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Authors: Johanna Sinisalo

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Contemporary

Birdbrain (7 page)

BOOK: Birdbrain
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His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this be-patched youth.

—Joseph Conrad,
Heart of Darkness

 

NEW ZEALAND
Kepler Track
February 2007

 

 

 

 

Heidi

To pass the time that afternoon we boiled up a beef stock cube and sipped it from mugs with some pieces of bread. We chatted to a German guy who had spent the summer in Eastern Finland a few years ago and still raved about the quality of the light and the hush of the pine trees.

The cabin at Luxmoor was surrounded by a wooden terrace from which you could gaze down at the stunning panorama of fiord-like lakes whenever the misty, rainy weather deigned to draw back its curtains for a moment.

A bird fluttered down and landed on the terrace railing.

It was a gleaming emerald-grey colour and had a hooked beak and large claws. At the base of its beak its nostrils rose up in a ragged yellow lump. It watched us steadily, not the least bit scared.

I remembered the inquisitive, cute little weka. I put my mug on the railing and, using my fingers, ripped off a piece of the bread roll I had bought in Te Anau and gingerly placed it on the railing. The bird looked at it, then looked at me — almost shamelessly, you might say — and took a step closer to the chunk of bread with its large, nimble, sharp-clawed feet.

Just then a hand swept across the railing and snatched the piece of bread, crushed it in a fist and handed it — no, shoved it — back to me.

‘Don’t do that. Ever again,’ said the man.

I could feel my face turning red.

‘What’s the matter?’ I managed to splutter.

‘That’s a kea.’

Kii-a
. I realized straight away that the bird had been named after its own call.

The man was a ranger, a park keeper who lived at Luxmoor during the peak season. ‘When these birds eat too many processed carbohydrates from the tourists they don’t have any inclination to look for their own food. Then they come up with alternative pastimes.’

I looked at Jyrki. For him there was no insult worse than being called a tourist. His nostrils flared, and with his sharp nose for a moment he looked almost like the kea itself.

The ranger told us that keas only live at altitudes of a thousand metres and above. And that they’re smart and nasty as anything.

 

 

 

 

As the bike sinks beneath the water in the harbour and the last thing you see is its white saddle; things start popping into my mind.

Ante always says you can tell what kind of person last rode a bike by sniffing the saddle.

But nothing can keep its scent for ever, like you can’t take a foreign country home with you. Nobody can walk around for the rest of their lives with the smell from, like, Australia hanging around them, so people can see straight away they’ve been somewhere. They’ve always got to bring it up themselves and bore other people with their fucking holiday photos.

People think that if they do something they believe is real, even if they don’t enjoy doing it one bit, they’ll be fighting off medals and awards when they get home.

And what about when they’ve kicked the bucket? At least they’ll end up with a bit of decent company: a stone that’s as dead as stones can be and a layer of flowers that are even deader.

There’s another bike in range. There’s no one about, only a couple of pissheads getting into a scrap a bit further off, and their field of vision extends only as far as the spit flying from their mouths.

A few steps and the wheel’s off the bike stand. If it had been locked with a chain they’d both have gone. Bike stands are a good weight. If you lift it by the carrier at the back, it’s easy to push the locked bike a couple of metres using only the front wheel. Splashety splash.

And now nobody will ever sniff it again.

Where once something stood, now there’s nothing but an empty space and the harbour is a little bit fuller. Something in the world has moved, and later on it’ll snowball. Maybe tomorrow when someone turns up and says to themselves, I’m sure I left it here.

 

 

SOUTH COAST TRACK, TASMANIA
Surprise Bay to Deadman’s Bay
Wednesday, March 2007

 

 

 

 

Heidi

Any beach can be wonderful, amazing and marvellous when you walk along it for four hundred metres.

But a beach can be a total fucking nightmare when you walk along it for four kilometres.

Normally you’d stroll along the shore and enjoy digging your toes into the sand. Normally it would feel nice when your foot sinks into the dunes.

Normally you wouldn’t have a twelve-kilo rucksack on your shoulders and hiking boots dangling around your neck, their heels and toes constantly pummelling against your ribs.

Normally it would feel wonderful to let the sea breeze flutter through your hair.

Normally you would actually have hair.

In other places you would walk slowly, enjoying the smell of salt in the air, admiring the magnificent waves and foaming crests. Here you plod onwards, dripping in sweat, only to realize after half an hour that you can’t see a thing. Or that you can see but only through a strange, blurred fog. And then you notice that the watery mist, whipped up from the sea by the wind and with a good dose of salt, collects on the surface of your sunglasses so that everything looks dim and obscured, every bit as annoying as a piece of apple skin stuck stubbornly between your teeth — you can't forget about it, and you can’t think about anything else.

When I try to start cleaning my sunglasses I see that I only have a few tissues left in a packet crumpled up in the pocket of my shorts. Jyrki has another packet, although I’ve no idea how many are left. It might even be empty.

I feel a chill run through me as I remember that we didn’t buy any more. Everything else but not tissues. Jyrki assumed complete authority over our shopping trip at the Woolworth’s in Hobart, so how the hell have we ended up without any tissues? You need them all the time: for scrubbing dishes, to use as toilet paper, to clean cuts and scratches and for all kinds of basic cleaning. Such as scraping the salty crud off the lenses of your sunglasses, because no matter what else I try and use — the hem of my T-shirt, the edge of my shorts, in desperation I even dig a shirt sleeve out of the bag of camp clothes in my rucksack — every piece of fabric I have with me is soaked in just enough sweat or sun-cream or some other shite that my glasses simply will not clean. Although they might get a bit brighter they’re still coated in an annoying film that refracts the light at will, leaving me almost half blind.

Once we set up camp maybe I’ll try using the cotton lining of my only pair of clean underpants, but until then I have to look at this awe-inspiring landscape as though a thin blurry gauze had been drawn between it and me, making the view seem dull and giving me a headache into the bargain.

 

 

At the western end of the shore, where we are supposed to start climbing back into the woods, is a stream running across the sand. By the side of the stream is a pole with a sign and a couple of giant plastic vegetable scrubbers hanging on a peg.

‘I see. Time for a wash.’

The sign bears a word that I don’t recognize: phytophthora.

‘The Europeans must have brought it here,’ says Jyrki, already kneeling by the water’s edge with a boot in one hand and a scrubber in the other. ‘Root rot. It’s some sort of fungus that kills local plants. At the moment it’s one of the most destructive plant diseases in the world; it threatens something like nine hundred species here alone. And that, of course, threatens animals as they lose their food and shelter. It spreads through mud and soil, so via car tyres and shoes, that sort of thing. We must be about to enter an uninfected area.’

Right, A biohazard. We were both examined at the customs office in Auckland when we first arrived in New Zealand. We had to declare our tent, boots, hiking poles, the works. My equipment was brand new, but Jyrki’s stuff was checked and disinfected, meaning that we almost missed our connecting flight to Wellington.

I
turn my boots in my hands. They are crusted in a thick layer of mud, and the idea of trying to scrape them clean seems absolutely hopeless. Why did I have to choose the ones with the nubuck surface, just because they looked cool?

‘Is it really that important?’

Jyrki jumps to his feet, muddy water splashing around him, and looks at me as though I’d just suggested barbecuing a baby.

‘Yes, it is!’

The layer of dried mud seems like it’ll never come off the boots, although the brushes have stiff bristles. We crouch there in silence; the swishing of the scrubbers reminds me of washing rugs by the lake, and for a moment I am in Finland again where summer is so familiar: the birch trees and the rowan, the lapping of the lake, the song thrush and the chaffinch. The silent dusk of a summer’s night, the dull applause of the aspen leaves, and . . .

Then I can hear those old lyrics so clearly that I can feel my throat tightening:
How lonely is your shore; and how I yearn for there . . .

When I finally open my eyes and see the untamed swells of the Southern Ocean I feel such a wave of angst that I have to catch my breath. People would give their left arm to get to experience a place like this, and still I yearn to be somewhere else.

And yet there was probably never a shore quite as lonely as this one.

I look up at Jyrki. He has already finished cleaning his boots and has started scouring the tent hooks.

 

Jyrki

There are active crimes, and then there are passive crimes.

A passive crime is the act of not doing something.

A fledgeling first-timer hiker, your bog-standard Aussie, stepping on this unknown virgin soil as a conqueror just like his ancestors, would look at that sign, those brushes, and scoff. In the self-appointed sacred name of individual freedom his shoes would remain firmly on his feet. People can decide for themselves how to spend their time; it’s Everyman’s Right — particularly when nobody is there to check on you.

Nobody was watching back when the Europeans arrived in Australia and the axes started flying. Indigenous tribes were ravaged first by disease, then deportation and, finally, through a systematic child-removal policy. The rich soil was robbed, leaving nothing but a barren salt desert. The government even paid blood money for the destruction of natural vegetation: a hefty tax cut for every cleared hectare. And so farmers tied a heavy iron chain between two tractors and drove them side by side. Regardless of whether the area was ever to be cultivated or not, the chains ripped all indigenous plants up from the ground by the roots. The land was effectively shaved bald. Nature itself became the victim of genocide.

It made me think of Finland in the 1960s, when the state financed the clearing of land while simultaneously paying farmers to leave their fields fallow.

The Europeans who first arrived in Australia seemed to think that, because the island’s latitudinal location and its climate somewhat resembled those at home, the land must automatically have all the necessary preconditions for extensive crop-growing and cattle-rearing. And because the island was partially covered with giant forests, tall enough to rival the sequoias of California, people assumed that beneath them must be a layer of fertile humus. But what they didn’t know was that the majority of the nutrients in this ancient terrain were in the plants themselves and not in the soil.

Settlers arrived in the spirit of freedom and happiness with the flag of enterprise flying high. And, almost in passing, they ransacked an entire continent and brought it to within an inch of its life.

At first this island was a penal colony.

A man arrived in Australia, and the immigration official asked him if he had a criminal record. The man replied that he didn’t know it was still an entry requirement.

Out here a farmer — who if he’s lucky might have a farm the size of Wales — deliberately burns down the forest so that a few weeks later his sheep can eat spear grass, the juicy green shoots of the first plants to push their way through the ashes.

When people fell a palm tree — which otherwise might feed an entire village — so they can have palm shoots in their salad, when we kill a shark for its fins or shoot an elephant for its tusks, it’s small beer compared with this. But there’s no point getting on a high horse about it: in just the same way, protected forests along the Mediterranean coast are secretly set alight so that eventually there will be nothing left to protect. Then someone can snap up the land for next to nothing, build a couple of fifteen-star hotels and fill their restaurants with imported Sri Lankan tuna while a couple of metres away on the beach Giorgios’s fishing business is suffocating in a sea full of plastic bags and tourists’ diarrhoea.

 

 

We see two wallabies as we climb up the ridge from Prion into the forest. They take fright and dash into the thick bushes with a frantic rustling. I can imagine them desperately scrambling with the sheep for fresh grass on the black terrain, the kind that Bill described back at the Grampians.

We wipe our feet before stepping into someone’s home, but we don’t care what kind of dirt and destruction we spread across other creatures’ territories.

In a few years the Tasmanian devil will probably become extinct. The species is plagued by a disease causing nasty growths around the head. The disease has spread to Tasmania only in the last ten years. Unlike phytophthora, it might not have been brought here by humans. But if the population continues to fall at this rate — and even if some individuals turn out to be immune and can continue the species — the foxes and cats that humans have introduced to the island will quickly find their way into the little devils’ ecological niche. This is exactly what happened in New Zealand: the possums brought over from Australia destroyed, and continue to destroy, indigenous fauna so fast and effectively that you can almost hear the daily slaughter in the bushes.

Our forefathers committed active crimes in the name of their own happiness. The generations that followed have opted for passive crimes, for precisely the same reasons, and seem happy to stand by watching a chain of ethnic cleansing, both other people’s and their own. There’s nothing you can do about it; that’s the way the world goes around; we have our rights. The way your average Yank talks about climate change: are we going to let a few polar bears threaten the American Way of Life?

And what about those polar bears and tigers? Yeah, well, at least one day they might bring in hordes of gawping tourists.

Once all the other fauna have been destroyed Australia could well see a surge in the popularity of fox-hunting, after the wise decision to ship in foxes to take care of the even more wisely shipped-in rabbits. Once devastated by phytophthora, the indigenous flora can be replaced by some nice imported plant species that the wallabies can’t digest. Then we won’t have to shoo them off the hotel gardens all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK: Birdbrain
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