to Paul Hetherington
A list and commentary on plains-country denizens might begin with the meat ant and its clay-pan mound, peppered by grains and beads of sand and stone, each entrance a departure point from an underground fortress and nursery with as many false walls and holding cells as there are main thoroughfares, back-roads, dead-ends, food larders and burial chambers surrounding a royal viewing box, the blind worker dying of exhaustion under a payload of road-kill offcuts, the soldier with a small arms projectile for a head and a pair of mandibles that work like medieval joinery. Even peripheral members of the flatlands deserve a page in the Field Guide to Common Things, which is why the windmill bird flies in to be name-checked as a sampler of light and shade in the hydraulic assembly plant of a summer afternoon, its call the sound of water being drawn through the teeth of a wallaby in the red stain of itself at the edge of a dam, the bird’s tendency to startle sideways like hardwood splinters flying from both sides of the face of an axe. And what of Apostle birds, who pretend to understand more than they show, who gather in the twinned sestets of their kind, who call meetings the way the names of breeds are quipped at yard sales, who preen their way through drenching races, slipways, sliprails and on corner posts as a crow takes minutes and stares into what remains of the future of a bogged Merino wether, its eyes already gone to a weeping vacancy, the wind posting a commandment to refrain, the sun backing off to give permission, and between them an unseasonal rain squall about to intervene, then standing down. Into drought’s poor theatre, the lace monitor comes like starvation’s interlocutor, its name grazing the lyrical side of goanna. And in a broken narrative of flood-time, the channel eel has been mistaken for a slippage of black soil, in thin lines, from culvert to dam, through grass like abandoned cane from burned basket weavings, its head and tail indistinguishabullshitting story about late night migration and water alive with the slippery side of storytelling. For the redfin and yellow-belly perch, consult records for water levels and toxicity in various inland waterways, and where the words European and carp appear in the upper and lower case files of their influence on the demise of native fish populations, make a footnote on their ability to survive for weeks in mud, breathing scales of liquid clay, their own scales hardening to pioneer coins, fused in the overlapping currency of control and adaptability. And while you’re in the cattle-darkened backwaters of your research methodology, take a side-creek view of where phosphate run-off has greened the surface, and settle in to wait for the water rat who comes pushing a tiny bow-wave, such as you’ve seen where the current meets then runs around a stone, and when the rat leaves the creek to shake itself from head to tail in the manner of all furred swimmers, it will groom itself with hands small as grass seeds and take on the working parts of a spring-loaded curiosity such as settler children played with, back when Starlight was bailing up the mail coach. As the crow descends a boree tree’s busted ladder to watch a stockman pass, the untethered tissue from a wether’s eyeball still trailing a gleam from its beak, you try to read the mood of the red kangaroo you’d have come face-to-face with, if it weren’t for the glass tile wall you’ve finessed from the windshields of abandoned bush-whacking utes, and which you’ve raised between yourself and feeding time, at dusk, so that an expression you might have seen as anxiety or territorial menace is now a series of blurred movements you mistake for curiosity, or tenderness. When you step beyond the wall, you find yourself going toe-to-toe with an old red who has rocked back on his tail to unzip you with one well-aimed kick of his foot that’s as long as your forearm with a nail lacquered black as a stiletto. You reel away like acetate off the spool at the end of the low-budget flick your life in research has become, catching then losing sight of an eagle coming in like a glider, not diminished or greater than the sum of its windy parts, as you lose yourself in a brief protectorate of smoke and shadows.