The eastern rosellas were in full voice, chattering in the white peppermint gums as I followed the narrow road to the deep north one sunny afternoon last month.
I borrow the title of Richard Flanagan’s epic novel simply because my journey was inspired by the author himself.
Long before he had been awarded the Man Booker Prize I attended the launch of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and asked Flanagan he if he would sign a copy for me. His inscription said I’d “find some twitching within” and sure enough within the first few pages I found the central character, Dorrigo Evans, doing a spot of birdwatching.
From the back of a cart drawn by a horse called Gracie, Dorrigo travelled from Cleveland on what is now the Midland Highway.
As Flanagan wrote, Dorrigo “would smell damp bark and drying leaves and watch the clans of green and red musk lorikeets chortling far above. He would drink in the birdsong of the wrens and the honeyeaters, the whipcrack call of the jo-wittys, punctuated by Gracie’s steady clop and the creak and clink of the cart’s leather traces and wood shafts and iron chains, a universe of sensation that returned in dreams”.
And so it was on the day of my own travels, leaving the main road at the Fingal Valley turn-off at Conara Junction and heading east, as Dorrigo did. Only in his journey Dorrigo was in search of his brother and a mate trapping possums, I searched for birds and their link to events of a bygone age, perhaps the “dreams” Flanagan writes of.
Before reading Richard Flanagan’s book, the birds of this route had featured in correspondence with the family of an old miner who had worked the coalmines in the area. This gave me another reason to make the trip.
The family had asked me to write a column about yellow wattlebirds, a bird found only in Tasmania which features in much folklore, including their own.
In turn I had asked if they knew of the old practice of shooting wattlebirds for the pot. The wattlebirds, considerably bigger than town pigeons and the largest of the honeyeater family, made great eating in a pie, I had been told. The wattlebirds feed primarily on honey and nectar in spring and summer, and wild fruits at other times, and were once much sought after as a food supply, even if their meat was considered an acquired taste.
When the family replied, they included the recollections of their father, now in his nineties. “He ate them. They were baked. A friend used to take them to the coalmine where Dad worked in the late 1940s at Mt Nicholas. They shared them at ‘crib’ time. Nothing like a bird mixed with coal dust!”
There was some suggestion the wattlebirds were cooked in pies, four to eight in a pie.
“I suppose it depended on supply and the size of family which was mostly quite large by today’s standards.
“Dad says the wattlebirds were tasty but a bit ‘birdy’.”
The friend who took the wattlebirds to the coalmine also shot crows and blackbirds for his own the family. “The birds were all shot with number 12 shot which did not do much damage to the body.”
In the way the twitchers referred to by Flanagan in his inscription run around the country clocking up rare or unusual birds for their checklist of birds spotted, I collect anecdotes which link birds to the human world, both past and present. The yellow wattlebird is among 11 other species unique to Tasmania and they all have a vital place at the heart of Tasmania’s folklore and history.
The same could be said of another endemic species, Richard Flanagan. In the Fingal Valley, I found Flanagan’s voice as integral to this island as the guttural laugh of the yellow wattlebird, and the trumpet tune of the Tasmanian black currawong.