Where I come from, December 21 marks the winter solstice. Short, chilly days invite protracted, warm holiday meals. I always felt a twinge of guilt at gorging on holiday treats while, beyond the picture window of my family’s kitchen, birds scraped for seed in the frozen backyard. Here in the upside-Down-Under, that dynamic inverts: December is the cusp of summer. Neighborhood trees have burst into fruit, and Yuletide is the birds’ turn to feast.
Cockatoos pillaged every cherry from the yard a few streets over, and a mulberry tree on the next block has become a leafy public house for dozens of currawongs. Some people cover their harvest with nets in an effort to dissuade avian theft, but the unfussy creatures will even eat squashed, sun-softened pieces that fall in the driveway. The gleeful expression of this cockatoo teased iconic poetry from my English major brain:
“…There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.“
Doubtless William Butler Yeats imagined more ethereal culprits for The Stolen Child than pop-eyed parrots that suck on cherries like tootsie pops. But the endearing quirkiness of Australia’s wildlife draws me like a fey enchantment:
Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild. With a faery, hand in hand…
Okay, technically it’s the fairywrens who lure me out of the tidy suburb and into the bush with their cascading trills. Summer foliage turns the narrow track to a tunnel; the woods swallow me whole. I used to associate forests with stillness, but Australia quickly showed me otherwise. On a visit to the Blue Mountains last year, during the Brood X cicada emergence, insect song deafened me on a dawn hike, a chorus so loud that the air vibrated against my skin. Certain spots in my humble Canberra park maintain a similar sountrack at a lower volume: the many-voiced hum of a swarm.
I assume it’s bees, since I’ve seen a few hives in tree cavities around the area. But I’m astonished at how the noise amplifies to cover acres, as if every trunk concealed a colony. I can walk for ten minutes without escaping their sonic umbrella (and I keep a brisk pace, when I’m not locked on a photography subject). Yeats emerges from the buzz again:
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.“
No shortage of wattles here, Will, although probably not the type you had in mind. (Take the cootamundras: they’re invasive species from another region, and the local ParkCare group wants them gone.) But the real estate fits your dream location. This yellow box-gum glade thrums with apine activity. Whenever I cross this section of park, my father’s voice rumbles “alone in the bee-loud glade” softly in my head, echoes of the first time The Lake Isle of Innisfree met my ears. Memory brings my distant family a little closer, as do the pictures I capture along the route to share with them:
The season’s last king parrots, in Christmas red and green, foraging for pods.
Hundreds of common brown butterflies flitting giddily above yellow carpets of burr daisies
A female gang-gang cockatoo who pauses in her territorial squawk-off with another couple to study me beneath her tree.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow…
Or swooping fast on a goshawk’s razor wings, or skittering on a lizard’s spiny toes. My peace comes amid perpetual motion, not in a Christmas card still-life. Peace on Earth would mean extinction: there can’t be peace in a dynamic ecosystem where things live and die and grow and change. But there can be balance. The holiday season exacerbates how fiercely I miss my family an ocean away, but nature enfolds me in a much larger clan. I’m never alone in nature. And wild places are never far away:
…for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core