Attend

                           What sees is seen. Alan Garner


A blackbird has laid three eggs and then abandoned them, in a nest she made at eye level in a tangled heap of pink jasmine against the house wall, near where she built before and brought out chicks. Perhaps the nest was a decoy – at any rate, it seems to happen often that birds build nests and lay eggs and leave them, so it’s either worth the effort to pre-emptively divert a predator, or not worth the risk of persisting where danger has actually been sensed – there are rats and quolls on the hunt at night and currawongs in the daytime. Snakes are coming out of hibernation too.

Fantailed cuckoos, shining bronze-cuckoos, pallid cuckoos call from before daylight, sometimes in the middle of the night, though they’re not interested in the blackbird – they hunt the garden and forest for nests of smaller birds to lay their eggs in – wrens and thornbills, honeyeaters and flycatchers. If the host birds don’t outwit the cuckoos (false entrances to nests, passwords sung to chicks while still in the egg), the giant cuckoo chick throws out the other eggs and nestlings and then grows and grows. The first satin flycatchers begin to call, high in the forest canopy, and first cuckoo-shrikes (neither cuckoos nor shrikes) arrive to hunt insects in the flowering acacias. After a silence of several years, I hear the two-note rising see peer? see peer? of a brown quail. 

A haze of green brightens moment by moment on the birches and hawthorns and on the little hornbeam outside where I sit to write. And still it rains and sleets and every now and then the sun comes out and bees rush to work the silver wattles whose blossom is finishing, and the blackwoods whose pale flowers are taking over from the wattles. Fumitory reaches its tendrils high into anything it can find to scramble on, and a carpet of forget-me-not blues the ground wherever seed fell last year in the garden around the house. The young hens and their rooster are happy, scratching and pecking in the easy ground, calling softly to one another – look, look, look here!

Fans of yellow silt wash out of the hillside where rainwater finds its way down through the undermined slope to the river. The same yellow clay rises through the gravel of the unsealed roads, greasing the surface that is now deeply gouged and potholed again despite recent repairs; my car skids on curves as I drive along the ridge. Boys in utes come out to play through the night for the pleasure of risk as they aquaplane the narrow bends.

Making sauerkraut with spring cabbages that will go to seed if they’re not used soon, adding fresh ginger and carrots for aromatic sweetness. In the wet, earthworms and tiny centipedes have found their way right to the centre of each cabbage head, so I take them apart leaf by leaf, washing the silvery waxy bloom on the dark outer layers, working inwards to the green sunlight at the heart where flower buds are forming.

Beside the outdoor oven, when the sun appears, a she-oak skink basks on warm rocks, blinking, tilting its head to see me better, tasting the air with its round-tipped, blueblack tongue, little devourer of snails and slugs. Long as my forearm, the skink is slim and finely scaled, its upper side umber with chevrons of black, its underside silver-pink. The last few centimetres of tail are slaty grey, regrown after the original tip was sacrificed to the grip of a predator who broke it across a line of muscles and arteries organised to contract against bloodloss.

Green overtakes the last flowers on the cherry plums; pear and early apple blossoms begin to open before the leaves appear and then they too are swallowed in foliage. The quinces are clothed in pale furry leaf clusters with a fragrant star seated at the heart of each. Buds on the sweet chestnuts and lindens and English oaks are the slowest to open. Where last month’s pollen has been lifted on the wind, tiny purple cones start to form in clusters high in the pines, and singly here and there lower down.

For the first time in decades, two banjo frogs call from the dam – males competing for the attention of females who move silently in to check them out. For ten years or more – two thirds of the animal’s lifetime – there’s been just one who calls each spring. When I first moved to the farm these big warty frogs were numerous, and then over the course of a couple of seasons they disappeared. Perhaps there was an outbreak of the chytrid fungus that has wiped out amphibian populations around the world, the infection spread via the international trade in frogs used for human pregnancy testing from the 1950s till the 1970s. The smaller froglets and tree frogs here have remained numerous though, and on the mainland, it seems that some species whose populations crashed are beginning to recover.

And now a day of perfect softness – sun that’s not yet harsh, still air in which a bead of water sits at the tip of every grassblade. Everything exhales. Down in the forest, echidnas tear up nests of jack jumper ants and eat the adults that swarm out to attack, then the soft larvae hidden deeper; the ants make new colonies in the easy digging at the forest edge; they pile a mound of excavated dirt around the entrance and cover it with eucalypt flower caps and tiny pebbles. From round bulbs that can last through drought and fire and flood, ground orchids put up leaves and insect-mimicking flowers to bring in their pollinators. 

We look and listen, touch and smell and taste, and are taken in, in turn, by all that we perceive – place as soul, soul as place – each becomes the other, sensing. I think of how this is true even in the flickering instant of my time on the hill, and alongside that, I think of the melukerdee nation whose country this is – people and land who have made each other through tens of thousands of years of attending; melukerdee language and culture emerging as a life form through that continual mutual opening out and turning back in. 

And uninvited as I am, the longer I attend, the more I’m inhabited by this place – its weather and stones and plants and creatures make up the balance of deep time; they grow through me so that I too shimmer into focus, skink on its warm rock, three blue eggs in their mud-lined nest, quail call from the long grass, scent of blackwood pollen after rain.

Reference
Alan Garner. Treacle Walker. 4th Estate, 2021, p 47.

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