Flying home

Harry Saddler is a writer based in Melbourne.  His book, The Eastern Curlew: The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird, was published by Affirm Press in 2018.  His writing about the interactions between people and the environment has been published in Meanjin, the Lifted Brow, online for the Wheeler Centre, and elsewhere.  You can find out more about Harry and his recent book here:

Photo 1 - eastern curlew, Yalujiang Nature Reserve, China April 2016

Image: © Harry Saddler, 2016

I’ve been interested in birds since I was a kid.  I’m not a twitcher, but I do consider myself a birdwatcher, and I can remember the origin of my birdwatching habit: I was about twelve.  What I can’t remember is why it was birds, in particular, over all other animals, that caught my attention – and that catch so many other people’s attention.  Birdwatching far surpasses in popularity the amateur observation of any other group of animals.  Perhaps it’s because from the very start of our lives our attention is caught by flitting, moving things – and birds, being both ubiquitous and large enough to be easily noticeable, are diverting in a deep way that other animals aren’t.

I was born in Canberra, and grew up there.  Birds are everywhere in Canberra.  Birds catch not just our attention but our imagination, too: they make for rich metaphors.  The word “flight” is a synonym for “escape” – and daydreaming about something is “a flight of fancy”.  Even a flight of stairs suggests an elevation towards the sky, an attempt to achieve something birdish even if all we’re doing is going from one part of a building to another.

It was these cultural meanings that I wanted to explore when I started writing about a particular species of bird – the eastern curlew.  The eastern curlew is the largest of approximately 100 species of migratory shorebirds found around the world – long-distance migrants capable of spectacular feats of endurance flight.  The eastern curlew migrates from breeding grounds in the far north of Russia and China – the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Amur River delta – where abundant seasonal resources provide its chicks with the best start to life, to spend the southern summer scattered around the coast of Australia at specific locations where it will be able to find sufficient food to put on the fat reserves it needs for the return migration.  It arrives here in September; it departs for the breeding grounds again in April.  It flies close to 20,000 kilometres every year.

Eastern curlews fly through a migration route – called the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – which encompasses dozens of countries.  Birdwatchers in Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and many other countries watch eagerly for the passage of these birds, year after year.  The enthusiasm for birds such as the eastern curlew echoes across countries, and across cultures.

But the migration of eastern curlews also has its own echoes, reverberating across more than half-a-dozen flyways across the world: the Americas have curlew species of their own, connecting Tierra del Fuego in the south to Alaska in the north; so do Africa and Europe, connected to each other by the Eurasian curlew which migrates to breed in northern European countries every year.  This species of curlew is found throughout poetry and literature and folklore in Britain and Ireland in particular.  John Clare and Ted Hughes – the poets who inform the heart and the viscera of the English imagination of nature – both wrote poems about curlews.  In the UK, curlews were traditionally associated with the Wild Hunt, a terrifying spectacle of ghostly or demonic hunters whose apparition is said to presage war or disaster.  I first encountered the Wild Hunt through Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series of novels, where it appears as an ambiguous force, awesome in the old sense of the word: humbling, inspiring, frightening, uncontainable.  Cooper’s novels lean heavily on ancient British mythologies, speaking in hints and whispers of deep time, the permanence of hidden things.  I first came across the Dark is Rising series on my parents’ bookshelves when I was a child and, eager as anybody else is for a cultural identity, I latched onto them.

My mother is from England, from Surrey in the south.  She met my Australian father when they were both living in London in the 1970s, before he returned to Australia and she came with him.  Every few years we all – me, my parents, and my brother – would pile onto a plane and fly the twenty hours to Heathrow to visit family and old friends, people whose names became entwined in my life.  Even as my parents were taking me on bushwalks, infusing me with a love of eucalypts and kangaroos and all the other markers of Australian nature, I was just as eagerly absorbing a kind of ersatz lore of Britain in general and England in particular: its trees, its wildlife, its culture.  When in High School I got first British citizenship, and then a British passport, it was a profoundly important moment for me.  Even now as Britain – led by England – slides ever-deeper into resurgent xenophobia and isolationism, as exemplified by the disaster of Brexit, I cling to my English cultural signifiers as if without them I might evaporate.  As an Anglo-Australian it’s difficult not to be aware that you’re a part of the dominant culture; that your people wrought the havoc of colonialism and conquest upon the original inhabitants and original environment of this continent, and so many other places.  Yet still I cling to the personal markers of my English heritage: the way the leaves of the beech trees behind my grandparents’ house outside Woking unfurled and deepened in colour as spring turned into summer; the hatch-marks of hedgerows and public rights-of-way across long-cleared hillsides, like veins of mineral criss-crossing a rockface; the way the train drivers would hoot their horn for me as I waved to them from the footbridge over the railway line near my grandparents’ house.

Photo 5 - shorebirds in flight, Yalujiang Nature Reserve, China April 2016

Image: © Harry Saddler, 2016

Yet the Eurasian curlew is absent from these associations.  I’ve never heard a curlew’s call in England, or in Britain at all.  By the time I saw a Eurasian curlew for the first time, on the coast of the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, I was deep into the obsession with Australia’s eastern curlew that’s occupied my life for the last three years, and so I saw those curlews in Scotland only with reference to the larger, darker eastern curlew with which I was more familiar.  In her book Curlew Moon, the writer Mary Colwell describes the weight of meaning across four countries – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England – with which the Eurasian curlew is freighted: as she carries out a 500-mile trek across the British Isles she talks to one person after another who have taken and held the curlew’s call in some place deep inside themselves, an integral and ingrained part of the landscape of their hearts and minds, and of their homes.  I read the book because I was interested in the curlew in English culture, but Colwell’s book begins in Ireland; not long after finishing Curlew Moon, while researching my family history, I learned that my paternal ancestry in Australia goes back to an Irishman, Michael Farrell.

Farrell was born into a Roman Catholic family in County Wexford in 1797.  As such, he was a member of a disenfranchised community at a time when Ireland was occupied by Protestant Britain.  The early years of the 18th Century were also the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, and Ireland was being stripped for resources while also undergoing rapid population growth.  Times were hard, and in 1816 Farrell was convicted of stealing plates for the purposes of counterfeiting and was sentenced to transportation as a convict to Sydney.  All my life my parents have made loving references to my “Black Irish” looks, and though I’ve known there was distant Irish ancestry on both sides of my family I’ve always felt myself to be Anglo-Australian.  Now, nearly forty years old, I’m getting my head around the idea that I’m in some way Irish as well as English.  I’m not sure what it means yet.  Perhaps it won’t ever mean anything.  The stories of so many people who consider themselves some kind of Australian are stories of movement, and migration.  The migrations that made me – Michael Farrell’s transportation in 1816 and my mother’s immigration in the 1970s – are separated by nearly two hundred years, and layers of agency and power.

We’re used to talking these days about a globalised world: about a planet becoming smaller and smaller through the increasing, and increasingly complicated, connections between countries.  The word we twin to “globalisation” is “homogenisation” – the standard complaint of any traveller is that everywhere is becoming the same.  But in fact, we’ve been living in a connected world for millennia, and cultures have always intermingled – borrowing from each-other, blending with each-other, stealing from each-other, or suppressing each-other.  The fleeting presence of migratory birds such as the eastern curlew and the Eurasian curlew provides a connective tissue across countries that might superficially seem to have little in common.  But what they have in common of course – apart from the birds – is people: and people all over the world need and want the same things.  As the birds migrate from country to country, they represent a shifting sense of home: a feeling that you carry your home with you, even as you leave it behind.

But for the birds, the sense of “home” is also entwined with our own world in a literal, physical sense.  The number of people in the world now is pushing towards seven-and-a-half billion.  Those people all need somewhere to live, somewhere to work, somewhere to play.  And the social model within which an increasingly large proportion of those people live is one which is greedy for resources – not just products and raw materials but land, too.  Habitat.  As the global population grows, and with it the global economy, the amount of space for species such as the eastern curlew gets smaller and smaller.  The eastern curlew relies particularly on intertidal mudflats: it’s a coastal species.  In Australia, the mudflats on which it depends, on which it forages for the crabs and other prey that will fuel its energy-intensive migrations, are threatened by housing developments and marinas, airports and docks.  In the Yellow Sea, where the birds stop on their way north to their breeding grounds, mudflat habitat has been destroyed to make way for ports and farms and factories.  The increasingly small number of eastern curlews which manage to find room for themselves on the dwindling mudflats (80% fewer birds than a mere thirty years ago) now find themselves flying not just from their breeding grounds, or their “wintering” grounds, but also flying – fleeing – from the concrete realities of the human world.  Many of the coastlines that were once home to eastern curlews are now something very different indeed, unrecognisable and unusable to them.  Many people in coastal communities, too, have found their homes changing beyond recognition, have found old opportunities and lifestyles vanishing.

Often in our ongoing immigration debate, somebody proposing to cut the intake of migrants and refugees will use the phrase “economic migrant”.  Like so much of our rhetoric around immigration, it’s been used in a particular way so often and for so long that it’s now heavy with negative connotations, far beyond what the words themselves actually say.  To call somebody an “economic migrant” – or rather, a group of people, because the phrase is never used to describe any single, identifiable individual – has become a shorthand way of saying they’re not “genuine” refugees, that they’ve left their home country not out of fear for their safety but simply because their home country doesn’t have as many opportunities for wealth creation as Australia.  The phrase as it’s used today is transparently racist: English-speaking immigrants are never described as “economic migrants”, regardless of how low the pound or other Anglosphere currencies fall on the global markets – not even if they literally move to Australia for a job.

But in fact we’re all economic migrants, in one way or another, at one time or another: moving from job to job in search of better prospects, moving from the country to the city, moving ever further out as we get priced out of a city’s inner suburbs; and yes, moving state sometimes, or even country.  We’re all economic migrants because we’re all trapped within the machineries of capitalism – just as shorebirds are.  I was asked recently if I considered migratory shorebirds such as the eastern curlew to be emblematic of freedom.  I had to think about it.  I didn’t want to disappoint my questioner.  But try as I might, I could not regard them that way, and I cannot.  Once upon a time, they may have been free, perhaps; but now, in the early years of the 21st century, they are as constrained by the human world around them as any other animal is.  And let us at this point remember: humans are animals, too.

© Harry Saddler, 2018