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Might it be this little guy?

Might it be this little guy?

Something is stealing my water.

It’s actually the chooks’ water, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important matter, one of life and death.  They have a ten-day waterer, but in the last two weeks it’s been depleted every day, and the hens aren’t impressed, not at all.  Could it be that with this unseasonally warm winter and spring they are thirstier than usual?  But even at the height of summer they don’t drink this much.

Could the sparrows be the ones who are drinking it, the sparrows who are determined to drive me crazy with their pesky ways?

It just might be that there’s something else in my little garden.

Every morning I wake to find the mulch disturbed, some of it flicked over the paving and stepping stones.  I always broom it back to where I want it – that is, after all, the whole point of having a garden – but the next morning there they are again, the scatterings of mulch.  Something is digging, and it might also be drinking.

Recently, if I’m up early enough and look out into the hopeful dawn, I sometimes see a darting shape, almost as if it’s been flung across the yard by sling-shot.  Yesterday morning, I waited for the light to come and got a better look: it’s small, and black, with a bright red beak.  It’s a blackbird.

They say blackbirds came to Australia in the 1850s via Melbourne, and since then have formed colonies up the east coast, particularly in the lush, basaltic gardens of the Blue Mountains.  But also, quite evidently, in my Goulburn yard (now that Cat the Ripper is nothing more than an ache in my stomach that won’t go away).

Is it the blackbird that’s stealing the water?  It’s possible that it is.

Unless I also have a snake.  But let’s not go there.

Sometimes I’ve seen a large brown hawk sitting on the ridge of the old shed that is my garage.  The hawk could be after the sparrows, or the chooks, or even my blackbird.  What a little world is in my garden.  There are days when I wish that I could sort myself out, forget about this whole writing madness, and just let plants and birds be all I need, let this small patch of life sustain me, in essence be my water – so I could live out my days simply sipping.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 16 November 2013.)

Scenario: in jail you will have two options - a pad and pen, or an endless supply of novels.  What do you choose?

Scenario: in jail you will have two options – a pad and pen, or an endless supply of novels. What do you choose?


‘I just have to write; I have no choice.’  It’s a perplexing statement, mostly because it’s just a little too grandiose, even for me.  And self-important.  It’s as though writing for some people is as critical as breathing and eating and sleeping and loving.  But writing isn’t that important.  If, say, Helen Garner doesn’t produce another book the world will keep turning: people will go to work, they’ll marry (if they’re allowed) and have children; there’ll be wars and earthquakes and floods and famine.  Certainly, if I don’t write another word it simply won’t register in any part of the world’s consciousness.  And the teenager down the street who’s busy scribbling away as you read this?  She’s as inconsequential as a sparrow standing on the lip of a backyard birdbath.

What I know

Do I have to write?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I have to exercise on a daily basis otherwise my brain turns in on itself.  I know that an hour in the garden or cleaning out the chook-shed cheers me up no end.  I know that a good couple of hours reading leaves me feeling connected to life in a way that’s so deep and intimate it’s almost frightening – in a good way.  I know music can resonate and elevate and move my bones like nothing else.  I know that a blue sky, especially the sort we get in this Southern Tablelands part of the world, can stop me in my tracks.  I know that when an Australian politician over-simplifies a complex problem to play on our most base fears I want to throw the coffee-table through the television screen and make the whole thing blow up.

When breaking

But do I have to write?  Every so often, perhaps a couple of times a year, I tell myself to have a break from the writing room, to just spend a few days reading on the couch, and drinking coffee in the sun, and walking the dog up the hill, and sitting by the fire with a glass of wine in hand and a record on the turntable.  For a day, as I’ve said before on this blog, it’s bliss, it really is, and for a couple of days it’s beautiful.  But then I start to get edgy: it just doesn’t feel as if I’m being productive; it feels as though I’m not living deeply enough, that time is passing me by, that I’m not making the most of everything that’s on offer.  At some point I’ll find myself on the couch scribbling away at a notepad – more than likely it’ll be an idea for a novel or novella or short story, or it might be the draft of a First Word for the Canberra Times, or a post for these here Under the counter parts.  After a day of this, I’ll find myself back at the desk and working on a whole new project.

No different

But do I have to do this?  Perhaps I’m addicted to the work of fiction: the heady rush when it’s going well; the gut-wrenching frustration when it’s all going to hell in a hand-basket.  Maybe I like fictional worlds better than real worlds, that what I make up is more interesting that anything that I can actually touch and smell and feel.  Or it could be the love of fantasy, even the contemporary-realism type of fantasy that I like to do.  Or the love of playing – is make believe simply better than make do?  It could be that I just like setting goals and achieving them (as if that’s all it takes to create a story and have it sent into the world), so in the end I’m no different to someone who wants to swim faster in the pool.

Something bad; becoming dreams

This morning, while feeding the chooks, I subjected myself to a highly fictitious scenario (trust me on this): I’ve done something bad, have been given a prison term, and offered the following two options: a pad and pen; or an endless supply of novels.  I’ve put a lot of thinking into finding the right answer, and I’m almost 100% certain that I’d take the endless supply of novels.  Because in prison I’d want to escape into the fictional worlds on offer, they’d be worlds so carefully and lovingly and painstakingly and skilfully created by others, and I’d appreciate – I’d need – them all very much, reading would be my saviour.  And I think there’d be relief in this, that I didn’t have to do it anymore, that I could just enjoy the words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters and characters and predicament for their own sake.  Except they’d mean more to me than that, wouldn’t they: the novels would sustain me, they’d become my dreams.

A choice while free

So, do I have to write?  No, but while I’m as free as a sparrow on the lip of a backyard bird-bath, writing is something that I love to choose to do.

I’ve got a bad case of sparrows.  No matter where I am in the house a sparrow isn’t far away.  Even now, in my writing room, I can hear the chirpy little birds in the front garden, plus they’re scurrying in the guttering above, and they’re also in the climbing rose around the side.  There’s always a squadron of the bloody things in the backyard wattles; from there they can do raids on the chook-house.

I grew up being told that sparrows are awful birds because, like rats, they carry disease.  Indeed some people call sparrows rats of the air’, but that’s not an image worth exploring right now.

Because sparrows are clearly a permanent fixture of my house I’ve been reading up on them.  I’ve learnt that the common ‘House Sparrow’, Passer domesticus, originated in the Middle East and has been taking the world by storm ever since, apparently by natural migration or ‘seaborne travel’ (don’t tell our politicians).  In the 1860s, sparrows were purposely introduced to Australia in an attempt to make the place more European – our forebears really were a bit odd, weren’t they.  I’ve learnt that because of their ability to adapt the sparrow was considered The World’s Most Successful Bird, as if it was an electronics company or a type of religion.

However, there’s trouble in paradise: sparrow populations are dwindling.  They’ve completely disappeared from central London, though they remain in Paris, which probably just suggests that our little feathered friends have excellent taste in bread and cheese.  Populations in Australia are also shrinking, because there are fewer insects to eat due to increased pesticide use and decreased flora diversity.  Or because the Indian Mynar is having a good crack at that World’s Most Successful Bird title.

So I’m starting to feel sorry for my own little sparrow population, perhaps even grateful.  Old Mr Shakespeare would have agreed: in Hamlet he wrote, ‘There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’.  Further back, the Bible’s Old Testament said, ‘I watch and am like a sparrow alone on the house top’ (Psalm 102:7), which no doubt is the motto of the International Stalkers Fellowship.  Jokes aside, I am rather taken with the lyrics of the 1905 Gospel hymn ‘His Eye on the Sparrow’: ‘His eye is on the sparrow/and I know He watches me’.  I better go see what the chooks make of that.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 October 2011.)

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