Bird Brain

I can talk for a long time only when it’s about something boring.—Lydia Davis.


Years ago I was rushing to work on a rainy day. I was in the first few weeks of a new job. I wasn’t used to having more money than just enough to scrape through, so on pay day I’d gone out and bought some new sneakers. They were green Onitsuka Tigers. As I rushed along in my Tigers I suddenly slipped on the wet paving stones and both my legs shot out in front of me and I cannonballed backwards onto my arse. I’d fallen over loads of times before so I thought this was just one of those times. I picked myself up and continued striding along professionally. A few metres up the road I fucking fell over again. This one was more dramatic – I went sideways and onto my knees, with my bag sprawling and stuff falling out of it across the wet stones. This time someone stopped and helped me get up. I managed to walk another ten minutes down the road without falling over, but right outside the building where I worked, one of my feet skated out dramatically sideways and I literally strained my groin. At this point I was angry. I went into my new job and told everyone all about it. ‘It’s these shoes,’ I said. I spent all day brooding and then after work I took the sneakers back into the shop where I’d bought them. ‘I have a problem,’ I said to the sales assistant. ‘These shoes keep making me fall over.’ After a stilted exchange it became clear she couldn’t help me, so I just went away again with the Onitsuka Tigers and proceeded to fall over in them whenever it rained.

Last weekend I was in an event at the Melbourne Festival called the Menagerie of the Imagination, held at the Animal Church – a chilly but beautiful space at the bottom of Flinders Street, designed by festival director Marieke Hardy, with candles, flowers, and photographs of people’s pets (some of them dogs in cones) lining the walls. Two women walked slowly between the rows of seats, banging drums and chanting. But despite this beautiful setting, the event didn’t take flight and I flailed. Was it too early, too cold, was it that no one seemed to know what the event was about? I didn’t help by reading, badly, something I’d tried to write about Nigel the gannet – in fact something I’d started writing months ago that I’d hoped I could make work for The Spinoff. I was about halfway through when I realised I’d written something incomprehensible. As I went on I became aware that I was retreating further and further behind my hair, as if a lift’s doors were closing, and in my last couple of lines a noisy street sweeper started up outside and drowned me out. I spent the rest of the session marinating in an amazing hot shame. Was it Nigel’s fault? Just like it had (obviously) been the shoes’ fault? But no, it was just that I had given another really average performance at a writers’ festival.

Nigel was the first gannet to live on Mana Island in about forty years. He arrived in 2015 and lived there on the western cliffs for around three years, all the while attempting to court one of the eighty concrete decoys whose purpose, as part of Mana’s seabird attraction project, was to lure other gannets to the island. In January this year, Nigel was found dead, alone, in the nest he had built for his concrete mate.

I wanted to talk about why this story had moved so many people around the world – why the headlines had been things like ‘Six Lessons About Love From Nigel the Lonely Gannet’ and ‘Nigel, the world’s loneliest bird, was no victim. He was a hero’. The thing that the international media focussed on was, of course, the love story. It was pure. Nigel’s devotion was depicted as somehow eternal. There was the occasional cynical commentary, like one commentator who said Nigel had been way out of line by continuing to pursue a woman who clearly wasn’t interested: ‘I hope the autopsy turns up that Nigel died of syphilis.’ But on the whole, when this story broke it was as if the internet were collectively keening into its own eerie sound system that wobbled in the wind as it reached out over the planet, and others were answering with their sorrow too.

I wanted to ask what it is that makes an animal story popular on the internet. I said that all it seems to be, sometimes, is seeing an embrace between the species. We want to see the lion embracing a man in a field. We want to see the condor embracing the man in a remote village. We want to see the chicken surging forward to embrace the little boy and we want to be able to make that into a gif and use it whenever the time is right, and the time is always right to see a chicken embracing a boy. Of course we all crave the hits of sweetness that can be siphoned out of the news cycle. And maybe there is something to do with our longing, despite how catastrophic our human business has been for so many species, to be loved by animals and to have them, no matter how wild, available to us to – clumsily, insistently – love back.

There’s another kind of widely shared animal story that is not warming in this way (Nigel’s falls into this category). Like the recent story of a grieving orca who carried her dead calf with her through the sea for weeks, refusing to let go. Or the robotic spy monkey, with cameras for eyes, embedded by behavioural researchers with a family of real monkeys. When the spy monkey one day fell from its high branch and lay motionless in the dust, the other monkeys – who seemed to have accepted the spy monkey into their family – appeared consumed by grief. I tried to say that stories like this, of the grieving orca and the spy monkey, stir something different in us. It may be irrational but they touch our private griefs and heartaches and things we can’t let go.

I also wanted to say what I had learned from visiting Mana Island, the scientific reserve where Nigel lived and died – the island he’s made famous. Earlier this year on a hot Sunday morning I took a boat to the island. Because it is so carefully protected you can only go there as part of a guided tour that goes out at specified times each year. In the piece I would write I had decided that going to the island would show me the bigger picture of Nigel’s life and remove it totally from the anthropomorphised portrayals that had popped up during the week his story broke. I wondered, too, whether going there would help me to view my own sorry situation with a colder eye, ideally like a wildlife documentary-maker slowly freezing to death in the snow while waiting for a snow leopard to show itself.

After walking up several steep hills our group came to the exposed cliff where the gannet colony is. There were no real gannets that day – only the decoys: painted yellow and white, with a white slick of paint beneath them to suggest guano, and near the decoy birds was the speaker system in the long grass: a single loudspeaker that shook furiously in the wind and sent huge ghostly cries out to sea.

Cheryl Strayed has a piece of advice I often think about: ‘Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.’ It’s hard advice because it means you need to come up with some whole new idea that is true, and for a while you flail. It applies to writing too. It’s partly why I’d botched my talk. I’d surrendered to an idea I’d had at the beginning: that going to the island would make me look at the story through a more rational lens. In this version I was able to view Nigel as simply a quirk of nature, a random old seabird who’d washed up there and who had no real idea what was going on; i.e. he was a bird whose circumstances were … birdy, and we would honour him better by understanding this. But as I wrote on, I remembered, inconveniently, that in fact going to the island and seeing where he had lived amongst the decoys had actually just made me feel sadder about his life and even feel a bit lost, stumping around on my own while everyone else was in twos and threes. ‘Are there any wasps on this island?’ I’d practically screamed at a man who seemed to know a lot about the island’s biodiversity. ‘I don’t know anything about the wasp situation,’ he said. But what was new about any of this? It was too late to change tack. I’m a disorganised person and I had to read my piece aloud at the festival the next day. (‘Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become “better organized”.’ – Lydia Davis.) So I kept going.

As we walked up a steep hill, a tiny drone came buzzing over our heads. It bobbled along above us, bucking about like a neighing mechanical horse, then wandered off. Further ahead, we saw a green gecko sporting a tiny radio transmitter on its back. In many places there were little corrugated iron roofs tucked into the ground; these were homes for geckos and skinks. There were areas of weirdly lush native forest from a massive replanting programme. And there were takahē – slow-moving in the grass, like careful gardeners in blue woolly jerseys, surveying the work yet to do; they’d been flown in. Something about Mana Island feels faintly dystopian. But all of its careful measures are needed in order to keep it alive, like a tiny child kept swaddled.

By chance, the journalist who was first to write about Nigel, Virginia Fallon, was on the trip too. She visits the island often, and in fact had reported on Nigel back whenhe’d first arrived and had started wooing the decoy. There’s a certain kind of person who is alert to small but crucial stories and Virginia is one of these people. A few weeks after our trip she wrote a story on Thomas, a blind bisexual goose who died at age 40 and was buried next to his partner of 30 years, Henry; the township in which he’d lived held a funeral for him, including a procession with a bagpiper and a speech by the mayor. I asked Virginia what it had been like to follow Nigel’s story for those years and she shook her head and said, ‘I’ve got no emotions left.’ She told me she’d cried while writing about his death and hadn’t really stopped since.

As we walked around the island in the hot sun I kept hearing people in our group say his name. ‘Nigel. Nigel. Nigel.’ Our patron saint.

At the end of 2017, he was still the only gannet on the island. And he was still trying to woo the decoy. Around this time, the sound system at the colony was adjusted, sending the recorded calls into a more opportune direction over the sea. And soon after that, three new gannets flew in. Unbelievably, Nigel, the curmudgeon, didn’t take any notice of them. The others set themselves up at the opposite end of the colony from him, and, perhaps because he’d already spent so much time with his concrete friend, he stayed where he was. (‘Concrete friend’ is how the tour guide described Nigel’s mate. ‘Friend’! I love that a gannet’s unconventional relationship has the power to strike coyness in the heart.) The other gannets didn’t seek out Nigel either, but the conservationists kept waiting and hoping that something would happen.

There’s a part in Barry Lopez’s book Crossing Open Ground where he talks about how we perceive relationships in the natural world. ‘Relationships in the exterior landscape include those that are named and discernible, such as the nitrogen cycle, or a vertical sequence of Ordovician limestone, and others that are uncodified or ineffable, such as winter light falling on a particular kind of granite, or the effect of humidity on the frequency of a blackpool warbler’s burst of song . . . the shape and character of these relationships in a person’s thinking, I believe, are deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes’. Although a gannet’s affection for a decoy is readily discernible to us, shaped by our thinking about love and romance – i.e. the places we’ve been – there is also something ineffable in it too, like winter light falling on granite.

In January this year, Chris Bell was out walking along the steep track near the decoys. Like Nigel, he lives alone on the island. The other three gannets weren’t around that afternoon, but amongst the decoys, he noticed something fluttering in the wind. He walked closer. And he saw it was Nigel. Nigel was lying dead in the nest he had built for the decoy he had been trying to woo.

One of the things that affected me so much about the story was the way in which Nigel was portrayed as a bit thick. To me this portrayal, as well as being a bit disrespectful, showed that Nigel, like so many birds (as the old slur ‘bird brain’ attests), was just misunderstood – and obviously he was helpless now to persuade anyone otherwise. There’s a notion, proposed in the eighties by Jane Goodall and Hans Kummer (and described in Jennifer Ackerman’s fantastic book The Genius of Birds), that a wild animal’s cognitive abilities should be measured by the ways the animal finds solutions to problems in its natural home; we should seek an ecological measure of intelligence, rather than a laboratory one. They proposed that intelligence can be more fully seen in the ability to innovate, to ‘find a solution to a novel problem, or a novel solution to an old one.’ Like when a great skua in the Antarctic snuggles in with a bunch of baby seals to steal their mother’s milk, or a heron uses insects as bait to attract fish. Maybe Nigel had simply found a solution to the novel problem of being the only real gannet on the island? And a novel solution to the old, old problem of finding a mate.

When our group reached the gannet colony, we sat down above the decoys – they’re incongruous, freaky-looking things, almost garden gnomey – and I thought of Nigel living for so long in this ghost town. And, even though I tried to stop it, really tried to tamp it down, like trying to stem a river of garbage bursting up out of the golf course in Springfield, I thought of The English Patient. In this analogy, and it doesn’t work but hear me out, Nigel the gannet is Katharine Clifton played by Kristin Scott Thomas at the end of the film. She’s waiting in the lonely cave, in the dark, not giving up hope. And maybe the international news media is Count Almásy, played by Ralph Fiennes, sobbing open-mouthed as he finally carries her dead body out of the cave into the desert. But then . . . the concrete decoy is clearly also Almásy? So it doesn’t work. But, still, as soon as I started thinking about The English Patient, the floodgates opened. Soon I was imagining Nigel as a glittering, powerful, enfolding angel, like Xas from The Vintner’s Luck. He was like Sam Rockwell’s character in Moon, who thinks he’s been talking to his wife back on Earth but she’s been gone the whole time, or something. He was like the victim of a long-running practical joke that has got out of hand. As Chris the ranger had concluded in Virginia’s story, ‘This just feels like the wrong ending to the story. He died right at the beginning of something great.’

I’d gone to the island to know more about the animal reality of Nigel’s life and death. Of course there is ample room for both emotional and intellectual understandings. But I couldn’t get a handle on my sentimental response to the framing of the story as one of unrequited love. I just wanted to see the chicken embrace the boy.

There’s that cliché, when you’re embarrassed, of wishing that the ground would open up and swallow you, but the wish I always have when embarrassed is to be dramatically airlifted out. As I sat back down on the stage in front of the small crowd gathered on Saturday morning, who I’m sure have all by now completely forgotten this event, I wanted a huge bird to plunge down and pick me up in its comfy beak and carry me to some remote outcrop and – important to note that the bird would not eat me – we would live out our days there together, and eventually I would turn to stone and never have to stand on a stage again, although somehow I would still be able to write.


About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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2 Responses to Bird Brain

  1. Catherine Vidler says:

    Such a beautiful piece, Ashleigh, and it made me think of this story from last year

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wenzanne says:

    I love this piece – so beautifully written and considered and you convey how there is sometimes just no answer to some things, no neat conclusion and, of course, we all really want the chicken to hug the boy and Nigel to be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

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