WHEN Orpheus arrived in Hades, the first thing he noticed was an absence of birds in the trees. To conjure a bleak mood, John Keats finished one of his poems with the line, ‘‘ And no birds sing’’. In Mateship with Birds, first published 90 years ago, AH Chisholm speculates about what it would be like to wake up in the Australian bush without the dawn chorus.
Carrie Tiffany borrowed the title of Chisholm’s book for her second novel, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award. She was inspired by a first edition found in a secondhand bookshop. ‘‘ He refers to birds and animals as female and male,’’ Tiffany said recently, adding she thought there was something missing from how we relate to nature at the moment.
These days, most of us consider birds through the template of science. There’s much to be gained from Chisholm’s writing, however. He is unashamedly lyrical and poetic about his engagement with the bush. Tiffany’s comments bring present attitudes in nature writing into focus: science has made us selfconscious, wary of emotional responses, careful to steer away from the anthropomorphic.
Science is beneficial to the survival of birds; if we allowed ourselves to become ‘‘ mates’’ with birds, however, rather than seeing them as objects to be collected, as specimens, photographic catches, or more names in a twitcher’s obsessive list, then we might be more inclined to find empathy with them.
Alexander Hugh (but known as ‘‘ Chris’’) Chisholm was a remarkable man. Born in 1890 in the Victorian goldfield town of Maryborough, he left school at 12 to work as a delivery boy. He started writing to spread his passion for birds, initially for the ornithological journal Emu, then for general newspapers. His first story of note was a plea to stop the killing of egrets for the fashion designers of the day, who used their plumes as fascinators.
Chisholm went on to become editor of several newspapers and the editor-in-chief of the Australian Encyclopaedia. He was also a sports reporter in Melbourne and press officer for the governor-general. In 1976 he wrote a foreword for the Reader’s Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds. By AH Chisholm Introduction by CJ Dennis With a new foreword by Sean Dooley Scribe, 200pp, $24.95 (HB)
In his lively foreword to this long overdue reissue of Mateship with Birds, Melbourne author and birdwatcher Sean Dooley suggests it was via his innumerable articles for newspapers and ornithological journals that ‘‘ Chisholm left an indelible mark’’. Other reviewers have called his prose ornate or archaic, but I prefer the word stately.
With Mateship with Birds, Chisholm became a forerunner to modern nature writers such as Eric Rolls. It was the bible for birdwatchers before we became ‘‘ birders’’ and it ranks along with that most influential of books from the 1950s, What Bird is That?
The introduction was written by poet CJ Dennis of Sentimental Bloke fame, who offers a wry description of the naturalists of the day: ‘‘ Many a learned savant shoots birds with a gun and writes about them as a pedant. Mr Chisholm shoots them with a camera