quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle/the wattle said

Driven half crazy today by my inability to solve a relatively simple writing problem - this can happen after a bad night's sleep, as last night's was - then fully crazy, first by a building inspector who wandered through the flat throwing his biro at the ceiling (apparently a test of structural integrity), then, again, by a prospective owner who seemed aggrievedly unable to comprehend why I didn't want her poking her nose into the bedroom she will probably throw me out of - I gave up and went for a walk. To the 'heritage suburb' of Haberfield, whose matronly or perhaps gentlemanly Federation houses stand in such contrast to the baroque curiosity of Summer Hill's higgledy terraces and piggledy apartment blocks ... apart from its cake shops and its library, I find Haberfield fairly uninteresting; but on the way there I walked under a flowering wattle tree and was transported, as always, back to early childhood.

In all the long time I've lived in Australia, it's always seemed both odd and oddly comforting that two such ubiquitous features of local flora and fauna - the wattle and the magpie - have the power to take me back to a remote mountain village in 1950s New Zealand ... but it is so. I can't remember where the wattles grew, only that they were not anywhere in our large and beautiful garden, of which I have near perfect recall. Out on Burns Street, running wild? Perhaps. Or in Miss Seth-Smith's extravagantly overgrown acre of hillside with the crumbling gothic mansion at the top? More likely. It is said to be unlucky to bring wattle flowers into the house; but I remember looking at the yellow pollen dust and fallen stamens from their puffball flowerets lying on tabletop or sideboard inside. While their scent, so dry and resonant and cheerful outside, drifted wanly to the walls.

The magpies were wild too, though not all of them. Two doors up from us lived two old brothers called Williams, who drove a Model T Ford and kept two magpies in a small apple box and wire netting cage by their letter box. For whatever reason? These poor birds had gone mad with confinement, and would peck viciously at anything, like a child's finger, that came close to the chicken wire they lived dankly behind. So of course we used to tempt them to do just that and sometimes got slashed. Up the back of the mansion was a cottage rented by a woman with two children - a solo mum we would say now - and she also kept a magpie, trained to call on the hour (I think it was four-thirty) her kids had to be back for tea. But mostly I remember the melodic carolling of the wild birds at dawn, at noon, at dusk, a strange, lost sound that still raises the hairs on my neck.

Magpies were not much liked in Ohakune; they were said to peck out the eyes of new born lambs. Wattle was disregarded when not viewed with outright superstition. We had our own native trees and birds, far superior in grace and subtlety and, well, nativity. But I love them both: the black and white parodic military strut of the maggie, the soft yellow down of the wattle; the operatic song of the one, the nostalgic scent of the other. They give me, in my irredeemably dual nature, a sense of being one, if not exactly with myself, then at least with my then and now. And, let's hope, with the whenever.

1 comment:

Martin Turner said...

No house is complete without resident magpies. I have two that arrived soon after I bought the house and have stayed ever since. Ive never seen them breed....maybe they treat me and my wife as their offspring. Max the big flashy male is a timid bird but Maxine the female is less so. She's also a very fussy bird...wont touch any food offered unless it is thrown to her whereupon she skilfully catches same with a loud snap of her beak.