Portland Jones, author of Only Birds Above, on why she writes about animals
In Only Birds Above Arthur Watkins, is a blacksmith serving with the 10th Light Horse Regiment in the Middle East during World War I. When he returns home without his horse – the companion he’s worked alongside for four years – he is a man forever changed by what he has seen and suffered. In this piece author Portland Jones, explains why animals are so central to her storytelling.
I’ve never really been interested in space travel.
Why travel to far away galaxies looking for sentient beings when there’s an entire universe of sentience right here? From the wedgetail eagle I see almost daily with her enormous wings spread out against the sky or the pair of magpies patiently teaching their babies to hunt dung beetles, I’m just as fascinated and in awe of the animals that surround me even after a lifetime spent amongst them.
I’m a horse trainer by trade, but I’ve trained lots of different animals, including camels, cats, goats and elephants.
Training an animal is a bit like trying to tune a radio. In the beginning all you hear is white noise and the crackle of static but then, suddenly, you find the right frequency and there’s a moment of absolute clarity. Whether it’s a young horse calmly accepting a rider for the first time or a feral camel quietly stepping towards their handler, that moment is always profound to me. That is the moment when the enormous divide between our two species is small enough to span with a gentle stroke on the neck or a handful of barley.
Moments spent observing animals can be profound, too.
I once watched a rehabilitating peregrine falcon stoop [dive] from altitude onto a lure which was little more than a chicken wing swung on a long line of synthetic chord. I’ll never forget the whistling sound of the air over her feathers at over 150 kph and the sight of that small feathered missile fulfilling the instincts and abilities bestowed upon her by millions of years of evolution.
You never have to look for poetry when you’re amongst animals.
Witnessing a humpback whale breaching at the Abrolhos Islands was like watching a multistory mammalian skyscraper toppling into the ocean, all grey bulk and a wake that would have challenged a small boat. An imprinted barn owl returning to his handler was so silent that he emerged whitely from the darkness as if conjured to the handler’s glove by magic. And manta rays off the coast of Indonesia flew through the water like giant birds, sweeping close to check us out as we snorkelled beside them. Or the rainbow lorikeets bathing in my garden, their bodies blocks of raucous colour as impossible as a child’s painting.
But perhaps for me the most compelling reason to write about animals is because of what they can teach us.
Their lives are like ours in fast forward, speeding past in a fraction of our human life span. In our position as caretakers we watch their lives unfold and cannot help but be reminded that nothing is forever, no matter how much we wish it could be.