A growing number of writers grappling with the accelerated rate at which our habitat is changing are also demonstrating our connectedness to the natural world. This summer, those of us not directly in the line of fire have adapted to the haze and floods, the smoke stink permeating bedrooms, and the silence that has replaced the call of birds. There are lessons to be learnt from examining the movement and growth of plants and animals; as nature writing proliferates, its scientific emphasis intensifies.
The mental health burden that comes from contemplating the climate crisis is mitigated by time spent in nature, and we have an abundance of Australian writers articulating where to concentrate our attention – Rebecca Giggs, Inga Simpson, Jane Rawson, Tony Birch, Sophie Cunningham and Saskia Beudel are just some of them. Birds have come into sharp focus: following Harry Saddler’s heartfelt portrait of a large wader in The Eastern Curlew, we have Tasmanian Andrew Darby examining the lives of a single species of migratory shorebirds. Darby’s first book focused on the whaling industry but with his second, Flight Lines, he follows the journeys of two grey plovers from Australia’s south coast to the Arctic. Darby is in awe of nature and humbled by birds, and he makes for a sterling companion and guide.
Birds can be spotted and identified with the help of tracking devices and colour-coded rings. When Darby spends time with the crew who are catching and banding plovers, it becomes clear that birding is a painstaking task; there is a great deal of quiet waiting involved, and results are far from guaranteed.
Darby explains his mission to track these winged global citizens in order to understand what can be learnt from studying the physical costs of long flights, ominously adding: “Beyond the usual trials of travel, I had no reason to expect any great blight to afflict my journey.” Later, he heads to emergency with chest pains, and tests show lung cancer, stage 4. “I looked to the profound migratory power of my bird, the Grey Plover, to inspire my survival.” As chemotherapy begins, Darby researches those who have been to the Arctic and imagines a future where he goes too.
The birders are generous with their time and knowledge. The long hours of waiting lend themselves to quietly funny scheming, and we learn that Dutch ornithologists reference the old masters as a system of coding birds’ body shapes – a 1 is Boschian for the ethereal figures in the work of Hieronymus Bosch, and a 5 is, of course, Rubenesque.
Humans have long been fascinated by flight, and it’s no wonder when we consider that small birds travel thousands of kilometres without refuelling. One of the grey plovers that Darby follows, codenamed CYA, made its first landfall seven days and more than 7000 kilometres after liftoff, having travelled from South Australia to western Taiwan. In long-distance migratory shorebirds such as the grey plover, the internal organs shrink before takeoff. The high energy-intake rates and low body-heat costs of the birds read like an imagining of the next Silicon Valley trend, once dopamine fasting has run its course: the Avian Diet.
Darby explains that his particular cancer resulted from a gene mutation and is, fortunately, responding well to immunotherapy. He relates this back to the evolutionary principles that explain the behaviour of migratory birds over the centuries, and the two topics inform one another. “I am a son of generations of doctors,” he writes, “and in a working life as a journalist, I came to love scientists’ dogged construction of knowledge.” Conscious of the resilience of these migratory birds, he takes comfort in their longevity and endurance. The birds’ stories are interwoven with Darby’s experience of cancer and the book becomes a twin narrative of preservation.
Darby includes tidbits of land history, reverently documenting fossils and extinctions. Wherever he is, he embeds himself with the people and their culture. In parts of southern China, villagers left behind by the economic boom are forced to hunt for shorebirds using mist nets. DDT is still used as a pesticide when it shouldn’t be, and water pollution is the dire result of excessive copper levels. Tens of thousands of shorebirds are caught for food across Asia, and the silver plover is hunted in France – Darby writes movingly about the deaths of these tiny birds.
This is an entire book about one species of bird, and yet it rips along. Darby has the power to articulate even to non-birders the importance and beauty of these creatures. Describing a great number of birds on the tideline, he writes: “They stretch and condense as an elastic, malleable organism. Avian liquid.” In an enormously touching passage, he imagines the future for CYA when it disappears off the radar.
At a time when The Guardian runs a bird of the year competition, and logging on to Twitter can allow you such treats as watching a live webcam of peregrine falcons hatching on top of a building in Collins Street, Melbourne, it’s no wonder that the forthcoming inaugural Mountain Writers Festival in Macedon, Victoria, has as its unique focus nature and environmental writing. In returning to nature, we return to the self while, paradoxically, reminding ourselves of our intrinsic interconnectedness.
An ancestor of the plover existed 1.8 million years ago. Many shorebirds have now lost 80 per cent of their population within three generations, and nearly all Arctic shorebirds are in decline. When facing environmental catastrophe, we are not autonomous. Darby highlights the role of those working through the paperwork and bureaucracy to find a way to change things. Flight Lines offers hope against the steadfast despair that can so easily set in when staring at the statistics. It contributes to the conversation that seeks to heal our tormented relationship with the natural world. And it comes with a salient warning we’d do well to heed: “At a time of multiple ecological challenges, our attention is often elsewhere. This is where we miss out.”
Allen & Unwin, 336pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Andrew Darby, Flight Lines". Subscribe here.