To look to the future we must look to the past but a recently released book, Mateship with Birds, tells us that when it comes to wildlife, humans do not necessarily learn from experience.
The book by A H Chisholm was actually first published more than 90 years ago and it is staggering to note that his concern for the demise of bird species, particularly parrots, still has resonance today.
With human history the mistakes of the past can be rectified. Colonialism, discrimination based on race and gender, slavery and child labour; laws that promote such practices can be repealed. When it comes to man’s past relationship with the natural world mistakes that have led to the elimination of species can never be rectified. The Tasmanian tiger and the subject of one of Mateship with Birds’ chapters, the paradise parrot, are gone forever.
The book is a reissue of a collection of essays published in 1922 but I was drawn to the author not by history but the fact that A M Chisholm followed a similar career path to my own. He was not a scientist, but a journalist, like another wildlife writer from the past I admire, the Mercury’s own Peregrine, or Michael Sharland.
I’ve looked to Sharland over the years to see just how much the wildlife landscape has changed in Tasmania from the first half of the 20th century and now I look to Chisholm’s book for a greater perspective that takes in the Australian mainland.
Like Sharland, Chisholm was a wonderful writer combining the journalist’s grasp of detail with a flourish of the poetic born of the frustration of having to write for a living within the strait-jacket of news.
Chisholm is also not averse to quoting at length from other writers, as with a heart-rending account of Victorian naturalist Carl Lumholtz’s shooting of a paradise parrot. As it lay on the ground, “its scarlet feathers shining in the setting sun”, the female of the pair flew down to try and revive her mate and Lumholtz felt compelled to fire again. “A shot put an end to the faithful animal’s sorrow,” Lumholtz wrote.
As Chisholm points out, there is some irony in a naturalist extolling the beauty and wonder of nature and then blasting a bird out of the sky. The age of shooting birds in order to study them and to admire their beauty still lingered in Chisholm’s day, and he railed against it.
Chisholm went in search of the paradise parrot himself but could not find it. The parrot was last seen alive in southern Queensland in 1927.
As I read of Chisholm’s travels to find the paradise parrot, I was travelling myself on the Spirit of Tasmania at the start of my own endangered parrot quest – to find the orange-bellied and swift parrots on their wintering grounds in Victoria.
As Chisholm wrote all those years ago: “The question arises, then, what are the bird-lovers of Australia going to do about this matter of vanishing parrots?
“Surely it is a subject worthy of the closest attention of all good Australians! Meanwhile, let us, without reflecting on the claims of true science, dispute that dangerous idea that a thing of beauty is a joy for ever in a cage or a cabinet; and disdain, too, the lopsided belief that the moving finger of Civilisation must move on over the bodies of the ‘loveliest and the best of Nature’s children’.”
* Mateship with Birds by A M Chisholm is published by Scribe, priced $24.95.