The Night Parrot. The psycho-geography of the landscapes she may exist in.
A film work in progress
...notes from a presentation at the symposium "Where are we? Visual cultures of place-making in a precarious age"
Australian National University, Canberra.
i tend to follow deranged timelines... i cant help this. its the way i am. so i must warn you against becoming too caught up in the chronology of events…there are different versions of time operating in this enquiry.
2 years ago i set out on a quest to film stories of the night parrot.
the night parrot. she was the thylacene of the air. a grail bird. a unicorn of the darkness. the explorers called her “solitaire”. a nocturnal unobtainable parrot which the smithsonian had declared her the worlds most mysterious bird.
i first heard of her when i was chasing locusts in western queensland…the good old days. she reappeared in my life again three years ago when i read a book by dal stivens called horse of air about a mad search for her. by this time i was a filmmaker and perhaps somewhat perversely i was attracted to the cinematic impossibilities of the night parrot…her emblematic status as a creature on the cusp of extinction. others had been similarly inspired, from writers like xavier herbert, dal stivens, poets, dorothy porter, john kinsella, artists, sidney nolan, fiona hall, linda davy.
it may have been the fault of a book…dal stivens wrote horse of air. about a mad obsessed search for the night parrot. and paralleling my own neuroses, stiven’s main character, says, in an internal voice says “ i sometimes questioned myself about my motives.. as i had done for some years. why was i committed to this business…was it exhibitionism ? there were easier ways. was i deliberately courting failure ? after all the bird had not been seen for fifty years (the book was written some fifty years ago)…”Why this absurdity?”. I came up with no answer except”…and here stivens hesitates. eloquence of expression fails him…he grasps…sounds trite… i too can come up with nothing better…at least in words that could be transcribed and cemented in some notional present…a plaque. that is the problem with words when they are used in that way…the answer always is going to sound glib, a lie almost.
Stivens driven by a sense of mortality…concludes a long internal interrogation…”at my centre is a despair and a passion for the something that I seek”
in my mind i had thought that the night parrot was the jiminy cricket of the anthropocene...a conscience for our times. and its mythical status meant that i would not be bound by scientific actualities, as it had not been categorically seen since the beginning of last century….well its a myth still. as soon as i set off to film a 'night parrot story', a mythical unicorn, it actually it turned up. the night parrot was filmed by john young somewhere and somehow in western queensland. i thought there goes the premise to my film. but as i met with john and heard his story i continued. it was a good story and he initially was friendly and wanted to share it with me. but after flying to and fro across Australia to meet john he abruptly refused to be part of the film and threatened in his words “to put my lights out”. i had crossed some boundary of trust with him from which there was no going back. he seemed to believe i was out to reveal his secret…i assured him i was not. its not terribly more complicated than that…but it tells you something of the nature of the ethology of the night parrot story. i had approached to close to some else’s ownership of it. I leave john to tell his story how he likes to tell it. there are other things involved here.
… i was encouraged by discussions with kim mckenzie. we had thought about doing a similar film together. at kim’s suggestion we were going to call it “my bloods country” and it was going to be a film about islands of sanity amidst the madness created by the capitalist juggernaut. we never got to make that film but 18 months ago i secured funding funding from screen australia to make a film “of national significance” on the night parrot and mitzi, my wonderful producer, is here today to see for the first time what i have been spending your money on. sadly kim is no longer here to confer with.
So I had it all mapped out. I would travel to western queensland and then meander along the tropic of capricorn to the northern territory, western australia and finally down through south australia. i would visit known night parrot locations and document stories.
Here is the glossy coffee table explanation which you can read during the coffee break if you are interested...this magazine has become something of a night parrot artefact...its covered in kangaroo tail fat and billy grease from being handled by so many people.
This resurrection last year fits certain pathologies that run as a subtext through stories of the night parrot….a tendency for stories having dubious provenance…and i now am even less at ease with the old dispensations and the certainties of such stories…the poor night parrot’s contemporary representations in the human world.
now, at two thirds of the way through the australian filming (yes there is an international perspective to the night parrot) i am pretty sure the night parrot found last year was not the night parrot i was ended up searching for.
in short the film is becoming something other than what i had initially imagined. timelines are becoming seriously deranged. the land the land that i have travelled over is becoming a character...its affect on me is the thing that i have found interesting...what Conrad calls “the power of the land itself”.
in the course of the journey the landscapes turned from exteriors to interiors. funnily enough by the end of my odyssey through the deserts of australia there was nothing that i could not attribute in someway to the presence or absence of the night parrot. “night parrot” situations, as i started to think of them, unfolded mostly in the daylight, but they are framed by a darkness. strangely my insomnia, which had grown steadily worse before my departure, improved and i found myself welcoming the night. my diaries became my intimate companions. perhaps in the same way that the diaries of the early explorers must have done, as they moved away from the outposts of the frontier into the unknown. i imagine they were often besieged by self doubt and felt very alone with their ideas and permanently lost and always considering their options of retreat. This is something that i could relate to. but i lacked the sense of imminent death that must have hung over their every day decisions. I had a gps, a sat phone and an ELT. My main worry was how to populate the film. so if found myself seeking not the night parrot but people.
There were several strange encounters invoked by the night parrot. I will give you one real life example. I was driving down a street in Wiluna in western australia. i had just arrived there after a week on the badly corrugated dirt roads from alice springs 2000 kilometers behind me. i had never been to wiluna before and new no one. Two aboriginal women walking down the road catch caught the clearly lost look in my eye as i slowly drove around town finding my bearings. they motion me to stop. before i say anything their first words to me are “are you looking for the night parrot”. i asked them how they new. to them i must have looked like the other unicorn hunters who had gone before me. but who were those others?
i cant really explain such outbreaks of serendipity and foretelling, but these things happen when you focus long enough on such a singular subject i suppose.
Later I come to know these ladies. They are Lena and Rita who introduce me to Ulila, a man who came out of the gibson desert when he was in his early 20s. the three of them take me for a week long trip to look for the night parrot on their country in the carnarvon ranges 300 km north of wiluna. Ulila tells me a dreaming story in martu of the night parrot which sounds very old testament. it is the story of a banishing. the night parrot for its transgressions must live forever in the darkness and the spinifex, but it is us banishing it.from the night parrot’s perspective it could easily be seen as a rejection. but that again would be me imposing an idea. i understand the reality is that western civilisation could not register in its concept of the world, except as some sort of unexplainable apocalyptic force…
i continue to record other similar stories in walpiri, arande, wangkanguru and pitjanjara languages.
Aboriginal people seemed to relate easily relate to my quest. there seemed an inevitability to my arrival...as if “oh i am surprised it took you so long to ask...of course there is the night parrot”. they could have been humouring me initially, but i tried to stay long enough for folk to take me seriously.
However for most of the western people i met i found i had to really explain myself ...usually to the point of over explaining. going back over the public story of the night parrot...its public official timeline and why i was doing what i was doing. they would sense my lack of clear purpose...... “well i am not actually looking for it, i am here to record stories of the night parrot”. this generally invoked a discussion of some sort but as the trip wore on i became aware that you impose the idea of the night parrot onto the world at your psychological peril. i really tried to think how i could reframe my opening gambit “oh i am here to record stories of the night parrot” !
how on earth can anyone really engage with such a strange tale and such a creature? and even more improbably how can you create a film around such things...its a creature of the night and as one cocky said to me “you know it gets awful dark out here at night time”. Robert Bresson cautioned filmmakers to “avoid subjects that too vast or too remote, in which nothing warns you when you are going astray” ...but he went on to say “or else take from them only what can be mingled with your life and belongs to your experience”
so i return to my life from the odyssey...back to this meta-frame.
both paul carter and john kinsella make strong arguments against using the parrot as a ‘signifier’, a cliche and this i agree with. any thing that comes to represent a trope of national identity, of place, or is cast as a spokesperson for other endangered creatures...the greater plight.
the poor thylacene i think has fallen into that characterisation. as much as i like the idea of the night parrot as the jiminy cricket of the anthropocene i don't need to cast her as a signifier for human foibles.
Paul Carter in his book “Parrot” points out that “the significance of parrots is not that they signify this or that failure of the collective imagination. It lies in showing how that collectivity of representations is constructed ands sustained...
I would like to show you some glimpses of some “night parrot” situations that i found myself in. when i intermittently came within coverage the outside world would crash randomly into my night parrot reverie, affecting my attempts at “a collectivity of representations”, but such contemporaneous events made their appearance in my diaries next to the situations and places i found them in. this is a first audition of some ideas that are very provisional. they are an attempt at a personal response...recreating in cinema something of the character of the lands of the night parrot and my place amongst them. (thank you Hillary our choreographer).