Butler’s Swamp has gone. Confined, sanitized and renamed Lake Claremont, it has been incorporated into a ritzy housing subdivision with its own golf course.
I once covered every square foot of that old swamp in a tin canoe, exploring its reed beds and mud-bars, looking for water rats and reed-warblers’ nests and hoping against hope to encounter a norn – a black tiger snake – lying in wait for some unsuspecting frog. At dusk, squadron upon squadron of little black and little pied cormorants flew in from the Swan River to roost in the paperbarks and drowned gums. During the spring their untidy nests clung precariously to limbs along with those of herons and egrets, while along the shores and in the cumbungi and tree hollows, grebes, swans and ducks nested. There were quolls there in those days, living in the thick scrub and remnant gum forest, and the water abounded with snake-necked turtles and sooty grunter. On hot, summer nights, thousands of moaning frogs counted down the hours to dawn with their incessant “wh-o-o-o-ooooop, wh-o-o-o-ooooop”, sliding up the scale a tone and a half on the final “oop”.
Why am I telling you this? Well as anyone who has read or listened to any of my tales will tell you, my Celtic and Australian genes endow me with a propensity to approach every tale widdershins – this one doubly so. I was going to jump straight in, boots and all, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, and as is usually the case with me, one thing led to another. So to add insult to injury, I’m going to introduce the story with a poem – doggerel I suppose in some eyes but in the tradition of a bygone Australia – and allow the main narrative to writhe and bubble and smoke in my brain until I write the next instalment. It will be a story about Australian childhood, about backyards and swamps and sleepouts (that’s a noun) and chickens and pigeons, or at least in this stage of its fermentation it’s shaping that way. So here’s the introduction.
The Butler’s Swamp Pigeon Society
More than 50 years have flown, since the kids next door and me,
Formed ourselves a little club, with a membership of three;
We argued long about a name, all choices seemed to rub,
But the name seemed more important than a rulebook or the sub;
And so we tossed it back and forth in youthful anarchy,
Till we settled on The Butler’s Swamp, Pige-on So-cie-ty;
The rules were few and simple – no trouble to live by:
We’d breed the nicest birds we could, and let them out to fly.
Now the boys next door weren’t short of cash, their father ran a book*,
And their pigeon lofts were built to spec, whatever cash it took;
My birds, on the other hand, were in a hut of flattened tin,
That leaned against the bigger shed Ma did the laundry in;
But the BSPS didn’t care, about parental dough,
Or the cost of coops, the clothes you wore, it didn’t want to know;
It was pigeons first and pigeons last and pigeons do or die,
We lived our lives with pigeons, and we let them out to fly.
The breeding stock was varied, when first our club began,
Unusual colors, crests or muffs, that’s where the fancy ran;
One member bred just black and white, that’s all that he’d give space,
While the other two would argue that, all colors had their place;
We’d trap a few on railroad tracks, where we also scrounged for wheat—
Peas were hard-earned luxuries, kept to give a treat—
And trade for birds we really liked, ones that caught the eye,
Then wait impatient for the day, we could let them out to fly.
You’d do some fierce trading, for birds you liked back then,
One day I went to bargain for a pretty little hen;
A sort of dunnish-yellow with a dainty, rounded head,
A short, sharp beak and little muffs, a real knock-‘em dead;
She strutted round her owner’s loft, a kid from miles away,
His price, a dozen glassies†, he wasn’t there to play;
But I loved her from the moment that her antics caught my eye;
And I hoped she wouldn’t disappoint, when I let her out to fly.
I put her in a cardboard box and strapped it to my bike,
Then pedalled home like fury – about a ten-mile hike;
I couldn’t wait to get her back and lock her in a box,
With a red and black peak-crested mate, the favorite of my cocks;
And show her to the membership (who said that pride was sin?),
To recount the gripping story of the haggling and the win;
But right deep down inside my heart, and here I will not lie,
I knew I’d be a nervous wreck, when I let her out to fly.
And so at last the day came round, when the little hen,
Could go outside and stretch her wings in freedom once again;
I opened up the sliding trap to let the birds outside,
So they could climb and circle, in their world blue and wide;
And watched in nervous wonder as the kit began to climb
Led by the little yellow hen, that costly jewel of mine;
The other pigeons levelled out to circle in the sky,
But the little hen kept climbing, when I let her out to fly.
My heart was thumping in my chest, I thought that she was lost,
Returning to the other loft, where I’d bargained at such cost;
But as I watched she clapped her wings, and held them like a sail
Above her head, as she rocked back, while fanning out her tail.
She repeated the maneuver, three times or four in all,
Then like some magic clockwork toy, my hen began to fall;
She tumbled over backwards, dropping through the sky;
That bird was pure amazement when I let her out to fly.
And though the day’s so long ago, I still can see that hen,
Tumbling there above my yard, then climbing up again;
All through my life, it’s ups and downs, the wild times of my youth,
The birds have been a constant, a refuge and a truth;
When I am down or troubled and my spirit feels boxed in,
A kit of soaring pigeons can free it once again;
So when I leave this world I love, if you want to say goodbye;
Just watch a kit of tumblers, I’ll be with them as they fly.
*A licensed on-course bookmaker. My fellow-members’ father specialised in country race meetings. The “senior” member of the club was a budding artist and made good pocket money by accompanying his dad to the smaller race meetings and painting portraits of the winning horses.
†Marbles made of clear glass with a swirl of different color at the core; hard to come by and much-prized in the early 50s.
© Frank Povah, Stamping Ground KY USA