Above: Jodie Clarkson (holding up the book), Therese Ryder and David Woods at the launch of Ayeye Thipe-Akerte: Arrernte stories about birds.
By KIERAN FINNANE
At the recent NT Writers Festival someone asked biologist and author Tim Low how to be a good naturalist. He said, in a word, “community”. He was talking about us tuning into the life of birds, for instance, as part of the life of our community.
A book by well-known watercolour landscape artist, Therese Ryder, launched at the festival, imparts this sense.
Her book is titled Ayeye Thipe-Akerte: Arrernte stories about birds. It consists of 31 full-page colour reproductions of charming watercolour paintings showing one bird species at a time, and on the facing page, a bilingual text, naming the birds, describing them, noting some of their characteristic behaviour and with regard to many, whether or not they are a food for Arrernte people.
Birds are a new subject for the painter. She renders them communicative and characterful, in the landscape, poised for interaction and reaction, with and to their fellows but also with and to us … if we are open to it.
This was certainly the way she talked about birds at the launch.
Angepe – crow
“When you hear crows talking, maybe early in the morning, you think they are making a crying sound. That’s when you know you are going to get some bad news or something. That happened to me three times.”
They are not exclusively associated with bad news, however. In the book, she describes them as “caring birds – they hang around people and if they see something dangerous they warn you.”
Nyingke – zebra finches
“The ones with red beaks, they show you water … You might go too far out from the camp and you run out of water, you come across little finches out bush and you follow them, you know, to see where they fly.
“They might come down on to a tree and sit down. You stand and watch them and you might see them flying down onto the ground. That’s telling you that there’s water, maybe a spring or a rock hole where you find water.”
Artetyerretyerre – willy wagtail
In Arrernte this bird “sings its own name”, as Jodie Clarkson noted during her launch conversation with Mrs Ryder. And it’s another messenger.
“You know that winter’s coming,” said Mrs Ryder. But the message can also be more particular. She told a story about sitting in her house one afternoon, painting. Her cousin came to visit, with two little granddaughters in tow. They kept running in and out of the house, distracting her, until eventually her cousin took them home. It was just before sundown and a willy wagtail was outside flying around.
“I was sitting down on my own. I could hear the willy wagtail talking, talking non-stop. I thought there must be something outside, a snake or something, a rat or something.
“I better go and look, find out. I went through the corridor to the laundry. That laundry door was wide open and it was very dark outside. That little willy wagtail was singing out to me, telling me the door was open!
“Then I talked to him about it, ‘Thank you for reminding me!’
“When I shut the door, he flew away.”
Artewe – Australian Bustard
Arrernte people would never eat a willy wagtail, not so the Australian bustard or bush turkey – the favourite bird meat of many, including Mrs Ryder.
Said Ms Clarkson: “You’ve captured its habitat, its country, its apmere, and you’ve also captured its personality – how it’s feeling right now, it knows Therese is coming!”
Seeing each bird in its home makes for a different experience from a Western bird book where, as Ms Clarkson noted, you see “a perfect example of a bird, just sitting in a white empty space”, Mrs Ryder’s images show “how it’s all connected”, bird and country.
Mrs Ryder grew up on Todd River Station, in Eastern Arrernte lands, where she started learning about birds and country as a child.
“I used to walk around with my uncle and family, go out bush, see different birds at times, and ask my old people the names, they would tell me … those other ones there, they’re not food.”
The eggs though she might have eaten: “As kids, you know, you eat anything.”
She became interested in painting at school, in Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte). She started off doing sketches on slate, then on paper with crayons, moved on to coloured pencils and then artists’ paints.”
She paints with Iltja Ntjarra / Many Hands Art Centre “the home of the Namatjira watercolour artists”, but when she started painting at school, she didn’t know anything about “old Namatjira” – “I didn’t know he was a great artist.”
Later on she found out that he was a distant uncle on her mother’s side.
She made her book principally for younger Arrernte children but also for anyone else who is interested in learning, about birds and about her native language. (In a companion App Mrs Ryder reads the stories aloud.)
It has been a collaborative effort, working alongside linguist Margaret Carew from Batchelor Institute and supported by the Arrernte Language Office at the Desert People’s Centre – a place where people can meet and work on language projects.
Dr Carew couldn’t be at the launch but was with Mrs Ryder in spirit – “a bit like how I always think about you, every time I here tyewaketye (babblers) jumping around and carrying on outside my window, or when I hear angepe (crow) calling in the morning before dawn and remember the family members who have left us.
“And when I sit at work sometimes late in the day, I hear irrarnte (black cockatoo) as they settle in for the night. When I hear them I think about how beautiful they are with their glossy black and red tail feathers. I also wonder what they taste like because this is one of the birds you like to eat.
“I’ve learned so much about many things working with you on this project. You’ve been a patient language teacher and you’ve always taught me how to see things through your eyes.”
This is the gift of Mrs Ryder’s book. As David Woods – longtime friend and another of her appreciative Arrernte language students – said: “Let it fly!”
UPDATE June 13:
Dear Ms Finnane,
These are my favourite little brown avian warriors of the Melbourne CBD.
Tough little urban survivors.
That’s a bit of their native tucker down in the bottom left corner of the pic.