North and South


It’s a touch past six in the morning, in the dog day weekend between Christmas and New Year.  It’s the time of year when the only things you can do are ones that are unimportant, but seem to get done none the less. The roads are almost empty, but perversely, I have been stationary for at least five minutes.  Road works and diversions cause delays whenever and wherever they occur. 

I drum my fingers on the wheel and reach to take a sip of tea.  I’ve been looking at the back of the same car for a while.  It’s clear that it (and its owner) have been dragged into the same diversion as me.  I can see through the back window, past a faded newspaper, to where the driver sits.  Even from behind his body language is clear.  Steam drifts from the open slot of my travel mug, an unfamiliar but welcome companion in the chill of the morning. Steam also seems to be coming from the ears of my fellow traveller.  The driver’s side back panel of the car in front has faded down to a lighter shade of red than the rest of the car.  One of the brake light glasses is broken, although the light still works.   The left hand indicator drops in and out of synchronisation with mine; both seem redundant, as we have no option but to turn left.  I try to make words that use the letters in the car’s rego plate; they all seem to be swear words.  Maybe the steam pressure is building in my head too.  I start to sing; it’s a well-practised pressure release system. The lights turn green and we are waved through by a man in a painfully bright orange jacket.

We move about 100 metres and the whole process starts again.  The only difference is that a woman wearing the same sort of flame bright jacket is controlling the next set of lights.   This kind of start to the day could get old very quickly.



Eventually I clear the road works and I’m able to start moving at a speed more in keeping with the 21st century.  I may have imagined it, but I’m sure there were people waving flags in front of each car for a while.  I take the final sip of tea and realise I am going to be late.  I start singing again.

A dust cloud is being kicked up in the distance and what little traffic there is, slows down.  A lawn mower on steroids is slashing tall grass by the side of the road.  The dust is a testament to the lack of rain.  The need to do this is testament to the fear of fire that stalks our summer landscapes. Paddocks flank both sides of the road – we don’t have fields – the grass cooked down to a dun brown, the colour of cheap paper bags.  It’s not the heat (that will come later), but the lack of rain that has stripped the plants of green.  “Grass fire” sounds benign when compared to “forest fire” – a paper cut compared to a sword slash – but that’s not the truth.  Fast moving, they can burn to the back fence of homes that are far from forests, where people can think fire preparation is about buying wood for winter.  It’s in places like this, where fires reach into tightly packed estates that the fear of fire should be keenly felt.

On other early mornings the paddocks have held low lying clouds, maybe even mists.  But today the air is shimmeringly clear.  By 6.30 the sky is beginning to bleach to a kind of powder blue that promises sunburn to the unprotected and harsh shadows in the landscape.  I keep thinking, wrongly, that the next junction is the one I want.  It takes a surprisingly long time until that’s correct.  I arrive at the meeting point late – just – and I can see a convoy of cars in the distance.  Birders and bird banders often travel in groups, so I push a little harder with my right toe and catch them up at a locked gate.


Werribee.   Christmas gone.  New Year not arrived.  It means wader banding.  

If slightly care worn clothes, rubber boots and hats bordering on the eccentric are the order of the day, then, so it seems, are small SUVs.  There is a marketing opportunity here for Subaru, maybe even a chance for sponsorship.  A few people, faces I don’t recognise, commit the cardinal sin of becoming separated from their food.  On days out with Clive I’m more likely to leave my own head in the car than to become sundered from my lunch.  A couple of hours later a small convoy of cars reunites the hungry with their glad wrapped sandwiches and leftover mince pies.  It’s like watching a family reunion – except there are fewer arguments about past Christmas presents and everyone talks to each other.

This band of birders gathers on a raised roadway, with a dry ditch to one side and open, damp looking lagoons on the other.  Patches of vegetation are surrounded by silver water, and a cooling wind ruffles hair, standing pools and hat brims.  Later in the day people will curse its gentle hand when the sunburn it masked comes out.   A trail of willing sherpas move a mountain of materials from the backs of cars to the welcoming mud flats that lie just beyond a water ringed island.   Foot falls firm a track from cars to catching area. A little gully forms in the dry vegetation that runs down from the road top.

All activity flows from and through Clive. Idlers are identified and allocated tasks.  Setting the net, an inexact science at best, is directed with NASA like accuracy.  Everything is checked and double-checked, circuits are made and remade.  The net that will trap the birds is deployed by cannon-fired projectiles, the angle and explosive load of which are subject to high level discussions.  Camouflage is laid in cryptic patterns over the furled net.  A firing position, with a clear view of the catching area is set up, where the box with the big red button is stationed. It all sounds rather military, but the bearing of most of the banders is more Peace Corps than Marine Corps.  Everything has a name that would baffle the general public.  Keeping the “chocolate blocks out of the water” means that electrical connectors need to be kept dry.  A “two metre marker” has nothing to do with a person’s ability to play basketball.   And a “jiggler” is a line of bits of cloth attached to a thin cord, rather than a bad dancer.  Its purpose, if asked, is to move birds into the “catching area” without “putting them up”.   


Once we have set the net we retreat back to the road, splashing through water that is now ankle deep.  The sea itself is invisible over the horizon, but its effects can still be felt.  As the tide pushes higher the lagoons respond in kind and the water level rises.  Flocks of birds, some large, some small, begin to appear and land on the mud in front of us.  Generally they land where the net is not. 

Flocks take to the wing, unhappy with their accommodation, and try elsewhere.  Pale underwings, white rumps and wing-bars blur into a coordinated flock which flies like a single giant bird – or pale smoke.   Wing tips buckle.  Tails twist.  The birds don’t collide.  Responding faster than we can see they fly as one and land in flight fast order – outside of the catching area.  I look ahead and miss two Brolgas behind.   Such moments test your patience.  The energy stored in the cannon’s charges waits to break the slowness of the hour.

The circuit whole.  The charge released. The net becomes a magic carpet that flows out from the ground, scattering birds and carefully lain camouflage. 


Four puffs of white smoke, soon wind blown to one and blends with a mist of missed birds. The energy of movement. The light hare outruns the tortoise sound, and we see before we hear.  And when we see, we run, towards wing sounds and the dancing net.  A masked plover, which escaped the net, calls and calls and calls. 

The birds are strangely calm, as if evolution has not keyed them for such an event.  As if they know we mean no harm.  Shade cloth is placed to protect the birds from the bright sun.  One by one the birds are removed from under the net and in their releasing they are named.  Stint. Sharpie. Curlew.  The uber pedants call out “curlew sand” to remove an ambiguity that does not exist.  I offer up an “osprey” – I may be kneeling to extract the birds, but I can’t resist a bit of stand-up.  People who know me laugh; people who don’t quickly move to another part of the net.
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. (AKA "Sharpie")
The whole scene is alive with energy.  The movement of hands and the urgent call of voices, the lingering smells of gunpowder from the cannons, the skin sharpening brightness of the summer sun.  And the birds; always the birds.

Later in the day, when we work bird by bird through the catch, the startling energy of the situation comes back to mind.  A red-necked stint, tiny in the hand, shows us feathers with a buff edge.  A light red wash, different from the more common pale cream white.  Unnoticeable in the field, this shows this bird is juvenile – this year’s bird.  A bird that a few months ago was an egg in the light and insect rich habitats of the northern hemisphere.  Now it sits in my hand, on the south coast of Australia, almost a world away from its birthing nest.  It’s a package of northern sunshine, from a place where the turning of the Earth has dimmed the lights.  A feathered flow of energy from north to south.  And if it dies here, as many surely will, the energy will pass on, until, lost as heat it drifts into a universe made of no more than energy itself and its sibling matter.  But if it survives the hot Australian sun, and travels back north, it will take with it a cargo of southern sunlight to lands where the sun seems never to set. 

When I open my hand to let the bird fly away I do not feel the loss of the weight.  It’s tiny.  But it made it here with the same energy that drives my own cells.

There’s something about that I find comforting. 

Curlew Sandpiper (AKA - Curlew Sand)



Metro Land *


Camberwell.

The doors open to let me out, and the smell of coffee in.  Not long ago, self-opening door were only found in Star Trek, but now they are commonplace.  On hot days the few metres from inside to outside are marked by a steep jump in temperature; on cold days – or as cold as cold gets in Melbourne – the shock is never as great. 

In all but the heat of the summer, the smell of coffee is a greater challenge to walking than the temperature.  The fine blend being perfectly toasted just over the road temps me stop and sample.  The coffee shop’s logo has 1961 embedded in it, which may hint at funkiness, but only succeeds in making me feel old.  The air is heavy with tortured aromatics, pushed from the beans by hot and tumbled air.  Arabica? Robusta? Organic?  (Inorganic?) Single source or blended? I’m sure some people could tell; but to me, its just coffee. 

Two or three strides later the rail line I will follow home comes into view.  Parallel lines that meet in the distance flow away from the station.  Slight buckles in the rails caused by train brakes and expansion challenge the symmetry of perspective.  Tannoy announcements speak of delays caused by the heat as if this is a novelty, or somehow unexpected in Australia.  Fallen trees? Yes.  Catastrophic signal failure?  Yes.  Heat?  No. 

I’m happy to be walking.  


With a fence on one side and a borderland of weeds and old iron on the other I shadow the rail line.  Leaves push through the fence and sprout from its decayed base.  Cactus flowers, garden escapees, sun bleached grass.  Bindweeds, with flowers the colour of cool wood smoke, purple and blue and grey, climb the trees and fences; their twisting stems snake up signal poles and trackside buildings.  A scatter of discarded chocolate wrappers – most likely lifted from a shop rather than bought – distract the butterflies from their other tasks.  Their wings open and shut, pulsing to a rhythm different to my own.  On the concrete wall that holds up the other side of the railway cutting two generations of graffiti offer relief from the day-to-day grind.  The paint of the older words flakes from the wall, revealing it age, showing the while “free energy may be coming”, it’s not arrived yet.   On a wooden seat an abandoned bike lock has been painted the same colour as the seat itself, so it becomes lost in two ways. I pass these things every time I walk home, they become the way stations of a simple journey; they become the markers of distance.

I wait for the green man at the lights, imagining the curses of the paused commuters, and cross the road.

Camberwell East.

The graffiti artists have been busy tagging the walls of the cutting; names brightly sprayed on rust stained, crumbling, brickwork that seeps green moss in in dark corners.  Some of the tags bring a kind of brightness, a newness, to contrast with the neglect around them.  Trains clatter over misaligned points, and rusty wires sing in the strong north wind.  The railway feels un-loved by a government so obsessed with cars that it builds roads, roads and roads, while the rail network groans to a halt.  Politicians take whistle-stop tours and declare something must be done.  And they build more roads.

I cross a solid metal bridge where the line divides.  One to Alamein and the other, my line, out to Box Hill, Blackburn and beyond.  The walls of the underpass are rippled with painted over comments – each layer making the tunnel thinner.  On the platform students carry computers, sports bags, musical instruments.  The boys carry larger sports bags, the girls more instruments: both carry the weight of their parent’s expectations. Some seem to sag.  Both groups dance and flow around each other, splintering and rejoining, splendid in their school colours.



A low sci-fi hum leaks from a box square building, where electricity is stepped down from the deadly to the merely dangerous. Just below the roofline a few Art Deco lines and corners bring a touch of design to a building dominated by function.   Dust swirls from the unmade track where, in the winter, mud gathers to cling to your shoes.  Circling pigeons nod and bow to each other in another ritual dance intent of the passage of genes. 

Beyond the dusty path the streets are line with plane trees, the branches cruelly cut to allow the passage of wires through their crowns.  Some trees become amputees, one sided, off balance.  Some spread their limbs like a catapult.  All look gnarled and damaged, like the weathered hands of a gardener, bent by old age and twisted by arthritis.  In winter, stripped of their leaves, they are as bare as an open gesture.  What branches remain shed last year’s bark – showering the street with a counterfeit of autumn.  The bark gathers in gutters and under wall edges, brandy snap tubes, delightfully crunchy underfoot, shattering as you step on them.  Thousand upon thousand of pieces fallen from trees planted generations ago.  In streets that are home to young children, there are no young trees. 

I can’t help but wonder what secrets are hidden behind the tall hedges.  The houses are set back from the road, out of earshot, behind garden beds that baffle the eye line.   Some gardens seem over loved, other seem over looked.  A tall tree, a liquid amber, lies in deep grass, its trunk cut an arms spread from the ground.  The lawn is already claiming the fallen wood. 

A Jaguar hides in a border hedge; it must have been a long time since it purred or roared.  Ivy grows from its open nose.  Its paintwork patched and dented.  What is the story here, why is it abandoned, on the edge of extinction?



Between one walk and the next a house has disappeared.  Now there is only the smell of smashed bricks and splintered wood.  No matter how dry the land gets these broken houses still smell of damp.  Maybe it’s the smell of fleeing memories or old ambition.  The sign on the cyclone wire fence promises to build new ones from modern fibres and architect design.  Black plastic bags emerge from the newly exposed soil, sun baked and fragile, and given rain and a week or two, weeds will soon start to smooth the out the machine tracks that criss-cross the block.

Canterbury.

A massive oak tree stands at the entrance to the park, its trunk solid, its branches untouched by blade or saw.  The canopy is dense and complete, barely a light spot speckles the ground around.  Cool air gathers here and on a hot day the temptation is to linger a while, to pause and take in the stillness. 

The sign that names the park is floral in the extreme – twee even – and makes no connection to the solid trees that stud the well-kept lawns.  There are even young trees here and there, planted by dirty hands grown wise from the handling of soil.   Two tree conspire – compete – to form a natural theatre; open to the front but otherwise surrounded by weeping branches that brush the ground.   It’s a space that calls for Shakespeare to read aloud, or music to be played.  A few years ago I spent an hour there spinning plates, failing to juggle and tangling a diabolo.

Across the main road, past the super-loo and the dance studio, is a rare pocket of industry.  This may be a ghost from the time when this was the outskirts of Melbourne, where dirty work was done and things were made.  These days it’s where coffee is sipped and things are bought.  On one small patch of weedy ground dozen and dozens of cigarette ends await the rain to wash them into the drains and out to sea. It’s an unfortunate habit on all levels.



Chatham.

On my right is a vacant block, colonised by deep grass and stolen bikes. A cracked concrete path still leads from the pavement into the block.  I walked up it once to see what was there; I decided to leave the bikes for other people.   Rainbow lorikeets, drawn by a free lunch, chatter on the balcony of the house next door.  I cant help but wonder why the block stays vacant.

By the station underpass tired parents collect tired children from day care.  The walls are painted with happy faces and bright colours.  If the kids stand still they blend in, but never quite disappear.   In the winter you can hear the shouts and whistles of the elder siblings at footy training – running in the evening darkness, calling names, hoping the ball comes their way.

As I walk past the cadet hall with its poster sized images of children in uniform with guns, I wonder if the CCTV notices that I pass by twice or three times a week.  Did it notice when I found a box of heat tabs, clearly labelled “explosive” on the grass?  And did they notice when I flicked them, backhand, back over the fence?  A rucksack, webbing and a pair of boots seem to have been returned in the same way – a change of heart maybe?

Just past the Bofors Gun and the Camp Safe Bravo sign I see a familiar face.  I have no idea what this person is called, but we almost always say hello.  I only stop to talk when I know I have 20 minutes to spare.  Short conversations are not his strong point.   I keep walking, past the weatherboard houses painted pastel cream with green details.  The modern brick and tile houses look sharp and angular, lacking the flow of wood and iron.  Even in the rain the gardens look dry.



Surrey Hills.


On a good day the rail barriers hold up the traffic when I want to cross Union Road.  On a bad day I have to wait for a dashable gap in the flow.  The print works on the corner has closed in the last few months – its used to print the flyers for house sales.  A niche market that seems to have closed.  It used to be possible to watch the sheets of paper move through the presses, become more colourful at each stage.  People would stand by the machines, ears covered in bright yellow cups, and stack the printed sheets.  Now the windows are darkened and cobwebs form in the corners.  I wonder what happened to the people who used to work there. 

The park and ride cars are tightly packed into the car park.  Manly 4WD’s bumper to bumper with tiny city cars.  The drivers of the bigger cars often have to wait for enough space to drive the vehicle home.  The city car drivers turn on a sixpence and leave at will.  Train passengers and walkers weave between the parked cars, feeling moral and heading home.

It’s here that I walk up the only hill on the way home.  It’s very short and end at a corner where people grow green beans in raised garden beds.   Some of the plants grow beyond the bounds of the property and I scrump a bean or two.  Snap. Crunch.

Mont Albert.

Home. 

I could reach out and almost touch the trains that pass me and then head towards Box Hill, although it would be dumb to do so.  On a small triangle of bare soil, twigs and branches from the gum trees gather – winter kindling that eagerly take the flame.

A newly smoothed road takes me home.  At the last turn I think of a drink, cold or warm in season.

There are often parrots.  There is often, but not always, laughter from inside the house. 

The parallel lines have met.

The train line keeps going, but this is my stop.


* With apologies to Sir John Betjeman.