Snatched phrases: stolen

‘[I] saw a squawking flash of cockatoos
go reeling and wheeling into the sky.
The soft secret underside of their wings,
so close, so tender.’

From ‘Skylarking’
by Kate Mildenhall

 

I was standing at the bus-stop the other day on my way to work when an odd commotion across the road caught my eye. A car had driven past, fast, and something had got caught up in the passage of its passing: something grey and small and warm and moving, something that gave the impression of flight, of flurrying. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, although subconsciously I registered feathers, but after the car had sped past, I saw that it was a small bird. In my memory I replayed what had just happened and this time, in my mind, I saw it: the bird had swooped down from the branch of a tree overlooking the street, but somehow it had mistimed its dive, and so it had got caught up in the passage of the car. Got hit, is what I mean.

The dove — that’s what it was, I saw: one of those spotted turtle doves with the iridescent sheen on their neck and the rash of white spots over a patch of purest black — had landed, after its collision with the car, on the ground in the middle of the far lane. Now the wind was playing with its feathers a little, and I saw the dove try get up on its legs but then fall back down again. It was young, not quite fully grown. I glanced around me, at my fellow commuters waiting at the bus-stop, but though I saw people looking, though I saw them seeing what I was seeing, no-one moved.

And so I ran out onto the road before the next car came past and crouched down beside the dove. I looked down at it, hesitating, and then I whispered to it, because I felt I should, I’m just going to pick you up and get you out of the way of all these cars; and then I reached for it and clasped it between my hands. I could feel its heart beating inside my two hands, and the warmth beneath its feathers, and I could feel it trying to gather itself and flap its wings to free itself from me; it didn’t want me to hold it, not at all. But it was too small or injured to shrug itself free and so I held it gently and lifted it and crossed to the far side of the road, opposite the bus-stop, and then I set it down on the footpath, there out of reach of the traffic.

Once I had put the dove down I crouched down beside it a moment on the footpath, watching it. I said to the bird, You’re safe now, and then it blinked — only it wasn’t a blink, not really. Its eyelid came down far too slowly, like a shutter, in a kind of world-weary exhaustion; and then its eyelid opened again, also too slowly. I could swear it had let out a little sigh as it blinked, although birds don’t sigh, do they? After that, it went utterly still. When I glanced across the road at the bus-stop, no-one was looking my way anymore; everyone was busy with their phones and their handbags and their earbuds. After a moment I stood up and walked back across the road and waited with them at the bus-stop. Five minutes later the bus arrived, and still no-one had spoken, and still the bird hadn’t moved from the place where I had set it to rest on the footpath.

I thought as I sat on the bus that the dove had died: that perhaps the shock of me lifting it up had added a final trauma to its day and its heart had stopped right then, as I crouched by it on the footpath and whispered to it, trying to comfort it. I thought about that all the way to work, and then I tried not to think about it anymore.

Doves are a dime a dozen, and there was nothing more I could have done, I guess, but still I felt sad. It was the intimacy of that moment, I think: feeling the secret beat of the dove’s heart between my hands, the warmth of its soft chest against my palm. I felt, perhaps, the way the narrator does in the passage above, as she observes the cockatoos in the sky, seeing the soft secret underside of their wings. It was the stolen, fleeting nature of the moment between the dove and me, tinged further with the thought that I hadn’t helped, and maybe — just maybe — I had made the dove’s last moments worse, not better.

When I got off at the bus-stop that evening, on my way home from work, I saw to my surprise and my slow delight that the body of the bird wasn’t there as I had expected it to be, cold and long dead. There were no feathers there, either, no signs of blood or injury or scuffle.

And I think now — I truly think — that when I set down the bird on the footpath and it let out that terrible not-sigh, it was in shock, but it was essentially uninjured; and so afterwards — after it had recovered from its shock — it got up and it flew away to safety.

That’s what I think.

Snatched phrases on … birds

‘It was eluding her again: the essence of bird.’

From ‘Nest
by Inga Simpson

I love this sentence. Jen, the protagonist of Nest, is an artist, and in this passage she is trying to draw a fairy wren.

I’m not an artist; in fact, I’m spectacularly untalented when it comes to drawing. But I know the feeling of trying to capture — in a photograph, perhaps, or in conversation, or in writing — what you see when you see a bird. To say that a bird flies, or that it sings, or that it is beautiful is true, but those descriptions come nowhere near to capturing what a bird really is, or how it makes you feel.

The essence of bird. Perhaps it will always elude me, as it does Jen. Perhaps that’s part of the fascination.

Snatched phrases on … pretty days

‘The grass had been cut and gave off a warm, allergenic smell.
The sky was soft like cloth
and birds ran over it in long threads.’

from ‘Conversations with friends’
by Sally Rooney

The image in today’s post doesn’t quite match the words, I’m afraid:

Still, it’s a pretty image, and perhaps it captures a little of the essence of Rooney’s soft spring day …

Tentacles

Other people’s words about … urbanisation

Here, town finished, and countryside began. You crossed over, from pavements and shops, towards copses and streams, and meadows full of grazing cows. The streets and the fields seemed to push at each other, the city trying to sprawl further out and the fields resisting. The planners and architects and merchants would obviously win. What force had buttercups and earthworms and cabbages against the need of human beings for dwelling places, against developers’ chances to make money? Alive as a strange creature in an aquarium, the city stretched out its tentacles, grew and swelled, gobbling the pastures and hedgerows that lay in its path. Fields were bought, and new rows of houses built, and then the process repeated.

from ‘The Walworth Beauty
by Michèle Roberts

When we moved to Aldinga Beach almost twenty years ago, it was still — just, almost — a country town. Ever since then, the city has been creeping up on it. Sometimes I think the encroaching suburbs are like an oil spill, seeping down the slopes of the hills from the north, all the way into the Scrub. And so, though the rural world we live in at Aldinga Beach is very different from the nineteenth-century English one Michèle Roberts describes in the passage above, still her words seem apposite.

But the Scrub is still alive and I still go wandering through it, and whenever I’m wandering there, I feel hope. I took the pictures in today’s post one morning last week, in late July. Though the sky was grey and the temperature was chilly, the first breath of spring had wafted over the Scrub, as I hope you’ll see below.

In flower that morning were flame heath bushes …

… and …

… grass trees.

I saw the first shy showing …

… of guinea flowers:

There were green shoots everywhere …

… after the recent rains.

And there were other plants budding, too. Like this:

And this:

And this:

In the southwest corner of the Scrub, where the land slopes down towards the coast, the kangaroos were snoozing …

… although they weren’t best pleased when I disturbed them:

Further on, I caught a flash of gold from the corner of my eye. It was a golden whistler darting about the branches of a tree beside the sandy path.

Whistlers don’t sing at this time of the year, but their plumage is as glorious as ever (though unfortunately faintly blurred in my photos):

So, yes, the tentacles of the city are reaching out here in South Australia.

But still, the last remnants of the pre-urbanised world like Aldinga Scrub live on.

Meadowlands

Other people’s words on … wandering

Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been plowed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use. Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don’t produce a market crop. The same is true of the meadowlands of imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space — for wilderness and public space — must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space. Otherwise the individual imagination will be bulldozed over for the chain-store outlets of consumer appetite, true-crime titillations, and celebrity crises.

from ‘Wanderlust
by Rebecca Solnit

Most of you would know by now that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is wandering: along the beach, through the Scrub. We read a great deal these days about the value of high-intensity exercise (the dreaded HIIT), and though I understand the principle — short bursts of intense exercise, in order to get your heart going — I find the practice intimidating and somewhat soulless. I’m not interested in exercising purely to become ‘fit’, or to ‘get healthy’, or to try to do something epic.

What I’m interested in is wellbeing — a concept that includes mental, emotional and spiritual aspects as well as the more obvious physical ones.

That’s why I like to wander. Wandering, for me, can be a slow stroll through the bush, or it can be a steady march along the shore. Hopping on my bike and riding places — that’s a form of wandering, too. It’s about breathing in fresh air, moving through beautiful surroundings, looking around, and — yes — musing. As Solnit points out, it’s about being unfettered in time as well as space. Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, she says.

Oh, yes.

So today’s round-up of photos comes from another one of my recent wanders through the Scrub, back at the end of April. It was a dull, still day, and not many of the plants were in flower. The bush seemed stripped of bright colour: it was all earthy greens and sandy browns. The birdsong was muted, too — the whistlers don’t call much at this time of year; the shrike thrush songs are shorter and softer than in the warmer months. A crow croaked and muttered in the distance, and I heard snatches of broken magpie song.

But then I noticed the banksia trees, which were all in flower. I hadn’t seen them at first because I’d stepped in from a louder, brighter world beyond the Scrub, a world of fences and bitumen streets and painted houses. Banksia leaves are a dark, khaki green, and the flowers blend in with the surrounding vegetation, varying in colour from pale yellow, through light green, to drab brown. Their beauty is as muted as the birdsong I described above, and in order not to miss it — in order to appreciate it — you have to be willing to slow down. To stop. To muse.

And that is what I did.

The beast

Snatched phrases (on being present)

Do the anxiety. Then leave it there. This is our challenge.

from ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story about Anxiety
by Sarah Wilson

Simple words, huh? They apply to all manner of ills, I think — not just anxiety. They are about staying in the present: doing the hard stuff when it comes up, not questioning it or agonising over it … and then leaving it behind and moving on.

There are no solutions to anxiety out there, Wilson argues further on: no cures or fixes. So you just do it …

… and then you leave it.

This makes great sense to me.

Today’s photos? They’re from one of my latest wanders in the Scrub, a couple of weeks ago: mid-March. It was a still, grey afternoon, and when I first began to walk, the colours seemed drab, and the birdsong was muted, and the air felt unkind and cold.

But as I wandered on, I began to see a few flowers despite the greyness, and I came upon a kangaroo, which stiffened at my bumbling approach and then bounded away. I heard the sea murmur somewhere through and beyond the thicket of trees, and a magpie began to carol, low and soft.

I had done my day, and I had left it there, and things were fine. Just fine.

Gladness

On a windless, clouded afternoon at the end of May,
I go for another wander in the scrub.
I’m greeted at the entrance by one of my favourite native birds,
the kookaburra:

Its laughter echoes through the scrub for the first ten minutes of my walk.
Then comes magpie song:

A kangaroo regards me intently from afar.

The only bush in flower is one whose name I don’t know.
Its flowers grow in tiny, white clusters and smell sweet and rich, like honey.

It’s quiet in the scrub,
and I, too, am quietly gladdened for my time there.