Disconnected from place and cause

By Rhonda Dredge

Nature and all of its anarchies was put on a pedestal in June as the literary industry fired up with two bookshops offering wine and ideas for the wintery months ahead.

The bookshops occupy a similar habitat in the CBD, tailoring their good reads to suit the individual.

The Paperback runs a salon series and The Hill of Content, a writers on the hill program.

RMIT poet Bonny Cassidy read several of her riddle poems and riffed on the genre while RMIT naturalist Ian Fraser had a few facts about birds to woo his audience.

Take the wing span of a condor. It’s 3.2 metres. What would a bird of this size have to say about being enclosed in a bookshop instead of occupying the vast space of a canyon and rising slowly on the thermals?

Questions hook a listener. You want to know more. Did you know that vultures cover half a country without flapping and zebra finches need 6000 seeds a day to survive?

“Finches need a plan to calculate where the fresh seeds will be,” Fraser points out. “That makes a mockery of a bird brain.”

Winter evenings are pleasant in Bourke St if you don’t get caught in the rain. People are rushing home from work but you can linger. You can hop about making comparisons between what is on offer.

The chairs are in lines at the Hill of Content and more higgledy piggeldy at The Paperback. There is sauvignon blanc at one and cabernet at the other. Ideas form eddies between shelves.

A birder such as Fraser likes his theories. “Nature watching is part of daily life,” he says. “Birds are what we see most of. When we don’t see anything we feel defeated.”

Poets are just as thoughtful. Cassidy read from her new book Chatelaine.

In a riddle poem who is speaking? Is it the moon? Can the listener guess?

“I like to turn against type,” Cassidy said. “It’s fun to be in a place that is uncomfortable. Not knowing is a sign of being on the right track.”

Traditional riddle poems are on the “Linnaean tree”, she jokes, but hers are local adaptations. They deal with problems that don’t have a solution.

In Lighten Up the speaker blows “in by dark from another spot”. She finds something that could be dead or frozen. She offers the thing “favours for a sip”. She once “loathed this corner of the village”. At the end they come to hoist her away through “branches over the bay”.

Fraser, riffing on his version of nature in Birds and their Habitats, says that Koel cuckoos are moving south. That does not bode well for the red wattle bird which is moving north. The cuckoos are laying eggs in wattle bird nests and they don’t have a defence.  Indicators of climate change?

Memories were used as prompts for more stories. He was a solitary boy, Fraser says, and fell for a colony of stilts on a family holiday at Lake Alexandria. “I loved seeing the way they yapped like puppies. I discovered a lifelong passion for wandering around wetlands.”

A birdwatcher in his prime will to travel to Colombia to see the rare Giant antpitta and a poet in search of a narrative might take a boat to Antarctica for a project, which she published as Final Theory.

The life of a writer is tied to his or her form of employment and small niches can be more practical than world trips. A backyard in Canberra will prompt observations of wattle birds and a fragment of text can be profitably disconnected from place and cause.

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