I’m west of Nowra, at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people (and what a gift it is), and as I like to do every three hours or so I go outside to get some fresh air.  Rather than head to the Shoalhaven River or up onto the bush escarpment, this morning I just stroll down to the homestead and sit for a while in Arthur’s garden.  The garden, which links the two-storey sandstone main house with the simple weatherboard studio, has a tropical feel and is well-tended but pleasingly not immaculate.  Today isn’t a public open day so I have the place to myself, though in the tree canopies above a squadron of rainbow lorikeets makes true solace impossible.

At this much-loved refuge of arguably Australia’s most significant visual artist, a man who lived the ultimate creative life, a commitment to dreaming and exploring and communicating, a life more should be enabled to live, I sit quietly on this timber bench.  I let my mind wander here and there; I slow down, I empty.  But within minutes I’m snared by a scene: it’s not the sudden memory of a famous Boyd painting, a biblical landscape set off by one of his mythical ‘ramox’, but it’s this: less than a metre away, behind a dark-leafed shrub the name of which I have no idea, is the u-shaped mating site of a satin bowerbird.

How perfect.  How beautiful.  How… audacious!

I’ve always had a thing for bowerbirds, because they’re the most outwardly inventive of all our winged creatures.  It’s the male’s job to attract the female and he does this by building what in essence is a performance space – a stage, a dance-floor; a gateway, an archway, a landing.  Once the bower is built (always in a north-south direction) it’s painted with a mixture of chewed vegetable matter and saliva and then decorated with all things blue: feathers or flowers when away from human habitation, otherwise his favourites are clothes pegs, drinking straws and bottle tops, all of which he scatters like toys around a sandpit.  That the male birds raid each other’s bowers to steal favoured objects only makes me love them even more.

So he waits until a female starts showing interest and then he sings and dances until the job is done, in more ways than one.  The older he is, the less he relies on his exhibition of blue, having more confidence in his bodily performance, in his mimicry skills, pinching the calls of other birds.  Bowerbirds are thieves and plagiarists.

I’ve seen bowers before but it’s the cheekiness of this particular Bundanon bird that captivates me.  He hasn’t hidden his bower in the kilometres of impenetrable bush nearby; no, he’s made this one smack-bang in the guts of Arthur Boyd’s garden.  It’s as if he’s saying, Yes, Mr Famous Painter, you did great things, but look at what I can do – I’m a singer and a dancer and a painter and a sculptor all in one, and a pretty handy lover to-boot!  And it’s like he’s saying to me just over here on my bench, Sure you might end up being clever with words, but have you ever thought of being as brave as I am right now?

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 29 2009)

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