August 20, 2019

Introduction to New Nature Writing

I strayed from the path of traditional, or pastoral, nature writing years ago when I discovered not only urban landscapes rich in wildlife, but anthropomorphism, irony, and bottles of red wine and bourbon with birds on their labels. As a young reporter, I had been impressed by the New Journalism of the 1960s which took reporting into the realm of the novel and short-story and a few decades on I found what were termed New Nature Writers breaking with tradition and exploring similar territory.
Although I still treasure the book that was my introduction to words about nature, Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne published in 1788, I now find inspiration in one of the new journalists, Hunter S Thompson. Thompson might not have written of nature as such but his words “I write with rage and ink” have an irresistible resonance that carries far beyond the suburbs to the wooded hills of the horizon.
Like the Don Bentley Chronicles, the works in this category have largely appeared on the Tasmaniantimes website.

Lambert comes looking for me

I’m sitting on a park bench looking up at a mountain as far away from Central Park as it is possible to get. The mountain at the end of the earth is wreathed in a fine blue haze, the colour of the cerulean warbler, a haze formed of eucalypt oils which ooze from blue gums and stringybarks on hot days.

The gums and the mountain – its sharp outline standing as if cut from paper with sharp scissors – cement time and place in Tasmania, but I’m not thinking of this island state at the tip of Australia, next stop Antarctica, and the things you see from a park bench there; butterflies and birds with names like the mountain blue and the mountain parrot. I’m sitting on a park bench in Central Park, New York, in the spring of 1984 with an elf of a man, adorned with white beard and woollen hat. His name is Lambert Pohner.

Lambert is looking forward to the butterfly season when monarchs and swallowtails will flip and flutter through the magnolias and azaleas, and over the heads of roller-bladers, and joggers, and lovers, and muggers and all the other people who make up the population of Central Park. For now, though, he is contenting himself with birds which arrive before the butterflies, and is waiting on his favourite bench, near a place called the Azalea Pond, for his first sighting of ruby-throated hummingbirds for the year.

Like birds and butterflies arriving in spring, and leaving in the fall, Lambert often flits through my thoughts, usually when I sit on a park bench wherever I am at the time. Park benches always summon the spirit of Lambert, it’s as though he’s sitting there with me, talking birds or butterflies, or the people who watch them.

All those years ago, as a foreign correspondent posted to New York and cutting a lonely furrow on weekend visits to Central Park, I was lucky enough to find in Lambert someone to reignite my interest in birdwatching, and someone to open my eyes to the marvels Central Park held for the nature lover. And the natural world beyond. Lambert’s interest in butterflies, however, I found difficult to share. The migratory adventures of birds arriving in Central Park meant more to a young Englishman with a zest for foreign travel. I hunted the magnolia and Canada warblers, the bluebird and Baltimore oriole while Lambert enthused over the swallowtail, the mourning cloak and the snout.

One butterfly stood out, though, probably because I had learned of its remarkable migratory journey from its breeding grounds in Mexico. It was the monarch, or “da monaark” as Lambert would announce it when it fluttered by. The arrival of the migratory monarchs each spring filled him with as much excitement as the first glimpse of the hummingbirds hovering above the azalea blooms.

We cut curious figures, Lambert and I, when I joined him in his search for the monarchs and on his insistence on searching for the rarer snout; Lambert the urban naturalist, the sage of East 83rd Street, a bachelor who had devoted his life to birds and butterflies, and this young gung-ho correspondent, out of Africa, with girlfriends dotted up and down the East Village. I’d forgotten all this, at least the butterfly part of it, until I sorted through some yellowing newspaper cuttings from my days in New York, mainly reviews of The Falconer of Central Park, which I wrote when I lived there. Among them were not just reviews, and letters about the book, but a cutting from The New York Times which gave an account of Lambert’s butterfly passion, with the headline “A butterfly aficionado stalks the snout”.

“This is the summer of the snout”, Lambert had told the reporter, who observed in her story that the butterfly enthusiast, then 57, had seen more than 40 summers come and go in the park. And there was an observation by me, on Lambert’s obsession with butterflies and the snout, about Lambert boring me with butterfly stories, of phoning me to say: ‘‘We had the snout today!”

Along with the birds, the snout, the monarch and the butterfly announcing the arrival of summer that year, the mourning cloak (The Times reported Lambert spotted it at midday on April 3), were to enrich what had been a bereft, lost first few months in New York. It had been hard city to settle into without friends and the ones I found in bars were soon replaced by Lambert and his wonderful tribe of birders in Central Park.

The three years I spent in New York were to prove the most memorable and rewarding of my life but eventually the time came for me to return to my homeland of Britain. I had been away from Britain too long, 13 years or so travelling Africa and North America, and I felt I needed to return home to touch base. I didn’t lose Lambert, and his snout and monarch sightings and stories, however. He still kept in touch, sending me weekly letters with poems and drawings of what he had seen in the park.

His last communication told me of a roosting long-eared owl in an evergreen and, on a London subway train, an owl’s feather fluttered to the floor when I opened the letter. A few weeks later I received a telephone call from New York to say Lambert had died suddenly. I had no idea Lambert had been ill, his letters never revealed it, a lump in the neck had been checked out and had turned into something sinister. He died shortly after the diagnosis. If he had said, told me he was dying, I would have been on a plane immediately. I don’t think he wanted that though. The butterfly and bird wanderings would never have been the same with the “mourning cloak” now taking on a different meaning. And I never got to go to the funeral. I had severely injured my arm on another sortie to Africa and I was awaiting surgery to have the pins removed which had held the broken arm in place.

I was sent the obituary which appeared in The New York Times, of course, with a reference to Lambert being the “hero” of the book I had written about a year in the life of the park. And I sent a brief eulogy to be read at a memorial service the birders held for Lambert at the Azalea Pond in the park. But it wasn’t closure and most painfully I never did get to return to New York, to go birding again with Lambert, as I said I would. And I have never since returned, it would still be too painful. All those wonderful memories relived would come at too high a price. “One of these days,” I merely say to my family when they suggest we take an overseas holiday far from the Tasmanian city of Hobart which we now call home, to Central Park, so they can witness themselves the places I wrote about, and the landmarks they see so often on the television and movie screen.

I have my memories. That corner of the planet, just 843 acres of it, made such impression on me  – when I was still at a relatively young, impressionable age –  that I sometimes think a part of me resides there. I travel between two worlds in mind and spirit. That’s a thought so bizarre, irrational, that it makes me feel uncomfortable, and uncomfortable, uneasy I certainly felt one day towards the end of the southern hemisphere summer, in early 2015.

I was sitting on a bench and thinking of that parallel universe, Central Park. A beautiful, if robust butterfly the colour of chestnuts in the fall bounced by on jerky undulating flight, carried by a warm northerly breeze blowing in from the Australian outback. It looked incredibly like the monarch which had first been pointed out to me by Lambert in the summer of 1982, and when I trained my binoculars on it, its black, veined pattern on the upper wing told me it was. The spirit of Lambert was in flight, my old, long-dead friend fluttering right before my eyes, carried on an upward draft against a backdrop of the Tasmanian high country.

I was soon to discover the butterfly I had known during the years I lived in New York did indeed reach Tasmania on occasion. In Australia it is called the wanderer, instead of the monarch, and this was perhaps the reason I had overlooked it in the past, at least the knowledge of its existence in the far south. Migratory monarchs, wind-blown from their southern migration in the fall within the United States, had reached Pacific Islands, had established populations there and in turn had colonised Australia, although sightings of them on the island of Tasmania remained rare. Although all the evidence was there, I was not after a rational, scientific explanation for the monarch’s arrival on a sunny day in Tasmania. I wanted to believe my monarch had come all the way from the Azalea Pond in Central Park. It was Lambert come to look for me.

Donald Knowler,  Hobart, Tasmania, June, 2015

New introduction to The Falconer of Central Park, published as an ebook 2015, first published hardback, New York 1984.


In the shadow of William Boot

William Boot, the bumbling war correspondent in the satirical novel about journalism, Scoop, and I have much in common.

Or so I have been told by readers of my “On the wing” newspaper column.

Although I’ve tried to develop the image of a cool, jet-setting journalist – at least during my younger days – I’ve never quite escaped the shadow of William Boot, the nature writer for the Daily Beast who found himself sent to Africa to cover human conflict by mistake.

Notebook in hand, sharp pencil at the ready, and keeping an eye out for the neatest telex machine, I thought I had a “hold the front page” persona far removed from the dithering, confused and lost Boot during my own days covering wars in Africa. But Boot stalked me at every turn, making the press clubs of the continent a troubling environment. It was as though I always carried a pair of binoculars strung around my neck, to match the metaphorical Indiana Jones fedora with a press card jutting from the hatband.

Then again, my eyes were often trained on the skies, or the treetops, and my reports from various fronts in war and peace had more references to birds, and wildlife in general, than was usual for a war correspondent. And the lexicon of the foreign correspondent sometimes strayed into that of the twitcher. The other journos gathered in the press clubs of Cape Town, Johannesburg and the old Salisbury, Rhodesia, tweeted as much when I walked into the bar, long before tweets became fashionable in the electronic age.

It was after all the lure of birds, and elephant, rhino and lion, which landed me on the Dark Continent in the first place and, strangely, a meeting with the man whose own deeds in northern Africa had inspired the Boot character. William Deedes, the editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, had come to Salisbury to witness himself the last of Africa’s colonial wars.

Sipping gin-and-tonics with Deedes in Salisbury’s historic Meakles Hotel, it occurred to me at that time that Evelyn Waugh had displayed a spark of comic genius to make a nature writer the butt of satirical jokes about the cut-throat world of journalism in the 1930s, and the cut-throat nature of war.

The war correspondent, and conversely the nature columnist, had been the mainstay of the newspaper content in troubled times, not just the tense period in the build-up to the Second World War, but to the Boar and First World Wars.

If you were going to write a satire about war and its coverage, why not base it on a man who loved badgers?

Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, published in 1789, might have fired my interest in nature writing – probably because it covered the area in southern England where I spent my youth – but it has always been the nature notes published in newspaper columns that I have turned to first instead of books on wildlife.

The columns link my two great passions in life, nature and newspapers. The Guardian of England’s Country Diary – first published in 1904 – has been the stand-out and the modern age of the internet now allows me to read it each day, wherever I am.

The Guardian writers, though, have rarely been working journalists as such. There’s even a hint of Boot in their eccentricities, often as interesting and entertaining as the nature they cover. On a rare gathering in London, one of the correspondents was reported to have arrived with a luggage label attached to his duffle coat. On it was written his name and home address in Wales just in case he got lost in the metropolis.

In contrast, my predecessor at the Mercury, Michael Sharland, was very much a journalist, writing his nature notes under the name of the “Peregrine” for 60 years before retiring in the 1980s. In all that time, Sharland missed only three editions, and that was because he was preoccupied with war himself, serving with the Australian forces in Papua New Guinea in World War Two.

The nature column has always had its place in newspapers. It might have gone out of fashion in recent years, as newspapers themselves have in the age of television and later the internet, but it is now making a comeback.  So much so that the Guardian is printing each week columns going back 100 years, revealing that the connection between nature scribes and war pre-dates Evelyn Waugh. One column published in April 23, 2017, gave an account of events on the Somme a century previously, with the headline “Birds on the battlefield”.

The battlefield aside, if there has been a constant theme in nature writing over the past century it is the shrinking habitats available to wildlife, and thus declines in populations. Ironically, the same can be said of the nature writer, who has found competition for shrinking column space. But like birds fighting to defend territories, the nature writers have held their own, patrolling what I consider the world’s most important front line, between nature on the retreat and the advance of humankind.

In more modern times the nature of nature writing itself has slowly evolved into another genre. We now have what is termed new nature writing, following in the tradition of new journalism which puts the writer in the story, instead of he or she merely sitting back and observing.

There is room, though, for both genres, and I find myself straying out of the “On the Wing” format to the   other from time to time.

When I met the real Boot, I soon discovered he was not a bit like the character lampooned by Waugh in the late 1930s. All the same, as a naïve but enthusiastic 22-year-old setting out on his first assignment by equipping himself with 270 kilograms of luggage for travel to foreign parts at a colonial outfitters in the British capital, Deedes caught Waugh’s attention, and imagination.

Bill Deedes was now a grand old man – who had taken time out from journalism to serve in Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet during WWII – and I felt it inappropriate to mention Boot.

Not so the people I come across these days, even in far-flung Tasmania, so far from the Fleet Street where Scoop was set and where I once worked as a wordsmith myself.

My latest Boot episode came on a day when I was being a little more intrepid than usual. I had escaped my suburban environment to travel to Tasmania’s south-west wilderness in search of the rarest wild bird in the world, the orange-bellied parrot.

At that moment I was ecstatic, ticking off the bird at last after searching for it over several winters the hard way – unsuccessfully hunting for the tiny parrot in its wintering grounds on the mainland.

As I waited on the remote quartzite runway at Melaleuca for the flight back to Hobart, a reader of the Mercury recognised me, saying: “You don’t look a bit like Boot!”

I wasn’t so sure. My thoughts were still with the parrot and the journalist inside me wanted to cry out “scoop” in celebration at finally seeing the parrot.


The battle for the wild world

The battle to protect and conserve Tasmania’s pristine wild places was brought home to me within days of arriving in the state from Britain 20 years ago.

I was staying with my mother-in-law in Howrah at the time and wandered down to the Shoreline shopping centre where I came across an exhibition being mounted by the Tasmanian Conservation Trust.

Peter McGlone, who was manning the trust’s stall, was quite possibly the first person I had met in Tasmania outside of my wife’s family.

I was intrigued because he was holding a sprig of gorse, explaining that it was a weed in Tasmania and he had recently been engaged in digging it up from Tasmanian soil.

There was something ironic in the conversation because just weeks previously I had been engaged in planting gorse in Britain, a vital species vanishing from the British countryside.

Irony, I was to discover, travels with wildlife conservation, not just in Tasmania but world-wide.

Gorse in Britain is a signature species of plant for the most threatened environment in the British Isles. It grows in the sandy soils forming a belt across southern England, areas that can be considered wilderness because they have never been cultivated and never built on, until now.

There is even a nature reserve at Arne, in the south-west country of Dorset dedicated to gorse where, as a volunteer, I planted the stuff just before coming to Australia.

These sandy soils were dumped by glaciers at the end of the ice age and for thousands of years were classified as common land. Animals allowed to roam on them never did any damage because they were merely domestic forms of animals, like wild boar, which had gone before. And these areas retained their unique flora and fauna. The sandy heaths of southern England might have been unfit for cultivation but the land has proven to be ideal for housing development close to London and south-west towns and cities. I grew up on a vast housing estate on the fringe of London constructed on such soils. Luckily some of the common land remained, in the shape of Horsell Common near the town of Woking where H G Wells set his War of the Worlds novel, and discovered their worth when I first started to develop an interest in wildlife while still at primary school. In fact, these areas might well have inspired that interest.

Although they were not classed as national parks as such, I saw these stunted forests as truly wild places and as I grew older I went in search of areas with that designation, mainly in the north of England.

And I soon learned that wilderness and national parks could represent  different concepts.

I actually worked on a farm in the Peak District national park, but believed at the time these were wild places even though the park mainly composed ancient farmland dissected by drystone walls. Only the tops of the moors, along the Pennine Way forming the spine of Britain between England and Scotland could be classed as truly wild.

When my travels took me to East and Southern Africa I continued to go in search of what I considered at the time as wilderness. I ignored the roads and railway lines dissecting national parks where elephants roamed free.

I lived in America for a time and didn’t explore some truly wild places there, to my regret, so I can’t comment on these. I spent my time in New York writing a book about Central Park, which in its own sense can be termed a wild place!

And then I came to Tasmania, and realised what wild and wilderness really meant, discovering only recently that there are very strict guidelines set down by international conservation bodies defining wilderness. And it doesn’t include roads or railways or even huts.

In recent years I have had the chance to look again at “wild” places in southern Africa and was shocked and appalled by the Kruger Park and the Victoria Falls National Park, in the light of my Tasmanian experience.

The Kruger Park has a more extensive network of roads from the time I remember it 40 years ago, and franchise fast-food outlets in its camps. And the Victoria Falls is ringed by a high fence, guaranteeing that visitors pay a $50 American dollar entrance fee to view it. The Victoria Falls serves to give the Zimbabwean Government precious foreign currency

My disenchantment with the places I once loved in Africa has coincided with a push by the Tasmanian Government to open our own wild areas to business.

I’m not really qualified to comment on specific projects – beyond the proposed cable car up kunanyi/Mount Wellington – but at the same time I have become increasingly worried about this assault on wild places in general.

I might have tolerated roads once, and crossed the Wankie park in the old Rhodesia by train (seeing elephants and lions from the carriage windows) but in recent years I have become a wilderness tragic.

I’m like the smoker who gives up cigarettes. There’s no one worse amid tobacco fumes as a reformed smoker and amid the scent of eucalypt oil in the gum forests, a reformed wilderness tourist.

And the word irony keeps emerging. Am I the only person who sees the notion that we ruin the very thing we consider beautiful and precious by “opening it up for business” so greater numbers of people can see it, and worse, exploit it.

We are told trails that at the moment present a challenge to cross them in pristine areas of the Tasmanian wilderness, and add to the spirt of adventure, need huts so more and more people can enjoy them.

We are told that wild areas, wilderness and otherwise should be opened up for mass tourism. These area can’t just lie there, they must turn a profit.

But so often these apparently harmless and non-intrusive schemes to allow more people to see, feel and hear wild places turn out to be the thin edge of the wedge.

I was once a great supporter of the bike and mountain bike lobby, seeing value, for instance, in turning disused railway lines into bike tracks.

This has been successfully achieved in Britain and I’ve walked many of these level trails through some spectacular country inaccessible by any other means.

When I first learned of the north-south bike track across kunanyi/Mt Wellington, I walked it and had an enjoyable experience, walking but at the same time showing the cyclists respect because it was after all their trail.

A gentle bike ride, however, has suddenly become something else. Now the bikers are demanding high-speech, zig-zag tracks down mountainsides, a bike ride has become an adventure sport.

I’m not opposed to living life at the edge, however. But plans for such a track cut into kunanyi/Mt Wellington concerns me. I gather there are plans for a downhill/gravity track from Big Bend on the mountain down to Junction Cabin.

I see that in recent years mountain biking has been listed on the Wellington Cable Car Company’s website as one of the pursuits the cable car will make possible.

But why do these things like bike tracks have to be in high-value natural areas. Around Hobart I can think of many hilly areas already modified by farming or even industrial activity, like rubbish tips. Perhaps we could have descending, zig-zag bike trails threading their way through the forests of alien gorse which litter the state.

Again, like five-star huts for hikers, I see cyclists as the thin end of the wedge. Allow one bike and you have a bike track, and a cable car to take bikers to it.

As I say in my book, The Shy Mountain, the beauty of kunanyi/ Mount Wellington is it brings the south-west wilderness right to the very doorstep of a state capital city.

A cable car would reverse the process. It would take the city – with its glass, and concrete and steel and its commercialism – to the mountain.

The government mantra of being open for business, opening up our wild areas also raises the question of access by air, and noise pollution. I accept there must be air routes open to the far south, even for emergencies. I’ve travelled to Melaleuca by Par-Avion and know the orange-bellied parrot recovery program could not be possible without this air link.

But one or two planes a day is something different to frequent flights by helicopter, dropping off tourists here and there.  I’ve written in the past of the movement in the United States to declare a portion of at least one national park a human-noise-free zone.

Gordon Hempton has established what he describes as “one square inch of silence” in the Olympia national park in Washington state. He describes the site in the Hoh Rainforest as the most pristine, untouched and ecologically diverse area of the United States  and has even persuaded some airlines to route their high-flying aircraft away from the area so the people down on the ground don’t even see their vapour trails.

Is this man eccentric to the point of being a little mad? I certainly don’t think so. Part of my latest Victoria Falls experience was having the day ruined by three helicopters at once hovering over the falls, one afternoon drowning out the call of the beautiful Heuglin’s robin, a bird I had searched for without success in all the years I had spent in Africa. And here it was in a patch of rainforest at the falls edge, and I couldn’t hear its song, one of the most beautiful in Africa.

We hear the phrase loving places to death, and the Victoria Falls is a perfect example of what dangers lie in allowing more and more of what I call “trippers” access to nature’s masterpieces, to allow them to have an experience beyond just walking and seeing and hearing.

Closer to home we have a place I love, not wilderness as such, just the route of a road.

I am intimately familiar with The Neck on Bruny Island, having watched penguins and short-tailed shearwaters there on many a spring and summer night. The paving of the road was a concern because I thought the penguins I had seen at night on its dirt surface would end up as roadkill. I’m told tunnels under the new road have alleviated that problem, but I think we have all been blindside by the decision to site a car park at The Neck which ruins the view from the lookout, looking south.

Now that is ironic. And as I said earlier, in my lifetime irony seems to have travelled with the trashing of the environment.

Take that housing estate I told you about, Sheerwater in Surrey, where I grew up.

It was designed to provide a home for us Londoners displaced by the bombing during the blitz in the Second World War. About 6000 Cockneys were planted down on what had been considered wilderness, even if it was only about 35 kilometres from London.

Soon after the birches and the pines, and the gorse, were cleared, and construction of more than 1,500 homes started, the planners and developers suddenly realised the Cockney sparras being transplanted to the countryside from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and the Old Kent Road would need a focal point, a pub.

One was soon built on what had been the pristine forest – and it was named The Birch and Pines.

Address to the annual general meeting of the Tasmanian National Parks Association on November 26.


Hobart’s mountain playground

WHERE I come from we do not have mountains or wilderness.

It is not surprising then that someone like myself born in London and brought up on its suburban fringes should have a fascination with the high country. To say nothing of the south-west wilderness.

Along with exotic animals, mountains always seemed to feature in the picture books I was bought as a child. They reared off the page, always with their jagged tops painted white to indicate snow.

But us Cockney kids did not have mountains to call our own. At the time Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were conquering Everest in 1953 we had to make do with the stairs, and ropes slung to banisters.

Forget mountains, I grew up in place that did not even have a horizon.

It was a flat landscape that did not extend as far as the eye could see. The panorama, if it can be described as such, was obscured by red brick and glass and framed by grey cloud.

My home was a vast housing estate on the fringe of London in Surrey, built to house the people of south-east London who had lost their homes during the blitz of World War II.

It was supposed to be utopia, paradise, for Londoners escaping the smog and over-crowding of their city. We were in the country, after all, “at one with nature” as the term went in those days but even at a very young age I knew something was missing.

We were in a false environment divorced from nature. And even out in the country there was still no mountain to relate to. The highest point in Surrey was Leaf Hill on the North Downs, standing at 294m. In old money it was just below 1000 feet until an eccentric gentleman in Victorian times built a tower to put it into the “1000 club”.

In fact, kunanyi/Mt Wellington eclipses the highest point of England, Scafell Pike in the Lake District, which is 293m lower than our mountain, and the highest in the entire United Kingdom, Ben Nevis in Scotland, tops it by only 74m.

The knowledge of these statistics might reveal I have a bit of an obsession about Hobart’s very own mountain. I can get very boring talking about it. It represents something denied me in my youth, a playground for the budding nature lover, a destination for adventure and discovery.

I can understand people growing up in Hobart taking their mountain for granted, not viewing it in actually the same emotional way. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the mountain and all it represents in a different perspective.

I didn’t know it at the time but a wilderness of a kind had made way for the housing estate where I grew up, a wilderness that has become the most endangered environment in Britain.

It’s a landscape formed by glaciers in the ice age, dumping sands on areas of southern England. The soil was so poor that over thousands of years it was never cultivated and it was left in place, wilderness, as common ground. It is now providing land for housing developments.

What remains of it has unique fauna and flora, the main feature being silver birch, pine and heather in place of the rich deciduous forests of oak, beech and elm found in other areas that did not fall under the plough.

Although my homeland was on the other side of the world, when I arrived in Tasmania I found a striking parallel with what had occurred, and was still occurring there, to what was happening to wild places in Tasmania. This is commercial interests eyeing wilderness as something not to be left as it is, as wilderness, largely untouched by mankind, but as a means to make money. The site of the housing estate in Surrey could just as well be land in Tasmania not yet put to the process of generating a profit.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, like myself, to see the bigger picture.

I’m not saying Tasmanians don’t care about their environment, their mountain, but it is so familiar, part of the scenery, it’s easy be become blase about it.

But people who want to view the mountain in its largely pristine state are now waking up and fighting to make their case known, fearing that if they don’t speak out a carpet bagger will come and take the mountain for themselves.

The clock is already ticking in the countdown to development on the mountain. The cable car proposal has just had legislation to ease its progress passed by parliament.

I agree there’s a strong argument for making our mountain more accessible, especially in winter when snowfall sometimes closes the Pinnacle Rd to the summit, even if in my view this argument overlooks the fact that the inclement weather which so often wreaths the mountain in low cloud would make the project unviable, to say nothing of disruption caused by high winds.

All the same, the cable car proponents and their supporters see the mountain as a tourist “asset” to be realised. I see it differently and align myself to those who want it left in its natural state, in the raw.

The mountain brings the magic and mystery of the south-west wilderness, the notion of the primordial and pristine, right to the doorstep of a major centre of population. A cable car would form a bridge in more than a metaphorical sense between concrete and glass and the wild world. Instead of wilderness coming to the city, the city would come to the mountain.

Talking Point, the Mercury, Hobart, September 29, 2017.

Journalist scales new heights

The launch of Donald Knowler’s The Shy Mountain by Charles Wooley soon turned into a bunfight after Charles told Knowler to put away his speech and engage in a conversation about the book. Chris Pearce, the owner of the Hobart Bookshop where the launch took place on Wednesday, told Tasmanian Times it was one of the funniest occasions the bookshop had hosted. Here is the speech Knowler didn’t get to make …


I’m described as a nature writer, largely because I write the “On the wing” column on birdwatching in the Mercury. But first and foremost I’m a journalist.

I ply my trade as a newspaper wordsmith. On my anvil words are hammered and flattened to fit a certain shape, a narrative, to record, to report what I have seen on a given day.

Although semi-retired after 50 years pursuing my craft, I still carry a notebook; in the way Rob Walls, the photographer who took the marvellous cover photograph for my book still carries a camera into semi-retirement.

When I meet him in the coffee shops of Hobart, or more likely the pubs and bars, Charles Wooley always makes much of me coming from London, telling me my London accent reminds him of his Cockney driver during Charles’ assignments in the British capital.

I think Charles finds it odd that someone from the world of the Minder television program, of Arthur Daly and the Winchester basement drinking club, should feel equally at home among the currawongs at a higher elevation, the slopes of Hobart’s mountain.

I must agree that wilderness, and especially mountains, are so foreign to the people of London, that there’s no mention of them in Cockney rhyming slang, my first tongue.

The closest, I suppose, to a sense of wilderness and higher ground in the Cockney lexicon is Hampstead Heath, as in yer hamsteads, your hampstead heath, teeth.

It’s not surprising then that someone like myself born in London and brought up on its suburban fringes should have a fascination with mountains. To say nothing of wilderness.

Along with exotic animals, mountains always seemed to feature in the picture books I was brought as a child. They reared off the page like the graphs in the business pages of newspapers, always with the tops of the spikes coloured white to represent snow.

But us Lundin kids, us Cockney sparrows, didn’t have mountains to call our own.  At the time of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were conquering Everest in1953 we had to make do with the stairs, and ropes slung to banisters.

Forget mountains, I grew up in place that didn’t even have a horizon.

It was a flat landscape that did not extend as far as the eye could see. The panorama, if it can be described as such, was obscured by red brick, concrete and glass, and framed by grey cloud.

I grew up on a vast housing estate on the fringe of London, which had been built to house the people of south-east London who had lost their homes during the blitz of the Second World War.

It was supposed to be utopia, paradise, for Londoners escaping the smog and over-crowding of their city, which I think then was still the biggest metropolis in the world.

We were in the country, after all, “at one with nature” as the term went in those days but even at a very young age I knew something was missing. We were in a false environment divorced from nature.

I didn’t know it at the time but a wilderness of a kind had made way for the housing estate where I lived, a wilderness that has become the most endangered environment in Britain.

It’s a landscape formed by glaciers in the Ice Age, dumping sands on areas of southern England. The soil was so poor that over thousands of years it was never cultivated and it was left in place, wilderness, as common ground.

The common ground contained, and still does where it survives, a unique fauna and flora, the main feature being silver birch, pine and heather in place of the rich deciduous forests of oak, beech and elm found in other areas of Southern England not scarred by the Ice Age.

The site of the housing estate was part of Horsell Common near the town of Woking in Surrey, the common made famous by H G Wells in his War of the Worlds. Wells described the Martians as actually landing on Horsell Common and I think, looking back, the people of Woking would have preferred Martians to 5000 Cockneys 1300 homes on their precious landscape.

Although where I grew up is on the other side of the world, there is a striking parallel with what I soon discovered was happening in Tasmania when I first arrived here 17 years ago. That was developers eyeing wilderness as something not to be left as it is, wilderness, largely untouched by humankind, but as a means to make money.

Horsell Common and the other remaining areas of sandy heathland in southern England are under the same commercial pressures as the wilderness regions of Tasmania.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, like myself, to see the bigger picture; especially a Cockney who has never had a mountain to call his own.

Where I come from, the highest point is Leaf Hill on the North Downs of Surrey, standing at 294 metres. In old money it was just below the 1000 feet to qualify as a English “mountain” until an eccentric Victorian built a tower on it to put it into the “1000 club”.

In fact, kunanyi/Mount Wellington eclipses the highest point of England, Scafell Peak in the Lake District, which is 293 metres lower than our mountain and the highest point in the entire United Kingdom. Ben Nevis in Scotland, tops it by only 74 metres.

The knowledge of these statistics might reveal I have an obsession with Hobart’s very own mountain.

I can bore people to death talking about it. Yes, it represents something denied me in my youth, a playground for the nature lover literally on the doorstep, a destination for adventure and discovery.

I can understand people growing up in Hobart taking the mountain for granted,  not viewing it in actually the same emotional way as I do.

I’m not saying Tasmanians a don’t care about their environment, their mountain, but it is so familiar, part of the scenery it’s easy be become blasé about it.

It has to be fought for, otherwise some carpetbagger will come and take it for themselves.

Our mountain and the case being made for a cable car is a case in point.

Although the cable car is being hailed as a tourist opportunity, creating jobs and revenue for the city and state, I see it differently. And this is beyond my doubts that it could ever be viable, largely because of inclement weather which sees the mountain-top often covered in cloud.

The mountain delivers wilderness to the city, and a cable car with all its infrastructure would deliver the city to the mountain. It would form both a metaphorical and actual bridge between suburb and summit and take away the mountain’s mystery.

And I should add that I am wearing a cable car tie – purchased in a Hobart men’s clothes shop two Christmases ago –  to my book launch not to indicate support for the cableway, but as an ironic protest.

In my life irony seems to have travelled with the trashing of the environment.

Take that housing estate I told you about, Sheerwater, where I grew up. Soon after the birch and pines were cleared, and construction of more than a thousand homes started, the planners and developers suddenly realised the Cockneys being transplanted to the country from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and the Old Kent road would need a focal point, a pub.

One was soon built on what had been the pristine forest – and it was named The Birch and Pines.


A silent prayer for a tree  

Don Bentley and his silver birch had much in common. It had not become apparent at first but over the years Bentley had discovered a symmetry between their lives. They were soul-mates. Bentley had happened on the tree walking to work one morning. At the start of spring he always took a detour through St David’s Park in the heart of Hobart. He found the dappled glades in spring sunshine, and the songs of the birds, calming before the turmoil of the working day.

The park represented an arboretum of European tree species, in the tradition of the Victorian colonial park from the time it was designed, constructed and planted. English-born Bentley had lived in Australia for a decade but he was still drawn to European flora, its changing spring and autumn foliage, its austerity in winter, which gave shape to the seasons.

There was only one native tree in St David’s Park, a blue gum, and on spring days when Bentley’s heart was pulled towards England he thought that was just about right.

And that silver birch. Bentley was from Surrey, the county of the birch and pine which thrived on the sandy soils dumped there by glaciers in pre-history. Bentley recognised the tree immediately, of course, as being from his home county. He thought its situation, standing on its own well away from the other trees, was appropriate because it allowed the features of the tree  – its drooping aspect, silver bark and small, triangular leaves in various shades of green – to stand out among the richer and fuller-leafed foliage of the other deciduous species.

You could say the specimen in St David’s Park was solitary, lonely, in its spacious situation but Bentley would say independent. Much like himself.

When the sun shone strong and hard at the start of the day Don Bentley would set out for work early, to give himself 10 minutes or so to sit in the park. He chose the same seat on these mornings, a wooden, slatted bench that faced south so the early-morning sun cut through the park from the east and set a yellow light on trunks and branches, the full grandeur of the trees rising from their night slumber. On these days the rising sun gave the bark of the birch a pastel-yellow hue, and darkened the clusters of leaves so they looked the bottle green of the bottles of Bentley’s favourite brew, Boag’s.

The great trees of the world – the biggest oaks, elms, chestnuts and, in Australia, eucalypts among them – have been described as nature’s cathedrals. Indeed, the sweeping boughs of the elm are thought to have inspired the Gothic style of architecture. Bentley, though, looked more to fine art. Trees, he would say, set out a stunning array of shapes and colour and beauty on a canvas that was forever changing.

On days when Bentley’s spirits soared to the upper branches of his works of art, trees became not merely decorative art, they were nature’s installations, reaching out to the viewer. They were tactile and asked to be caressed and hugged. They interacted with those that came within their embrace.

Bentley would say his life had a symmetry with the birch but they were also symbiotic. Their lives intertwined on those mornings when he stopped to admire the tree, and took a breath of the cool, scented air that enveloped it. And Bentley would approach the park keepers, to urge them to give his tree extra water on dry days, and a little extra mulch to keep the sun from drying out the moisture around the roots.

The park keepers took more than a casual interest in Bentley, paying him close attention, even at a distance. Who was this man who stood for 10 minutes or so to admire a single tree, talking to it sometimes and wishing it goodbye when he left? In smart suit and tie, Bentley didn’t look like the usual oddballs who sometimes made the park their home, and talked to the trees. He was harmless enough.

Some days, if he had time, Bentley would touch the park’s trees, responding to their invitation to engage them, as he did sometimes at installation art events at Hobart art galleries, if exhibits and artists demanded it. The flaky bark of the birch, curling at the ends, like the hair of a curly-haired child; the beech’s smooth, grey bark like that of  tough, rutted elephant skin; the oak and elm, their soft bark the pliable cork of a  good bottle of Shiraz.

If Bentley had been born a tree he would have liked to have been a silver birch. Bentley had noted in his youth, when flower power and eastern mysticism were all the rage in the 1960s, that some faiths believed humans came back as animals when they died. Bentley didn’t believe it, of course, but if it was true he would specify his ticket back to earth was changed from his favourite animal, the badger, to that of a tree, the birch.

It was a thought that made him smile some mornings, standing there admiring his tree, once to the disquiet of a female jogger hurrying to complete her run before the beginning of the working day.

Eccentric. That was the term the park rangers finally ascribed to Bentley, the man who loved trees, or a tree, with such passion it made him late for work each day. Bentley was well aware of the way the world, or the microcosm of the world contained within the confines of St David’s Park, viewed him. Thirty years previously, when he had worked at the heart of the British newspaper industry, Fleet Street, he had known an Australian who spent his rest days in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew “touching base”, as the Australian journalist put it, with his homeland through its native trees.

The colleague took Bentley there once to admire wattles and gums, sheoaks and paperbark. The Australian had a favourite, a giant blue gum, and, like Bentley with his birch in St David’s Park, he would stand before it for sometimes 30 minutes or more, as if in prayer.

The Australian might not have known it but he was engaged in a ritual that spanned the history of mankind, and all its peoples. Two African tribes, the Hereros and the Ovambos of Namibia regarded the the leadwood tree (Combretum imberbe Wawra) as the great ancestor of all animals and people and they never walked past it without paying it respect.

Bentley often thought of the Australian when he viewed the lone blue gum in St David’s Park, the tree alone among the “Poms”. The gum could even be a metaphor for the Australian’s transplanted existence in London, as the silver birch was for Bentley’s life in Tasmania. Why was it that humans out of their home environment, the comfortable habitat they knew, found it was trees that drew them home in thought? Trees not only shaped a specific environment but called to something ancient in humans, plumbed the sap of their primordial roots.

In ancient mythology trees were said to link the Earth to the sky. Did ancient people know that trees produced the very air that we breathe? What was obviously known was that trees, along with lesser plants, provided food for not only humans, but the animals humans hunted. Trees had nourished and nurtured the rise of mankind, providing fuel, food, shelter and hiding places.

Bentley was gratified the world was waking up to the importance of trees and forests, or so it seemed from what he read in the press and saw on the television news. Trees were now deemed precious, not just for their beauty, and their capacity to produce oxygen, but their role as carbon sinks in a climate of global warming.

He was pleased to note, too, that a movement had started in his native Britain to compile a list of truly ancient trees. One, the Fontingall yew in Scotland, had been found to be between 3000 and 5000 years of age.

Ancient trees had been recorded in Tasmania, too. A swamp gum in the Florentine Valley in the state’s south-west – an area being logged – had been carbon-dated by researchers to starting its life when Henry VIII was on the throne in England.

It wasn’t that Bentley did not like Australian trees. They had their own beauty. They might not assume striking autumnal plumage before dropping their leaves each winter but the gum and wattle leaves changed in colour during the year when new growth – often in shades of deep reds and maroon, the colour of autumn in Europe and North America – replaced old and worn foliage. And the bark of eucalypt and wattles was as interesting and varied as anything found on European trees. On his rambles in the woodland on the fringe of Hobart, Bentley could see that some bark was shaggy and flaking, some bare and streaked in yellows and pinks, colours that changed when the trunks were washed with rain.

Bentley had always looked to the shape and form of trees, and not their age. The British ancient tree register confirmed that oaks and elms were truly ancient, but Bentley, when he read it, was interested to learn that his silver birch merely had a lifespan of 70 years, the biblical three score and ten of a human. It was another reason to warm to the birch, to find symmetry and symbiosis with it.

Bentley had never aspired to be an oak or elm, the leader of the forest, which put other trees in the shade. Bentley had never considered himself  a leader of men. He had worked as a journalist for 40-odd years, as a reporter and sub-editor, but he had never aspired to the top job, that of editor. He left that to others and was happy to operate just under the canopy, to be a lesser tree in the forest, or the human jungle, of journalism.

Yes, Bentley was a birch. Workman-like and vital without pretension. The birch was the tree to reclaim recently disturbed land and make its contribution before standing aside for others. In its relatively short life it would provide leaf litter and bark debris to nourish the soil. When dead, its rotting core attracted jays looking to hide acorns and provided shade and shelter for oak seeds forgotten by the birds to grow.

Sitting on his park bench some mornings, Bentley often thought that if he was Australian born, and had developed a love for Australian trees as he had done for British ones in his youth, he would have looked to the silver wattle for its inspiration, or the blackwood, or in the rainforest, myrtle and sassafras.

Bentley, on trips to wild, native forest beyond the Hobart suburbs would look up at the towering swamp gums, admire them and acknowledge they were the tallest flowering trees on the planet.  Bentley, though, would still be happy to stand with the sassafras in the shadows.

The eucalypts of the forest might pre-date European history in Australia but Bentley’s birch had a history of its own. A modern history. It was a baby boomer tree, born after World War II when European trees in Australia still had a currency, a value, that they were not given in the 21st century. What Bentley termed the “tree police” would not allow a non-native tree to be planted today for its own sake.

And what had the birch seen out there on Davey Street, adjoining the park, and in the park itself? Joyous crowds celebrating the end of war and new-found freedoms, especially for the post-war generation. Rock-and-rollers taking over the bandstand in the centre of the park, hippies with love-ins in the flowerbeds, flower power and pot among the glades. Soldiers marching off to the Korean and Vietnam wars, protest over dams and then forests. Bentley’s birch was a repository of modern history, as vital as Bentley’s recollection of it.

Yes, a babyboomer tree, a hippy tree, Bentley would say to himself some days, in quiet contemplation of the birch. He and the birch were rooted in place and time on the planet. He could not connect in the same way to the oaks and elms, beeches and poplars which had their own place in time, a place that pre-dated the birch and Bentley.

It so happened in St David’s Park that the elms and oaks were grouped together so their true, sweeping beauty could not be fully appreciated. The park had replaced a pioneer cemetery in the early 1900s and the trees had been planted to line and frame avenues. Conversely, it was the silver birch that stood alone, finding its own space, revealing its own elegance and beauty, so often overlooked in its natural habitat.

The tree over the years remained rich in symbolism for Bentley and each day it seemed that he developed a new connection with it. One morning, Bentley saw the birch as a metaphor for his life in Australia, a country he had made his home after marrying a Tasmanian whom he had met in London. Bentley had grown to love Australia, and the wide horizons stretching from earth to sky that were impossible to contemplate in over-crowded southern England; a place, geographically and socially, Bentley increasingly found to be flat and boring.

Bentley had worked worldwide as a foreign correspondent at various times in his career and his wife’s desire to raise their only child in Australia had given him the chance for one last adventure at the tail-end of his career, at the tail-end of the world.

He still stood alone, however, even after a decade in Australia. He was an Australian citizen all right, meshed with his colleagues in pub talk of footy and cricket (even if during Ashes test he remained the “Pommie bastard”) , and drank their brew, but it was the environment beyond the office, beyond the city, in which Bentley so often felt adrift. It was in woods and forests that he sometimes longed for a birch or elm and the familiar birds and animals that made them their home. And even on city streets some days he could not escape this feeling of homesickness, the song of the blackbird – lusty, rich and vibrant – taking him back to twilight nights in England, or a dewy dawn where spider webs were painted with translucent cool mist.

Sometimes Bentley believed he didn’t belong. It troubled him and on these mornings he sought solace in his communion with his birch.

The birch, if he listened to the tree police, did not belong either but Bentley, after studying it for several years, could argue that it did. The birch might not be native but it made its own contribution to the ecology of the city, a false and distorted one anyway because it relied so much on imported flora and fauna.

The birch, although not as majestic as the hardwoods, still towered a good 20 metres over nearby flowerbeds of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas and provided a perch some mornings for a hunting grey goshawk. Its layers of leaves were home to insects and in turn attracted grey fantails which danced in its shadow. Catkins brushed with pollen lured new holland and crescent honeyeaters in spring and in autumn dangling lambs’ tail seedpods, the seeds tiny like flakes of ground pepper, provided food for both eastern and green rosellas. The eastern rosellas were a joy to watch and some mornings, when flocks of six or seven birds festooned the tree, the tree itself went unnoticed.

Bentley was approaching his mid-60s, approaching retirement age, and if the birch could speak it would tell him it was also moving from the autumn to the winter of its life.

When Bentley had first learned of the birch’s limited three score and ten longevity, he had looked closely at the tree. The birch showed signs of its age. The trunk appeared sturdy and strong but the boughs were cracked and frayed. In winds, they swayed and creaked and in deep winter, leafless, the birch looked exposed and vulnerable and in pain. Did a birch feel that chill wind, did its boughs ache in an icy blast as Bentley’s bones and joints did? He believed so. The birch’s upper reaches were no longer full and rounded when in leaf in spring and summer. Dead boughs and twigs protruded through the canopy. Its crown was thinning.

Bentley feared for his precious tree when strong spring winds buffeted the city. After one particularly heavy pounding one night, Bentley hurried to the park next morning. Close to his home a poplar had crashed to the ground, broken and tangled and bringing powerlines down with it.

Bentley’s pace quickened. A feeling of dread, of impending loss, stalked him down Davey Street on his route to the park. Hollow. Gut-wrenching. He braced for the worst when he saw a tree-surgeon’s truck inside the park.

And there was the silver birch, spread out before him across the grass. It had come down in the night and the tree cutters had already dissected its trunk. The outer branches lie like roadkill, a plover or raven spread-eagled across the grass, two sections of canopy forming a blanket of wings.
A breeze whipped up a spray of silver bark flakes and yellow sawdust and Bentley, too, felt the murmur of death, its chill breath rustling his leaves.


Wings from the past

I heard it first before its giant shadow fell across me. Not the whoosh of wings you’d think an eagle would make, as it strikes for the kill, dagger talons outstretched. This was more a rustle of feathers, like the whisper of a gentle breeze brushing the grass of a paddock, or the canopy of the rainforest. With slow, deliberate flaps of its wings, the eagle bent its head to observe my every move, not more than 10 metres above me. Its eyes were firmly fixed on mine.

I felt that I could reach out and touch it.

Two metres of wingspan and a ferocious beak just above my head: I was unnerved. I ducked and felt the urge to run, but I stood my ground, gazing up at this giant bird, a combination of fear and awe rooting me to the spot.

As the eagle passed above me I expected it to merely fly on but, rising slightly, it splayed its wings, the outer long, delicate feathers trembling in the wind. It had angled into the breeze coming in off the Southern Ocean to the west; hovering above me, seemingly motionless, swaying and pitching to keep in balance.

A few days earlier I had headed to Tasmania’s wild north-west to get up close and personal to nature, but this was a little too close, and a little too personal. It was one of those moments when, despite a shelf-load of birding field guides back home, you realise that at heart you are an urban animal. Your habitat is the cosiness of the suburb.

It was lonely out there. I was three kilometres from the nearest road and at least 10 from the nearest human home but I had felt someone, something, watching me. I scanned the spiky, untidy coastal heathland for eyes, or ears. A wallaby, perhaps, or possum or pademelon.

All the while, high above and hidden in the glare of the sun, a wedge-tailed eagle followed. The male eagle had picked me out, stalked me and now snuck up behind me, from the direction I had come.

A bird from the past.

The sighting of an eagle had not entered my thoughts when I set out to walk the trail south from Marrawah towards the Arthur River. Tasmanian devils had been my focus and I was in the north-west to spend time on a farm where it is possible to watch devils at war and peace at night.

Something planned and expected, though, is not the same as something coming, literally, out of the blue. Not that “wedgies’’ are new to me, a new bird for my checklist of birds spotted. I see them frequently crossing the Hobart suburb where I live. There I gaze in wonder without a tinge of nervousness. On broad wings they cross the sky between the two valleys framing my home, untroubled by angry forest ravens that rise to send them on their way.

The wedgie brings that place we call “the wild’’ to our suburb. The eagle is the lush-green pasture in spring, the snow-capped peak in winter, the mountain scree coated with early-morning frost. The eagle is the swaying swamp gum, a tumbling stream in the rainforest. The eagle is a winged wonder that lifts our spirits, urges us to fly with it, it distracts us on our way to the office, to tell us that life exists beyond the computer screen, beyond the pressures that rule the human daily life.

Today the eagle may be symbolic of that world beyond the picket fence, the hedgerow and car port but in other ages it has carried a different kind of symbolism on its broad wings.

When Aborigines and eagles shared these lands, the silhouette of the eagle was etched into every horizon. In some Aboriginal cultures, the eagle was written into the night sky, the stars of the Southern Cross depicting a talon or the eagle itself.

The Aborigines who walked this track before me had known the eagle. It would have followed them, too, casting them in its shadow. It had been a witness to Aboriginal history for more than 40,000 years; fraternity and unity in a hard place by the sea. It would have followed them on their journeys south to trade for the hard rock to make their tools and weapons, and their migration inland when the fish weren’t running, or seals to be hunted had not come.

Before the eagle appeared on my walk I had seen evidence of Aboriginal settlement all around me. There were deep depressions in banks of sea-polished stones where Aboriginal hunters had lain in wait to ambush seals. There were hut hollows on raised ground just above the beach where the first Australians anchored shelters of bent tea-tree branches and kangaroo hides. The vantage point gave them a sweeping view of rock pool and beach, so they could watch over their children playing in the ocean, or watch for enemies.

The eagle witnessed modern human history, too; the arrival of the first European explorers, and pioneers and settlers. George Augustus Robinson, charged with rounding up the last of the Aborigines for transhipment to islands in Bass Strait, passed this way, as did his fellow traveller, Truganini, believed to be the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine.

I had spent a restless night at Kings Run near Marrawah, a former cattle property that is now a tourism venture operated by Geoff King who introduces visitors to not only the world of the endangered Tasmanian devil but the wider, beautiful environment in which they live in this part of the world.

The 214ha property of coastal heathland, tussock grass and sedge is washed on one side by wild ocean and after watching devils most of the night, and then being kept awake by their fighting under the hut in which I was sleeping, I had risen at dawn to go in search of birds.

I had in mind white-fronted chats combing the seashore for food, sooty oystercatchers on the rocks and, in the coastal heath, tawny-crowned honeyeaters. An eagle was not on my radar.

The wedgie had stayed with me for 20 minutes, before appearing to lose interest. At last it allowed the sea breeze to lift it higher, the eagle veering out over the wild ocean, then banking to come around in a wide sweep, a silhouette against the sun, and in a blink it was gone.

The thought occurred to me that Geoff King feeds roadkill to eagles, as he does devils on the nights be operates his Kings Run devil viewing spectacle, and a little later when he came to pick me up in his ute I mentioned the eagle sighting, still excited by it.

He doesn’t feed eagles and described his own encounters with them when he drove cattle on horseback. They would follow him for hours. No doubt the rumble of hundreds of cattle on the move, the pounding of horse shoes in the dry earth, would have flushed wallabies and pademelons, and smaller marsupials for the eagles to swoop on.

The King family who settled these lands in the late 19th century introduced cattle, and later drove the herds 300 kilometres south to the booming mining settlement of Queenstown. Geoff King remembers the cattle runs in their later stages, when the distances were not so vast, trains taking the cattle to the miners from railheads in the north. As if drawn back to these times, by talk of eagles and horses, he tells me to “mount up’’ when it’s time to climb into his ute to leave.

Before the cattle runs, Aboriginal hunters would have also disturbed and flushed animals and provided an added bonus for the eagles: discarded carcasses of skin and bone for the eagles to scavenge. Certainly Geoff King has encountered problems with eagles stealing the roadkill he has put aside for the devil “restaurant “ at night.

I wanted to believe the eagle encounter was spiritual, we were fellow travellers meeting on a mysterious, magical journey. It was something of a letdown to discover I was merely a meal ticket. There was a bond, though; a fraternity. The meeting of eagle and man had started 40,000 years ago and over the millennia the knowledge that man could provide food directly and indirectly had been planted and locked in the eagle’s DNA. In that time the eagle had learned humans were not a threat, they were not to be feared.

A bond that had survived for eons, that had pre-dated the last ice age, had been broken in the past 200 years when settlers from Europe came to these lands. Suddenly the eagle was seen as an enemy and paid the price. It was hunted mercilessly, and killed in its thousands, across the entire continent.

The eagle had gotten a bad press and a price was on its head in bounty payments for the harm it did, supposedly, to the sheep industry.

Tales of eagle slaughter and carnage are commonplace, and horrific. I remember seeing an ABC documentary on sheep barons in Queensland, lamenting the break-up of their vast properties on government directive. The footage had scenes of the graziers enjoying the good times in the 1950s, barbeques and country horse race meetings. It also showed an eagle cull: farmers beating eagles to death with baseball bats. The eagles had been ensnared in foot traps as carcass bait. In Tasmania poisoning was the preferred method of eagle control. The latter method was also used to kill Tasmanian devils.

Many farmers maintain to this day that eagles take live lambs in great number, although research does not bear this out. The fact that eagles are frequently seen on sheep carcasses does not prove they were the actual instruments of death for these farm animals. Because there are no vultures on the Australian continent, the wedge-tail eagle, together with being a skilful and powerful hunter, fills the niche of scavenger.

The Tasmanian sub-species of wedge-tailed eagle is Australia’s biggest with a wingspan that can reach 2.5 metres but it is endangered, with only between 200 and 230 breeding pairs left in the wild. At present the mortality rate from accidents is outstripping the reproduction rate, putting the eagles in peril in the near term.

Eagles bring out the best and worst in people, especially so in the modern Australia.

Tasmanian eagles meeting turbulence in man’s world, either maimed on farms or on roads, once found themselves receiving a little tender, loving care at Risdon Prison from some of the state’s most hardened criminals.

An irresistible metaphor took flight when the Parks and Wildlife Service set up a raptor rehabilitation centre within the grounds of the prison: the raptors behind bars longing for the open skies, to fly free without restriction. Release for rehabilitated eagles came much quicker for the raptors than for most of their carers.

When the prison aviary was closed a few years back, to allow redevelopment and expansion of the jail, an individual who loves birds of prey provided the eagles with a new home, building a set of the biggest aviaries in the southern hemisphere with discarded fish-farm nets, to give injured eagles a fighting chance.

Rehabilitated wedge-tailed and sea eagles are now released, with the aid of a band of volunteers, at the rate of about six a year.

Today in a more enlightened age the eagle is not so misunderstood and maligned. More people now want to see it crossing their skies than see it killed.

Evidence of shooting and poisoning, and acts of vandalism to nests, are becoming less frequent but as one threat dies another emerges. Eagles fall victim to increasing traffic on Tasmanian roads, and die flying into powerlines. The emergence of wind-farms poses a new threat, with eagles increasingly coming to grief in the wind-farm turbines.
* * * * *

On the drive back to Hobart from Marrawah I notice a sign I didn’t see on the outward journey, a plea to drivers to watch out for eagles feeding on roadkill along a stretch of road near Smithton.  And as soon as I have parked the car in the car port of my home, I look for eagles in the sky. In the garden I establish a lesser connection with the wild, lesser in size if not significance. As I walk, scattering leaves that have fallen on the lawn, a grey fantail seeks me out and follows me. He hunts the insects disturbed by my plodding feet, his long, fanned tail in a shuttlecock. Then a male fairy-wren flits in to join the fantail in a merry dance as they scamper across the lawn in chase of insects, rising and swooping in a theatrical dive on gnats and mosquitos. In the sunlight filtered through the overhanging wattles, it is a glorious sight.

My thoughts, however, remain in Marrawah. They are with the lone eagle and my fleeting, symbiotic connection with it, a connection that I still believe is not of science and circumstance but of the soul. I recall in fine detail each of the precious minutes the eagle stayed with me, before it drifted to the east, rising higher, until it was suddenly gone.

It had come from the past and was, hopefully, flying into the future.


Emotion and the orange-bellied parrot

Dawn breaks over Bathurst Harbour as if it’s being sketched in charcoal by the hand of an artist. Distant mountains etched in fine strokes from a sharpened pencil, smudged here and there to portray mist. Hills between mountain and shore in darker shades and rainforest hugging the waters’ edge drawn vertically in a rougher, heavier hand.

It’s barely light as I lie in my bunk bed with a view over the stern of the luxury tourist vessel, the Odalisque, moored in a sheltered spot at Clayton’s Corner mid-way along a body of water three times the size of Sydney Harbour.

Too early for the black currawongs to utter their trumpet call, or the sooty oystercatchers to pipe in the new day, but as the birds finally start up Mother Nature mixes the colours of the morning on her palette. Buttongrass glows mossy now, peppermint gum along the shores are transformed into shades of green and tranquil waters first seen at dawn as uneven sheets of tinfoil reflect the dazzling blue of the sky.

I’m lying in my bunk bed aboard the Odalisque trying not to get emotional, even if the day before, as a bird-watching tragic, I had realised a life-long ambition to see an orange-bellied parrot in its natural habitat, nine kilometres to the south at Melaleuca. Emotion would be a bad look to present to the rugged skipper and owner of the Odalisque, Pieter van der Woude, and the equally rugged tour guide, Peter Marmion, to say nothing of my fellow passengers, a party of travel journalists.

I’m overwhelmed, though, by the beauty of it all. I feel a little foolish now that my interest in this pristine part of the world, a place where wilderness is spelt with a capital W, had been centred just on one species of bird. I’d never looked to the broader horizon, never known that the Port Davey Marine Reserve, which embraces Bathurst Harbour, is so vast, untrammelled and mountainous.

How do you describe it, portray it in all its glory and uniqueness? I look at the photographs I have taken and they are not enough. Only an artist can bring this area to life. To write my story about the Odalisque and the window it opens on this precious part of the world I look for art-world metaphors.

A voyage through the channels, inlets and bays of Bathurst Harbour is in fact like a visit to an art gallery, with each picture, in each room opening up a fresh image. It’s the Louvre, or the Tate, or even the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, if the region’s natural beauty combined with human eccentricities are taken into account. The legend of tin miner, naturalist and painter Deny King is here, along with tales of Win and Clyde Clayton eking out a living from a fishing boat moored close to their hand-built wooden home, which is now a museum. And there’s the story of Critchley Parker, who in an effort to impress his Jewish lover trekked into the area shortly after World War II with a dream of establishing a Jewish homeland there, “a new Jerusalem”. When he vanished from view searchers found his body in his tent pitched among the buttongrass and sprengelia. He had starved to death.

Although the Odalisque, operated by Tasmanian Boat Charters, is at the high-end of tourist travel with chefs on board borrowed from the best restaurants in Hobart – in our case Zac Matthews – to provide five-star cuisine, the ethos of Peter van der Woude is to provide a floating base for a genuine wilderness experience.

This is not wilderness in the abstract, viewed from a helicopter or a plane, or luxury hotel room. During this experience the wild can be heard, smelled and touched. The Odalisque does not provide a cruise around Bathhurst Harbour as such. There is no set itinerary. Guests are free to choose what they want to do – whether viewing the pioneer cultural and historical sites around Melaleuca, Aboriginal walks to explore the history of the ancient Needwonnee people of the south-west through rock paintings and ochre mines, or taking the many hiking trails up hill and mountain – “getting your feet wet,’’ as Pieter van der Woude puts it. Specific interests – perhaps botany or bird-watching – can be catered for by the hand-picked guides with years of experience in the area.

A trip on the Odalisque also provides an escape from an increasingly fast-paced world.

“This is a digital detox,” says van der Woude. “You can put your smart phone away – we are out of range anyway – and tell people you will be totally out of touch for a few days.”

The Tasmanian Liberal government is setting in motion plans to open up the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area to increased levels of tourism, and various proposals are under discussion. There are fears that some ideas might compromise the definition of wilderness. The Odalisque is never in danger of doing this. Guests, for instance, are ferried to shore in dinghies so not even jetties – I only saw one beyond the pontoon at Melaleuca – intrude.

The Odalisque also takes out what it brings in, and so its footprint is merely a gentle wake in still waters.

Although my orange-bellied parrot experience proved to be a personal highlight, I soon came to put it in a broader context of emotion. Within a few hours of seeing the critically-endangered parrot after arriving on a Par-Avion flight from Hobart, we were ferried by dinghy along the Melaleuca Inlet to board the Odalisque itself. After lunch we were climbing the 276-metre Mt Beattie with its stunning view of Bathurst Harbour stretching south. It was one of several walks during the trip, including a hike to discover Critchley Parker’s resting place, his grave and marble plaque marked out by the quartzite of the surrounding mountains.

On the last night we moored close to where the harbour meets the Southern Ocean, screened by a range of islands appropriately named The Breakwaters.

Glasses of champagne in hand, we watched the sun set between two rocky islands to the west. Vistas during the day, bathed in soft sunshine, could have been painted by John Glover and now a stabbing orange light from the setting sun brought the wild hand of Brett Whiteley into play. We toasted the sunset and lingered until a crescent moon and stars appeared. Another room in nature’s gallery opened, and the Southern Cross called to us as strongly as Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Parrot demise no laughing matter

Although it’s only a little, swift-flying bird – barely 25 centimetres in length from the tip of its beak to the end of its long tail – it has the ability to steal hearts and minds. And the means to deny Tasmania the global certification for its timber industry the state so desperately needs.

The swift parrot flies through our consciousness like no other Tasmanian bird. It has a certain cache in wildlife terms and when it comes to talking endangered species, it leaves others like the forty-spotted pardalote and the orange-bellied parrot in its slipstream.

Unwittingly, this small bundle of bone and feathers has become the poster child of wildlife conservation and the subject of what promises to be an even more acrimonious chapter in the forest wars.

Most Tasmanians might never see this summer visitor which makes the longest migratory journey of any parrot, from breeding grounds in south-eastern Tasmania to the ironbark forests of Victoria and southern New South Wales. The parrot’s swerving, low flight makes it difficult to identify, especially as it can be confused with the much more common musk lorikeet. Its streamline shape and shimmering iridescent emerald-green plumage, mixing flashes of crimson, marks it out.

Often it only becomes apparent when it flies into windows, or is seen spread-eagled on suburban streets as roadkill. It constantly flies through the headlines, though, in both the local and national press, and this spring has seen more space than ever devoted to the darting parrot, with some good and bad news.

Shortly after it had crossed Bass Strait in September those trying to save the parrot were rocked by the news that a moratorium on logging 400,000 hectares of reserved forests including those with swift parrot habit was to be lifted by the state government. The forests targeted include an old-growth coupe on Bruny Island which has proven a mecca for national and international birdwatchers wanting to view swift parrots nesting there.

The parrot conflict is brewing again and once more conflict looks likely to spread beyond the actual bird to the whole question of the sustainably of the state’s forest practices, and whether these are acceptable to the outside world. Already there is every sign that whatever happens to just one species will have a disproportionate effect on whether or not Forest Stewardship Certification (FSC) is attained.

Forestry Tasmania’s quest to obtain certification has been stymied so far by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international not-for-profit organisation founded in 1993 to oversee “responsible forest management”. It has ruled the Tasmanian industry does not meet sufficient criteria needed for certification.

Although Forestry Tasmania says on its website it has met 91 per cent of the criteria, it accepts 10 key issues remain.  These include managing critical habitat for the swift parrot and Forestry Tasmania says it aims to meet these concerns.

The swift parrot once flew in its hundreds of thousands through the blue gum forests of south-eastern and eastern Tasmania but recent surveys suggest it is down to a mere 2000 birds at best. Last year it was listed as critically endangered.

The sublime beauty of the parrot only becomes apparent when you spend a day in the bush with those trying to save the bird, as I did recently on north Bruny Island. In scattered blue and white gum woodland nest boxes had been erected – part of a crowd-funding plan to install an initial 300 across the twin islands – and in a notable first these had been taken up by breeding parrots.

The researcher heading the swift parrot conservation program, Dejan Stojanovic, of Australian National University, is ecstatic over this development but knows it is only the first step.

“This is a Band-Aid solution and a desperate attempt to buy time for these birds by giving them a reprieve for their habitat loss,” Dr Stojanovic says. “But what we need to do long-term is preserve mature Tasmanian forest.”

Although swift parrots largely rely on blue gums for pollen and nectar food and nesting hollows during the breeding season, flowering from area to area is not consistent each year.  So nest boxes proving a success one season might remain unused the next if trees in the area are not in flower. This year researchers were able to predict a good flowering season on Bruny – prompting a concentrated nest box program there –  but there is no guarantee the birds will return to Bruny next year.

This is particularly worrying because Bruny is free of what in recent years has emerged as the most serious threat to the parrots beyond forest clearance. This is the sugar glider – an introduced species to Tasmania – which has been found to raid swift parrot nests and consume young.

“The sugar gliders take 80 per cent of chicks in forests where parrot and glider breeding overlap,” said Dr Stojanovic, adding strategies were being devised to counter the menace of the gliders.

A major achievement in parrot conservation, however, has seen not only the parrots using nest boxes for the first time but the creation of artificial nest sites.

Recently a group of volunteer arborists from the Victoria Tree Industry Organisation visited Bruny bringing their chainsaws with them, to climb trees and carve out hollows.

There is some irony in using chainsaws, the traditional enemy of the parrot, to help plot their survival but irony seems to fly on the wings of not just the “swifties”, but all parrot species. Perhaps because they mimic humans in voice, and sometimes behaviour, the parrot is an ideal vehicle for both satire and black humour. Most famously it featured in the humour of Monty Python, the subject of its dead parrot sketch, in which a dead “norwegian blue” is sold to an unsuspecting customer in a pet shop.

This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ….. you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein’ tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.

I used a few lines from the sketch in my “On the Wing” column seven years ago when perhaps the grimmest of parrot news rolled off the presses.

The then Labor environment minister David Llewellyn had caused consternation by stating the swift parrot was “virtually doomed” and “unlikely to be viable in the long term”.

Mr Llewellyn and others might have written off the parrot but events in the woodland of north Bruny prove that Lathamus disclor is refusing to lie down like the Python parrot.

And if it does succumb, it will take any hopes of reviving the Tasmanian forestry industry with it.

Wildwords, a history of “new nature” writing


Writers have been among the most astute observers of the natural world and the human place within it.

The first wildlife writers – or writers of “nature notes” as they were more likely to be called in earlier centuries – found their inspiration embraced by forest, mountain and stream. Nature writers today, however, are more likely to be found in suburb and city. Like many of the animals, birds and butterflies they capture in word, they have migrated to an environment increasingly shaped by man.

This approach to nature writing, often reflected in a style that carries the hard edge of the city with it, is not to say nature writers have abrogated their responsibility to record the beauty of landscape and the creatures within it. They have not sold out, but embraced a new reality. The nature writers of the city also carry the message of conservation in their work, the message that if the man-made environment is to dominate, we must save something of nature within it, and find beauty and fascination there.

I strayed from the path of traditional, or pastoral, nature writing years ago when I discovered not only urban landscapes rich in wildlife, but anthropomorphism, irony, and bottles of red wine and bourbon with birds on their labels. As a young reporter, I had been impressed by the New Journalism of the 1960s which took reporting into the realm of the novel and short-story, and a few decades on I discovered what were termed New Nature Writers breaking with tradition and exploring similar territory.

Although I still treasured the book that was my introduction to words about nature, Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne published in 1788, I now found inspiration in one of the new journalists, Hunter S Thompson.

Thompson did not write of nature as such but his words “I write with rage and ink” had an irresistible resonance and power that fuelled my own writing.

When I moved to New York City in the early 1980s my interest in the new journalism – mainly an American creation – really took hold. This time, though, I had become a fanatical birdwatcher and I found at the time the writings about American wildlife strangely dated, out of step with what had happened in journalism.

I had set out to study the birds of Central Park and was surprised to discover that there was not a book covering such a magical place, with a surprising array of birds. So I decided to write one myself. I couldn’t make it an expert field guide, simply because I was not an expert, so I decided on another approach: I’d make it a diary, although as I have said this was a style somewhat out of fashion. But like the new journalists, I would try something different. I was a journalist after all and I approached the subject as such: in a calendar year I would record everything that happened in Central Park, not just the seasonal arrival and departure of birds on America’s Great Eastern Flyway.

This was not just about birds, but about the people who watched them, the people who used the park, about how the park featured in the news with murders and muggings, and the politics of city hall when it came to how the park was being managed.

I didn’t know it at the time but I was developing my own style of nature writing, a style being embraced by others in the 1980s.

Nature writing had been a long established genre, but this different approach created a context in which people were more than a backdrop, in which nature in the city was a subject, and in which the writer immersed himself to such a degree that he or she became part of the story. Truman Capote did it with In Cold Blood, and I did it in The Falconer of Central Park.

Unlike new journalism, recognition of a new nature genre has been a long time coming. However, a few years back I was delighted to discover that Granta, the magazine of new writing in Britain, had devoted a whole edition to the subject.

The editor’s letter said many of the stories in the issue were studies in the local or the parochial: they are about the discovery of the exotic in the familiar, the extraordinary in the ordinary.

It’s not just nature writers who have discovered wildlife in the cities, of course. Legendary wildlife documentary-maker David Attenborough was once asked what was his favourite bird out of all the thousands of species he had seen on his travels worldwide.

He did not have to cup his hand to his chin in classic pose to think about it. He had an instant answer, all the while looking wistfully out of the window of his suburban London home, to the garden beyond.

The bird wasn’t the wandering albatross that circumnavigates the globe on wings with a span 3.5 metres, the longest of any bird. It wasn’t the world’s heaviest flying bird, the great bustard, or the world’s smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba.

The bird Attenborough chose as his favourite was the humble redpoll, a nondescript finch that he often saw feeding on the seeds of silver birch trees in his garden in Kew. Attenborough said he loved to see the redpolls in his garden because it made him feel connected to nature,  made him realise he was part of “the bigger picture”, as he put it.

It’s a simple philosophy but one that I share when I look out of my own window and see the new holland honeyeaters going about their daily business. Like Attenborough and his redpolls, I have a special affinity with the new holland honeyeaters. I watch them throughout the seasons and sympathise with them when they are fluffing up their feathers in the cold of  mid-winter or panting with beaks wide open in the heat of January.

I feel their anguish when the brown goshawk comes to call. Summoned by their alarm calls, I dash into the garden and break all the conventions of birdwatching to chase the goshawk off.

I gave up being a twitcher – those who chase rare birds merely for a life-list or annual record of birds spotted – long ago when I discovered the simple pleasure of owning a garden and creating an environment for birds of many species.

That’s not to say I eschew wild, exciting and romantic places and their wildlife in favour of the suburban, urban idyll. I have ambitions to see Kakadu, the outback at Alice Springs and the tropical rainforest of Cooktown. Also, I spent many years in Africa and have plans to revisit some of my old haunts in the not-too-distant future.

However, the problem with the Serengeti in Tanzania, the Okavango Swamps in Botswana and even Kakadu, you are always a tourist and an outsider. You do not establish a bond with the creatures you see there, you do not share their environment on a daily basis. With birds, you don’t see the courting rituals, followed by nest building, and then delight in seeing a new batch of fledglings being fed by their parents.

They could be members of your own family, and indeed in a sense they are – because the families of birds and animals and humans that share a specific environment, like a garden in Hobart’s Waterworks Valley, cut across the zoological division of class and order.

They represent a clan, a mob, in which, say, the forest raven is just as integral a part as a bennett’s wallaby, a barred bandicoot and a journalist who has the power to record the trials and tribulations of this remarkable community.

The lives of all entwine. We all share the relentless march of the clock which determines parts of the day when we are busier and more frantic than others, we travel on both long and short journeys to gain the things that sustain us, we share the rhythm of the seasons.

In early summer we find a sunny spot in the garden to replenish our strength after winter, and in winter itself we huddle in a sheltered place out of the icy winds.

There is a convention in zoology that frowns on anthropomorphism. In the same way I intervene when the goshawk calls, and feed garden birds when I’m told I shouldn’t, I see my garden birds as people and I give them people names. There’s Reg the forest raven, Billy the butcherbird and a green rosella I call Grace. Beyond my own family, the residents of my garden may comprise birds and animals, and frogs and skinks, but they display the same individual traits that make human life so complex, diverse and exciting.

So I see birds and mammals, from my observations in the garden, as individuals not merely members of a species. Giving them an individual name reinforces this process and the only names I know happen to be human ones.

I often wonder, in their calls, if birds have individual names for each other. We all know about the gentle cooing of doves in love but do garden birds also have insults for each other. Is the problem neighbour, the one in an adjoining territory who has designs on your own, a jackass. That’s a name humans in Tasmania have given to the butcherbird, but I could hear the word being spat out by a butcherbird that for a brief spell made my garden his home and repelled a butcherbird neighbour. It was an acrimonious boundary dispute that would have done justice to a sitting of the Hobart City Council’s planning committee.

And then there’s music, the songs of birds that so often mirror those of humans in their phrasing and tone.

Song, were told in the bird books, is merely a device to proclaim territory, to advertise for a mate, and to give warning of danger.

I’m convinced that a blackbird singing lustily is deriving as much pleasure from the sheer act of singing, as I am when I dance around the living room with my air guitar listening to Eric Clapton. It’s not just about territory and broadcasting for a mate.

As is the case with science, in environmental writing there remains a trend outside the United States and Britain to discourage anything that’s anthropomorphic. No Beatrice Potter here.

I’m not supposed to refer to Reg the raven in the column I write on bird-watching for the Mercury. So I won’t mention Reg or his mate Reggie are frequently my dinner guests on the balcony.  And I won’t mention my conversations with Reg when I ask him to confirm my suspicions that he compares my behaviour with that of the tear-away juvenile ravens closer to town. What’s raven speak, those familiar caws of different length and pitch, for ageing rocker who never grew up?

I love my garden and sometimes, especially in spring, I think there is no place I would rather be. As with anthropomorphism, the suburban environment itself is frowned on in some quarters. Many birdwatchers are cynical about garden birdwatching, describing our urban and semi-urban spaces as a false and harmful environment for wildlife. But I see the potential there for giving the people of the towns and cities a unique connection with animals and birds. A garden might be a man-made environment but all species can share it all the same, as I have said.

That is why these little patches of greenery that we see dotted about the suburbs, in and out of formal designated gardens and parks, are so important.

I live along the Sandy Bay Rivulet, this precious ribbon of greenery that snakes from the slopes of Mt Wellington.  On a map it’s not much to look at really. It’s not the Serengeti that is crossed by millions of wildebeest on migration each year and it’s not Antarctica where hundreds of thousands of penguins huddle together. But I believe, as a microcosm of what has been, is and could be, it is just as important.

I’ve seen about 60 bird species in or above my garden. Bennett’s wallabies chew my lawn by night, and a barred bandicoot or two dig holes in it.  My garden is important.

The first naturalists looked to gardens for their inspiration. Many of the early nature lovers were English clergymen and they studied wildlife in the village churchyard, a habitat so important for the study of British birds to this day that a book has been written about it.

My own hero is the Reverend Gilbert White, who spent virtually his whole life studying the wildlife of the village of Selbourne in Hampshire, not so far from where I spent my childhood in neighbouring Surrey.

The opinion at the time, the mid to late 1700s, said swallows hibernated in mud during the winter but Gilbert White had his doubts. He instructed his gardener to dig up the banks of a muddy stream near his home to look for them. He, of course, drew a blank. With no evidence of hibernation, White went out into the fields at the end of summer to study swallows travelling south. Where did they go? he asked himself.

Studying another Selbourne species, White questioned the notion a warbler that made a liquid descending call was the same as the one that went “chiffchaff’”. White cut a footpath through a beech wood at the end of his garden so he could study the warbler more closely. He separated what was to become known as the chiffchaff from the willow warbler, which is virtually identical in appearance. The breakthrough came by way of simple observation on his home turf, an observation that comes from sharing your environment, and life, with the creatures of the neighbourhood.

The naturalists of the backyard are too numerous to mention. But their published observations, like Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, are the backbone of environmental writing and environmental science.

What would the evolving environment movement in the United States have been without David Henry Thoreau and his Walden Pond. From an earlier time, I might even mention William Shakespeare who no doubt learned in his Stratford Upon Avon garden that “Thrice sings the thrush“ (the song thrush has three notes that it repeats after a brief pause).

The roots of natural history go back to Aristotle and other ancient philosophers who set out to give the natural world a biological classification.

The ancient Greeks’ classification evolved in medieval times into the scala naturae, the scale of nature or Great Chain of Being, the central concept tying together the various domains of natural history, which arranged minerals, vegetables, more primitive or “lower’’ forms of animals, and more advanced or “higher’’ forms of life on a linear scale of increasing “perfection”. This culminated in our species, and ultimately God. Then came Carolus Linnaeus who in the 18th century produced the scientific classification of nature we know today.

I like the term chain of being, though, and I have another, more modern definition:  it’s a chain that links everything that moves in my garden. Including me.

I’m proud to be among a growing band of writers in the 21st century who are just as likely to be found in the ubiquitous Central Park in New York as sitting on the banks of Walden Pond. We are not replacing, though, wild words from wilder places, and the New Nature writer is just as likely to venture into the pristine and untrammelled. We’re all part of the mix, making wildlife literature stronger and more pertinent than ever.

I’ve concentrated on essays but we must not forget the authors of lengthier works.

Perhaps reflecting a growing interest in birdwatching, more and more novels are being written with birdwatchers and bird lovers as their protagonists.

A recent one is Snapper by American Brian Kimberling.  It tells of a student who, by chance, gets a holiday job helping a bird researcher monitor nesting birds in the forests of Indiana one summer.

The student gets caught in a tornado, and this is how the narrative runs in the first person:

That tornado left a six-mile swathe of houses in splinters and twenty-nine dead after touching down four miles away from where I cowered in the mud.  As if God had driven his Camaro through there with a bottle of bourdon in one hand and a rented blonde on the other, AC/DC loud on the stereo. I don’t know how you can look at an occurrence like that without concluding that God is white trash, but you don’t say that kind of thing in Indiana.

Whether it be new nature writing, or the traditional pastoral approach, in prose or in verse, on land or at sea, words of the wild increasingly hold a growing place in the vast pantheon of literature.