The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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