From a very early age I’ve been obsessed with birds. Of course, as a young boy, I did not know the word obsessed, but I would have told you that I loved birds and I really meant it. I’ve spent more of my life thinking about birds than anything else.
During my childhood, my parents were quite strict and every day we had family lunch at the dining table, followed by a compulsory 30-minute lie down. For many kids that would have been a painful experience, but it didn’t bother me at all. My bed was positioned under a large window and I would lie on the bed, watching the bird feeder on a rock a few metres away. There were always birds there and I knew them all.
I didn’t only know their names, I knew them individually, their habits and their behaviours. In many ways, it resembled my school playground during break time. There was the pintail who was a real arrogant bloody bully, so full of himself and his importance, and the cheerful chatty bulbuls. I spent many hours watching these characters interacting with each other. I especially loved the mannikins and the white eyes, who both came in sociable little flocks; they were self-contained, mindful and dapper. Every now and then a new bird would suddenly show up and it would send a shiver of excitement through me. My family life was quite lonely on the farm and there were many days and hours that I found myself alone. During these times the birds were my close companions.
When I wasn’t watching them, I would turn over on my bed to study my Roberts Field guide of South African Birds. I read this book every day. The birds were described in detail, maps showed where they occurred, and, most importantly, every bird was beautifully illustrated. I studied them all and knew each one intimately. Each plate had a favourite bird, one that I desperately wanted to see. The artist, Norman Lighton, did a masterful job of illustrating the birds in various poses. Some were shown in flight, others perched on a branch and others feeding or displaying a habit typical of that bird. Those illustrations filled my mind and however the bird was illustrated was how I came to know the bird and also how I came to expect to see it one day.
More than fifty years later, I still love my birds and I still like to lie down after lunch, although I must admit that my eyes do sometimes close these days. I miss my childhood bedroom window and the bird feeder outside, but I still watch birds whenever I get the chance. My Roberts field guide is always close at hand; but it’s no longer shiny bottle green. Instead, it has faded to a speckled bird’s egg colour. Inside, the pages are filled with notes and observations, some written when I was a boy and some as fresh as yesterday.
Just a couple of days ago I accompanied my guide, Jabu, on a mission deep into some mangroves in search of an elusive kingfisher. We walked quietly for a couple of hours; the only sound was the squelching of our shoes in the soft mud. Crabs skedaddled away from us, but there was no sign of our bird. I was ready to turn back, but Jabu pushed on, insisting that he’d heard the bird in the thicket. Suddenly, as if he had orchestrated it, there was a bright flash of blue right in front of us as the Mangrove Kingfisher landed on an exposed branch a distance away, but in front of us. ‘Here I am’, he seemed to be saying. My heart was in my mouth as I raised the binoculars to my eyes. Jabu did a little jig beside me and jumped into the air with a huge smile, and I clasped his hand tightly. Time stood absolutely still for a moment as we watched the beautiful bird.
My mind moved back to the Roberts plate where I’d first seen and studied this bird as a boy. It looked so much brighter than I had imagined and, of course, it was no longer frozen into an artist’s pose. This time, in front of me, was a Mangrove Kingfisher flapping its azure blue wings in an expression of pure joy and it felt as if the bird was taking off out of the book and being set free.
My heart leaps with exhilaration each time I find a new bird and, bird by bird, I free them from the pages of the book. Slowly but surely, my Roberts book of frozen still-life birds is emptying as I find each bird in the wild and watch it come alive.
I think the author, Roberts himself, will be proud of me when, one day, I hope the book is blank as I’ve set all my birds free and watched them fly. It certainly brings me joy as I search the bush for more birds to set free from the pages of my mind.
yesterday I drowned a rat, or rather
failed to rescue it from the rain barrel,
when that is the singular thing it needed.
had it been a mouse, say, or a shrew, a vole,
or a seriously misdirected mole, any rodent
cousin with anxious paws like a little
brown widow who’d lost her handbag, fine,
then I’d not have hesitated to offer it a twig;
but not a damned big rat, there I draw the line.
In school Biology we’d opened one with a
scalpel and I’d looked among the damp
glistening coils for some part of it to blame
for the Great Plagues, for the pestering of flesh
from corpses in Wars, the scaly tail looking
like the pickpocket implement of someone
who rigs races, sells stolen cars, takes good
watches off drunks in bars; then puzzled
all night about which part of me harbored
such callousness. Had places been reversed,
my thin-toed feet scrambling useless on a
course of sinking leaves, would any rat have
cared to look in me, for an organ of remorse?
In the early morning dark
I find myself falling
in love with life.
the stars still in the sky
the roosters crowing – a web
to capture the morning light.
The clouds warn of sunrise
as the milkman leaves home.
The first turtle doves begin to call
a lamb cries somewhere,
separated from its mother.
Each basil leaf wears a diamond,
a robin searches between the lace
of carrot leaves.
An empty nest has fallen
from the oak tree.
A frantic flapping as I ran by, watching my feet
Avoiding the shit dog owners leave
In this our shared strip of semi-wildness
Between grey suburbia and the wetlands
Between tamed nature and the real thing.
And there you were, entangled in the strands
Of an electric fence, thankfully disarmed
Majestic, dark-eyed, razor-beaked, one wing
Wedged up between the strands
You, not knowing what had trapped you
Me, not understanding how you got there
The two of us ensnared by fear
Of each other, suddenly face to face
With a species we had little business with
But also had no need to be afraid of.
So I stopped, inhaled your magnificence
Your taloned feet, your red-dark plumage
But also your white-barred-black wing twisted up
Pondering how I might release you, this
Not being a skill they teach at school or college
Even though dear friends are avid birders
This circumstance had not been discussed, nor
Notes taken for future reference.
So I simply said: “It’s OK, stay calm, let the wing slide down
Don’t struggle, you will hurt yourself, gently does it”
Or words to that effect, to calm myself as much as you.
You stopped, the wing, held in the upper strand
Slowly glided down, and you gathered yourself.
Then you looked at me, as if to say: “Of course
I wasn’t panicking, you just startled me and I
Well, I just got a fright when you came running”
Which I had been doing from a long way off
And surely birds of prey are, well, eagle-eyed
But I did not correct you: it was not my place.
We contemplated each other, as strangers sometimes do
Looked each other obliquely in the eye, considered
Whether this encounter might continue or was over
All in all, for Africa it was very British, frosty, formal, aloof.
Then you dipped your rufous head, spread your wings
Now released but not quite yet re-tested
And took off to my right, around the houses, slowly
In no great hurry to part from our strange meeting.
Further down the path, which I then followed, you stopped
Perched by the side of the path, gathering yourself again
Hoping, I suppose, that full flight would still be possible.
And so it was, because as I jogged up beside you, off you soared
Circled, glided across rooftops and out of sight, encounter over.
And as I ran on past the vlei-side houses with their mountain views
My heart crash-landed meaning: power and freedom
A moment trapped in ignorance, requiring only calm
And self-belief to solve the shock, tackle the new
Inspired to find release and strength to soar again
To summit rooftops, find new flight paths, ways to live.
Every part of my garden is a lyric
Under the shade of tall trees
Thorny cactus form the edges
The dark soil hides the relic
Crooked cracks lodge an army of bees
Its constant renewal and healing balm are worthy than wages
Little bird sings
Welcome to my world
Autumn leaves fall
Roll on a colorful carpet
The wind isn’t cold
It is Fall
The insects drum a trump
Little bird sings
Listen to the bruised barks and chopped trunks
Denounce it in melancholic melody
Dust and stones have replaced the green
Uprooted from its natural banks
Who could play a rhapsody?
The change can be seen.
Little bird sings
Hypnotic Winter call in a rusty voice
In Spring, I blossom
No more garments, my eyes cry
Frosted lawn offer a haunted peace
Destruction and devastation rise from the bosom
Beautiful Summers are now sting dry
Little bird sings.