restricted access 1. An Outback Epiphany
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1 C H A P T E R 1 An Outback Epiphany Wogarno Station, Western Australia, 13 April 2001: Drought has set its oven on slow bake. This autumn, they must assign acres to a sheep rather than sheep to an acre. On our drive up the five-mile dirt track to Lizard Rock, a sacred Aboriginal site, we pass a cinnabar lakebed frosted with cracked salt. Round a bend, a nonsensical white pile on the left vies for our attention: “bone dry” made manifest in the stacked remains of starving sheep, shot during the last drought. I can’t take it in. At noon, several hundred people crowd onto an ancient ironstone outcropping to hear my concert. I marvel that they could all find the place. The canopy erected to protect me and my violin from the sun barely manages . I’m a hostage to brightness and heat: head spinning, ears hissing, lights shooting in my eyes. The devil’s box suffers Dante’s Inferno. Back at the homestead, the flash and rumble of a flock of galahs (Cacatua roseicapilla) cut across the sky. Wheeling in unison, they seem to say: “Look at us—we’re pink, we’re grey, we’re pink again. Look!” On landing , their metallic “chirrink-chirrink” mixes with the windmill’s creak and slurp. A few of the parrots ride it like a Ferris wheel. Others abseil down the stays of the homestead’s radio mast, beak on wire. The raucous squawking from these party animals intensifies when one galah ups 2 is birdsong music? the ante: a flapping of wings during descent produces several mad circles around the wire. Copy-galahs are quick to follow. Let’s twist and shout. I wander about, collecting grass fishhooks in my socks. Haphazard tin shedsandagingfences,inventionsofnecessityencouragedtostandforyet another season, masquerade as one-of-a-kind designs. I’m photographing weatheredwoodenpostscoifedwithcurlsandtanglesofcharismaticwire whenIfeelanudgeonthebackofmyleg.It’sMacca,thebordercolliepack leader. Apparently, he intends to chaperone me on my investigations. I always appreciate local knowledge. He’s quite attentive, but after a while I begin to wonder if Macca is just looking for a way to pass time, or if I am a personality so lacking in selfconfidence as to appear sheepish. A border collie stare cannot be ignored, nor can it be appeased by tossing a stick or a snack. I feel object to his subject . When we arrive back where we began, he and the other dogs succeed in roping me into a game that takes three forms and switches from one to another for no obvious reason: kick the ball, stare at the ball, or stare at Marmalade, the cat. I’m trying to grasp the rules of the game, wondering whether Kick-and-Stare is all that happens for an hour and if I’m being a good sport or just a pushover, when out of the blue I hear a leisurely, richtoned phrase. It’s a jazz flutist in a tree. An explosion of sound in another tree answers—a long, bold rattle descends sharply and swiftly, and a duet ensues—no, a trio. Twenty otherworldly seconds pass: low, slow, and enticingly familiar. I had no idea birds sang in trios. “It’s the pied butcherbird,” Eva explains to me later. “They get their name from snatching other birds’ babies right out of a nest. Then they’ll wedge their prey into the fork of a tree or skewer it on a broken branch. And they attack people’s eyes,” she warns, “so some folks wear hats with eyes drawn on the back to confuse the birds.” I notate several irresistible melodies, later writing in my travel journal devoted to this, my first trip to and across the Australian continent: Enchanted . Hard to put together this songster’s name and savage reputation with this angelic voice. Won over by blue notes, hip riffs, and syncopated chimes, I’ve fallen head over heels for a convict.1 An Outback Epiphany 3 Figure 1.1. Pied butcherbird at Wogarno Station, Western Australia. Photograph by Chris Tate (2008). Used by permission. Hearing these birds was an epiphany, but my partner, Jon, and I only heard one other pied butcherbird during our trip.2 When stopped at the WesternAustralia/NorthernTerritoryborder,weofferedupourgrapesto thequarantineofficer,buthedidn’twantthem—officersonlycollectfrom traffic headed in the opposite direction. Just then, a pied butcherbird who was perched atop the welcome sign tilted back their head, opened their bill, and puffed out in song: a born performer who turns on for...


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Subject Headings

  • Birdsongs -- Australia.
  • Butcherbirds -- Behavior -- Australia.
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