Monday, May 6, 2013

Living Wild II

 If I lived in the burbs I could regale you with stories of our neighbour’s parties and the bloke in flat number four who’s learning the bagpipes but I live in the sticks so our closest neighbours are non-human.

It was unseasonably warm last Wednesday and walking home (five hundred metres) from my office, I stopped in the glade to watch a pair of eastern whip birds mucking about. They’re normally fairly timid and a fleeting glimpse is a rare treat, though you can hear their whip-crack call from a kilometre or so away. They have a white throat and a little crest that gives them a kind of startled appearance. The pair in the glade were playing a robust game of follow the leader and when they vanished into the undergrowth, I stepped off towards the barn. My foot rolled on something and I looked down to see a tiger snake pinned under my boot. In the second or so it took to realise what had happened, the snake recoiled and butted my jeans with a closed mouth. I leapt into the air and almost landed on it again before completing the second movement in the ballet known locally as Reptillus Shittus Brickus. There’s a simple song that goes with it: ‘Faaaaaaaaarrrrrkkkk’. Sing along if you know the words …

Once I’d regained my composure, I held my heart and followed the snake into the bush—it was a beautiful glossy sub-adult I hadn’t seen before and an un-striped slaty grey colour. It didn’t escape at speed, giving me time to apologise for standing on its neck. Or its back. Or its tail. Whatever. I said sorry, but I know they’re deaf. Make as much noise as you like in the bush—they can’t hear you. Those sonic snake repellants are as useful as water-based raincoats. They don’t sense the vibrations, either: they’re aware of movement and hypersensitive to the smell/taste of their prey.

Owls, on the other hand, have awesome hearing and even better sight, which had me puzzling the following evening when I found a boobook owl trapped in the old chicken coop. The chickens are long gone (they have their own mobile pen, now), but the rats and mice that used to live off the food scraps and pellets are still camping out in there. Maybe the owl was hunting those? I turned my phone into a torch and could get quite close to the wide-eyed pretty, but it may have been freaking out for a while before I got there. I spoke calmly and offered my forearm as a roost, which it obligingly perched on. With my heart beating in my mouth, I snapped a dodgy picture with my phone before carrying the wildest of wild things into the open. I felt the air from its wings as it powered off into the darkness, but I didn’t hear a thing. Not even a thank you. Ungrateful beast … oh how I love thee …

Living Wild

I’ve lived in the bush for the majority of my life and the thing that appeals to me most about the lifestyle is the surprises. Case in point: I had a training partner this morning, of the avian variety.

I run and sweat a few times a week, normally before dawn when the country is still rolling and farting. The magpies haven’t left their roosts and their chortling is pillow talk. The log trucks are on the move in the valley. I can’t see their lights exactly, just the illuminated trees and fog preceding them. Their rumbling is the only evidence that there wasn’t a zombie apocalypse while we were sleeping.

There was a touch of frost in the valley this morning and the waning quarter of moon did nothing except make the shadows deeper. I stumbled my normal route up the drive then up the hill—a gradually increasing slope, steep enough to be inimitable on a treadmill, but not insurmountable for an amateur like me. I disturbed an animal on the road verge just beyond the spotted gums. I’ve set wild sheep and goats to flight in the same spot and, about a year ago, a small family of fallow deer—a rare and timid sight in this part of the country. There are wallabies and wombats there, too, but the creature I disturbed had mass—a bipedal bulk that, when it stepped from the shadow into the moonlight, was taller than me.

Emu. Well, Fred, to be precise. Jack and Emma, who live at the top of the hill, have been mates with Fred for some time and Liz (their landlord) has peck scars on the top of her head. Emma reckons they were love bites. Liz now wears a bike helmet and carries a broom in Fred’s company.

Fred boomed a greeting and I upped the pace and headed for the opposite verge, giving her as much room as possible but I could hear her nails on the tarmac and turned to see her shadow bobbing towards me up the middle of the road. I remembered that little kid from The Gods Must Be Crazy II, holding a lump of bark above his head to appear bigger to the pack of hunting dogs who were stalking him and I clapped my hands in the air above my head. This seemed to excite Fred and soon she was trotting beside me and booming joyously. I stepped on the gas and a gap opened between me and Fred, but her legs were still pumping and it seemed like no effort at all for her to close that gap. The hill got steeper and steeper and my breathing became ragged and desperate. Finally, I realised Fred could probably run the pants off a kangaroo, and I surrendered to my fate.

‘Morning Fred,’ I said, gently.
Boom boom.
She took a step closer, her head now a looming silhouette with the moon at her back. She surveyed me for what felt like a full minute, and then turned and wandered towards Jack and Emma’s place.
I dragged myself home thinking emus could make a decent wage for themselves as personal trainers, but what would an emu do with cash? Just eat it.