You first hear its cry – a sharp, mournful “wee-loo” as night sets. Then, if you are lucky as I was recently to be in an open-sided tent kitchen in the northern Australian bush, the curlew appears, almost on cue at about 7 o’clock, when dinner is ready.
A surprisingly large bird – a kind of mini-stork – it materialises out of the dark on hesitant, quiet feet. A grey and pale-coloured body with black streaks ends in an implausible short beak and big, doleful eyes. It slowly walked the perimeter of the kitchen, looking in for any scraps it would no doubt snaffle once the humans had finished and left.
Every night when I cooked, the siren of the bush stone curlew announced its presence somewhere in the she-oak scrub nearby. Then came the sight of the bird and its cautious long-legged stepping round the outside of the kitchen, its eyes, as if painted onto the body, always still.
I was reminded of the curlew when I came across a newspaper review of a book called Birds and People, by Mark Cocker and David Tipling. The book examines the relationship between birds and people, exploring the wonder birds have held for us over the millennia, the power of certain birds in our imagination, as well as the ways we have used and abused many species. One salient quote is mentioned: “Birds dwell at the heart of the human experience, furnishing us with an imaginative and symbolic resource that is as limitless as their fund of flesh and feathers.”
I mused on that quote and thought of the bush stone curlew. I first saw the bird only recently and I know practically nothing about it, but its strangeness and otherness were what struck me most. Perhaps the story of the curlew appears in local Aboriginal myth. Maybe its habits are well known to ornithologists, and ecologists have mapped out its role in the local environment. But I would wager that no matter how familiar you are with it, the bird would still be strange and other.
There’s something that we need to remind ourselves often in our inquisitive Western culture: the more we know, the greater the mystery. That is, as our understanding of reality grows, so too in proportion grows that which is unknown. It’s like opening the door to a room and noticing that there’s a door at the far end of it; opening that door reveals another room with a door, which opens into yet another ... and so on. At some point, the realisation dawns that there is a never-ending process of unfoldment going on attended by mystery, an uncertainty not only about what awaits behind the next door, but the meaning of the process itself.
An experience of otherness can be deeply humbling. Birds do indeed “dwell at the heart of human experience”, we have evolved with them and share a common ancestor many millions of years ago, but they are also other. They are another life form that exists in its own right independent of our needs and whatever uses we may want from them. An important paradox lies here: though all life is one, it is also multiple. Though at certain times and in certain states of consciousness we can experience the oneness of life, we must never lose sight of the various forms it can take, of the amazing multiplicity of vessels in which it is carried.
This is important because our culture has become intensely human-centred. Empowered by science and technology, we believe we control our destiny and that all other life should serve us. We are the masters of planet Earth. In ages past we were much more attuned to mystery – humble before the awesome nature of the divine and its manifestations all around us. Whether it was God or multiple gods or sacred groves, rocks or animals, we existed in relationship with other powerful beings or energies. Our own power was kept in some state of balance. Now, there seems no limit to the human capacity for mastery and domination.
The falsehood of absolute human power has become increasingly apparent in recent decades as we destroy life on Earth through rampant industrialisation, overpopulation and overconsumption; the more mastery we attain the more tenuous existence on the planet becomes, including for our own species. The truth is that we are not in control and never will be – the ultimate nature of power is quite beyond the human. If we are to live in balance, we must rediscover otherness as a dynamic reality in the universe. That means an acceptance of the unknown and the unknowable as a constant presence in human affairs and in everything. It also means a relationship of respect with that otherness.
I think again of that peculiar bird of the night, the bush stone curlew. In some sense it can never be known, never adequately categorised or catalogued, and perhaps never fully appreciated unless with an openness to mystery. But then, the same could be said for all that is best in life.