this life whole under my hands
T found a raven’s nest upended on the track under tall trees – a marvellous springy cradle of interlocking eucalypt and coprosma twigs. Newly or perhaps partly completed and certainly unused, with just a couple of grey underfeathers caught in the clean fine grass of its lining, it must have blown from a fork in the canopy during one of the storms we’ve had. I think of the life that begins in a nest such as this, up in the whipping sway. The ravens are furiously watchful just now, flying sorties high and fast to get above – and so gain tactical advantage over – the eagles whose hunting territory this is, and who pass over the ravens’ nest sites. Drawn-out aoouuourrr aarruuooor alarm calls sound throughout the days. The eagles respond by beating away out of range with something close to haste, occasionally turning talons-upward to warn off pairs of dive-bombing birds. I’ve never seen an eagle hunt a raven or go near a nest but there’s clearly history there.
After weeks of low cold skies the sun begins to show for hours at a time. I sit, intoxicated by the feel of it on my skin, half-listening to distant birdsong – rosella, black cockatoo, falcon, plover, pardalote – oystercatcher? – and suddenly understand that what I’m hearing is a starling rehearsing its impersonations, not far off at all – in fact it’s in the hedge overhead. Each call is perfectly realised but somehow produced in miniature, as if sung from a tree inside the world of a snow globe, and interspersed, now that I’m paying attention, with the starling’s own whistling, clicking song.
Shrike thrushes investigate a stack of plastic plant pot saucers on top of a freestanding cupboard outside the back door and begin to build there. The foundation of the nest is coarse strips of eucalypt bark taken from the kindling box and the cup is lined with dried grass stems. Local honeyeaters aren’t happy about these predators setting up in their neighbourhood and do their best to discourage them, but the thrushes just hunker down, hissing, under honeyeater attack, and continue their work. Three eggs. I start to look forward to meeting the bright eye of the sitting bird each time I step outside.
Waves of blossom pass over – the pears are finished now and hard brown nubs of fruit have formed – quinces too, and cherries are dropping their petals; apples are in full bloom. The medlar has yet to flower, although maybe it’s in shock – something (ringtail possum?) has browsed most of the leaf sprouts and many of the fruitbuds, leaving no shelter for those that remain and forcing the tree to make new shoots at a time when it would normally be setting fruit. Hawthorns’ perfect globular buds open and elderflowers fluoresce amongst their green. In the forest, bluegums continue to burst the woody lids from flower capsules, releasing skirts of cream-coloured stamens that spring free like the nutshell-folded gowns of Allerleirauh, made of the light of sun and moon and stars. Under the flowering trees fragrance of nectar pours down, mingled with the smell of aromatic oil from leaves and twigs bruised by birds that fly in to feed. On the hilltop in the paddock closed up for hay, near the holly tree where Miss C’s house stood a hundred years ago, thousands of jonquils bloom.
For the first time since the grass began to grow after winter, the rain stops long enough to let me cut the knee-deep growth around the house. The dog takes very seriously her duty to help, growling and dancing ahead of the mower, biting at the wheels, utterly joyous. She has to stop several times for a drink and a short rest in the shade but soon rushes back to her work, frothing at the mouth with barking happiness. It’s beguiling rather than infuriating because I’m wearing ear protection against the noise of the engine. I wonder what the experience is for her – is she helping me to bring down prey that bellows as it drags me forward? Or maybe she’s protecting me, attacking a predator that has me in its grip.
The conical heap of water plants at the edge of the dam continues to grow as the swans add to their nest. At first it was surrounded by a screen of reeds but these have mostly been pulled, their protein-rich rhizomes eaten and the tops passed to the sitter, who arranges them all around. I’ve heard that one sits during the day and the other at night but have never seen the handover and don’t know whether or not they have eggs – I hope they do. The swans’ behaviour is quite different from other years when they came only to feed for a few days before moving on. Then, they browsed surrounded by ducks and grebes who fed on crustaceans pulled up with the weed the swans were eating. Now they chase off any bird that comes near.
It rains a deluge again. Water pools in places where the oldest people in town declare they never saw it before; gravel roads wash into gullies and potholes as drains that run beside them turn into whitewater creeks and overflow onto the roadways. The swans seem unperturbed, building their reedy island higher as the water level rises, while at the other end of the dam, grebes also tend a nest of green grass and buoyant rushes, lilliputian by comparison, that’s made to float. When I wander too close the sitter slips off into the reeds and I see the eggs, stained a rich brown by tannins; the mate, tiny and brave, arrows towards me and stands up on the water, slapping its wings and calling sharply.
Pardalotes make an exploratory tunnel in the clay of the bank behind the house, kicking out soil that’s soft enough to dig because it’s moist, but after a while they lose interest – it’s in a spot close to where a rock reef comes to the surface so perhaps they’ve hit a dead end. They turn their attention to a hole under the wall around the outdoor oven, just outside where I’m working. I hear their excited conversation – prrrrr wichew wichew wichew! – amplified by the burrow but even so, astonishingly loud for a bird that weighs less than a walnut.
Progenitor and child, the hill, a shifting entity, breathes in rain and air and sun, breathes out life and takes it back. Each plant, each creature reaches downwards and upwards, flows out, more or less freely, more or less touched by violence or poison or lack through its flourishing, fruiting, decline and renewal. Talk goes on within and among persons and groups in their various kinds, scintillations that form the living bearing of place, and I’m in that mix, my whole self – bodyheartmind – also a landscape with its own histories and languages, its places of peace and prosperity and its scarred reaches where wars are fought. A gathering of many parts, like the hill that sustains me as one of its numberless offspring, I am brought forth and nourished, encouraged and bound. Body, fragrance, song we unfold from tiny spaces shaped by what came before; we take our form, make what we can of our moment as places nest us down and throw us out into the time of our lives, whole, broken and complete.