It was the kookaburra sitting on a bough of the claret ash tree in our front yard that alerted me, its fluffy white head just visible among the degraded spring growth. At first, I was a little bemused by this unexpected visitor but then thought no more about it until the next day when the same little fella was there again, still looking down intently towards a thick patch of reeds and drooping irises beside the driveway. This, I realised, was seriously disconcerting.
My mind had flown back nearly 25 years to one steamy summer day when a Scottish neighbour and I had chased off my Illawarra plot the last of an unpleasant nest of baby tiger snakes. Standing there in the late afternoon, exhausted, sweat pouring off us. I was about to reward our efforts with a couple of beers, when another kookaburra flew in and settled on the fence above our recent handiwork.
My neighbour immediately went to the heart of the matter: “Do you think he knows something that we don’t,” he asked in his thick Glaswegian burr. I wondered whether the unexpected arrival at this, my New England home also knew something that I did not. For our local media had been reporting stories of brown snakes invading regional towns in search of water and having heard all my wife’s stories of brown snake infestations of her family’s wheat and barley farm, I had no wish to test this hypothesis.
Then the thought struck me: Why had the arrival of this cute little kookaburra on our property captured my attention at all? Are they attracted by blue tongues, of which we have always had a resident colony? The answer came swiftly: Because nearly all the other birds that fill our trees have gone. Vanished. I admit I’ve taken them for granted over the years, but now I deeply regret the loss of that raucous symphony, of the birds and, later, the cicadas, as they herald a welcome return of warmer weather. Even the avalanche of sulphur-breasted cockatoos that used to strip the Illawarra’s stunning flame trees.
Up here in the north, however, spring is the time when the magpies strut their stuff, deafening the airwaves with their mating and birthing rituals. I have seen half a dozen of the black and white critters operating with military precision to shepherd a local cat — despite that particular moggie being the acknowledged alpha male in a street full of dogs — off our land where, obviously, there were nesting young.
I have heard the squarking on our front verandah when Dad, Mum and newly born (they’re a soft brown, not black and white) youngster alighted on the parapet demanding food. I have seen them swooping like a synchronised diving team through the misty spray of a lawn sprinkler when cooling off after a hot inland afternoon.
But, what I missed more than their sophisticated social skills was their cleverness. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: Magpies are smart! After a spell of good soaking rain (although I can hardly imagine what that would seem like), a magpie would fly down to walk carefully over the damp grass, head cocked to one side, obviously listening.
Listening to what soon became apparent when its rapier-like beak plunged through the grass carpet into the topsoil to emerge with a wriggling worm or grub of some type. But this wasn’t just one genius, however, a unique Nobel Prize-winning magpie perhaps, because they were all doing it. But they are not doing it any more.
And nor are the currawongs who used to terrorise the willy wagtails or the owls that used to rest up on the local power lines. I’m no ornithologist so I don’t know what other breeds no longer stop in this region for rest and recuperation on their way from there to here to there again . Because all that remains is an ominous silence. As though we are living in a tomb.
As it happens, we had just received a leaflet from our local council (which, in regional Australia, is often the water supply authority) warning us that we are about to be placed on Level Five restrictions, with Level Six to impact on us, if no good rain falls, not long after. I don’t really want to know what that might mean; it’s enough that my wife was shaken by the prospect of 11 buckets a day for a household’s entire water usage. I suppose you could interpret the silence in the trees as a sort of inverse tocsin bell warning us that worse is yet to come.
Yet it was with a rueful sense of déjà vu when I learned that our masters in Canberra have finally discovered the drought. For I was hardly surprised that the response was, by and large, to indulge in their highly-developed skill of buck-passing, this time about the building/non-building of dams. “Get on with it,” one urged a political rival, unrepentantly. If he’d said it to me, I might have replied: “A bit late now, don’t you think, mate?”
As I look out over the silent earth to see everything dying before my eyes, I understood that what we needed now was water, not lectures about who failed to do what when or five-year lead-time plans to drought-proof the country for the next big dry. If we’re lucky enough to survive till then. And that, surely, is the great crime of our generation of Australians. Our forefathers understood instinctively that a landmass set in latitudes that make rainfall and thus survival so precarious, meant that settlement was only going to work by pulling together. That they did.
Since 1987 (there he goes again), however, we have been addicted to the words of snake-oil salesmen offering something for nothing. Line your own pockets, they cajoled; cut, cut, cut anything with a whiff of cooperation. Keep cutting until the cupboard is bare. But as I look into the future I can see that ‘bare’ is not quite the right word. ‘Barren’ will do much better.