If birds ran the government

Birds are smarter than we think. The other day out walking the dog, my daughter’s boyfriend suggested we cross the street on our return home.

‘To pay our respects to the birds,’ he said. ‘So they put in a good word for us at the parliament of crows.’ 

Crows can recognise human faces, he told me. They retain a memory of the same face for several years, and are particularly wary of menacing humans. 

I prefer the notion of a parliament of crows to our human parliament. In my fantasy, crows are better placed to judge behaviour and to establish fair practices in communal affairs. We humans tend to make a mash of things. 

In my imagination, I can see the flock of senior crows seated in the top most branches of a eucalypt nodding wisely. Their bright eyes aglow with contemplation on how best to proceed in face of the ongoing damage to their space. 

Humans chop down trees. Human make endless noise with their cars and machinery such that the crows’ nests with their delicate eggs tremble even when well placed in the fork of a tree. And the days have grown hotter with each passing year, the storms more frequent and less predictable within the bird calendar of events. 

The parliament of crows is not one to exclude its younger crows, its females and even the crow whose wing was bent in a freak accident when the crow collided with a streaking car that leapt out of nowhere. 

My imaginary crows are into equity but also they discipline their flock in ways we humans can only imagine. They hold no truck with poor behaviour, no skylarking among the young sure of wing birds, the ones who want to interfere with their neighbouring birds’ nests. 

No, the crows are respectful of other birds and their territories while standing up for their own.

Here I speak of our indigenous crows, not the huge thugs whose ancestors arrived here from the UK over a hundred years ago.

The native crows are at one with the land, the crow visitors or at least their offspring are less able to know the limits of their space. They over step the mark. Grow fat on human rubbish and mess up the landscape for everyone.

I never was one to plunge myself in my imagination into the mind of an animal or bird and my imaginings here can only take me so far before a certain itchiness attacks me. 

An irritability in my ears and mine’s eye. I want to connect to what I write. I need it to mean something to me beyond my imaginings and for this I need my memory of events. I need to add the human element. Perhaps because I am not a bird, not a crow but a human person who finds the vagaries of human kind the most amazing and puzzling of all my observations, even as I recognise the limitations of this.

When I first read about a second woman who died alongside her three children and the police urged caution in concluding this was yet another example of family violence, a man taking away the lives of his wife and children, I did not desist in my immediate speculation, it was the father. It happens so often these days.

When we later discovered it was the mother who killed herself after killing her three children the world flipped a little to the side. 

Some mothers kill their children. And we do not yet know what was happening in the mind of this mother that she should destroy the lives of her three small children but I suspect some madness in her mind that told her it was a kind thing to do, or too dangerous for them all to live.

The family violence we read about more often when men kill their partners and/or children is more often motivated by rage and revenge. Though then we have the story of Medea. Yet Medea is a story written by a man. Had Medea been written by a woman I wonder what trajectory this story might take.

Sometimes mothers are cruel to their children. Some mothers murder their children. All mothers are from time to time ambivalent about their children and most of us mothers struggle with the needs of our children weighed up against our own, especially when the grand narrative of our lives is one of laying our lives down for our children. 

A call to selflessness and nurturance that in many ways has been fuelled by the patriarchal narrative, one that says the men might be selfish because they need to go out into the world and fight for their wives and children. 

Whereas the women at home in the care of small children must put their needs aside for the good of the family. There is no room for a woman’s ambition or desire for self in the patriarchal narrative. It requires a genuine self-disregard on the part of women to blossom. And this gets passed down the generations. 

So when we hear about a woman who has killed her children we are thrown off balance even more off balance than when we hear about a father who has taken the lives of his children.  

And the parliament of crows sits on high in the trees and looks down on our failure as a species to care for the next generation in caring for ourselves and the other creatures around us, including the plant life and all aspects of our landscape, the water and sky, the sun and moon.

Because we are a flawed species and have not yet learned to live in a balanced way. Have not yet learned to find a comfortable reckoning between our individual needs for recognition and the needs of all as a group which requires a certain loss of individuality to thrive. When the group is first and foremost the entity for which we care and our own individuality is nurtured within such a powerful occurrence as a parliament of crows. 

Songs to keep me warm

I was the girl without a coat. I never needed one until in my forties I began to feel the bite of winter. Before then my age or the fact that I spent most times outside in a car where a coat was redundant, left me layered.

And singlets, what was the use of them? A thin line of insulation that invariably rode up people’s backs. And created a draft. 

Besides I disliked the look of a man in an otherwise crisp shirt when underneath you could see the thin outline of his singlet straps. To me it looked clumsy as if such a man belonged with his mother cosseted because he could not handle life. 

My prejudices from my youth embarrass me now. Even as I tried hard as an adolescent not to go with the mainstream.

When I resisted the Beatle mania that ran through most girls at my convent school like a rash. When I refused to listen to the Rolling Stones and could not for the life of me see what all the fuss was about when large groups of young women and girls screamed at airports after the Monkees’ plane landed on the tarmac.

How they carried on as though their lives depended on a brief encounter with these pretty young men with dark near shoulder length hair who carried guitars and sang into microphones as though they were eating ice creams.

Not for me such savage idolatry. I preferred to listen to Mozart or embrace the sad tones of Paul Robeson and his Ol’ Man River. 

When Marilyn came to say in our house in Camberwell when I was still not wearing bras but aware my turn would soon come, she wore her dark hair long and straight. It hung around her face like the folk singing females coming out of America.

Marilyn played a guitar seated on the bed I had vacated to make room for her in my sister’s bedroom. I went back to share a room with two younger sisters. I don’t remember objecting to this move.

I was glad I did not need to sleep alone in a room. That would have distressed me then as a child. Besides no longer sharing a room with my older sister meant my father was far less likely to visit in the night. Maybe too he might stop visiting my older sister given a complete stranger had taken up residence in our house for one entire year. 

Marilyn came from Queensland where she lived with her father. She had met one of my older brothers while he was travelling through and he brought her home to Melbourne, at first under the guise of being his girlfriend. But in almost no time he had met another woman, three years older, who held more allure. She fell pregnant to my brother and the two arranged to marry.

Marilyn was stuck in Melbourne therefore without a boyfriend but my father agreed to let her stay with us for the year so she could complete her final year of school at Canterbury Girls High, a few streets away from us. The reason she’d come to Melbourne in the first place.

When you’re one of the young ones in a family, things happen between your parents and among your older siblings that make little sense.

Still, you take it for granted as a given.

No one asks your opinion on such activities or asks if it bothers you. It’s a done deal, as was the fact that Marilyn moved into the bed that was once mine in the room I had shared with my older sister and I was back with the younger ones. 

Marilyn brought folk music into our house, music that my older sister was already beginning to embrace but Marilyn’s voice was alto deep while my sister’s was soprano high.

There was a depth to Marilyn’s voice and her sorrow that somehow eclipsed my sister’s and everyone I knew. She matched the songs she sang and few of them had religious over tones.

My sister went for God fuelled songs:

To everything turn turn turn, Kumbayah, songs she learned with the church choir, but Marilyn introduced the songs of the civil rights movement. Old songs straight out of America and the civil war, out of the UK and its long history, Scottish ballads: 

The river is wide I cannot cross over. 

Nor do I have light wings to fly. 

Give me a boat that will carry to and boats will bring my love and I.

The Birmingham five, the dead women in Ohio.

This music spoke to me. And despite my wish to avoid the mainstream when The Seekers came into vogue in Australia, I sat alongside other people in my desperate desire to become another Judith Durham.

She also of the long straight shiny hair that flanked both sides of her face. Her voice was like an angel’s and always accompanied by the three young men at her side who sang in harmony and strummed their instruments as though they were all part of a whole. 

The music of those times held me tight. I did not need coats or singlets when I could be held tight in my mind under the thick embrace of the words that floated over the notes, I sang out loud out of earshot of all people but in my imagination, I sang to the clouds who were my audience and imagined myself a great voice, the voice of a songbird on the wing or settled on a branch.

Ready to stop the world with her sound. 

My folk singer self.