Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Across the Border: Royal Botanic Gardens: Animal Life: Blue Wren

"You shouldn't believe everything you read, Your Majesty. Writers like to tell fairytales, you know; they'll just make something up and not care whether it's true or not."
– Hans Christian Andersen, The Nightingale.

I had a very baby-child weekend, meeting-up with all my friends' little junior-burgers and I was even tasked with looking after one for the day. Why anyone would think I would be responsible enough to care for a child for the day, I don't know, but I took the task on with much enthusiasm and with the sun out, decided to take seven-year-old Albertine for a picnic in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
I love the gardens, especially because I don't have a grassy patch of my own and Albertine, being a free-spirited, imaginative girl, seemed happy enough with the idea.
So beneath Saturday's blue sky, we set off from Darlinghurst on foot, bound for the gardens and adventure, making a quick stop for picnic supplies at the David Jones food hall in the city.
From there it was just a short walk past the 1811-built Sydney Hospital, the 1845-built State Library of NSW and in through the Morshead Fountain Gate on Macquarie Street, holding my small brunette charge's little hand the whole way.

Inside the gardens, we sighed with pleasure for the green of more than 45,000 plants, the welcome calm. 

The path took us down to the pyramid-shaped Tropical Centre – its glass foggy with condensation – and there, sunning itself on a rock, was a tame eastern water dragon. 
But as Albertine bent to say hello to the lizard, the weather gods decided to turn on a rain shower.
We looked up to the sky and down the path: members of a bridal party, in all their finery, were making a beeline towards shelter. The rain gained momentum. 
''Quickly, now, Albertine – to the rainforest!,'' I said.

We ran laughing for cover under the rainforest canopy and it was like entering our own magical world. The air smelt green, a perfume of mulch, and the soundtrack of rain cloaked the city's traffic noise. Best of all, it was mostly dry. 
Still, here I was, looking after a seven-year-old for the day, and I had dragged her on a picnic in the pouring rain.
"Let us just follow the path, at least it is dry in here. Ah, smell the negative ions," I said with some hope.
"Oh, look at that tree's funny roots!"
"They're called buttress, Albertine."
"Oh, look, here's a clearing."
And indeed there was, complete with artfully placed old tree trunks: a makeshift lounge and two woody stools. We had to stop and play house. So there, seated on a log, and with the rain determined, I offered to entertain her with a story. Albertine, bless her, clapped her hands in agreement and I began.
"I once had a friend who lived in an apartment over there."
"Where, what apartment?"
"See through the trees, look up. Can you see that building?"

"Oh, yes, OK."
"Patrick lived there and he was terribly wealthy. He owned expensive cars and suits and investment properties. And he always held amazing parties. At a China-themed party, he decorated the entire apartment in red silk and lanterns while dancers dressed as dragons roamed around, frightening the guests. At that party I noticed that his shelves were filled with natural history books. You know, books about trees and flowers and wildlife, and so I assumed he must know about the singing blue wren that lives here in the gardens."
"What blue wren?"
"That's exactly what he said. 'Don't you ever go to the gardens?' I asked. 'You live right next door. You surely know the singing blue wren.'
"`I know all there is to know about the gardens,' he replied. 'I have read – and own – every book on the topic. I don't have time to visit."'
"I haven't read all the books, Albertine, but from what I understand, hundreds of years ago these gardens were home to the Cadigal group of Aborigines. They used that area around the water's edge, near the duck pond, for initiation ceremonies. And they used to do a dance called the Kangaroo and Dog. Boys a bit older than you would pierce their noses with bones and reeds."
"It has always been a special place. Funnily enough, when the Europeans arrived in the late 18th Century, they brought herds of cows and dropped them off at Bennelong Point, where the Sydney Opera House is. Can you imagine? It would have been like a barnyard.
"The then governor, a man called Arthur Phillip, set aside the Domain, on the other side of the now Cahill Expressway, as his private reserve and established 3.6ha here for growing corn for the new colony. It wasn't a very successful farm – the soil was very sandy – so they moved it out west to Parramatta.
"In 1816, the new governor Lachlan Macquarie established the botanic gardens here, and in 1959 it was given the royal stamp."
"But what about the wren?"

"He lives in the Palm Grove near the Queensland Kauri Pine, the tallest tree in the park. The garden's first director, Charles Moore, planted it in 1857 and it's now 33m tall.
"Patrick had read about the tree, but he didn't know of the wren that sang from it each day. And what a musical trill: the tender song of the blue wren will break the hearts of ruthless men. Poet Kenneth Slessor wrote of it, D.H. Lawrence's wife Frieda praised it and Bea Miles – a local eccentric – would rave about it on her soapbox in the Domain.
"When I told Patrick this, he said: 'I must have it.'
"And the next day he hired a bird catcher.
"When the bird catcher trundled into the palm grove with his traps and ropes, the wren hopped onto the path in front of him and started to sing. The bird catcher's heart broke and he confessed his mission.
"`My song sounds best here under the palms,' said the wren. `But if your boss won't visit, it would be my greatest pleasure to sing in his fancy apartment."'
"Are you serious! How could the bird talk?"
"Just trust me, Albertine.
"Anyway, the wren hopped off with the bird catcher and that evening he sang so beautifully that tears came to Patrick's eyes and rolled down his cheeks.
"'You must stay here and sing for me every day,' Patrick said. And he tied a blue ribbon around the wren's little leg and fastened the end to a table lamp. For the next three evenings, at Patrick's parties, the wren gave ravishing performances.
"On the fourth day, Patrick received a parcel from an admirer. Inside was a mechanical bird, a solid-gold clockwork wren studded with sapphires and diamonds. When you wound it up, it would sing a song just like the real wrens.
"`How marvellous,' said Patrick. `They must sing a duet.' It was not a success: the real wren sang in his own organic way while the mechanical bird did not falter, hitting every note with precision and impeccable timing.
"At the next party, the clockwork wren endlessly entertained the guests. `It is much prettier to look at with all those sparkling jewels,' said a partygoer.
"Meanwhile, the real wren escaped out a window and flew back to the gardens. When Patrick found the abandoned blue ribbon he was heartbroken and became very ill. A week later, he was dead.
"Apparently, with his last breath, he had called for birdsong, but the clockwork wren was broken. It had been wound up too many times."
"That's so sad," said Albertine.

The rain was easing off, so we decided to head to the herb garden via the succulents.
We emerged from the rainforest walk and there wasn't a person to be seen. Everyone had left the gardens because of the rain, but it was more beautiful than ever. 
Flying foxes squealed overhead and the forked branches of the dragon's blood tree, damp and dark with rain, created a lace-like silhouette against the grey sky. Begonias bounced with the weight of remnant raindrops and the wet webs of golden orb-weaving spiders sparkled like fairy dust.

Turning the corner past the palm grove, we heard an unmistakeable sound. A musical trill. Albertine's face lit up and she followed the song to the palm grove. She searched the branches and the bushes but found nothing.
"Was that a true story?" she asked as we made our way to the succulent garden. The sun was coming out and we could at last have our picnic.
"Hmm, kind of,'' I said.
"What do you mean?" she demanded.
"Well, Albertine, I heard it from a very reliable source. A little bird told me."




Arnold. said...

Such a beautiful story and pics, and no comments? :(
Well I applaud, "Author, author" throws money on stage.

Ralf. said...

He should have left the apartment to you.