When I walk into the Launceston City Park Conservatory, something I do often, I causally note which plants I know, and which I don’t but ‘should’. As many of the plants are European, I don’t know their Latin names, only their common names, if that, my interest being primarily in Australian natives. The Conservatory is small, quaint, and usually quiet, except for two ejaculatory fountains in the centre of the space. At one stage in my late thirties, I nearly changed direction to study landscape design and horticulture; having had enough of a career path in art and academe, especially in a country that funds neither adequately. It remains an interest.
On entering the Conservatory and hearing birdsong recordings that are Ormella’s work in the space, replacing the splashing fountains, I’m reminded further of things I don’t know. On a recent four day trip to Canberra, where Ormella lives and works, I was reminded how different the bird life is to the Tasmanian and Victorian birdlife I have come to know in my years living in those two states.
Ormella works on the level of a collector of song, of the pursuit of identification, and recordkeeping of what she’s seen, a ‘list maker’. Her video work at Sawtooth gallery recounts in short, dreamlike, slightly choppy sequences, how she first identified herself as a bird watcher; a ‘ticker’, one who ticks off observed birds on a list. To her, knowing the name of a bird ‘conjures up a moment of joy and beauty’, and keeping a list of what species she’s seen ‘evokes a landscape and a moment in time’. She only realised how important this was to her when a Pink Robin, not a Rose Robin, displayed itself to her in Tasmania. She then understood that to know the name of a bird was part of her experiencing it completely.
When I visited her blog, I saw many pictures of the native plants I do know well, each in a vase held in an extended hand, like an offering. The callistemon: only the hybrid doesn’t require annual pruning behind the spent buds to keep it from getting scraggly. Ah.
The stance of Ormella’s work is reflexive. It has quality of alighting on a realisation, almost fleetingly, like one of the paper birds in her video, that something is quietly but deeply important, such as knowing that bird, or that plant, in order to experience it more fully. There is so much I don’t know.
Reading Ormella’s blog of 30 September:
‘Yoko and Zorro are the names of the two birds [tethered] at the MCG to scare off the Silver Gulls. Yoko is a Peregrine Falcon and Zorro is a Wedge-tail Eagle.’
This makes me realise that I have nine bird scares in my vegetable garden. I have both a bird problem, and a large veggie garden.
Over the last few days there were several radio news items about the numbers of native birds declining, robbed of habitat and nest sites by introduced birds, with the Common Starling cited as the example culprit. They are particularly bad, as they can fly far so are also a threat to flora through the spread of seeds in their droppings. Starlings are my biggest problem in the veggie patch, flinging the pea straw mulch around, eating the seeds I’ve just sown. Originally imported to control crop pests, they have become a pest themselves throughout Australia.
As I was approaching the Conservatory in Launceston’s City Park to hear Ormella’s audio work of birdsong within it, I paused when I realised the only birdsong outdoors in the park itself was Starlings. The park is full of exotic trees, brought by those that colonized Launceston, so they are at home there.
As maidenhair ferns nod in the Conservatory’s breeze, visitors hear chirp chirp chirp zing zong zang. Orchids, asters, salvia, cordylines; others I recognize but can’t name today. Boop boop boop. Squawk. A little girl on a scooter pauses, and digs through the pot plants to find where the squawking bird is; her mother tells her its ‘just pretend’. Such a good term to describe artwork, but heard as rarely in serious art circles as some of the birds in Ormella’s recordings. I think of Ormella’s paper birds in last week’s slightly jumpy video, and their somewhat ‘just pretend’ quality that leaves room for memory, for interpretation, for representation akin to the way a name does.
In Ormella’s zine One Week with Birds, a bird nesting and watching site built on mud flats in Japan is revealed pictorially and through text. It has a parallel in Launceston’s Tamar Island, a ‘constructed wild space’ as Ormella notes, a small island in a tidal estuary, once inhabited but now a bird reserve.
The White-cheeked Starling occurs in Japan. I go out to the veggie patch and turn over the whole bed with a long-handled spade, which takes until dark. I move the bird scares around. The Starlings won’t be fooled by something too ‘just pretend’.
Ormella 10 October
In Ormella’s performance/reading in Launceston’s Gorge on the evening of 6 October, she noted that to play back owl recordings is a ‘no no’, because they are territorial and they can be disrupted by recorded calls, in particular in their search for a mate.
It so happens I experienced this performance the evening after watching the movie Biutiful, which begins and ends with a dead owl, which in the film is said to spit out a hairball when it dies. While that might be the case, it certainly is true that owls regurgitate ‘pellets’ of undigested bones and fur on a regular basis. A smattering of these pellets on the ground is one of the ways of spotting the site of an owl’s nest. Four of the bird-scares in my vegetable patch are owls; all of them a plastic, non-pellet producing species.
On Ormella’s evening search for the Nankeen Night Heron in the Gorge, she handed a small leaflet for identification, with the birds not occurring in Tasmania trimmed out. I was momentarily snapped back to a snipe hunt in my childhood (for the uninitiated, a snipe hunt is a mischievous search for pretend animal, designed to snare only the gullible).
The group walked up the Gorge to the shelter that is made of pretend tree trunks formed from concrete. We sat in the shelter, listening to the drizzle, and to Ormella reading about bird spotting. She noted that the Indian Peacocks in the Gorge are one of only two self-sustaining populations in Australia. And that in Sweden you don’t have to see a bird to tick it off your list, you can tick it off merely by hearing and recognising it; a respect for the sonic landscape which perhaps can be attributed to a country of snow and cold air, where sound is particularly thrown into stark relief. Twice she asked us to just listen, and let the sound in.
One of the most interesting aspects of the bird-world into which Ormella draws her audience is the consideration of the relationship we make with other animals. The next performance, a few days later at the Tamar Island bird sanctuary in the warm lunchtime light, gave a focus to the words we give to bird calls, such as ‘falling laugh’ and ‘thin zizzing musical trills’. The pretend bird-sounds we make to help us know who they are, and to confirm who we are in relation to them.
We learn that the elusive Australian Bittern continues to evade Ormella’s tick, ‘like a bunyip’. Perhaps it is a snipe hunt after all.
Ormella 16 October
From the outset, Raquel Ormella’s Launceston project I Live with Birds declared its first-person position. When this shifted to One Week with Birds in the second week, the sense of a diaristic reflection of an individual experience in a different ecosystem over a month of Iteration: Again was established, and through Ormella’s blog and zines, linked back to the body of work she developed while in Japan on a residency.
The question of our relationship with nature, wilderness, other species and conservation is foregrounded in Ormella’s work; perhaps best known is her white-board drawings of the interiors of Wilderness Society offices, which highlighted the professional and political aspect of such an organisation’s work. While the Iteration body of work had the same individual quality and investigative methodology, its attention to the political has been much more subtle, and has only now started to show itself.
The political dimension of the environmental movement is deeply relevant in Tasmania, as it not only splits the political parties of the state, but also cuts across the social strata. The home of the world’s first green political movement is also home to some of country’s most right-leaning. Like the demography that has established itself primarily in the North or South of the state, there seems to be little middle ground established – the ‘midlands’ underutilised as a place, literally and metaphorically, for coming together. Ormella reflects on this North-South divide in her final zine for Iteration, the cover of which features two sets of birds, the Australian Shelduck and the Chestnut Teal, or ‘Junk Bird’ and ‘Important Bird’, respectively. Ormella’s search for the Chestnut Teal (and the bunyip-like Nankeen Night Heron, likely heard but definitely not seen), have left her with unfinished business in Tasmania.
The personal approach of Ormella’s Launceston work has made an easy entry for this writer, whose brief it was to focus on the personal and descriptive dimension, something that would let readers who were not able to experience the work, imagine it. This has been an interesting position to take, as when you live in any non-capital city in this country, you are constantly in a position of asking others to understand a point of difference. Further, anyone involved in environmentalism feels such a difference, manifested in a felt obligation to provide agency for what is ‘other’, to redress the social construction of nature and how it equates ‘usefulness’ with value. Currently, nature can only exist for humans as a social construct, and any change to this is unlikely in our lifetimes. As with Ormella’s bird list, these things are never finished.
Marie Sierra, 2011