May 29, 2011
Gould's Birds of Australia is about far more than ornithology; it was and
is a revelation, writes Anson Cameron.
I GOT to know the whistling eagle on trips with my father up the Darling
River in outback New South Wales. It sat high on bare branches, its call a
descending whistle that ended in an eruption of notes. As a boy I believed
that cry held news in its nuances that travelled the length of the river in
relay from one bird to another, from Queensland to Victoria, like semaphore
along the Great Wall of China.
I learnt the whistle, and in later life would use it to find my children in
a crowd. They would hear it and look around for me, knowing I was the only
whistling eagle in the Bourke Street Mall or the Louvre.
This bird led me to Gould. Having become our family totem, my wife gave me a
hand-coloured lithograph of it taken from John Gould's The Birds of
Australia for my birthday recently. The book it came from had been broken up
to sell for its illustrations; this one was by Gould and H. C. Richter. A
book was destroyed, but more than 600 artworks were freed. So maybe it isn't
always wrong to destroy a book. Fifteen of Gould's hand-coloured plates have
made their way on to the walls of the cabinet room of Federal Parliament.
The Birds of Australia was first published in the 1840s in seven volumes; a
financially risky and enormous labour. It includes a total of 600 plates.
Knowledge usually comes to us in dribs and drabs, but 328 of these birds
were new to science and named by Gould. Audubon's great work, Birds of
America, only revealed 25 new species. Such a cornucopia of fresh life as
Gould's will never be unveiled again unless it is microscopic or
extra-terrestrial. It is Australia's most remarkable and revelatory book.
Patrick White's Voss tells of the heart of man, and Christina Stead's The
Man Who Loved Children painfully displays the infernal complexity of
families. But the heart of man had been mapped and annotated by Horace and
Shakespeare, and the infernal complexity of families is a constant hum
through Austen and Dickens. Gould, though, looked on Australia when it was
still an Eden, and his book is our Genesis.
The birds in the book inhabit places including New South Wales, South
Australia and Van Diemen's Land. None live in Victoria, for at the time it
did not exist. He describes their calls in plain English, an inadequate tool
to render birdsong. The whistling eagle, he said, gave a shrill whistling
cry. Well, yes, but so did Joni Mitchell once, and so did a platoon of
Gould wrote the texts to accompany the plates in language that strives for
scientific formality but is happily lit with conversational tones. Little
stories continually surface in his scientific observations like laughter in
On writing of the whistling eagle, Gould says: ''I once found a nest of this
species in the side of which had been constructed that of the beautiful
little finch Amadina Lathami, and both birds sitting on their respective
eggs close beside each other; and both would doubtless have reared their
progenies had I not robbed the nests of their contents to enrich my
In that paragraph is a hint not only of Gould's ability as a story-teller,
but the off-hand attitude Victorian naturalists had to the death of the
creatures they studied. Gould enjoyed nothing more than a feast of
budgerigars, and he said of the bronzewing pigeon: ''Its pectoral muscles
being deep and fleshy it constitutes a most excellent viand … equally
acceptable at the table of the Governor and at the inmate of a log hut …''
And that, ''although more than one can rarely be procured at a shot, from
twenty to thirty brace may be killed in a day''.
Then, as now, man disbelieved he could seriously wound the world.
Virtually all the species depicted in The Birds of Australia were shot -
''obtained'' was the euphemism of the day - by Gould's man John Gilbert. How
else could you get close enough to a bird to draw it before the advent of
the zoom lens? Gilbert ''obtained'' thousands of birds before he himself was
''obtained'' by an Aborigine with a spear to the neck while on expedition
with Ludwig Leichhardt. Gould was a gifted taxidermist and the birds were
stuffed, deported and their corpses used as models in a London studio. It is
truly a book of the dead. The illustrations are all of murdered birds.
In The Birds of Australia, Gould flatters governors' wives and thanks noble
hosts. He laments his lack of knowledge of the splendid grass parakeet by
saying several fine specimens were given to him by Mister Drummond Johnson
and he would doubtless have received some particulars regarding their habits
were Johnson not treacherously murdered by a native.
The book comes from an age when white men were treacherously murdered and
black men justly dispatched, and is not only a social compendium but an
accomplice's glance at a conceited empire displacing a native people.
Bronzewings and blacks are similarly, scientifically, wonderful; but more
than one can rarely be procured at a shot.
Gould's work is referenced in On the Origin of Species, for it was Gould who
told Darwin his finch species were island-specific, thereby aiding the
inception of Darwin's theories. He is also referenced by Cascade Breweries:
his best known illustration, a pair of thylacines, appears at all good
barbecues on their stubby. And famous explorers including Strzelecki,
Mitchell, Eyre, Grey, Sturt, Stuart, all knew of and relied on Gould's study
of Australian birds. Most cited his work in their public journals.
I visited Gould's book by appointment in the sanctum that holds Rare Printed
Collections at the State Library. A friendly bibliophile named Jan
chaperoned me into its presence. An original 1848 volume reclining on
beanbags on a table, a scuffed leather spine and worn green linen cover. We
wore white gloves to turn its brittle pages, yellowing and torn, patched
with tape by generations of doting librarians.
On every second one of these ageing pages lies a bright wonderment. Birds
finely drawn in inks still vividly coloured; a synthesis of science and art.
Birds brought immortally to life by meticulous hand and eye.
Pre-photographic truths as clear and informative as anything subsequently
caught by the camera. The three-dimensional green and bronze sheen on
Gould's bronzewing pigeon could initiate courting rituals in a live bird.
His kookaburra might at any moment shatter the reverence in this library and
send the foreign students stampeding for the exits.
In the climate-controlled sanctum of the Rare Printed Collections these
birds have become kin to the figures on Keats' grecian urn; each of them a
foster-child of silence and slow time. Outside though, the birds Gould
discovered continue to lessen in number and range - 23 are now extinct; many
are endangered. But in this day and age of binary life I have the whistling
eagle, and all Australian birds, on an app in my phone. If I want to hear
that eagle I press a button and from out beyond the Darling and my childhood
it calls to me.
On the tram home I play this raptor's territorial whistle. A strange
visitation among the frowning suits. Maybe this is the future of the birds
Gould brought to our world. Perhaps more eagles will soon whistle while
riding trams than thermals. Perhaps in times to come parrots will screech
more often in cantinas than casuarinas. And more owls will sleep in the
pockets of men than in the hollows of trees.
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