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Robyn Davidson is a nomad
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Robyn Davidson is a nomad
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Robyn Davidson is a nomad
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"I think I saw the city as this incrustation over country so you could read the city as a kind of garden with resources in it that you could gather."
1 January 2012

Robyn Davidson is a nomad

Interview by Anna Krien
Photography by Leah Robertson

Anna Krien on Robyn Davidson

Robyn Davidson likes to act out her stories—she thumps her thighs to make the sound of a bear’s footsteps, slips into a hoity-toity Indian accent to impersonate conversations from the Himalayas, and speaks in onomatopoeia to describe her camels sitting down on her order. I glance at the tape recorder between us and wonder, how on earth am I going to capture this woman on paper? Deftly, Robyn Davidson manages to Houdini her way out of definition.

A woman of forty-odd addresses and counting, many still refer to Robyn Davidson as the ‘camel lady’, due to her solo journey in 1977 across Australia’s desert with four camels and her dog, Diggety, when she was 27 years old. At the time, much to her dismay, her journey made headlines all around the world, creating media scrums in remote Aboriginal communities waiting for her to pass through. But with the help of conspiring Aboriginal trackers and red herring radio messages, the young Robyn had managed to avoid the scrums and reappear in almost solitude at the end of her journey, at the water’s edge. Her subsequent book, Tracks, instantly became an international bestseller.

Lesser known are the stories of Robyn’s tempestuous relationship with Salman Rushdie (her muse-like qualities are rumoured to be throughout his fatwa-earning Satanic Verses), her early days prior to Tracks of playing a mean game of poker in an illegal gambling den in Sydney, hanging out with the Push crowd, and fossicking for opals with her father. In her second book, Desert Places, Robyn writes about her hellish and self-diagnosed failed attempt to live with India’s nomadic sheep herders from Rajasthan, the Rabari people, and has written over the years about her home in the Himalayas, the abhorrence of noise, the plight of nomadic people and the possible consciousness of a little bird named Toots.

Plus there is her magical ability to summon up pianos wherever she goes.

‘I’ve chosen, I guess, freedom over comfort, which means that I’ve often been uncomfortable,’ Robyn Davidson once said in an interview, and it’s her clear-eyed no bullshit honesty that I most admire.

Robyn Davidson is, without doubt, free. And being free is hard work.

This story originally ran in issue #30 of Dumbo Feather

ANNA KRIEN: Were you always packing a bag when you were little? Grabbing your toothbrush and saying, ‘I’m outta here‘?

ROBYN DAVIDSON: Well, I had that wonderful childhood. A country childhood in Queensland at a time when kids just got on with being kids. You’d come home from school, be fed and then outside again. There wasn’t that sense of being watched over. We had tremendous freedom. And certainly, my fantasy life was all about being in the jungle, being a botanist, the creek down the bottom of the paddock was the Amazon River.

I was born on a cattle station before there was electricity. I remember when the first light bulb happened, I was about four. When the first telephone arrived, and I remember our number was 8…

Oh, that must have been hard to remember!

Indeed! It was a black phone stuck up on the wall and you had to ring it like this [Robyn whirs her hand around vigorously] and that got through to the party line, and everyone listened to everyone’s conversations on the party line. There was something called the Galah Hour, where all the women, after they finished their work, they’d sit on the line gossiping and my mother was definitely not a galah. She was much younger than my father, and was a petite talented little thing. She was always trying to improve us. She’d send away for books which arrived on the rail. She wanted my sister and I to be some sort of dancer or pianist, but my father, he was a fantastic naturalist.

He had spent a lot of time in Africa and he was always telling stories about his time there. A gifted bushman. Plus we also had these wonderful thick books with titles like Marvels of the Universe and Customs of the World.

Did he teach you how to make a campfire?

No, he didn’t. I wasn’t taught anything because I wasn’t a boy. Why would I need to learn those sorts of things? But I think, when you’re a country child, you do learn a sort of physical competence.

Is it ironic that you learnt how to play the piano? Not a very nomadic instrument. Do you wish you played the guitar instead?

Oh I wish! Almost all of my permanent homes have pianos in them!

I play the piano, and it’s the most immovable thing.

Yes, absolutely. I had this fantasy—this place in the Himalayas, everything that has been built on there, has been brought up by pony back, or man’s back. Literally. Generators, and plates of glass, and you know, madness. I had this fantasy of hauling up a piano—

Like the film, The Piano?

Yes. But it never did happen.

Your mother was depressed, wasn’t she?

Yes. She killed herself when I was eleven. And I found that I hadn’t thought about it. I knew intellectually that it must have affected me very deeply and there was no doubt I was horribly scarred in there, but it wasn’t apparent to me. I don’t recall that I suffered any sort of guilt, or grief. Then, when I hit 46, which was how old she was when she died, boy, I got the whammy. It’s good evidence for the reality of the unconscious, I think.

Did you realise you’d lost her, or did you get depression?

I got huge depression. I’ve always been a melancholic sort of person but…

It was manageable?

I’d prefer to say ‘thoughtful’. As soon as you say, you know, I just don’t like the categorisation, the labelling.

Oh yes, people will all start chiming, ‘Oh that’s why.’ That’s why she walked across the desert, that’s why she’s like that or this.

Yes, all that derivative determinist sort of thinking. Life is not like that.

This story originally ran in issue #30 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #30 of Dumbo Feather

Life isn’t simple—it’s not just one thing causing another thing, and really to try and reduce things, this need to reduce everything, somehow to me, it makes more sense to keep it all moving.

So anyway, when my mother died, it was assumed that my father wouldn’t be able to look after me. It was because of the times, but also, poor old fellow, he was in such shock. So I was sent to live with his twin sister, who up to that time, I absolutely idolised. She was a very brilliant horsewoman, and very haughty and aristocratic, but of course, she didn’t know how to look after a disturbed eleven-year-old. She saw my mother as a middle-class weakling who my father should never have married, he should have married someone more suitable, in other words, a country aristocrat. She wanted to toughen me up and make me less like my mother. I’m sure that was the rationale.

took a lot of freedom. I could go to school on the back of my friend’s horse, charge around the mountain, skip school, form a gang at school and not be good at school, because prior to that I always came top and now that I was a rowdy, I couldn’t care whether I came top or bottom of the class. I was horrible!

When I was seventeen, or eighteen, I hitched down to Sydney. It was 1968 I think. I had thirty dollars and a sleeping bag. I remember walking through what was then Ultimo, a very daggy awful end of Sydney—and I found a park to sleep in. To this day I don’t know for sure what park that was, but I think it was Centennial. At some point, I got sprung by some cops and I was told to leave. I returned a few days later and it’s a bit of a fog until I found this empty cottage in Erskineville. I crawled through the window and occupied it.

I was there on my own for, I guess, months. I’ve been trying to write about it in my memoir because it was an extraordinary time and I wish I remembered it more clearly. The little cottage had a piano in it—

You’re joking?

No! There was an old piano in the front room and a bedstead, and I got a mattress from the street. I didn’t know how to cook, I’d go to the markets and get vegetables off the floor, and the Greeks and Italians would treat me with contempt but they’d toss things my way. I think I was pretty odd. In the sense that I really didn’t know how the world worked and had to find out. I think I saw the city as this incrustation over country so you could read the city as a kind of garden with resources in it that you could gather. I used to go to the back of restaurants to get food and I’d usually get food. Get on buses and say ‘Could you drop me somewhere, I don’t have any money’.

So you weren’t shy?

Painfully shy! I was hideously shy, but obviously with some very strong intention to learn things. And also I was very lucky with people who would take me in. I got a job as an artist’s model at Sydney Tech and that went on for 6 months or a year, and started meeting hippies, and layabouts and the old Push, and people like that. I ended up living in a house with some of the Push, again as a sort of mascot, always the youngest in the fold. There was John Cox, the former husband of Eva Cox the feminist. He had set up a house in Paddington full of misfits, and oh, God they could drink, those men.

Then I got job at a gambling house, dealing blackjack and poker.

An illegal den?

Yes, they were illegal then. So it meant that every now and then the cops would come and do a run. They would let the boss know beforehand so all the important people were out before they came through.

So did you become a good card sharp?

Oh yes. And it is the most wonderful game. It has almost nothing to do with luck and everything to do with reading a person, reading their play, and being able to convince people that you are, or aren’t, bluffing. I got seriously interested in playing the game.

Did you have a special outfit for that?

Yep, I had two outfits. They were gorgeous. I remember them to this day. One was black, sort of silk chiffon, with flowers printed on it. The skirt was flouncy with a slit up the side.

Youch. Hot.

Yep. Knockout. And the other dress was more hippy—an Indian print long skirt and a tied top.

Were men dropping at your feet?

Oh, no!

Did you drop at anyone’s feet?

Yes. … I dropped at Billy Clentos’ feet.

The boss!

Yes, my boss! He was in his forties, mid to late forties. He was a man of spectacular suits.

So you’re trying to write about these times?

Yes, and it’s difficult because it sounds sensational, but it was just life.

That’s the ultimate difficulty don’t you think? Between living your life and narrating your life?

Isn’t it.

How can you avoid making it into a story?

Exactly. And really, I didn’t have a clue about anything. I just went along with things. I got by on instinct. But we did look after each other. People lived on the edge a lot but you could always go and crash somewhere. There was a sense of generosity and openness. There was an extraordinary closeness. We sort of psychologically looked after each other.

Were there lots of drugs?

Yeah, quite a lot. Dope and acid mainly.

Acid’s good isn’t it?

Oh yes! Do you know I still get flashes? Suddenly I’ll look at a wall and it would look sort of marshmallowy and I’ll think, ‘Uh oh.’ A sort of sudden unease that I recognise from when acid starts to happen and everything goes most strange.

I don’t think that door ever closes once you’ve opened it.

I think drugs are potentially very harmful to people, the truth is drugs do make some people terribly paranoid but for myself, I think they simply helped me understand that there are other ways of thinking and being. I often think is there a link between depression and what I’ve done to my brain—and it may be but it seems to me a too deterministic way of looking at things and ultimately it’s what you do with it and make of it.

You’re often referred to as ‘the camel lady’.

Yes. It’s very tedious. I hate being associated with them all the time. But I have to say I do think they are extraordinary animals. They’re so intelligent, and affectionate, and funny. But, you have to be on top of them. You can’t let them get away with too much.

I guess Tracks is it a bit like a band’s hit song, in the sense that their fans will hound them to play it for the rest of their lives?

That’s exactly what it’s like. I’m still the desert lady, but I’m so urban you wouldn’t believe. I can’t live without my coffee.

But it was extraordinary what you did… Twenty-seven years old, four camels and a dog, setting off across the desert. I’m sorry. I want you to play that song! How did you prepare? How do you train a camel?

I arrived in Alice Springs with no money. I got a job in a local pub, and Alice in those days was pretty rough. In those days, it was pretty blatant, clear where the lines were. There were two pubs, one mixed-grill shop and 14,000 people. Land rights had just come in. I remember the first night, a white bloke had been found dead in a caravan park with a huge lump of mulga shoved up his arse! And a black guy was found dead in the street with white paint all over him—

You mean ceremonial paint?

No, no. House paint. White house paint. I worked in this pub. I was too nice to these poor blokes who came in, and I’d pat their hands across the bar.

Oh no…

I know! Stu-pid. And again, I had that sense of being invisible. Just not realising what’s one’s affect is. I went back to my hideous little room one night and there was a huge turd on my pillow.

What kind of message is that?

I don’t know! It makes you think they don’t like us. Anyway, I resigned and went to work for this mad Austrian bloke [Kurt] who was trying to set up camel tours. He was profoundly eccentric. Mad, actually. He had these big pale blue Austrian eyes, a beard, and a big white turban, all this Arabian gear. And he built this Austrian chalet about five, three, miles out of Alice Springs.

A chalet in the desert? An Austrian Arabian?!

Yes! He had about 5 camels and he said, ‘Ja, you will work for me, for one year and then you will take the pick of the camels and off you will go, but I will pay you nothing.’

So I said, ‘Oh alright.’ I started from bottom up. The first job he had me doing was pick up all their shit in a dustpan and if it wasn’t done to the last skerrick he’d have a fit, and he’d follow me around, yelling ‘There’s still a piece here!’ I suppose it was a kind of apprenticeship and it did me a lot of good. I was pushed into the deep end, there was no time to be afraid of the animals, I learnt a lot. It was incredible really. He trained me, in the same way he trained the camels. I ended up racing the young camels, bareback, down the creek bed. Just holding on to the hump, behind the hump like this—and your legs just holding on to nothing. Then you go ‘hey!’ and off we’d go. Imagine how strong I was!

You were wild!

I was. But I was more afraid of Kurt. Of course, he dipped out on the deal and ripped me off terribly. He didn’t pay me and he didn’t give me any camels at the end.

Have you ever found out what happened to him?

No one knows. He vanished. He disappeared. In a puff of smoke. Nobody knows what happened to him. But I managed to get my four camels and after a lot of preparation, I set off.

Do you sometimes wish you lived in a time when maps weren’t complete?

I think I probably wouldn’t have made it without the maps. But also, I learnt not to rely entirely on maps. They were often wrong, well then they were. It was a combination of compass and maps, and following the signs.

The stars?

I didn’t use a sextant. I knew the constellations. But I always had a sense of where I was and I learnt to read the bush. You know how far away from water you are by what sort of birds there are. If there are animal tracks that start gathering together, you know you’re heading towards a water source.

And you could track?

There are levels of ability. I was competent enough to feel secure about tracking my camels in the mornings. I let them go at night. They had to eat. I had a calf with me, so I tied the calf up with me, so I could be pretty sure the mother would come back, and if she came back, the two boys would come back.

They must have thought you were a strange camel.

I think they thought I was a peculiar camel who ran the show. You know, I went back to see these camels about ten years after the trip and they’d been in this huge ten-mile-square horse paddock. So I got my friend to drop me out there, and there were my beasts, and I had watermelon for them, I had liquorice sticks. So I spent about an hour with them, no ropes or anything, just them and me. And I just whispered to Dookie, ‘Whooosh’, and down she went. Ten years on. Without a quiver, down they went. And then walking back to the homestead, they all fell in behind me.

You are the Camel lady.

Yes, I know.

Isn’t it funny how we humans think we’re so unique?

Yes, and the more we discover, I don’t know whether we’re more like them, or they’re more like us. I’m just fascinated by it—what’s going on when the consciousness of one species can make sense of and interact with the consciousness of another species. What is that about?

Can you tell me about meeting Eddie, who in the middle of the desert was wearing an oversized Adidas sneaker on one foot and a woman’s shoe on the other?

Oh yes, Eddie. So I went through various Aboriginal communities on the way, and came into pitjatjara country around Ayers Rock, Docker River, that area and beyond, and there was a point in the journey where I had miscalculated what my camels would need to drink. Up to then, there had been a lot of green feed around and we were suddenly coming into very different country, very droughty. I wasn’t worried because there was a well marked on the map, and I went into this well and there was nothing there. No water. I had about ten days to get to the next well, and although I knew that the camels would make it, but in another way, you don’t know. I didn’t know, for example, if there would be water at the next well. And that uncertainty and also by then, a sense that I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing this journey for, why was I doing this? And feeling rather, you know, like I had set out on something that again, had no meaning. So I wasn’t in the best emotional state.

Anyway we kept going, and eventually we got to the well and there was water there. That night, I had about five days to go to get to the next Aboriginal settlement and I was camped in the dunes. I was still—even though the water was there and I knew I was safe—feeling quite vulnerable. And then, I heard this car.

I listened carefully and it was an Aboriginal car, because you can always tell an Aboriginal car because they sound like washing machines about to fall apart.

They saw my fire and arrived at my camp. And I just didn’t want to see any human beings, I just wasn’t up for it. It was old Aboriginal blokes who had been to a land rights meeting and they were heading back to the settlement. So they camped with me the night.

They didn’t speak English. No—one of them spoke English, and he was rather garrulous and a bit fond of himself. I just wanted to get under my swag. Anyway, there was one sweet old man, a little tiny fella, and he had killed a rabbit. He gave me some of his rabbit. Then we went to sleep and the next day the very garrulous one said I needed to have company coming into the settlement, said it was dangerous country. Really, their anxiety is that you’ll come across some sacred site and it won’t be good for you. And I thought, oh God, I’m going to have this talkative chap walking with me—and it was the little man that joined me, and it was Eddie. He didn’t speak a word of English, I had my minor vocab of Pitjatjara, and we walked into the settlement together.

I asked him if he’d walk with me to Warburton, and he said, yes, you buy me a tarpaulin for my wife and a rifle for me, and we’ll go. And he took me through his country. It was an immense privilege.

In your Quarterly Essay ‘No Fixed Address’ you write that you’re a kind of modern nomad, having had some forty addresses over time, and still call at least three countries home. Can you tell me about all your permanent homes?

I have a permanent home, a flat, in Sydney, I have a permanent home in London, in the East End. That’s a wonderful home that one because it a group of friends bought a shoe factory and did it up together.

What kind of shoes did the shoe factory produce?

They looked like they were orthopaedic but I don’t think they were—just old style black shoes, this vast Victorian industrial building with corners filled up with these black shoes.

We all agreed that we each wanted our private residence so we could be completely autonomous, but friends within reach. The architects came through and built, altogether 16 apartments with a big courtyard in the middle.

It was a terrific way to live. Of course, in those days the East End didn’t have fancy coffee shops.

What did they have then? Fried Chicken?

Oh no, that’s much too upmarket! Workmen’s cafes. Bacon and Eggs. Big mugs of tea. English breakfast.

I’ve a permanent home in the Himalayas, a home in Western Rajasthan, and various other homes here and there. Narendra, my partner, who died last year, he had a string of properties through North India, but the house that was ‘ours’ was the one in the Himalayas, east of Delhi. But there’s another lovely place, west of Delhi, where I spend quite a lot of time where you look out on to Mount Abu. Lots of really scary bears up there…


Yeess. You don’t want to go out without your pistol.

Are you a good shot?

Not bad. But pistols scare me a bit. What if they go off and you shoot yourself in the foot?

But there is something wonderful about going out for a walk and strapping on your pistol!

Oh, you’re so macho!

I’ve never had to shoot one, thank God, I’d hate to. But they are actually very dangerous. They’re called sloth bears and they’re more aggressive than a grizzly. The poor local women who are out gathering wood, a lot of them lose half their face, or get killed. One time two little boys had been out, gathering wood or whatever else they were doing. A bear killed one and the other boy went up a tree, which of course doesn’t help, and was disembowelled.

So are the bears hungry or territorial?

Territorial. At night the jungle is much more dangerous, because there’s bears and leopards and potentially a tiger or two. I tell you, it’s this atavistic fear, that sense of being potential prey that we really don’t have in Australia. It’s a completely different way of being in landscape.

I’m fascinated about that feeling of being prey, it seems so rare in modern Australian life. Tell me about that sense of being prey?

It’s very interesting. It changes everything. It changes how you are in landscape. I don’t know about you but when I go into the desert or the bush I feel completely confident. I know how things fit together, I know how to look after myself. I can read the bush. I mean sometimes the bush is spooky, but that’s a different feeling.

So how did you meet Narendra?

Dear Narendra. I met him in India a long time ago. Before I went to London. I met him by mistake at a little country airport in 1978. And I thought he was someone else and I walked up to him and said ‘Are you so-and-so?’ And he said ‘No, I’m not Mr so-and-so. But I know Mr so and so. But I feel that I know you also, I’ve seen you somewhere before.’ And then he said, [Robyn slips into an Indian accent], ‘Oh yes, you’re the woman who took the camels across Australia. You know I’m the Minister for Tourism and I’ve just been writing you a letter.’

You’re joking.

No. Anyway I went back to his extraordinary house and met his family. It was this old feudal rajasty, part of the ruling family of Jodhpur. I got very close to his sister, and I stayed in touch with him, and the whole family. When I went back to India to do the Rabari journey, we got together.

Tell me about the Rabari trek? That was your second big journey wasn’t it?

Yes, and I hate to say it, but really, the impetus behind that book, I did it for all the wrong reasons. I was devastated after all the business with Salman, I was absolutely broken up. I couldn’t write, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was at a very loose end. There had always been pressure on me to write another travel book, which I resisted, I didn’t like idea of being labelled a ‘travel’ writer.

But then a very strange thing happened, I was at a friends’ dinner in London, it was about three years after I’d met Salman Rushdie—and that relationship was a clap of thunder. It was volcanic, as many said. Anyway—so who should be at this dinner but Narendra! He’s an extraordinary man. He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t look well. You do not look happy.’ And I said, ‘Well I’m not actually.’ And he said, ‘You come to India. You do that project you said you were going to do.’ And I said, ‘Oh. Okay.’

Did the trek do the trick? Were you healed?

No. That trip was a failure. And it’s very difficult to write about failure, and essentially that’s what that book, Desert Places, is about. It’s about failing to do what you thought you could do, failing to understand the situation you were in, just failing.

Tracks was about overcoming things, and freedom, and learning skills, and India was about not being allowed to do anything and never understanding what was happening, and people in my face 24/7. It was unrealistic of me to expect that I could deal with a place like India—when you’re in India, it’s about people, it’s about density.

But I am very grateful to India, the heroism of people there. The ends that people will go to, the amount of self-sacrifice to educate one of their children.

I find every time I go away—perhaps its different because you’ve made homes in these places, you’ve gotten beneath the veneer—but for me, there’s this constant questioning of my self—why am I here, am I just a consumer, querying my observations.

For the first ten years of my involvement with India I was in a constant state of rage. Rage! Because those questions, they’re just with you all the time, and you don’t know where to place yourself morally. And for me, it was quite literal. First of all being with the nomads, which was hard enough, but also marrying so to speak, into this feudal aristocracy where there are staff. Servants! And I’m still not good at it. The staff up there are the people I love. The people I go back to see, the people who see me through thick and thin. They’re the people I deeply care about, and yet, they pick up my orange peel.

I suppose that my being in India puts other things into perspective. The strangeness of being in a situation where my being able to employ 20 local peasants is between them being able to send a child to school or not, is the difference between a woman having enough to eat and getting over an iron deficiency, or not.

And where, of all these permanent homes, is your favourite place to write?

Nowhere is my favourite place to write anymore,

I hate writing. I would do anything else, I hate it. I hate it.

Right. So… What are you working on now?

I’m working on this infinite book, a memoir based loosely around my mother, but I don’t remember her very well, so a lot of it is imagined, or thought about in terms of how I see her in me. It’s quite a difficult book. I started it twelve years ago. I feel absolutely that I have to write it and absolutely that I can’t write it. I wish I could just dig holes.

Have you ever experienced a writing block like this before?

No, no, no—although writing has got harder as I get older. I think I’m too aware of not wanting to write badly, of not wanting to add to the noise. You need to have a very strong sense that what you think is worth putting out there. And I don’t have that confidence any more. I mean Tracks is not a well-written book, not in that classic sense, but it’s completely free. Do you know what I think happened? I think I changed and suddenly the voice, that voice in Tracks, it couldn’t serve me anymore.

But that makes sense. You’ve changed and your voice has had to as well.

Yes, but some people write with the same voice all their life. Graham Greene was always Graham Greene, he might have written worse or better books, but the voice didn’t radically alter, did it?

Yes, but they probably just have static egos. I think your beauty is that you do doubt yourself. And you’re dismissing all your recent writing, what about ‘Toot’s Kismet’? That’s one of my favourite essays.

Oh yes, Toots. It was in the house in the Himalayas, and I had been there on my own for quite a long time. I built a birdbath in front of the house, so every sort of thrush visited and the whistling Himalayan thrush had built a nest in the back wall of the house. The cook came to me with this little bird and said it seemed as if it had been pushed out of the nest, what do I do with it?

We tried putting it back in the nest and of course, ten minutes later, down it comes again. The parents do not want this bird. So it’s got one broken leg—who knows if it happened in the fall or if it broke somehow in the nest and that’s why he wasn’t wanted—so it gets pushed out of the nest again and we went to pick it up, and my dog grabbed it and broke the other leg. So here was this poor bloody bird—and they’re quite leggy birds, small but have these long dancing legs.

I took the bird and I was about to twist its neck and it just looked at me. I just remember that beady eye. And you know that this little bit of life doesn’t want to die. It just doesn’t want to die. Nothing wants to die. It was probably stupid of me, and I’d normally tweak its neck, but for some reason I didn’t. So we turned it upside down, I tried to bandage its legs, all those sorts of stupid things you do. I put a warm water bottle in a box with the bird, and I said to Bippin, it’ll be dead in the morning.

And I woke up, and there it was beside the bird doing its ‘feed me feed me’ thing on these stumps we’d put on its legs. So that was it really. From then on I became its mother, and god knows how that changed the wiring in that bird’s brain because it was having to cope with being mothered by a primate. It was a very strange thing.

Toots had the run of the house. And I was just fascinated about what this communication was between me and it, how it could look into my eyes and know that it was looking into eyes. Whatever that flexibility is in that animal’s brain is really quite extraordinary.

And ours as well. Our flexibility to bring up another species.

Yes, but I suppose we can reason. We can say, this is a bird and I am a human. Whereas a bird? What does a bird have to do that with? It has something, obviously, but what?

So, do you make a habit of bringing up abandoned baby birds?

Yes. Lots. It’s not something you want to say, you always sound like such a-

Coot? You sound like a coot?


You’re trying to keep it under wraps?

Yes! Oh dear. Crows particularly. Their range of intelligence.

I can do quite a good crow call. It’s my specialty.

Can you? Do they come and wheel around you?

Well, they answer. Can you?

From one coot to another, I used to, yes. They’re amazing birds.

And the way they move! They swagger. Like they’re the mafia.

Aren’t they? Very flashy dressers.

Anna Krien

Anna Krien is a Melbourne-based writer of journalism, essays, fiction and poetry. Anna’s writing has been published in The Monthly, The Age, Best Australian Essays, Best Australian Stories and The Big Issue.

Photography by Leah Robertson

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