A gleam in the darkling world

Feathers for the gallery

Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison
Prattle, scoop, trembling: a flutter of Australian birds
Artists' book, unique state, featuring 15 individual collages on cabinet card with pencil additions, 15 pencil drawings on Fabriano Artistico 640gsm traditional white hot-press paper with metallic paint trim; housed in a Solander box with inlaid collage

created especially for
Birds: Flight paths in Australian art
2nd December, 2016 – 12th February, 2017
Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery

Ahead of tomorrow’s gallery install of Prattle, scoop, trembling: a flutter of Australian birds, a closer look at seven of the fifteen birds within.

Bennets cassowary (Casuarius bennetti)
Identification hatched confusion! The Northern cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus) of New Guinea this is not. But you are mistaken if you think this is the rumbling Southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius) of Northern Queensland. This is Bennets (dwarf) cassowary, which once travelled here by ship in the name of man’s exploration and desire to know more, before being sent on as (three) living specimens to England under the given name of naturalist George Bennet (1804–1893).

In trying to decipher if one cassowary was different to another, Bennet wrote: “I have just seen the bird sent to the Museum by Mr. Johnson, and I think it is identical with that shot by Mr. Wall in the vicinity of Weymouth Bay, in November, 1848; but the description of the latter as quoted from Gould’s work on ‘Australian Birds’ is not correct. I am aware that in the few remarks on Wall’s bird, which appear in my narrative of Kennedy’s expedition, there is an error as to the colour of its helmet or comb, which was black not red.... As I was present when Wall’s bird was shot, and helped to eat it, I had a good opportunity of knowing something about it.”[i]


Australian magpie (Cracticus tibicen)
As what was faded comes to focus, a charm of mirror-black magpies play their flutes as sunrise makes their collection of spoons and other found artefacts shimmer. With their chestnut brown eyes fixed on trinkets in the distance — a jewel from your throat, perhaps, or from the tail feathers of the Crimson rosella, less likely — look lively. Be steady.


Australian ringnecks (Barnardius zonarius)
Aviary escapees — one, two, budgerigar — the Australian ringnecks softly chatter and whistle, if you’ll lend an ear or otherwise. Skirting the cultivated garden, so wildly majestic! Their bodies trace a memory recalled only through flight. And I, weighted to the ground, in echo of John James Audubon (1785–1851), feel their close “pass[ing] like a thought…. On trying to see it again [my] eye searches in vain; the bird[s are] gone.”[ii]


Magnificent riflebird (Ptiloris magnificus)
With unaffected ease, the Magnificent riflebird takes to the canvas and plies his task as the Pied oystercatcher silently wades. Darting back and forth, a dancing perch of an altogether different kind, it reflects his burnished blue-green crown all the same. Interlace romance with reality; make of me, your nature sprite. In the beginning, we are Miss Flite’s birds, “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life” before our edges are smudged to “Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach. That’s the whole collection,”[iii] in and out of the cage. Look! It has started to rain in our indoor garden. Mind the painting!

Magnificent riflebird (Ptiloris magnifcus)
With your Grecian feathered nose (Ptiloris) tied to a (common name) uniform, you are not drab to me. Rather, you are, we are, all, “the blue sky, [and] the brown soil beneath” of ornithologist W. H. Hudson (1841–1922). "....the grass, the trees, the animals, the wind, and rain, and stars are never strange to me; for I am in and of and am one with them; and my flesh and the soil are one, and the heat in my blood and in the sunshine are one, and the winds and the tempests and my passions are one. I feel the 'strangeness' only with regard to my fellow men, especially in towns, where they exist in conditions unnatural to me, but congenial to them.... In such moments we sometimes feel a kinship with, and are strangely drawn to, the dead, who were not as these; the long, long dead, the men who knew not life in towns, and felt no strangeness in sun and wind and rain.”[iv]

That is no feather in my hat, but one sprouting from my crown; my shoulders too. Your wings, me.


Laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae)
At dawn, a kookaburra chorus, inside the house and outside. Those terrestrial tree kingfishers, Spangled and Rufous-bellied. Such a clattering! Rattling order. Shaking our tamed nature pockets. Soiling the parquetry flooring.

Turning the circle of seasons in his hands, H. E. Bates (1904–1974) noted: “there must, it seems, be a closeness, an untidiness, a wildness. There must be all kinds of trees, all kinds of flowers and creatures, a conflicting and yet harmonious pooling of life. A wood planted.... with one kind of tree, has no life at all.”[v]

You cannot rustle up a ‘wildness’ or replant what has been lost.

Rattle order.


Noisy pitta (Pitta versicolor)
A (rare) visiting Blue-winged? Ethel A. King,[vi] I fear you are mistaken. A native Red-bellied or Rainbow, perhaps. A Noisy pitta, more than likely, though something’s not quite right. From what specimen did you work? There should be iridescent blue epaulettes upon a dark green mantle. Let’s return to the scrub and see. Let’s listen for the hammering of snails. To the loud and mournful call: keow, keow, keow. In the subtropical, we’ll wet our feet, and write a sonnet or three.

Whether in dry forest or a rainforest, nature will not be our backcloth, but, like Thomas Hardy, our protagonist. Nature: a living entity in itself. A gleam in the darkling world: “some blessed hope,” trembling.

“Wake and understand.... A stirring thrills the air.”[vii]


[i] Alfred J. North (1913) on the early history of the Australian Cassowary (Casuarius australis, Wall), Records of the Australian Museum, volume 10 (issue 4): 39–48, plates viii–ix [19th April 1913], published by the Australian Museum, Sydney, Australia, accessed October 2016.

[ii] John James Audubon (1813) on the Passenger pigeon, plate 62 of Birds of America, cited by Tim Dee, The Running Sky, p. 250.

[iii] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), p. 235.

[iv] W. H. Hudson (1906), cited by H. E. Bates, ‘Introduction,’ in Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (London: Collins, 1957), p.15.

[v] H. E. Bates, Through the Woods: The English Woodland — April to April (Dorset: Little Toller Books, 2011), p. 141.

[vi] Illustration of a Noisy pitta by Ethel A. King from the ‘Weekly Times Wild Nature Series,’ supplement to The Weekly Times, 1934.

[vii] Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush,’ and ‘Spirit of the Pities,’ The Dynasts, cited by Frances Wentworth Knickerbocker, ‘The Victorianness of Thomas Hardy,’ The Sewanee Review, volume 36, no. 3, 1928, pp. 310–325, JSTOR, accessed November 2016.


Image credit: Trees struck by lightning, Daintree National Park, Far North Queensland by Peter Adams