Counting Stars


The air is heavy with the scent of privet. There’s a tree flowering down the laneway where the Spanish live. If they are Spanish. Yellow and green and the smell faintly nauseous: it always makes me think of Prof Morton, in Auckland, in the 1970s I think it was, when he led a campaign for its eradication from the streets of that town; with what success I do not know. People who suffer from hay fever will understand. Just outside #4 there is a fragment of sheet music lying on the footpath, it’s been there for a couple of days. I pick it up and read the lyrics: Take that money / Watch it burn / Sink in the water / The lessons are learnt / Everything that kills me / Makes me feel alive . . . It’s ‘Counting Stars’ by OneRepublic and how it got there I will never know. Lying under the spreading branches of the eucalypt in which there is an abandoned magpies’ nest. I watched three crows, yawping loudly, plunder it just yesterday. One of them thrust its head into that tangle of twigs a couple of times, devouring something; but what? The fledglings left a while ago. At least I hope they did, I didn’t actually see them go. Do crows eat eggshells? Or was there one that didn’t make it? If so it must surely have been mummified by now. They didn’t linger but flew off into the east with that air of swagger and glee that crows do so well. The sun gleaming on their blue-black plumage. Last year it was currawongs, not in that tree but in the one outside my place, raising two chicks, one of which fell out of the nest and had to be rescued by the woman who lives beneath me. She put it back into the tree several times before it managed to clamber high enough up into the branches to be safe from marauding cats. Or dogs. Currawongs have that same swagger. The other morning, just after waking, I saw one fly past my bedroom window with a mouse in its beak. Couldn’t tell if the mouse was dead or alive but I guess that’s a redundant question. They sometimes larder small lizards in the splintery cracks in the telephone pole opposite and then come back later for a snack. There’s that odd contrast between their larrikin ways and their assiduous parenting. The magpies, too, were conscientious to a fault. The male feeding the female, the female feeding the young. Their beautiful singing at dawn, every day for about six weeks I would wake to their carolling. Then the insistent scratchy importunities of the chicks. I was away for a fortnight in October and missed their leaving of the nest. Unless some catastrophe occurred. Perhaps the crows were revisiting the scene of the crime? Now the koels are here, I saw one pursued by two other birds, wattlebirds perhaps, only this morning. But this year, so far as I can tell, the channel-billed cuckoos haven’t come. Which Sophie used to call the Orgasm Bird, after their own crescendo-ed yawping cry. Eastern koels are cuckoos too, they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. The one I saw being chased was a female, they are speckled, not black like the male. Caught in the act perhaps. Their choice of host, around here anyway, is the red wattlebird; which I see sometimes, not often. I do like the sense of bird life going on around me all the time. Sometimes it is as if I live in the tree tops too. In the air. But there is that strange ambivalence about birds: we want to ascribe human character to them, and we do . . . and then there will be one of those moments when you are up close and personal, with a currawong, say, and you realise the eye that looks at you is an alien eye, a reptilian eye, an avian eye: prospective, curious but quite without empathy. Or is that wrong? Perhaps there is some kind of fellow feeling, some recognition of the being of the other. I read a bit about magpies while they were raising their young, how they are supremely territorial and seem to know, by sight or by some other means (mind?) all of the humans who live round about them. How they tolerate some of us and can’t abide others. They don’t seem to mind me; but what am I to them? How does a bird see a person? I like the idea that we are to them a blur of golden light, an aura, an emanation. And the bad guys a kind of absence of that, a black hole, a threat. That’s undoubtedly fanciful but still. I could go and cut that privet tree down I suppose. If I had an axe or a saw, which I don’t. If I had a piano I could pick out the notes on the sheet music. At the top of the fragment it says ‘Everyone Piano’, which I think must be the publishing company. There’s a website address too. What will happen to the magpies’ nest? In that last storm I watched the branches dip and sway and thought that it might fall to the ground but it didn’t. Hot day today. In the afternoon, as the heat thickens, the stairwell fills up with blowflies. There’s a skink living in my study, I saw it warming itself on the wifi modem the other day. When the cockroaches come in to eat the crumbs that fall from my table, I shoo them out with a stick. Abundant life! It’s hard to believe our days are numbered. Counting stars. I remember that Arthur C Clarke story I read when I was a kid, it was about a project to count the nine billion names of god; and, when they were done—this was in Tibet—when they were done the American computer guys who’d helped the monks with the counting saw above them, in the infinite vault, the stars beginning to go out.

image : red wattlebird


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4 responses to “Counting Stars

  1. Hi Martin, I loved this piece, particularly your thoughts about avian eyes which seemed an encapsulation of some of Helen Macdonald’s observations in H is for Hawk.

  2. hanscombe2015lis

    Such a beautiful rendering of your thoughts about the bird and animal life around you, Martin. Your writing is such dream. I love to lose myself in your sentences.

    • me

      Thank you Lis that is most generous – and appreciated. So often, it seems to me, writing actually arises from a certain vacancy of mind – which it may thereby serve to focus!

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