Lyrebird! A True Story

Book by Jackie Kerin; illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe (Museum Victoria 2012).

Which Australian bush-bird announces itself not only through strutting, dancing and unfurling a feathered fan, but also lustrous sounds? On a flower farm in the Dandenong Ranges, South-East Australia 1930’s, gardener Edith Wilkinson befriended a Superb Lyrebird, who performed on her verandah rail for birdwatchers and ornithologists from around the world. She called him James. The pair turned up in The Age newspaper 1932 and a book by Ambrose Pratt (journalist, author, adventurer and at the time, president of the Royal Zoological Society of Victoria), entitled The Lore of the Lyrebird, 1933, reaching us through storytelling by Jackie Kerin, who garnered an award at Woodford Folk Festival, after which filmmaker Malcolm McKinnon made Edith’s Lyrebird into a short film with old black & white photographs of early settlement in the Dandenongs and associated footage, or should I say plumage. So it was surprising to open Jackie’s finished book and find… an explosion of colour! Tasmanian illustrator Peter Gouldthorpe responded to Edith’s “cut flower and foliage farm”. Those blooms united bird with gardener. Proximity to the earth – time Edith spent cultivating her patch – opened opportunities to notice, hear and befriend her native resident. Freshly turned soil and attentiveness forged a sanctuary. I first heard this tale in the form of Jackie’s original prose and rhyming verse, as one might have heard Banjo Patterson recite his ballad of another Aussie mountain phenomenon, brumbies. Jackie’s poetry is integrated in the book, though prose and dialogue prevail: “Then he flipped his tail over his head, and with a shimmy and a shake, he began to sing. Mr Pratt scribbled in his notebook, trying to keep up with the songs… Only when the last notes had faded, did Mr Pratt wipe the tears from his eyes. ‘By jingo, I am a happy man! I have been entertained with imitations of all the sweetest warblers of the forest!’ ” (p. 25). Story & pictures intersperse with diary entries, letters, postage stamps, or brown & white sketches like pages torn from a notebook, pinned to a board, reminiscent of Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy books by Terry Jones and Brian Froud, or Edith Holden’s The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Jackie’s photos of gardens around Olinda invigorated research; Museum Victoria provided rare books and specimens, enabling Jackie and Peter to evoke birdlife and 1930’s birdwatching, or links between mating & moulting and seasonal rhythm of mountains. A chart identifies birdlife that lyrebirds imitate, e.g. Pilotbird, Red Wattlebird, Golden Whistler, Laughing Kookaburra, Spotted Pardalote, Magpies, Wrens, Robins and Cockatoos, alongside horticulture. Reflecting on a lyrebird’s mimicry, it’s apt that a writer depicting one is a storyteller, accomplished in the oral tradition.

Jackie’s impersonations echoes her narrative flair in print: