In other words, it’s magpie nesting time, when eggs and young must be defended at all costs from interlopers.
Swooping season was never a thing when I was a kid, even though magpies were everywhere near our house. I first remember hearing about it from people who grew up in Canberra, where children apparently lived in terror of springtime and everyone had a theory about how to prevent your eyes being plucked from your head by a marauding maggie.
I have been swooped a few times since, and it is freaky. But you know what is deeply unnerving? Being watched solemnly by dozens of magpies as you walk along. They’re on the ground. You’re way bigger than they are. They don’t care. They don’t shuffle aside. They follow you along the creek path to make sure you keep walking. Move along, pathetic human. This is our place.
So you do.
Don’t look back.
But generally speaking, when they’re not psyching me out or swooping at my head, I love magpies. Most countries have birds called magpies, but they aren’t as gnarly as ours. And they don’t sound the same.
The carolling of magpies is one of the most familiar sounds of my childhood, along with a cricket broadcast on a distant radio and suburban lawn mowers. When I first moved back to Melbourne after a few years in NZ, I woke up and heard the magpies and wept. (In NZ you wake up to the distinctive warble of the tui, which is beautiful but not the same thing.)
If you’ve never heard it, here’s an adolescent magpie carolling by the creek. It has a few friends in the background.
Different site today – one that is familiar, and yet not. Nangak Tamboree waterway stretches through the campus where I work. I’ve been coming here – first as a PhD student and more recently as a lecturer – a few days a week, for years. But of course for much of the past two years, the campus has been closed except for critical research (keeping plants alive in greenhouses or lab work) and we’ve all been working and studying from home during lockdown. So I haven’t seen it much lately, and I certainly haven’t sat about scribbling.
Ours is a classic outer suburban campus, built in the 1970s on old farmland, with buff-brick buildings of an era anyone who studied at Monash or Macquarie will recognise. The site is dotted with magnificent old River Red Gums, landscaped beautifully, and also has another layer of life as a massive sculpture garden.
But one of its most famous features is the Moat, which flows through to the lakes south of campus, circling the buildings and grounds. It’s the vital link in the waterways between Darebin Creek and Greswell nature reserve, and it is – normally – a legendary part of campus life. There’s an amphitheatre overlooking the moat, an annual Moat theatre festival, a running track alongside it, picnic tables and lawns and community garden, and different disciplines use it for applied work – studying water quality or aquatic life, regenerating plants or whatever those mysterious science people do, wading about with equipment and serious faces. In the early years, it used to host boat races and all kinds of high-jinks, but I think the water quality studies may have put paid to that. (I just made that bit up.)
It’s quiet today. It’s a rainy weekend, and anyway we’ve been locked down for months now, so there’s hardly anyone here most of the time. Some students are still living on campus and I feel for them – it is usually alive and filled with people, cafes open and the evenings filled with the thunk of tennis balls and distant laughter. But not now. I walk along the gravel path, slippery after the rain. There are a few cyclists, the odd jogger, all probably passing through from nearby suburbs.
Here the water is edged, in some places with bluestone blocks, and guided on its way. I’m on the lookout for ducklings, but today they’re hiding. Coots scud along, heads bobbing back and forth like pistons. I creep up on a turtle warming itself on a rock – I think it’s an Eastern Long-Necked (or snake-necked) turtle, and I’m told they can walk for miles and miles.
This one has no interest in moving anywhere. Two more surface in the water nearby, and – at the risk of anthropomorphising them – kiss. Then all three spot me at once, and vanish, leaving me, and the water, and the sky.
As it happens today is also about Walking the Land’s Watermark project, an international collaboration about walking and making art. So I’ve joined in, to be part of a (sort of) synchronised walking and making moment, this month on the theme of flow.
Today is about starting, about walking, and about flow.
I walk the long way around. No short-cuts today. In fact, I squelch my way along the creek bank. It rained yesterday and overnight, so the creek is way up, flowing fast, and my feet slip on muddy gum leaves. There’s nobody else here. I spot a Noisy Miner tucked into a nest, a lone currawong, and red wattle birds sweeping. Frogs fall silent when they hear my footsteps.
On the far bank, someone stands alone in the bush practising on their trumpet, the notes long and low over running water.
It’s spring here – tadpole season, or Poorneet in the Wurundjeri calendar, as I have only recently learned. The wattle blossom is finishing – even the Prickly Moses is browning off – and the leaf tips show bright new growth.
It takes me a while to reach the corner where Nangak Tamboree meets the Banyule North grasslands. I wander along the creek a little further and then uphill to the Sports Field Lake (which really needs a more glamourous name). And there, in spite of the mud and the little black ants, I sit at the water’s edge and watch and listen and write.
There’s no flow in me right now, but that’s fine. There’s flow in the water, the reeds, the swooping swallows, and the wind flicking at the eucalyptus leaves. I listen.
A pukeko (or Purple Swamp Hen) flies ungainly as a freight plane across the lake and crash lands in the reeds. Welcome Swallows dip and arc. Gulls croak high up and gather on the footy ground, before someone startles them and they scatter, screeching.
Things I don’t know today:
What is the roaring overflow thing in the middle of the lake?
How old is the lake and is it man-made?
What did it look like before?
Where are my binoculars?
How will I write this place? Can I?
There is a flock of fairy wrens skittering about me as if I’m not here. I stay still, and I’m so busy watching them I’m not looking at the lake when an enormous fucking fish leaps out of the water and splashes back down – I see a glimpse of white belly and white water. That’s all. The water subsides until its skin is still unless rippled by light.
This is the edge of the place I’ve chosen to write. From today on, I’m going to come and write around here somewhere every day for a month. But don’t worry: sitting and staring and cataloguing birds is going to get very dull very fast, for all concerned. Every day will be different. I don’t know how yet. I’m trying not to plan it, or not to do too much research beforehand. I think of all the other people walking and creating today, finding watery edges and flows, capturing sensation and space. I wonder what they’ll make, where they are. I’m not sure, given the time zones, whether I’m ahead or behind. I’m on the other side of the world. I’m here, always here, in the same place – five kilometres from home, masked up – that I’ve been all through this lockdown, and the many lockdowns before that. But it’s still new to me, this place.
I walk some more, skirting around a section of grassland that is fenced off as part of the regeneration project, and climb up on to a tussock. This is not a wild place. It is edged by busy roads – I can hear the traffic murmur to the north – and factories – someone’s hammering somewhere – sports fields, schools and my own university. There’s a flash of red as someone ride by on the bike path. If you look in one direction you see only eucalypts and grasslands and the water. Turn your head, and there are gulls scattered across carefully mown fields, goal posts and floodlights and the silvery new stadium.
At my feet, wallaby grass but also dock and wild fennel. Nearby, in an area that looks like it’s been burned, blackberries are shooting up from the earth. The regeneration of this place is going to take a while.
This place was for millennia the home of the Wurundjeri willam people of the Kulin Nations, speakers of the Woi-Wurrung language, and it always will be. This country was never ceded.
I want to acknowledge that, before I start writing about Nangak Tamboree.
Nangak Tamboree (pronounced: nan-ynack tam-bor-ee) means respecting, sharing and looking after the waterway in the Woiwurrung language. The naming of Nangak Tamboree was a collaborative process with the traditional owners of the land where La Trobe University’s Bundoora campus now sits, through the Wurundjeri Woiwurrung Cultural Heritage Corporation and the University’s Indigenous Elder, Aunty Joy Murphy (University statement, 15 April, 2019).
For the Wurundjeri community the natural world is also a cultural world; therefore the Wurundjeri people have a special interest in preserving not just their cultural objects, but the natural landscapes of cultural importance. The acknowledgement of broader attributes of the landscape as cultural values that require protection (encompassing, among other things, a variety of landforms, ecological niches and habitats as well as continuing cultural practices and archaeological material) is essential to the identity and wellbeing of the Wurundjeri people.
The community is deeply involved in planning, naming, reimagining and regenerating the place that is called Nangak Tamboree, including conducting cultural burning as part of the regeneration process.
As I write and walk here I acknowledge this and honour the Wurundjeri people’s past and ongoing cultural connections to country, to building community, and to story. I promise not to harm this place, and to respect the incredible knowledge of Elders and experts like the Narrap Rangers involved in caring for country.
We’re still deep in lockdown here. I’m OK with that if it saves lives and keeps our vulnerable communities safe.
I’ve got four books and three papers to finish writing, we’re all working from home, and teaching online (at present, anyway) takes three times as long. But we wouldn’t want to be bored, would we?
I’m starting a new writing project. I don’t know yet how big it will be, or where it’ll go. It’s about water, and place, and walking in place – lately we haven’t been able to go more than five kilometres from home, although our circles are widening ever so slightly soon.
I’ve written more about it here. It’s called Nangak Tamboree.
So for the next month, I’ll be writing here more often and posting on Instagram, exploring in detail a place I normally charge by on my way to work.
Instead, I’ll be resting there a while, recording and scribbling, walking and watching.
One of my favourite events is on the horizon: the conference of the Historical Novel Society of Australasia. Very sensibly, it’s entirely online this year – an excellent bit of foresight on the part of the organisers since Sydney, Auckland and Melbourne are now all in lockdown and borders are closed.
And I’m going to be rather busy throughout. Here’s what I’m doing.
On 16 October, I’m running a full day Bootcamp for writers, focused on the processes of drafting and revising, and crafting the key elements of good historical fiction, with lots of exercises, tips and tools.
My Scrivener workshops appear now to be part of the fabric of these conferences, and this year it’s on again. We’ll learn the basics of this software program created especially for writing: what it does, and how to get the best out of it. October 22.
There are lots of great panels for people who love reading historical fiction, and terrific guests (including Geraldine Brooks!); and for writers – especially emerging and aspiring writers, there are workshops, online manuscript assessments, masterclasses and bootcamps run by some of my favourite people.
And the good thing is you can attend from anywhere, and in your pyjamas if you want.
The bad thing is you have to do your own catering.
But we’re so used to that now, aren’t we? Let’s hope by the conference after this one, we can all gather again in person.
Look, there was a moment there when we thought 2021 might start feeling a bit more normal.
We’ve been back in lockdown here the past few weeks, although things are easing now. And we’re watching with horror as the pandemic flares up in places all over the world, including some countries that have been able to keep it under control. But it simply will not behave. Pandemics are a bit like that.
So while it did seem as if writing workshops and author events here might start up again, it’s all still a little precarious. Writers festivals are exploring hybrid models of presenting events – some online, some in person, some a bit of both – but others have decided to postpone or cancel. It’s tough on everyone involved – and most are run or supported by volunteers. Thank you to all the organisations and bookshops and event organisers who have done so much to support writers and readers over this time.
But now for the good news. Here’s what I have coming up soon:
WordFest 2021: The Hidden History of Women
I’m hosting a keynote panel in Monash Library Service’s WordFest, featuring authors Michelle Scott-Tucker, Mirranda Burton and Dr Victoria Grieve-Williams. The panel will look at different perspectives on the history of Australia, from early colonisation through to the present day.
I’m delighted to be back teaching face-to-face (we hope) at Writers Victoria this year. My next workshop will be on creating characters (in any genre). Here’s the blurb:
No matter what genre we write or read, our focus is on the people on the page, and what they do and feel. So how do we create characters who feel like people in our heads – and in the minds of our readers? In this workshop, we’ll aim to give you some essential techniques and the tools to create characters your readers will remember.
I am absolutely delighted to announce that Deux Dames Entertainment and Black Magic have optioned my novel Goddess for the screen.
Deux Dames is a production company founded by actor/producers Vera Bulder and Clara McGregor to create women’s stories, and Greg Lauritano and his company Black Magic make independent films including the recent Big Gold Brick (with Andy Garcia, Megan Fox, Lucy Hale and Oscar Isaac). They imagine Goddess as a limited series.
So everyone who’s been hanging out for a biopic about Julie d’Aubigny – it’s one or hopefully several steps closer.
In this, the third of the Chronicles, Christopher faces life in London after D-Day, when Hitler’s dreaded secret weapons – V1 and V2 rockets – blasted the city. But he has his own private challenges too, racing across time to discover the secret of the Roman ring he found in the Thames, and to help his friends uncover an ancient temple. It seems simple enough to slip through time back to Roman London, rally his own ragtag troops through the centuries, and beat his arch-enemy Brother Blowbladder. But mastering the power of the ring is never easy.
I’m delighted to announce that for the past few months I’ve been collaborating with the lovely Sharmini Kumar (organiser of AustenCon, and writer of several theatre adaptations of Jane Austen novels) on an Austen-inspired novel.
We think it will be called FINE EYES: CAROLINE BINGLEY, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR. We are well into research, drafting, and complicated crime plotting.
We’ve been having so much fun writing Regency crime together, it may even be a series.