Stray notes from the flight path
I live in Avonhead, a slow-creeping suburbia with its steady trickle of commuters in hulking minivans, and juvenile packs of boy racers revving their cars. The river is nowhere in sight but there is the creek that runs behind the gym I attended sporadically. The less said about that the better.
Not a night goes by where the peaceful night isn’t shattered by the scream of plane engines. We joke that we could wave to the passengers while we hang out the washing. Perhaps we could arrange the tea-towels in semaphore signals to protest our discontent? Instead we note the welcome peace that settled over our bubble during the lockdown. For the while we only heard birdsong. Our garden became a flight path, not just for the koru lounge crowd. This was largely through the efforts of my father, who kept the avian populations fed on a steady supply of bread crusts.
Numerous characters stopped for the twice daily meal. The humble house sparrows who were well versed in the rule of the mob. The blackbirds, who fossicked amongst the pea straw for every stray crumb. There was one young fellow I remember, always hopping about at ground level, his beak agape, his head feathers tousled, a permanent fledgling. There was the stately starling, who sat on our fence every morning, waiting for Dad to awaken. She turned a blind eye to the antics of the oil-slicked male starlings, who egged each other on.
More recently, there was the pair of fantails, who flew like Fibonacci helter-skelter sycamore seeds. They flayed out their feathers demurely as though they were the lost fans of regency ladies. We thought one of them was the reincarnation of my grandmother who always had her nose in everyone’s business. My grandfather, meanwhile, was one of the kererū who made a gradual return to the area. Their thunderous flapping could be heard throughout nearby Merivale. Finding kindred spirits, no doubt, in the posh laughter of old-money aunties.
I couldn’t help but feel an affinity for their more common pigeon cousins that roosted in the cloisters of the University quad, their hushed coos echoing through the misty autumn morning. I remember one of my first days back at university, parking in the handicapped space, I stopped and looked directly across from me to see a pigeon perched in a tree, wreathed in mist. I stood beneath it transfixed, enamoured for a moment in a spell so powerful I forgot the psychology building existed.
While nature has not exactly healed over the ensuing pandemonium (I haven’t seen a single tuatara for a start), things grew slightly wilder in our absence. That much is true of McCormacks Bay. My childhood haunts and hollows are now filled with thriving native trees. Even the benevolent steely eye of the kingfisher couples seems to have softened. White faced herons are as patient, more poised than any ancient yogi, or trained martial artist could hope to be in a lifetime. The spoonbills clatter awkwardly on their kitchen islands, while a pair of paradise ducks canoodle in the afterglow of a sweaty scrum session (those insufferable Sumner southerlies, I swear to god!). Of course, they will never be able to swarm, like the sea birds of yore, that wheeled and cried, as they guided our ancestors to strange, safe shores.
And here, it comes, the guilt. It comes as naturally to us as breathing, as seeing, as exploring. After all, we're humans. Once decades ago, a singer-songwriter lamented, “Don’t it always seem to go … that you don’t know what you got until it’s gone … oh, you paved paradise and put up a parking lot …” These lyrics express forms of discomfort that are inherent to our relationship with Mother Earth. Whether it be the frequent fliers trying to cancel out bad karma with a few silver birches in the mountains, or the greenwashing CEOs who try to scrub agriculture up while the stink sinks into the waterways.
The king of the Koru Lounge now resides in a seat of power, while blue-sky thinking grows greyer by the day, and the coral reefs boil and blanch. Yet I still hear a hope, as every cold winter evening, in the defiant call of a cuckoo. I see hope in the new nest that crowns the budding magnolia, that’s as soft and delicate to touch as the burgeoning antlers of young deer. As Joni sang, “It don’t snow here, it stays pretty green …” Either we make a lot of money, or we quit this crazy scene.