Till, on some hot noon-day dreaming
’Mid the ripening grasses gleaming,
With surprised delight you note
My official scarlet trousers
And my green tail-coat.
When the royal feast is over—
Kingly fare in bounty spread
’Mid the cocksfoot and the clover—
I would seek the royal bed,
Then, my retinue attending,
Thro’ the gums I flash, ascending
To my trumpet’s piercing note,
In my gorgeous scarlet trousers
And my green tail-coat.
I fly by night; a furtive ghoul,
To harry small bush folk;
And men who know the boobook owl
Mistake me for that dish-faced fowl
With his hunting cry, “Mopoke.”
But when you hear my grunting call
You know it’s not like that at all.
I prey until the dawn shows dim;
Then seek some gnarled old tree
And feign to be a broken limb.
Holding my pose with patience grim
For all the world to see,
Yet never guess this ragged bark
Is frogmouth, waiting for the dark.
Tail to the trunk and beak held high,
I slowly turn my head
To follow you as you pass by,
Peeping from out a hooded eye
Till your departing tread
Proves mimicry is not in vain;
And then I go to sleep again.
The curve of my bewhiskered beak
Holds death when darkness comes;
And terror spreads among the meek
Of bushland when my meat I seek
Amid the sleeping gums,
A call, a scurry, squeals of fright:
’Tis frogmouth, hunting in the night.
Now comes the blossoming. At Beauty’s birth
Promise is brought to proud accomplishment,
And all things hymn the glory of the earth
In this great symphony so subtly blent
Of sight and sound and scent,
Weaving with all a note of carefree mirth,
Singing of sudden riches, boundless worth,
Now to be freely spent.
Upon the hills the gum-leaves wink and shine:
The wattle has put off her bridal dress
To droop brown tresses delicately fine;
And every window frames some loveliness
Too potent to express:
Of roses burning by the trellised vine,
Of poppy, clematis and columbine
And flowers born to bless.
Now glowing day succeeds each dewy night,
And beauty shouts in every living thing.
Across the pool’s still face, in frantic flight,
The dragon-flies flash by. Now well a-wing,
The nestlings learn to sing;
And, as the chorus gathers to its height,
All nature joins the paean of delight.
This is the blossoming.
That alleged “loneliness” which some city visitors assure me would inevitably overwhelm them were they compelled to live for long in this quiet forest place, seems to me a state of mind rather hard to capture during recent days. Yet, where one has learned to find life and pageantry, others would possibly discover only boredom and unutterable weariness of mind.
From my bed, close beside an upper window, my whole world comprises a few square yards of lawn (backed by laurel, lucerne, and japonica, all in flower) a mere scrap of garden border, and, in the right foreground, close beside my head a huge hawthorn just breaking into bud.
Upon this delectable stage dramas of absorbing interest are enacted. The characterization is perfect, the plots varied and realistic; the love interest perfectly sustained; and the performance is continuous.
Ubiquitous sparrows supply ballet and chorus and fill most of the low comedy roles; soubrette and ingénue parts are supplied by dainty thornhill honeyeaters; hawk, currawong and kookaburra are the bold, bad villains, and the prima donna is a golden-voiced grey thrush.
Just at present, domestic drama is the order of the day. In some cases, nests are just being built; in others, the first brood is already well a-wing and the second on its way.
One morning lately, a diminutive honeyeater perched for rest in the hawthorn. She bore in her beak a downy white feather, which she had garnered from the pigeon loft. Her air of matronly triumph told plainly of the downy feather’s destination.
Presently, down beside her, perched an old friend of mine, one Sam Sparrow, an avian tough and feathered trickster if ever there was one. I failed to overhear the conversation; but his manner was friendly, the pert cock of his head eloquent of quizzical banter.
Then, not forcefully, not aggressively, but tenderly and gently polite, he removed the feather from the honeyeater’s reluctant bill and bore it to his own nest.
Half an hour later (and this is where I will not be believed) as if to emphasize how like are birds to men in simple trustfulness, the same honeyeater was back on the same hawthorn branch with another white feather toilfully acquired. Sure enough, the wily Sam Sparrow again “strutted his stuff,” while a puzzled honeyeater brooded upon this world’s lack of justice for the witless and the weak.
A few mornings later, into this sunny, singing world, grim tragedy came swooping out of the blue. A kestrel had made his kill, and was gone. For a while the lusty singing gave place to scared silence; then one by one the songs burst forth again.
But the usually bright and perky Sam Sparrow since then has lost much of his debonair and carefree mien. Also, since then, his demure little wife is missing.
These are but passing incidents in the morning’s many-sided drama. To tell it all would need a volume.
But what has quite absurdly delighted me most of all lately is the triumph of the swallows.
For several years now, welcome swallows have been attempting to build under my window hood. But each year their masonry fails to cling to the painted wall, and each year they have given up in despair and built elsewhere.
This year, the same persistent pair—or perhaps others more ingenious—have discovered a shelving timber close under the hood, and this year the nest is complete.
I don’t know why I should be so ridiculously pleased about it. Perhaps it is that, while to most the swallow is a remotely distant creature of the upper air, having little in common with man, I have, before this, known him intimately.
And I know, too, that when these strangely gentle and friendly people have built their home and the most urgent household cares are done, I shall be regaled each morning this summer with one of Birdland’s sweetest, purest, gayest, yet least celebrated, songs.
Dawn came this morning ominous and grim.
The circle of the sun rose bloated where,
Seen thro’ the scudding cloud, its angry rim
Burned dull and copper hued—a sullen glare.
The stale and lifeless air
Made no least little stir ’mid leaf and limb
Of great trees brooding round this garden trim;
A listening fear seemed there.
Listening and waiting. Then a far, faint roar
Spread from the furthest hills. A sudden breeze,
Swelling in volume, thro’ the forest tore
Until it seemed the tossing, tortured trees
Writhed in fierce agonies.
The crashing trunks sounded as guns in war,
And tumult reigned, as of some rock-bound shore
Defying angry seas.
Waning to wax again with gathered power,
All day it raged, and leapt from hill to hill,
Shouting its wrath . . . Now, with a healing shower,
Quiet comes down, and all seems strangely still.
The wind has had its will
With riven loveliness of shrub and flower;
But round the ruin storm-scarred monarchs tower
Day after day, week after burning week,
A ruthless sun has sucked the forest dry.
Morn after anxious morn men’s glances seek
The hills, hard-etched against a harder sky.
Gay blossoms droop and die.
Menace is here, as day draws to its peak,
And, ’mid the listless gums along the creek,
Hot little breezes sigh.
To-day the threat took shape; the birds were dumb.
Once more, as sullen, savage morning broke,
The silence told that trembling fear had come,
To bird and beast and all the forest folk.
One little wisp of smoke
Far in the south behind the listless gum
Grew to a purple pall. Like some far drum,
A distant muttering broke.
Red noon beheld red death come shouting o’er
These once green slopes—a leaping, living thing.
Touched by its breath, tree after tall tree wore
A fiery crown, as tho’ to mock a king—
A ghastly blossoming
Of sudden flame that died and was no more.
And, where a proud old giant towered of yore,
Stood now a blackened thing.
Fierce raved the conquering flame, as demons rave,
Earth shook to thunders of the falling slain.
Brambles and bushes, once so gay and brave,
Shrank back, and writhed, and shrieked and shrieked again
Like sentient things in pain.
Gone from the forest all that kind spring gave . . .
And now, at laggard last, too late to save,
Comes soft, ironic rain.
You must imagine this Singing Garden of ours, a remote and rather unexpected patch of livelier green, set among the dark green of gum- and wattle-trees in a land without horizons. It occupies a little forest clearing, not more than three acres in extent, approached by a mountain road winding and twisting as it climbs about the timbered hills to the summit of the Great Dividing Range. So that, in the abruptness with which the garden bursts upon the traveller’s view lies much of what charm it has. This sudden vista is, perhaps, a little unexpected and something of a relief to eyes that have discovered no break for many a mile along the green-walled highway save brief glimpses of the winding road ahead and other infrequent clearings such as this, hewn laboriously by the settler out of the stubborn bush.
On every side of us tower great green battlements of giant eucalypt, of acacia and many lesser scrubs, making a barrier almost impenetrable save where the road pierces its dense shadow and leads down to the open country and the far-flung skyline—a relief to behold sometimes, after too long confinement in this pleasant prison. Here there is no remote horizon as plain-dwellers know it; for our skyline, indefinite yet intimate, is lifted high along ragged tops of the nearer trees, so that we dwell in a narrow world of our own that permits but rarely, and only from its higher eminences, restricted glimpses of a wider world below.
For far the greater part of the year it is a prison, pleasant enough and holding much content excepting, perhaps, on sodden, winter days of incessant rain when clouds drop down to wreathe the tree-tops, till the sense of close confinement renders the mind as sodden as the day and one longs acutely for the sun.
Then upon some dry summer, when the threat of forest fires is all about us, our sheltering walls themselves take their part in a menace not easy to ignore.
During the first few years of our sojourn we had witnessed many local bush-fires, disquieting enough while they raged and while the threat of their extension held. But they died young and were forgotten, leaving little sign of their passing and causing no breach in our great, living walls.
It was not until the year of the great fires, when men, women and children died horrible deaths in forest places such as this—when whole settlements were trapped to perish in the flame—that we had our one and terrifying experience of a truly great forest fire in all its ruthless might, and its magnificence.
It came upon us one sultry forenoon, heralded by a ghastly purple cloud that swiftly overspread the sky, plunging all into a horrible and uncanny twilight that seemed to foreshadow evils unimagined—a foretaste of who knows what agonizing hell.
It came to us, roaring and leaping—a solid front of flame, two miles across and as high almost as the tallest trees.
We fought it along a narrow track not fifty yards from the homes of most of us; and, as the lazy little flames of our counter-fire crept upwind to meet that raging, awe-inspiring enemy, our case seemed desperate enough. The fierce excitement and the urgent need to save, if possible, our properties—indeed, for a few terrible moments, it seemed our very lives—excluded any thought of the inevitable doom even then encompassing many a pleasant and familiar prospect we had long known and loved.
It was only after the third day, when we had dealt with the last of the destroyer’s smouldering after-rage, that we had opportunity to gauge our loss in forest beauty.
On two sides of us, where once the gay green walls had greeted us with a hundred verdant variations, now loomed black desolation. The destruction seemed utter and irremediable. The insatiable flame had licked up every last vestige of green, every twig and branch; and now the great trees stood charred and naked, lifting blackened, mutilated arms to heaven as if in bitter remonstrance; while spar and sapling were mere burnt sticks standing starkly between.
“In five years,” we thought—“may be ten years, a merciful green mantle will spring up to clothe in part this ghastly evidence of insensate destruction and the criminal carelessness of man. But now and for ever has the full beauty of this forest setting gone.”
But here we reckoned without knowledge of wise Nature’s inexplicable foresight and the truly amazing miracle of the latent leaf.
Every tall mountain-ash had gone indeed, beyond redemption; but messmate and blue-gum have secret reserves long held in readiness, astonishingly, for just such a desperate need. Hidden beneath the armour of the tough, protecting bark, these latent, embryonic leaves have been lurking, maybe for years, never to burgeon and develop and mature in outer air, except in answer to the urgent summons of dire necessity such as this.
And now, almost before the last of the smouldering logs and tree-trunks had been quenched and cooled by laggard rain, Nature—so prodigally spendthrift in many of her habits, so miraculously provident in others—hastened to call up her long dormant reserves.
Within a very few weeks little flecks and patches of vivid young green appeared upon the blackened—seemingly lifeless—trunks and limbs. For a time they seemed altogether incongruous, these joyous signs of laughing young life in a scene so darkly tragic. It made a strange picture, variously described by certain city friends of ours who gazed upon it. “A symphony in ebon and emerald!” gushed the soulfully aesthetic. “Like an army of niggers with green hair,” suggested the strictly prosaic.
These life-preserving growths, so mysteriously quickened, multiplied and developed amazingly and soon, as the eager young leaves spread joyfully to the sun, the stricken giants began to breathe again.
Young wattles too, and many of the lesser scrubs—from seeds hastened to germination by the heat of the very same fire that destroyed the parent tree—broke through black earth, made yet more fertile by the cooling ashes of the slain; and in the next year, except for here and there a glimpse of charred trunk. little evidence remained of the destroyer’s passing.
To-day we have our green walls back once more. And when we speak of the Great Fire to but half-credulous visitors, gazing upon these once again unbroken barriers of variegated green, it is hard to discover enough evidence to convince doubters that the threat was ever really serious or the havoc seemingly so hopeless and complete.
And now we are told that our rejuvenated monarchs are no longer of much use to the marauding saw-miller. Their value in the greedy eye of the ruthless, commercial profit-taker has departed. For this, too, we shamelessly offer thankfulness unqualified.
Singing all the summer long
Matin hymn and evensong,
Fluting freely thro’ the noonday’s drowsy hush;
Pouring from my leafy bow’r
Benedictions every hour,
I am the friend of all the world. Grey Thrush.
Mine no monotonic lay
Harping all the livelong day
On a single melody, however sweet;
But, with many a turn and twist,
I, the bushland’s soloist,
Offer all my varied repertoire complete.
Happiest songster of them all,
Who can hear my joyous call
Yet find no echoing gladness in his heart?
Madrigal and lullaby,
Chant and canticle sing I;
Every mood I melodize with careless art.
Singing all the summer long
Matin hymn, and vesper song,
Fluting freely thro’ the noonday’s drowsy hush;
In my drab habiliment
Peace I sing, and glad content,
I’m the bushland’s master melodist, Grey Thrush.
Where the mountain waters glide,
Where no summer noon may burn,
Where the platypuses hide
Snug amid the coral fern;
Where the cool, green twilights play
And the darting dragon-fly
Skims the stream, and flits away
Back into the burning day,
There am I.
Here my pendant home is hung—
A leafy cradle, cobweb girt—
O’er the singing waters slung
From a slender tea-tree spurt;
Here my nestlings rest content
While, o’er gum and myrtle high,
Bending to my bushy tent,
Peeps, thro’ some wind-riven rent,
A scrap of sky.
In the open I am shy;
Vanishing in coy distress
Should you seek too close to spy
On my russet loveliness.
But, where my green tent is spread,
Watching with unwinking eye
From my gently swaying bed,
Sudden, close beside your head,
There am I.
Sing the waters where they flow,
Sing the thrushes high above,
Sing soft breezes crooning low
Thro’ a bower built for love.
Fretted shade and dappled sun,
Muted song and lullaby;
Where the singing waters run,
Peaceful as a cloistered nun,
Here sing I.
Even among the tits and wrens
And birds of scanty inches,
Small fowl of shaded forest glens,
The lesser warblers and their hens
And little chats and finches
I hold an unassuming place,
In lowly regions winging;
So, few remark my nimble grace
And fewer praise my singing.
Where sunshafts pierce the denser scrub,
And tangled shadows blacken
Green sward, I flit from shrub to shrub
To seek the appetizing grub,
And dance amid the bracken;
Singing my little song the while
For those who care to listen,
While high above the soft skies smile
And gum-leaves glint and glisten.
No noisy chorister am I
Bedecked in gaudy vesture;
On no wide venturings I fly
’Mid tree-tops towering to the sky.
Less lordly is my gesture.
I lodge and labour with the meek
In secret ways and scented,
And nimbly play at hide-and-seek
By ferny dale and friendly creek,
Unfamed, but well contented.
I am cursed with a cackle whenever I tackle
A soulful and lilting refrain;
But a frivolous snicker, like some fool in liquor,
Is not what I seek to attain.
For I have, on the whole, quite a musical soul
Which I seek to express as I may.
And it’s simply absurd to suppose that a bird,
Such as I, makes a laugh of his lay.
In early October I’m specially sober
And loaded with household affairs;
And myself and my wife lead no trivial life
That inclines us to laugh at our cares,
So, if you should suppose that our song is jocose,
You’re entitled of course, to your views,
But to us, her and me, it’s a sweet symphony
And inspired by our mutual muse.
When I soulfully sing in the bourgeoning spring
With true poetry bursting my heart,
It is hard if I seem to express in my theme
Some coarse phase of the comical art.
And yet, what’s the good? Since I’m misunderstood
I’m content to submit to the wrong.
And tho’ “Ock, ock, oo, hoo” may seem funny to you,
’Tis to me a delectable song.
When dandelions star the fields,
Another alien singer, I,
Nursed upon England’s flowery wealds,
Seeking no tithe of treasured yields,
Drop sudden from a summer sky
To where the spangled clearing spills
Its gold about your timbered hills.
A mite in splendid motley clad,
I mark the field, I know the hour
When choicest morsels may be had;
When blooms are gay, when days are glad.
And thistledown wafts in a shower
To dance and drift and disappear,
I, who was not, am with you here.
I cling beside the thistle head,
I dance about your cattle’s feet,
I revel in the banquet spread
By many a blazing yellow bed,
And feast until I am replete;
Then seek the house roof’s topmost tile
To linger yet a little while.
No ingrate I, no niggard churl—
Tho’ what I take you well may spare—
Ere azure skies have grown to pearl,
With many a grace-note, many a skirl,
I pay gold coin for golden fare,
And proffer an abundant fee
In long sweet bursts of melody.
There is a flutter in the trees;
And now a sudden, dread unease
Stills all the bushland melodies
Amid the gums;
Stills now the song of wren and thrush;
Robin, honeyeater hush.
Now, with a wicked, whistling rush,
Grey goshawk comes.
I am the threat; the dreaded king,
Grim Azrael, is on the wing,
And every little living thing
Dares scarce a breath.
And now a parrot, shrill with fear,
Flies dodging there and doubling here
Thro’ inlaced limbs, in mad career
From lusting death.
Grey ghost, grey death, I work my will
O’er forest dense, o’er wooded hill,
And on some tree-top rend my kill
With reddened beak.
There is no haven in the tree,
There is no harbour safe from me;
In many a singing sanctuary
My meat I seek.
Beware! The swift grey ghost is out!
Be still! Grey death lurks near about!
Crouch close! Shrink low!—But have no doubt
I’ve marked my kill.
Grim Nemesis, I never fail;
Gaunt hunger is my spur, my flail.
I Feast. And now away I sail
O’er the far hill.
The bushmen call me “Cranky Fan,”
Because my strange, erratic flight
Seems to uncomprehending man
Sign of a wit not over bright;
But nimble wit and nimble wing
Uphold me in the trade I ply
Of ever-restless foraging—
Excuse me—there’s another fly!
A tireless ball of buff and grey;
White-shafted, my important tail
Guides me on my eccentric way
When stronger aviators fail;
Now right side up, now upside down,
Now tumbling crazily from high,
I ape the antics of a clown—
Whoop!—and that’s another fly!
’Tis thus my daily fare I earn
By nimble trick of wit and wing;
And, when my nestlings so would learn,
A clothes-line is a handy thing.
And that is why we’re sitting now,
Tho’ not for long, my brood and I,
That they may be instructed how—
Whoo-oop!—and that’s another fly!
I loop the loop with careless ease,
Now in a tail-spin watch me fall;
Yet, spite these eccentricities,
I am the friendliest bird of all.
Upon your shoulder, lordly man,
I pause as I go flitting by.
Spare a kind word for Cranky Fan—
Whoop!—and that’s another fly!
By inlet and islet and wide river reaches,
By lake and lagoon I’m at home;
Yet oft the far forests of blue gum and beeches
About the broad ranges I roam.
“There’s a strange, sombre bird with a hook in his beak.”
’Tis the little black cormorant raiding your creek.
And woe to the fisher and woe to the fishes—
A gourmand, I freely confess—
When I come a-searching for succulent dishes,
Arrayed in my funeral dress.
Then the fishermen rave, and in anger they speak:
“There’s a little black cormorant coming up creek!”
But I’m quick and I’m cunning, as many a greyling,
A blackfish, a trout or a bream
Has known to his sorrow when down I go sailing
To hunt him beneath the dark stream.
To my cavernous maw then they all come alike,
And ’tis death should the little black cormorant strike.
But I am an outlaw. I’m hunted and harried.
I’m banned from the havens of men.
And woe is to me if too long I have tarried—
A shot o’er the waters—and then,
There is reason indeed for my funeral dress.
For alas, here’s a little black cormorant less!
Golden bird whose golden voice,
When the summer days wax long—
Cheery optimist from choice—
Bids the feathered world rejoice
With full many a varied song
From the tree-tops flinging free
Golden bursts of melody.
Golden notes for golden hours—
Where the sunlit waters gleam,
And the fragrant wattle flow’rs
Swoon in scented, golden show’rs
To the bosom of the stream
Singing, swinging, fluting high;
None so gay, so glad as I.
Golden in the dawn’s first hush
Sounds my matin, loud and long,
With a sweet, spontaneous rush,
Vying with harmonious thrush
For the bushland’s crown of song.
As the golden eye grows dim,
Sounds my joyous vesper hymn.
Golden minstrel, justly famed,
Greeted e’er with grateful words;
Long ere this my song has shamed
Him who fatuously named
This a land of songless birds.
Seek you solace; seek you balm;
Hearken to my golden psalm.
My family holds many kinds:
The red, the white of brow, the brown;
And each a life’s employment finds
Where rugged gum-trees lift a crown
Up to the kind, life-giving sun
And here live I, the prying one.
Round and round the trunk I go,
Ever upward, round and round,
While my long, prehensile toe
Gives me foothold safe and sound.
To the ragged bark I cling;
A merry forager am I:
I sing and search and search and sing,
And in the crannies peep and pry.
“Woodpecker” some would have me styled:
But well they know, the gum-trees tall,
That my assaults are passing mild
And most beneficent withal.
To hunt the “wog” is my affair,
To sing awhile, then softly steal
And drag him from his darksome lair
To be a merry songster’s meal.
So round and round the tree I go,
Round and round and ever up
And many a secret place I know
Where I may royally dine or sup.
From tree to tree, from dawn to dark.
I sing and search and search and sing,
About the ragged storm-scarred bark
To make a merry banqueting.
When the wattle curls are drooping,
Where the sun-shy gullies dream,
O’er the hill-tops come we trooping,
Echoes waking to our scream.
When the mint-bush bloom is falling
By the flame-tipped messmate spar
Where the little creeks go brawling,
You may hear our raucous calling:
Ever vocal, ever busy,
Ere the summer day be done
Swooping from some tree-top dizzy,
We make hay while shines the sun
Thro’ the blue gums swiftly winging,
Where the ripening seed pods are,
To the topmost branches clinging,
What have we to do with singing?
Beauty for the eye we bring you—
Scarlet head and soft grey coat—
Recompense for that we sing you
Such an unmelodious note.
You may mark us flashing by you.
Seek our haunts and, from afar,
Thro’ the unlaced boughs we spy you
And from further heights defy you:
When the glowing days grow long
’Mid the blossom, sweet my fare,
Sweet the burden of my song
Floating on the summer air,
When the garden is ablaze,
And all nature wakes to praise
Glories of the dreaming days
Sipping, singing, I am there.
Now by honeysuckle bloom,
Now by pentstemon I cling;
Now the golden glow of broom
Lures me to the banqueting.
In full many a scented bower
Here I bend to kiss the flower,
And, thro’ many a sunlit hour,
Sing and sip, and sip and sing.
Winter comes, and I am gone,
Seeking kindlier fields afar;
For where burning colours shone
Frost and desolation are.
But, when lengthening days relearn
Olden lures, shall I return
And again when colours burn
Trill a sweet, melodious bar.
Not for any airs and graces
When, to lonely, silent places
Men return in memory,
Come these kindly thoughts of me.
But they hear again my calling
Where the dappled moonlight, falling
’Mid the shadows of the gums,
Weaves strange patterns; and there comes,
Blending with the hobble’s jingle,
As the faint bush odours mingle
With the scented camp-fire smoke,
Suddenly my call—
Now a weary swag man camping
After miles of mountain tramping;
Now, ’mid spinifex and sand,
A drover of the overland;
Now a timber-getter sitting
In his hut, the firelight flitting
O’er his old face, lost in dreams;
Now the man who punches teams
Where the blacksoil plains go rolling;
Now a fossicker, pot-holing,
Hopeful ever, ever broke—
Hears me in the night—
Never while one bushland lover
Camps beneath the great sky’s cover,
And my call comes once again
To the ears of lonely men:
Never while to silent places
Memory of old days traces
Olden pictures in the fire,
And men dream of youth’s desire,
Dream again of youth’s high daring:
Never while men yet go faring
Forth beyond the ken of folk,
Shall my night call fail—
Far in the forest depths I dwell,
The master mimic of them all,
To pour from out my secret dell
Echo of many a bushland call,
That over all the forest spills;
Echo of many a birdland note,
When out about the timbered hills
Sounds all that borrowed lore that fills
My magic throat.
I am the artist. Songs to me
From all this gay green land are sped;
And when the wondrous canopy
Of my great, fronded tail is spread—
A glorious veil, at even’s hush—
Above my head, I do my part;
Then wren and robin, finch and thrush—
All are re-echoed in a rush
Of perfect art.
Here by my regal throne of state,
To serve me for a swift retreat,
The little runways radiate;
And when the tread of alien feet
Draws near I vanish: ever prone
To quick alarm when aught offends
That secret ritual of the throne.
My songs are for my mate alone,
And favoured friends.
I am the artist. None may find,
In all the world, a match for me:
Rare feathered loveliness combined
With such enchanting minstrelsy.
In a land vocal with gay song
I choose whate’er I may require;
I wait, I listen all day long,
Then to the music of a throng
I tune my lyre.
“Sweet, pretty little creature,”
When the summer comes again
’Mid the burgeoning bush I feature
Debonair and passing vain.
Yet, who’d not condone self praises
That my perky airs denote
While my snowy shirt-front blazes
Under my sleek evening coat?
Tho’ my fancy names are legion—
Willie Wagtail, Shepherd’s Friend—
Varying with every region,
Each one fits me in the end,
Friendliness is e’er my fashion;
To the world I bob and bow,
Sheep have ever been my passion,
And I venerate a cow.
Courage matching well my bragging
I can show when in the mood,
As they know who would be lagging
Near my fiercely guarded brood,
Down I swoop, and, scolding, picking,
Tiny as I am and weak,
At the rude intruder clicking
My small, ineffective beak.
“Sweet, pretty little creature,”
Calling when the day is bright.
I am too a joyous feature
Of the moonlit summer night.
With my snowy shirt-front gleaming
Underneath your window sill,
While the feathered world is dreaming
I’m awake, and boasting still.
Surely must you know me,
Friendly and content;
All my actions show me
With my band of toilers,
When the blue days smile;
Little Jacky Martin
Come to stay a while.
Every town and village
Knows me; every farm,
Mine no wish to pillage,
Mine no will to harm;
Busy in the orchard,
My pest-destroying band;
Little Jacky Martin
Come to lend a hand.
In far forest land—
When you’ve cut a clearing,
Lo, I am at hand,
Wheeling, soaring, floating,
Where the new fields bask;
Little Jacky Martin
Come to aid the task.
In the chilly weather
See us in the trees,
Huddled close together
Like the swarming bees.
A-wing again and toiling
When the chill days end;
Little Jacky Martin,
Now comes the time when quiet showers soothe
The wounds of Summer’s too intense embrace,
And gentle hands reach down softly to smooth
The wrinkles from the garden’s sun-seared face;
Quick little breezes race
Down thro’ the forest; swell, and die again,
And saplings toss like merry boys at play,
And tall, time-roughened trees, like grave old men,
Forgetting that the years have made them grey,
Laugh with the laughing day.
The adolescent gaiety of Spring
Long since has gone; the nestling birds have flown
Upon their own affairs on practised wing,
Soon to devise housekeeping of their own;
The garden’s guise has grown
Sedate, yet, waxing in maturity,
Waxes in loveliness. No longer frail,
Brighter and sturdier blossoms tempt the bee
For yet a space, before they droop and fail
’Neath Winter’s bitter flail.
Then flit about this fragrant countryside
Exotic elves who ride the scented breeze:
Exiled but merry artists, ranging wide
This land, to deck their lovely English trees
In Autumn’s harmonies.
Her mellow mood has laughed out Summer’s pride;
And her gay henchmen, not to be denied,
Yet riot as they please.
Past wattles dreaming of Spring’s coming song,
About the land these gay elves peer and peek;
Past blackwood, Christmas-bush and kurrajong,
Past grave old gums that mark the dwindling creek,
For canvases they seek.
And in this clearing, sown these summers long
With ash and sumach, birch and poplar strong,
They make one merry week.
Now in my garden, as each morning comes,
In waxing beauty is the picture spread:
Before green backgrounds of the sober gums
Dawn purple, russet-brown and gold and red;
The tenderer green has fled.
And while grim Winter rolls advancing drums,
In splendid motley, as each leaf succumbs,
Cool earth is carpeted.
Red glows the sumach by the poplar’s gold;
Translucent amber, burning bright and clear,
Like hope aflame, and tints a thousandfold
Marching in glorious pageantry appear.
High festival is here
That laughs at death—a wonder to behold . . .
“Now,” sigh the trees, “we sleep; for we are cold.
Call us when Spring is near.”
During the last few days I have received letters contradicting, upbraiding, abusing, impeaching and downright bully-ragging me for daring, in a recent article, to number the kookaburra amongst the bold, bad villains of Birdland!
I think I can quite understand the sentimental indignation that moves my various correspondents to arise and slang me for traducing their best beloved bird in all the Australian bush.
I can appreciate the swift desire to retaliate in defence of a jovial old friend, because even I, well as I know him, can not entirely shed what is more than a passing regard for the hoary old humbug.
But I, unlike my correspondents, have had more than one glimpse behind that air of bland benevolence with which he deceives his millions of admirers. And, because of long and intimate association, I am able to judge him, uninfluenced by that tradition which has built about him a reputation for jocund good-will and jovial friendliness, so apt to hoodwink his casual acquaintances.
His continuous joviality no one can help admitting; and I am prepared to concede his trustful and friendly demeanour toward human associates. But to see him through the eyes of the smaller and weaker inhabitants of Birdland is to discover in him a character altogether different from that of the kindly kookaburra of tradition.
Anyhow, I do not propose to answer the various charges that his indignant champions have brought against me; but to defend myself by putting John Kookaburra himself in the dock and appointing myself chief counsel for the prosecution. Therefore:—
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury:
The prosecution had at first been minded to charge the prisoner, John Kookaburra, with being Public Enemy No. 1 of the Australian Avian nation; but, since the Crow (or Raven) seems long ago to have well earned that unenviable title, we do couple the accused with his cousin, the Butcher Bird, as Enemy No. 2.
Such open and natural enemies as the hawk and eagle, the kite, falcon and kestrel we exclude from consideration, since Nature allows them no means of subsistence save through cannibalism.
But John Kookaburra stands charged as Public Enemy No. 2, because, under cover of an external aspect of sniggering and sanctimonious good-fellowship, he carries on a horrible and secret trade in murder, kidnapping, torture, cannibalism and infanticide.
We have proof further, so we maintain, that he is a habitual criminal who, from nest to necropolis lives the life of a giggling gangster and an incorrigible racketeer.
We are aware, ladies and gentlemen, that the defence will produce a number of reputable witnesses (mostly human) who will testify to the prisoner’s reputation for jovial good nature, perpetual love of laughter, and his kindly, not to say canonical aspect of beneficent altruism that is hard to associate with such charges as the prosecution will endeavour to maintain.
The prosecution is prepared to admit all this, and indeed to cite it as proof of the extreme cunning of the benevolent-seeming prisoner in the dock.
But we too, ladies and gentlemen, will put forward witnesses, human and avian, who are prepared to swear to certain specific and definite crimes committed by the accused.
Twice at least he has been known to seize young thrushes from the nest, and, having battered out their brains despite the frantic protests of the parents, to carry them away for what ghastly purpose I leave you to imagine.
As recently as last week, the prisoner was seen, by several witnesses, with a living, half-fledged blue wren in his murderous beak. A mere infant, ladies and gentlemen! A child of tender years who had not yet learned to lisp his mother’s name! And, while the hapless infant’s family and friends thronged about him snapping ineffective beaks, this feathered ghoul calmly, callously, with almost unthinkable brutality, battered that helpless little body against a fence-rail till it lay cold and still.
Then, ladies and gentlemen, before the very eyes of its anguished parents, this soulless, bowelless villain——
I am sorry, but tears will not permit me to continue. Also, in the very face of these horrible charges, the prisoner, even now, begins to chuckle in the dock.
Look at him, ladies and gentlemen! Listen to the heartless scoundrel! Does that soulless sniggering suggest to you the possession of the barest rudiments of decent pity, of remorse? Does it not, rather, indicate a nature utterly depraved and hopelessly callous?
Look at him! He giggles! He guffaws! He——
Your Honour! I claim the protection of the court! I ask that this brutal levity be sternly repressed! In view of——
Your Honour! Even the gentlemen at the Bar are now moved to infectious mirth. Mirth? in the face of these ghastly accusation——
Now the Press, the associate, the police are tittering! The prisoner shrieks and shouts in unholy glee! Why, the very Bench itself is now moved to unseemly hilarity!
I throw up my brief! I resign from this case!
Winter had come to frown a little while,
And bluster from his skies of sodden grey,
Until bland Autumn, with a cheerful smile,
Chased him into the dark hills far away;
Returning then to stay
Where singing birds the silver dawns beguile
And sunsets burn down an illumined aisle
Day after golden day.
Now comes a season of surprised delight.
The alien trees, now loath to lose their leaves,
Strive yet to hold their yellow treasure tight.
Shy swallows twitter by the sun-bathed eaves
And, while sly Autumn thieves
Yet more of Winter’s days, postpone their flight.
Birds hymn the day; but thro’ the windless night
A gloomy mopoke grieves.
Under the azure noon the forest sleeps
Drugged by this sudden and unlooked-for balm.
Up from her lowly bed a primrose peeps,
Tempted too soon by hours of spring-like calm
Spilled from a lavish palm.
And now, from where the hill-stream laughs and leaps,
The thrush’s evensong, as slow dusk creeps,
Lifts like a grateful psalm.
Now comes an end to quiet autumn days
And to frail loveliness. In the still night
Cold death has crept along the garden ways
To wrap at last about each blossom bright
Its funeral garment white.
And where a myriad cruel prisms blaze,
Ironically now the sun’s kind rays
Shine but to blast and blight.
One hour of beauty on this shining morn—
White, mocking beauty while the frost rime clings.
Then bud and blossom, fashioned to adorn
The earth, are but a heap of blackened things,
All loveliness takes wings . . .
And yet, not all! Still in a land forlorn,
Most valiantly by a glowing thorn,
A grey thrush sweetly sings.
We have always made it a matter of justice that we should feed the magpies as well as the other and lowlier birds about this little clearing in the forest.
We are meticulous about this, because we know that appearances are often deceptive, and, although magpies generally, with their aggressive aspect and fearless habit, seem well able to look after and fend for themselves, one never knows what injustice may be done by making distinctions in one’s charity to the birds.
So we fed the magpies regularly, but they received little of our sympathy until there came upon the scene one cold, autumn day, Long John Silver and his mate, Limpy.
I don’t know whether fellow feeling had drawn these two strange birds together, or whether they had been mates before disaster overtook them; but the curious fact remained that they were each possessed of only one leg!
In each case, it was to be surmised, a barbarous rabbit-trap had accounted for the other limb. John Silver’s had been severed high up so that nothing remained but a pathetic stump. His wife, Limpy, had lost little more than a foot.
Of course, the sentimentalist of the household was roused to loud wailings when she first beheld this pair of avian cripples, and I will admit that they certainly did look forlorn—or else were putting up a rather good bluff. It was hard to say which.
John Silver’s method of approaching sustenance was especially provoking of pity. On his one good leg he would hop rather painfully to within striking distance of some proffered morsel of food; then he would sit down on his stomach and, by some strange means that I have never been able to discover, wriggle forward to the food.
Limpy was more spry on her remaining limb; nor did her brown eye hold that piteous glance of appeal that came into John Silver’s whenever he chanced to catch the eye of the almoner.
Well, of course, special arrangements had to be made for these two pensioners. They had, for instance, to have a separate feeding time when other, and younger and stronger magpies, were not there to bully them.
Yet, in spite of all precautions, brawls and piratical raids were frequent, and frequently, too, a wild and angry squawking in the back paddock brought us hurriedly out of doors to the rescue of our pair of invalids. Or rather, that is what we thought at the time.
“We shall never be able to save them!” said the sentimentalist. “Those hefty young ones will kill them eventually. The law of the wild is atrociously cruel.”
I was of much the same opinion and had foreseen for Silver and Limpy a very brief remainder to their mortal span, until——
One morning I happened to be strolling through the rather dense scrub that adjoins this clearing when I heard a wild hullabaloo that told of magpies in dire distress—almost in mortal agony.
“This is the end,” thought I, “of Silver and Limpy.” And I crept slowly through the scrub to see what I could see.
What I did see was this: John Silver, full of fight and fury, on top of a hefty young bird who was yelling for mercy, while, a few yards away, Limpy was dealing with another aggressor even more strenuously! Severed feet or missing legs seemed to incommode them not in the least.
These indiscreet interlopers had raided Silver’s private and particular feeding grounds. They had to be dealt with. They were being dealt with.
And then, whether it was that he was aware his hypocritical pose had been discovered I do not know, but very shortly after that Long John Silver and his mate disappeared.
“I knew it had to happen,” wailed the sentimentalist. “Those two poor cripples have been brutally done to death by those ruthless younger birds.”
I wondered at the time if such were the case, though that look of swaggering self-confidence I had seen in Long John’s eye when last we met caused me to doubt.
More than twelve months later I was talking to an old bush friend who grew eloquent about his little crippled daughter’s influence over the bush birds.
“Feeds right fair out of her hand they do,” he assured me. “Wrens an’ robins an’ thrushes an’ the queerest pair of magpies you ever seen. Only got two legs between them the pair of them.
“Only for my Jenny feeding them the like she does, them two poor mags wouldn’t last a week. Keeps the young ones from tackling them, my Jenny does. Real pretty to see her.”
And then I knew that Long John Silver, with a low cunning worthy of his namesake, had found a “better ’ole.”
“Awful kind to birds an’ animals an’ things, my Jenny is,” continued the bushman. “Runs in our family, that does. All of us likes treatin’ dumb things gentle like. Ah well, I can’t stand yappin’ all day,” he concluded. “Got to get along home and kill a couple of pigs.”
By lagoons and reedy places,
Where the little river races,
By the lips of dreaming pools
Where the soothing water cools
Many a verdant slope and hollow,
Here my blithesome way I follow.
Anywhere that waters glisten
Pause a little while and listen.
You will hear my plaintive note
O’er the placid mirror float—
Tho’ nought know I of plaint or fret:
“Pierrot! Pierrette! Pierrot! Pierrette!”
Pierrot am I, light-hearted fellow,
Be the day morose or mellow;
And Pierrette, my dainty wife,
Adopts a like gay view of life;
We dance; we dance amid the sedges,
Dance by duplicated edges
Of the peaceful little ponds;
Now I bow, and she responds;
And then we dance together there,
Rise aloft, and dance on air;
Rising, falling, calling yet:
“Pierrot! Pierrette! Pierrot! Pierrette!”
Thistledown was ne’er so light
As our dainty, dancing flight;
Gay pied pipers, trim and neat,
Joy is in our wings, our feet;
Grace is in our every pose . . .
We dance, we dance till, at day’s close,
When the pool’s dark mirrors limn
Twilit glory at the brim—
Trees and opalescent sky—
We dance away; and as we fly
Our call comes faint and fainter yet:
“Pierrot! Pierrette! . . . Pierrot! . . . ”
Down among the strawberries,
Up among the plums,
Cheeping in the cherry-tree
When early autumn comes,
In our silver spectacles
And sober olive suits.
We’re very, very innocent;
We wouldn’t touch your fruits.
Well, maybe just a speckled one,
A windfall here and there.
But raid your precious strawberries?
Oh no, we wouldn’t dare.
Behold our bland astonishment,
The charge is quite absurd!
It must have been a parrot
Or some other kind of bird.
It must have been a satin bird;
It must have been a crow.
It couldn’t possibly be us;
We are so meek, you know,
With our silver spectacles.
The accusation’s vile!
How can you deem us guilty
When we’re whistling all the while?
Well, if you’ve caught us in the act
There’s no more to be said.
The plums are blue and succulent,
The strawberries are red.
And who’d refuse a dainty dish
When early autumn comes?
Oh, write a rhyme about us, man,
And pay for all your plums.
In the quiet noonday heat
Creeping high aloft
Nimbly, on prehensile feet,
Calling very soft;
Else, among the seeding grass,
Feeding by a tree
Where the soft cloud shadows pass
Not more silently.
Now, with shrill and sudden din,
Swift, as danger comes,
Flashing like a javelin
Past the sunlit gums;
Rocketing thro’ inlaced limbs,
A living, darting flame;
While, above, the brown hawk skims
Avid for his game.
Forest dweller, crimson clad,
Bright bird of the sun;
When the winter days grow sad
And the seeds are done,
Where the lonely farm-house stands
Cautiously come I
And about your harvest lands
Pause a while to spy.
Prove you kindly in the end.
Haply I shall stay;
And you have me for a friend
Thro’ the winter day.
Toddling round the garden bed,
Swaggering thro’ the grass,
Lifting up a crimson head
To watch you as you pass.
They count me but a common bird,
Unworthy of respect,
Who see me chained, with mien absurd
Striving to croak some alien word
Of some strange dialect;
A captive robbed of freedom’s right,
To be a clown for man’s delight.
But where, in blue skies, wild and free,
My gleaming cohorts go,
Screaming in joyous ecstasy,
To settle on some withered tree
Like sudden failing snow,
Or great white blossoms heaven sent—
Here am I in my element.
Come, seek me then to be clown
For man’s divertisement!
For as the great flock settles down
To raid your fields by bush or town,
High is my sentry sent
To watch from out the topmost tree
With keen, unwinking scrutiny.
Now, let the smallest sign denote
Some threat of danger nigh,
And sudden, from a screaming throat
He sounds his warning trumpet note.
His golden crest held high,
And we are gone, like drifting snow,
Shrieking derision as we go.
I might charm you with my song,
Could you but forget my trade,
Where I pipe the autumn long
In some bowered wattle glade—
Pipe a rollicking refrain
Such as Circe might not scorn,
Jovial amongst my slain
Grimly dangling from the thorn.
Never yet had siren sung
From a falser heart than mine,
Witness these grim trophies hung
Round me, while a cadence fine
Ripples on the balmy air
To the Fall’s soft winds astir,
While anew I set my snare
For some feathered voyager.
There’s a note of careless glee,
Impish laughter in my lay;
Droll duets my mate with me
Improvises. We are gay
Lest the silence, were we dumb,
Should betray the evil mind
Of hunter and of huntress come
To bring destruction to our kind.
Yet, tho’ grisly be my trade,
Is man’s consciense clear as mine,
Singing in my wattle glade
Where I innocently dine?
And, when autumn comes again,
Haply you’ll forget it all,
Lured anew by that refrain
Of the singing cannibal.
Where the little river gleaming
Thro’ its shadows, green and cool,
Broadens to the quiet dreaming
Of a little shady pool;
There an azure jewel burning
O’er the waters you may spy,
Never moving, never turning:
’Tis the silent fisher, I.
Head aloft above the river,
With an apathetic air,
Not the smallest quirk nor quiver
Warns you of my presence there.
Mayhap you will think me sleeping—
Dreaming summer days away—
Till you mark a keen eye peeping
Where the tell-tale eddies play.
Now a dive, a sudden darting,
Now a flash of gold and blue,
And the placid waters parting
Let my gleaming body thro’.
Then, long ere the ripples, spreading,
Circle to the pool’s green lip
Back to safety I am heading;
And the kill is in my grip.
So I haunt the cool, dark places
By the river, from that hour
When the dawn’s bright finger traces
Fairy lights above my bower,
Till the western hilltops redden,
Fade, and vanish I am there.
And, the far skies, growing leaden,
Bid me seek my secret lair.
I’m a business man; and I can’t spare time
For this fluting and fussing and frilling.
The song of my cousin may be sublime,
But I never have found it filling.
So I run and I dig and I dig and I run,
And I’m at it as soon as the day’s begun,
And I never knock off till the light is done
Over the garden and lawn and tilling.
I’m a business man on my business bent,
And I’ve never an hour of leisure.
I have little regard for sentiment,
And I fritter no time in pleasure.
But I dig and I run and I run and I dig;
And you never see me at my ease on a twig,
Prinking and posing in holiday rig
Or trilling a tuneful measure.
I’m a business man, and I’ve much to do;
So the day’s work must be speeded.
For time is fleeting and worms are few—
I’ve never had all I needed.
So I run and I dig and I dig and I run
From sun to shadow, from shadow to sun,
I’m a business man, and the world I shun,
So I live and I die unheeded.
I’m a chirpie little chappie.
Pertly vulgar, passing vain,
Quarrelsome, yet piping, happy,
My monotonous refrain.
Foraging by shed and stable,
Close camp-follower of man,
Seeking crumbs from his rich table
Impudently where I can.
On the house-tops, in the hedges,
Following the furthest road,
I am ever at the edges
Of the pioneer’s abode.
Lest, mayhap, he should grow lonely
Where his venturing footsteps roam,
I am close behind, if only
For a memory of home.
Where the quiet farm house slumbers,
I make merry in the wheat;
Where the city’s traffic lumbers
I am vocal in the street.
If man’s economic capers
Feathered toilers e’er should mar
Surely I’d be selling papers:
“Latest murder! ’Ere you are!”
I’m the gamin of the gutter,
Full of cunning, nothing meek;
’Mid the restless feet I flutter,
Scorning danger, giving cheek.
I’m the friend of man for ever;
Where his furthest outposts lie,
Following his last endeavour
In the wilderness, go I.
There’s something in Australian air,
Something about Australian sun
That reputations one time fair
Fall from us, and we are undone.
Gay, carefree chatterers at Home,
Pert innocents of English eaves;
But, when to newer lands we roam,
Branded as pilferers and thieves.
But tho’ we raid your orchard trees
And wake your anger now and then,
Surely such little sins as these
Ban not all sympathy from men.
A bird must win a livelihood
In stranger lands when fare is scant
And, for amends, we work some good
As grateful farmers freely grant.
But who gives thought to rifled yields
Who deigns to wait and watch awhile
Our flocks upon your sunlit fields,
When summers indolently smile—
A merry, free, exultant band,
Our gay coats glinting in the sun
When, at some swift, unseen command
We rise, we dip, we wheel as one.
Men rave and count us enemies,
And many strive to work us ill.
Yet pray remember, if you please,
That we are here not at our will.
Some homesick exile brought us hence
To be a solace for his grief
So, spite of all our grave offence,
Can’t you forgive a cheery thief?
Gimme the town an’ its clamour an’ clutter;
I ain’t very fond of the bush;
For my cobbers are coves of the gardens and gutter—
A tough metropolitan push.
I ain’t never too keen on the countryfied life;
It’s the hustle an’ bustle for me an’ me wife.
So I swagger an’ strut an’ I cuss an’ I swagger;
I’m wise to the city’s hard way.
A bit of a bloke an’ a bit of a bragger;
I’ve always got plenty to say.
Learned thro’ knockin’ about since my people came out
From the land at the back of Bombay.
When out in the bush I am never a ranger;
There never ain’t nothin’ to see.
Besides, them bush birds got no time for a stranger;
So town an’ the traffic for me.
I sleep in the gardens an’ loaf in the street,
An’ sling off all day at the fellers I meet.
An’ I swagger an’ scold an’ strut an’ I swagger,
An’ pick up me fun where I can,
Or tell off me wife, who’s a bit of a nagger,
Or scrap with the sparrers for scran.
A bonzer at bluffin’, I give you my word,
For, between you an’ me, I’m a pretty tough bird.
I’m a fussy little fellow
In my kilt of glowing yellow;
As about the garden ways I bow and bend,
Many a melody I bring to you
In the soft, gay songs I sing to you
With a cheery little grace note at the end—
Oh, I never miss that grace-note at the end.
Summer into autumn passes,
And among the seeding grasses,
’Mid the midges, goodly provender I gain.
Little for your presence caring,
Confident and greatly daring,
I will charm you with a sudden, sweet refrain—
Oh, a very soft, yet valiant refrain.
When the time has come for nesting,
Our sagacity attesting,
We erect a neat, twin-chambered bow’r of love;
Mother in the nursery sleeping
With the babes, while sentry keeping,
Father has his parlour-bedroom up above—
Oh, it’s cosier—and quieter above.
In my kilt of golden yellow
I’m a friendly little fellow,
And my spangled sable crown I proudly bear.
Tho’ my way be meek and lowly,
I can capture, win you wholly
If you’ll listen to this cheerful little air—
Oh, I’ll charm you with my cheerful little air.
Men knew and loved my calling in old days—
Days ere a bitter wisdom taught me fear.
Trusting and unafraid, I went my ways
By many a crude hut of the pioneer;
Calling by paths where lonely axemen strode,
By new-cleared farmland yet to know the plough;
Calling by deep sled track and bullock road . . .
But where to-day man builds his last abode
Few hear my calling now.
Too trusting. When they found my flesh was sweet—
Was sweet and white and succulent withal—
What mattered beauty? I was good to eat!
Then trust was my undoing; and my call
A summons to men’s hunger and the chase—
A tame, ignoble chase with me the prey—
Till far into some secret forest place
I fled, with that poor remnant of my race
In hiding here to-day.
And only by lost paths o’ergrown with fern—
By old, abandoned tracks in scrubs remote—
You may, by chance, around a sudden turn,
Win some brief, fleeting glimpse of my grey coat.
Then, with a swift wing clapping, I am hence;
Or, crouching down, ingenuously seek
To merge my colours with the brushwood dense
And trick the spoiler, with the vain defence
Of all earth’s harried meek.
Now golden days of autumn are no more.
Down on the forest ruthless Winter frees—
First with far rumblings, waxing to a roar—
His shouting winds that riot thro’ the trees,
Raging like savage seas.
Bedraggled now the gown this garden wore;
Lost are those evanescent gems she bore;
Lost, half the melodies.
A grey thrush, every morn hops round the door,
His wise head cocked inquiringly aslant;
Magpie and robin, these are shy no more,
And every songster, as his fare grows scant,
Becomes a mendicant.
Small their demands upon the larder’s store
On these dark, sodden days or mornings hoar,
Cruel to bird and plant.
A strange and ghostly silence came last night,
After the wind’s wild clamour and the rain;
And now, at dawn, a coverlet of white
Swathes many a long, fantastic forest lane
And unfamiliar plain.
Beneath the burden spar and sapling slight
Bow down, revealing many a vista bright
In this once green domain.
The silence shouts in this new, muffled world
After the tempest’s nerve-destroying din . . .
Here, like three pixies, impudently curled
In a giant’s pallet, sheets up to each chin,
Three pert violas grin . . .
The forest is a lady richly pearled,
Else a white penitent in pure robes furled,
And newly cleansed of sin.
The weather-wise up here in the mountain country amongst the big gums are talking of records. Even the oldest inhabitant admits that “he has never seen the likes before.”
“Thirty-three frosts,” he says, “since May the first, an’ fourteen of ’em without a break. If that ain’t a record, I’ll go ‘he’.”
In my own experience of over twenty years here, I have never before known more than five consecutive nights of frost. Three frosts and then a rain is the general average in a normal winter in this part of the forest.
The sunlit days are ideally beautiful—tragically beautiful when one remembers the conditions in drier areas.
But it is the birds who seem to be having the worst time of it here. For them, glorious days fail to compensate for the grub shortage. I don’t know what has happened to the grubs and worms and other dainties of the avian menu, but they have become suddenly scarce; either perishing in frosty nights or digging deeper in earth in search of warmth.
The birds are equally nonplussed and are rapidly becoming mendicants—diffident at first but, with the discovery that free food is to be had for the asking, gradually assertive and at times positively imperative.
A rather confident grey thrush began the daily procession to the door. He (or she) was the first to be offered a morsel in the way of charity one morning when he had given up foraging and sat disconsolate by the door.
He came again and was fed. Within a very few days he began to look upon the daily dole as his unquestionable right.
At precisely nine o’clock every morning after frost he comes to the branches of a Japanese plum-tree and whistles once—a loud, musical note that permits of only one interpretation: “Here I am. Where’s my breakfast?”’
Should the almoner be late, the calls become louder and more frequent, and further delay leads to an outcry that cannot be ignored.
A handful of varied scraps is scattered on the lawn and he dives immediately and breakfasts unafraid, fully aware that he enjoys the privilege and protection of a favourite.
His departure, replete and musically grateful, is the signal for the general descent, First the currawongs, whose shrewd, white eyes have been watching from adjacent gums, secure their provender on the cash-and-carry system, since they know that, because of their greed, they may not linger.
And then come the more diffident satin birds who also carry away and eat their food in private, but as a matter of preference and good manners.
The magpies, those proud and arrogant birds, refuse to eat with the rabble, and insist upon a separate mealtime at another hour of the day.
But, with the disappearance of the larger birds, the small fry come clamouring for their share, for all have been watching and waiting in the bushes round about.
First of these the impertinent yellow robins who have long since learned that to perch cheekily upon a forefinger insures one a full and uninterrupted meal while others catch as catch can in the general scramble. Blue wrens hop about the banquets’ edge; scrub wrens, chats and tits watch their chance to snatch a morsel, and so, until the last small songster has been satisfied.
Then all go about their own lawful occasions, and no bird begs about the door for the rest of that day.
For there is this to be said of the birds: As soon as the frozen earth is in fit state for foraging they prefer to stick to the job, however ill repaid in grubs and other delicacies. After only one frostless night they prefer work to free sustenance, excepting only that aggressively mendicant grey thrush, who seems to have entirely lost his self respect and become determined to loaf on the government for the rest of his feathered life.
I planted here, today, a strong young tree.
Rich soil it has, and sun, and space to grow;
And who, I wonder, in the years to be
Will seek its boughs’ soft shade; for well I know
Long ere this slender plant grows full and round
He who now tends it shall be sleeping sound.
What manner of a man will sit to view
This now familiar scene when those shades spread?
Will he be thankful that he never knew
These days of strange, uncomprehended dread?
Or will he, gazing back, find cause to sigh
For olden peace, for happier days gone by?
I planted here, to-day, a strong young hope
That, when this tree’s green banners be unfurled,
There shall come singing down this verdant slope
Some wiser mortal of a wiser world.
And if he bless the man who set the tree,
And be content, so, mayhap, shall I be.
On the day that he brought himself first (and very confidently) under our notice we named him “Bombastes Furioso,” without hesitation, for it seemed to us that no other could suit him one half so well; because all the fury and bombast that might reasonably inhabit any single living being, of any size, seemed to be concentrated in that absurd little ball of fuss and flesh and feathers. So ridiculously small was he that the whole of him might gone comfortably into an egg-cup and still left room on top.
All male blue wrens are perkily vain and self-important little braggarts; and Bombastes was the wren of wrens. His comical tail was cocked at a cheekier angle, his cap and cape were of a richer, shinier blue, his song was not so much a song as an arrogant yell of blustering defiance—a truculent bravo of a wren, a swaggering, ruffling blade of a wren who bowed to no law and flung vainglorious challenge to the whole avian universe. “Bring out your goshawks! Bring out your kestrels and your wedge-tail eagles! Keep close to me, ladies, and you shall come to no harm. I am Bombaste!”
Indeed, this Bombastes was a wren not to be overlooked or carelessly ignored even by stolid humans, nor could he be easily mistaken for any other cock-wren of like habit and hue. His every extravagant quality convinced us that he was a new-comer and a stranger among the other blue wrens about the garden. He probably came from somewhere in the back bush where (as it is more than likely he told some of his new lady friends) wrens were wrens and huge snakes ate whole families for breakfast. But he had not left because of that. What! He, who had himself slain a great tiger snake single-handed and whose way with a native cat or a falcon was sudden and terrible. He had come away because he was none of your home-staying, prosaic, wormhoarding blobs of wrens who stuck to the old home town and played safe among the friends of his youth. No fear! He for foreign fields and high adventure. He to carve out a deathless name for himself in the rough and tumble of the great wide world. And any gentleman present chose to doubt his word in any least little detail—well, just let it be whispered, just whispered. For he was Bombastes and, believe him, he was tough!
Nor did he confine his activity to mere boastful threat and dark innuendo. Before the week was through he had fought and vanquished every one of the score or so of cock-wrens whose familiar home was the garden. So that he became the ideal and the hero of every demure little lady hopping daintily about the lawn, and the swaggering overlord of the lowly world of lesser birds who worked out their own absorbing problems of life—of loves and hates and smouldering jealousies—all down among the daisies and the buttercups, the pansies and eschscholtzias; for spring was at its flood in an exulting world of bursting bloom when the sap is up and blood runs hot.
And then, at the very zenith of his triumph, in the full prime of his lusty young wrenhood, his obsession took him; and so began the decline and fall of the great little Bombastes.
I cannot help feeling that there is a moral lesson somewhere about this story. If there is, I leave you to discover it yourself. Like every erring brother who has escaped being an active pharisee, I dread moral lessons. Too often and too aptly they come home to roost.
Our house in the forest is a house of many windows; for, in the murk of forest winters, light becomes a precious thing eagerly desired. But our windows are often the scene and the cause of many a swift tragedy, sometimes with fatal results; for birds great and small, who are fresh from the bush and unused to human habitations, seem unable at first to detect clear glass; so that, while still in full and carefree flight, a sudden and mysterious collision with the invisible leaves, if not a corpse, a very sorry and bewildered bird.
But, bush-born and unsophisticated though he was, a mere house held no terrors for the valiant Bombastes—until the day he discovered in one of the windows of the dining-room, not a mysterious accident, but some uncanny quality that was to a bird of his spirit at once a challenge and a maddening exasperation. For within that hole in the wall there lurked a rival still unconquered: a brutal looking, vainglorious swaggerer, a truculent bully of a blue wren, But Bombastes was not to be bluffed by any boastful posturing, so he dashed madly into battle.
When he recovered he explained to his lady friends that he seemed to have bumped into an unaccountable barrier of solid air: something hitherto outside his experience entirely. Privily he decided that the ill-favoured braggart inside the window wore invisible, enchanted armour of some description—a dirty, underhand trick, sure enough. But even that was not going to bluff the unbeaten holder of the blue-wren belt; so he stropped his bill and spat on his hands, so to speak, and came at it again; but less confidently, more cautiously this time. But, again and again that mysterious, unseen barrier thwarted his every effort.
Then he abandoned the direct attack and experimented with strategy. He would sneak furtively around the edge of the window-frame and surprise the enemy with a sudden rush. But, astonishingly, his rival seemed to sense the move and adopted exactly similar tactics at the same moment. It was all very puzzling.
We allowed him to keep at it for twenty minutes or so and then, in kindness hunted him from the window. He seemed to resent our interference, and went reluctantly, only to discover almost immediately another and exactly similar enemy in the next window. We chased him from there, and, half an hour later, found him at another side of the house trying to get at yet another impregnable foe.
Short of putting someone on sentry to go around the house all day long, there seemed to be no means of saving Bombastes from his own folly. In a day or two he had made the alarming discovery that he, Bombastes the invincible (or so he had imagined) was surrounded by aggressive and mysterious enemies, who would not be subdued. At the end of a week the thing had become an obsession. But by now much of the former dash and exultant pride had gone out of his attack; he fought doggedly but without spirit, sparing an absurdly brief portion of the daylight hours in the quest of sustenance.
Before the end of another week, I greatly fear that his already tottering reason fell completely off its perch, for he began suddenly to fight with all the insane fury of a bird possessed.
By now every vestige of his jaunty, cocksure air had gone. His once proud tail had fallen almost to the horizontal, his wings drooped, and he breathed through open bill, pantingly.
But since every single one of his myriad rivals exhibited precisely similar signs of acute distress, he was encouraged to rally his failing strength and, hopeful to the end, he fought stubbornly on and on. He was a game bird, that Bombastes, I will say that for him.
Just before the end he must have become utterly maniacal. The moon was at its full and, in the dead of night, we used to hear Bombastes the Balmy dashing his poor little body furiously against the pane where the background of some darkened room made its glass doubly reflective.
We found him one morning below a window of the study, a pathetic little bundle of brown and brilliant sapphire, a ruby drop of blood coming from the base of his bill telling how the end had come.
I think it is about here somewhere that the moral lesson should he worked in. Something about the fear complex or the sex urge to male conflict. Something fashionably Freudian or else essentially Jungish. Fortunately I forget which.
But those who would discover a homily in this splendid saga in miniature of the ill-starred Bombastes I advise to conjure a picture of that little scrap of coloured feathers which, with all its flesh and fuss could have gone comfortably into an egg-cup and still left room on top—that deserted casket, absurdly small, yet once holding an amazingly complex collection of pride and passion, of strange fears and unyielding fury, now prone upon the lawn among the fearless daisies.
We buried the little hero beneath a viola, blue as his own sapphire crown. And all his recent lady friends, with rehabilitated gentlemen in attendance, gathered around to search daintily for little worms amongst the grave clods.
When the Mighty Craftsman drew
Summer sky and summer sea—
Tints ethereally blue—
Here and there a small drop flew
From His brush, and fell on me.
Once a sober bird of brown;
Now, with my cerulean gem
Marking me for high renown,
Perkily I bear my crown
As a kingly diadem.
For who pays me fit respect
Full of friendliness am I—
Sprightly mite by heaven decked,
As a badge of His elect,
With a scrap of His great sky.
Out across the dew-wet lawn
Daintily I dance along,
And, as night’s veil is withdrawn,
Valiantly greet the dawn
With a loud, full-throated song.
Azure cape and azure cap,
Borrowed from a sunny sky—
Here and there a glowing scrap—
I’m a most important chap;
Full of great affairs am I.
For no soaring flight I yearn;
But, with wife and brood complete,
Dance I in and out the fern,
Bow and pirouette and turn,
With my whole world at my feet.
I am the cunning one. My shrewd white eye,
Peeping from out some hidden harbour green,
Watches your household. Patiently I spy
Until I learn by heart its whole routine.
I witness, with sagacity profound,
Comings and goings in your daily round.
And what they mean.
I know what hour each morn the fowls are fed
When laurel berries ripen, too, I know.
I know when you’ll come out to scatter bread
For wren and robin twittering below,
Where roses blow.
When you take tea upon the lawn, I’m there
Waiting the quiet hour; then forth I dare
To glean my share.
I am the cunning one. I know too well
Base human treacheries. Not over shy,
I am too wise to fall beneath the spell
Of pretty blandishments. My shrewd white eye
Has told me why.
A friendliness, too easily begun,
Might, thro’ my pilferings, find me undone—
The cunning one.
In laboured flight above the gums,
Calling its harsh, discordant cry,
Our dark, funereal cortege comes
To rest a while in tree tops high;
Then, flashing many a sable coat,
With heavy flappings, on we float
To some far sky.
Garments of mutes and voice of ghouls,
We live the nomad’s life apart
And seem withal sad, gloomy fowls;
Yet are we gay enough at heart
As thro’ the sweeter, rarer air
We seek our shrewdly hidden lair
With cunning art.
None but the eagle knows our ways,
None but the ventursome may know
The toil of our domestic days.
In solitudes where few men go
’Neath the vast dome of heaven’s tent
We seek and win our full content
In sun and snow.
Scarce are we of your humdrum earth,
Yet know the wide skies’ every mood;
In fastnesses that gave us birth
The spoiler may not yet intrude.
Where hills are high and paths are hard
The grim bush sentinels still guard
Spare a bloom of blue, lady,
To adorn a bower.
A violet will do, lady—
Any azure flower.
Since we hold a dance to-day,
We would make our ball-room gay,
Where the scented grasses sway,
And the tall trees tower.
Beautiful but shy, lady,
Yesterday we came
Dropping from the sky, lady,
Flecks of golden flame—
Golden flame and royal blue—
We have come to beg of you
Any scrap of heaven’s hue
For our dancing game.
Spare us but a leaf, lady,
If our suit be spurned
We shall play the thief, lady,
When your back is turned;
Ravishing your garden plot
Of the choicest you have got—
Pansy or forget-me-not—
Counting it well earned.
Then, if some rare chance, lady,
Later should befall.
And you gain a glance, lady,
At our dancing hall,
You will find your blossoms there
’Mid our decorations where,
With a proud, patrician air,
We hold the Bushland Ball.
They say I am a shy, wild thing,
That seeks the wild bush glade.
Quick to be gone on whirring wing,
Where strangers should invade;
But well I know what all birds know—
The voice of friend, the tread of foe;
And deem it wise to fear the worst
Till I have knowledge of you first.
Afar my muffled drumming sounds,
Where tangled dogwood grows;
But when you tread my feeding grounds
I am alert for foes.
A flash of iridescent wing,
And I am but a vanished thing.
Gone to be heard and seen no more,
In spite of all your forest lore.
But should you win me in the end
By dint of kindlier lore,
Gladly I take you for a friend,
And to your own house door
I come with confidence complete
To quest my food about your feet,
And, with a gravely gentle air,
Display my shy bronze beauty there.
A low-living fellow, I haven’t a friend;
My heart, like my habit, is black;
My nature is “yellow”; my greed has no end,
And every virtue I lack.
The aerial gangster, the bird racketeer
Wherever I go follows frenzy and fear;
But I flap on my way with a curse and a sneer
To bluster and bully and sack.
My methods are savage. I come with my mob
To harry the helpless and weak,
To rend and to ravage, to murder and rob,
And my ways are the ways of a sneak.
No meat is amiss to my cavernous maw;
I kidnap the nestlings; I bow to no law;
Then I’m off on my way with a sinister caw
Or an egg at the end of my beak.
I’m cautious and cunning and gruesome and grim;
For what I can’t slaughter I maim.
But if you come gunning your chances are slim,
For I know every trick of the game,
My signals are many, my sentries alert;
Bird-shot or abuses do me little hurt;
And, like every gangster, my gifts I pervert.
In short, I’m a fowl of ill-fame.
I’m the friendliest of them all,
When winter comes;
Daily at your door I call
Clinging sideways to a stake,
Eloquent appeal I make.
“Spare a scrap for pity’s sake!
This cold air numbs.”
I will follow as you dig
And search the dirt.
Worms or beetles, small or big,
Are my dessert;
And, should you seem gently kind,
From your hand I do not mind
Taking anything you find;
But I’m a flirt.
For when spring comes to the land
You are forgot.
I have great affairs on hand
As days wax hot.
Should I pass you, I pretend
To ignore my winter’s friend;
Intimacy’s at an end;
I know you not.
Yet, when winter comes once more,
And summer ends,
You will find me at your door
To make amends;
Clinging sideways to a stake,
Eloquent appeal I’ll make:
“Spare a scrap for pity’s sake!
Aw, let’s be friends!”
A fairy out of fairyland, I flit
On visits rare
Into your garden and your heart, to sit
And charm you there.
Tiny and trusting for one winter day;
And then away.
You count me not amid your singing friends
Of bush and bough;
But every little while I make amends.
Behold me now,
Claiming attention with quaint little clicks,
Like snapping sticks.
Your ear I may not charm with tuneful note,
Yet do my best
To charm your eye. Behold my ebon coat,
My rich, rose breast!
Straight out of elfland surely. Elfin too
All things I do.
They say my coming brings good luck to men.
On fragile wings
I am no sooner here than gone again,
Like all good things—
Gone with my trustful air, my curious clicks
Like snapping sticks.
None but the birds’ elect may know me well.
I come to bring you an enchanter’s spell
From some charmed land,
From some green Arcady that men have known
In dreams alone.
A fairy out of fairyland, I flit
For one brief day,
Like all good fortune, here a while to sit,
And then away,
Leaving but memories of elfin tricks
And broken sticks.
“CalLOG’alloo-ay” On a windy day.
Perched on a tree-top high
I pour my notes from a valiant throat;
For cock o’ the walk am I!
Defiant, loud, superbly proud,
My song soars to the blue,
A clarion call a challenge to all:
I have set the bounds to my feeding grounds;
And here I am the king.
With beak and claw I press my law
On every feathered thing.
Cock o’ the walk—no questing hawk,
Proud eagle, crow nor thrush
Stays to defy my battle-cry,
My pinions’ whistling rush.
“CalLOG’allay-oo!” When day is new
I fill the scented morn
With a joyful song, loud, sweet and long—
My echoing, hunting horn.
“Calloo, callay!” I greet the day
Throned on a tree-top high.
In my domain I rule, I reign,
Cock o’ the walk am I!
Spring surely must be near. High overhead
The kind blue heavens bend to timbers tall;
And here, this morning, is the picture spread
That I have learned to love the best of all.
I hear flame robin call
His early love-song. Winter’s might is sped;
And young crowns now begin to fleck with red
This great green, living wall.
Picture of promise, that I count the best
Of many a fair familiar bushland scene;
Lifting o’er all, the far mount’s sunlit crest
Looks down where silver wattles lightly screen
Blue smoke, that peeps between
Their tall tops, from some settler’s hidden nest—
Looks down on golden wattles closely pressed
To blackwood’s luscious green.
Before the dovecote, mirrored in the pond,
A veil diaphanous of drifting mist
Makes many a nimbus for great gums beyond
Whose gaunt, grey limbs a mounting sun has kissed
To palest amethyst.
Now, stepping very daintily, with fond,
Soft cooings, fantails on the lawn respond,
To Spring, the amorist.
Above the pool the swallows drift and dip
And circle on, to trail bright crystal showers.
Blue wren and peewit dance about its lip,
Pausing a while to test their choral powers.
And now, a hint of flowers
Peeps forth, where lupins, in close fellowship
With musk and maple, risk a tender tip
In quest of sunlit hours.
From the deep forest, on the clean crisp air,
The bushman’s axe-blows echo sharply clear;
A soft cloud’s tattered fleece drifts idly where
Glows azure hope. Impatient to appear,
Springs now full many a spear
Of marching daffodils. Shorn of cold care.
The joyous bush birds vie with flutings rare.
Spring surely must be near.
I have found in this Australian scene, of mountain and forest, of shaded creek and fern-filled gully, of cultivated gardens bordered by the virgin bush, much quiet peace and many joys—on rare occasions, inexpressible joys, far removed from the dark moods awakened by those pictures of arid desolation that have engaged too closely and too often the minds of those who would recreate with words the life and scenes and moods of this versatile continent.
The “Dead Heart,” the dusty track through waterless deserts, the hopeless struggles of the outback settler—all these have, I think, been more than a little over-stressed. There are many pleasant places up and down this land where nature has been less unkind.
In such a pleasant place I have lived and worked for nearly thirty years; and, if I have succeeded in conveying to readers something of the joys and (for the sake of truth) of the rare tragedies of this forest place, then the whole of my task has been done, for I set out to do no more than that.
As I write these lines, seated upon a green lawn with the scene before me, the evening of what has been a glorious sunny day begins to steal about the forest.
The rigours of winter have almost passed; the coming of spring (which none can appreciate so well as dwellers in this mountain place of deep forests dank with too abundant rain) is indicated by a thousand hopeful signs. Daffodil and rhododendron are aglow in the garden, lawns have taken on a yet more vivid green, and the foliage of golden wattle that rich hue soon to be intensified by the already bursting bloom. Long since, the birds began their early mating songs.
To this valley twilight has come; but the sinking sun, casting his last rays high over it, tinges with an amethyst glow the clustering tree-trunks of a towering eastern hill.
Two grey thrushes already have called for the customary bedtime snack and, having supped, neither has failed to pipe a little song in gratitude—or so it pleases us to think.
An impertinent blue wren, perched on a rose spurt close by my head, inspects me with an air of comic impudence, then lifts up his head to a refrain that, in such a mite, seems absurdly vociferous. Then he, too, flutters off with his brown-clad family to some secret abode in the denser scrubs. From his perch on a high gable a kookaburra chuckles rather drowsily and cocks a shrewd eye earthward.
As the gloaming deepens, there descends upon this scene a mantle of peace so profound that it is past explaining—a feeling of content so deep, of such calm and unquestioning acceptance of all things, that it seems to hold some quality of mystery that ’twould be folly to explore. Out of the brooding forest, the darkening sky, the last goings and comings of birds, the little whispered calls and secret songs and rustlings, there steals to one a sense of infinite well-being, definite and real enough while the mind accepts it without question; yet so impalpable as to vanish utterly the moment it becomes a problem for curious enquiry.
In his book, The Nature of a Bird’s World, the English writer, H. Eliot Howard says in the preface, “There is more joy in finding a problem than in trying to solve one, for to solve a problem is vain delusion. There is a mystery of song, a mystery of flight, a mystery of nest; and yet, not three mysteries but one: a bird is the mystery, for it steals our values of beauty and mingles them strangely in form no less than in feathers; in colour no less than in song; and in what we value most, devotion to its home.”
That, I feel, in some vague and general way, defines my attitude towards our birds—if ever I trouble to conceive an attitude at all—and, indeed, towards all nature in this Singing Garden green-walled by towering trees that hold a mystery all their own.
It is darkening rapidly now; the kookaburra is still perched upon the high gable, though I can discern little more than his silhouette. As I watch he becomes suddenly alert and, diving straight as an arrow for a spot on the lawn not three feet from my chair, swiftly, with perfect confidence, plunges his great bill into the earth and unerringly draws forth a fine fat worm. He calmly batters it twice against a rung of the chair, gobbles it, turns about awkwardly on clumsy feet and, before he has flown thirty yards, darkness conceals him.
Here is yet another mystery. How in that half-darkness, from sixty feet away or more, did that kookaburra know with such unerring certitude that the worm was exactly at that spot and so easily accessible? Is he possessed of vision so unbelievably keen that, from that distance and in such feeble light, he detected some infinitesimal earth movement that betrayed the worm? Did the unlucky worm betray itself by a sound-vibration too minutely high in frequency for human ears? Or again, has the kookaburra some sixth sense that we lords of earth are unable to discover or to comprehend?
And, last question of all: is it vastly important that I or any other human should know?
Now is the healing, quiet hour that fills
This gay, green world with peace and grateful rest.
Where lately over opalescent hills
The blood of slain Day reddened all the west,
Now comes at Night’s behest,
A glow that over all the forest spills,
As with the gold of promised daffodils.
Of all hours this is best.
It is the time for thoughts of holy things,
Of half-forgotten friends and one’s own folk.
O’er all, the garden-scented sweetness clings
To mingle with the wood fire’s drifting smoke.
A bull-frog’s startled croak
Sounds from the gully where the last bird sings
His laggard vesper hymn, with folded wings;
And Night spreads forth her cloak.
Keeping their vigil where the great range yearns,
Like rigid sentries stand the wise old gums.
On blundering wings a night-moth wheels and turns
And lumbers on, mingling its drowsy hums
With that far roll of drums,
Where the swift creek goes tumbling midst the ferns . . .
Now, as the first star in the zenith burns,
The dear, soft darkness comes.
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