The Tern

When it comes to environmental change, can good storytelling play a role in shifting behaviour and mindsets? In Tony Birch's The Tern, the migratory patterns of the Arctic Tern play a part in a deeply human story.

Birch encourages others to place themselves within the narrative, photographing the sky above their houses to capture footage of the tern flying above them. "If you walk out your door one day and suddenly notice there are no birds in the sky, then you will know it," Birch says. "We always know something once it has been lost."

For more than a year now my elderly neighbour, Jack, has been sorting through his life and getting rid of his stuff. While we’re not family, and have known each other for just a couple of years, a lot of what he has no more use for has come my way.

He began with hardback copies of The Encyclopaedia of Australian Tractors and Tractors and Modern Agriculture. He offered them to me one sunny morning as we were talking across the scraggy hedge of lavender that passes for the fence separating us.

Jack knows his tractors and loves talking about them. Had he been a contestant on the old Mastermind television quiz, tractors would surely have been his ‘special subject’. Jack spent his working life selling tractors across Victoria in partnership with his twin brother, Ronnie. They set up the business together and a couple of years later married girls from their hometown – in the same church and on the same day. They’d also planned to retire to a pair of neighbouring beach blocks on the west coast. But just a few months before they were to quit the business, the ute Ronnie was driving was washed from a bridge during a flood while he was trying to cross a swollen river out the back of Colac. While the battered wreck eventually turned up a few miles downstream from the scene of the accident, Ronnie’s body was never found.

Even though he missed Ronnie greatly, Jack went ahead with his retirement plan just the same, while Ronnie’s widow sold their block to ‘some city type’, as Jack dismissively referred to him. Although the ‘city type’ built a house next door to Jack, he rarely visited it over the following years before putting it on the market.

I bought the house from Ronnie’s widow with the dream of fixing it up in between writing the great novel. But I’ve done little work on the house since moving in, and have scratched out no more than a few paragraphs.

In addition to his books on tractors Jack has also been handing his old tools across the hedge to me. To be honest they’re of as much use to me as the books on tractors. It is not that I don’t appreciate Jack’s generosity, but I couldn’t bang a nail straight to save myself.

Jack has taken great care of his tools. The oiled metal surfaces are rust free, while the wooden handles have been worn smooth by the years of use. Although I don’t expect I will do anything with them, each offering, be it a shovel, a hammer or a variation on the basic hand saw has been added to a collection I keep in the room behind the kitchen that overlooks the back yard.

It is also the room where I do my writing. Or to be exact, it is where I am supposed to spend my day writing.

I begin what I misguidedly refer to as my ‘writing day’ at my desk, armed with a cup of tea and some inspirational music – my ‘writing music’, as I optimistically refer to it. My working morning, which is not at all long, alternates between staring at the computer screen and then out of the window, to an overgrown garden badly in need of the attention I am unable to give it, as I am busy with my writing.

After an hour or so, sometimes less, I realise that today is not a good day to write. So I get up from my desk, leave the house and walk to the bottom of the garden. I then slip through the gap in the fence and head for the beach.

Had he been a contestant on the old Mastermind television quiz, tractors would surely have been his ‘special subject’.

When I began my daily walks to the beach Jack was always alongside me. Actually it was Jack who showed me the secret pathway, hidden beneath a mass of tea-tree just over my back fence. And it was Jack who guided me along the pathway to the beach, where he shared a second secret with me.

On the morning of that first walk I had just given up on another writing session when Jack found me pacing the front garden. I was on a search, not a story, but a humble sentence, or a single word perhaps that might get me started.

‘Hey ya, son,’ he waved across the hedge to me.

Sure that there had to be something troubling a man beating a track into his yard, Jack walked around the hedge, blocked my path and asked if he could help. When I explained that I was reasonably certain that I had contracted writer’s block he looked me in the eye, both puzzled and concerned.

‘Writer’s block?’ he repeated to himself several times. ‘Never heard of it. What is it?’

‘Well, Jack. It’s like having a problem that you can’t sort out. Or an idea you’re looking for. An idea with words. But words you can’t find.’

Jack’s eyes lit up, confident he had a solution.

‘Well, you’ve got it half right, trying to work through your problem with a walk. I do that. Take a walk and sort the head out. But going round and round in circles? That’s not good for you. You’ve got to walk in a straight line.’

He waved in the direction of the low hills behind our neighbouring homes. ‘A straight line, son. A straight line.’

He then coaxed me down to the bottom of his garden and pointed to a two-paling gap in the fence behind his shed.

‘I have thought about putting a gate in here,’ Jack explained to me as we climbed through the fence. ‘It would be easier than doing this every morning. But to tell you the truth, it wouldn’t be as much fun. Makes me feel like a bit of a kid.’

I could see a narrow track ahead of us, disappearing beneath a canopy of tea-tree. I walked behind Jack, along a shaded track that rose sharply, reached a ridge and then sloped gently down to the beach between sand hills and waves of golden grass.

The Arctic Tern,’ he explained as he walked on. ‘It’s a bird. A courageous little bird.’

Jack waited for me on the beach as I crossed a strip of sand littered with straps of leathery kelp. We took our time as we walked on, chatting and stopping occasionally to admire the dazzling colours in the rock pools between the beach and the ocean. As Jack identified each species of fish weaving through the forests of seaweed I felt like a boy trailing joyously behind his father.

We had walked for maybe a half hour when Jack left the beach and headed into the grass. He walked about thirty metres and then stopped. He nodded in the direction of a shallow depression in the ground.

‘There it is.’ He pointed to the spot we were both staring at, although I had no idea what I should be looking for.

Jack’s eyes widened. ‘Well, what do you think?’

I again looked at the flattened bed of grass. ‘What do I think about what, Jack?’

If he’d heard my question he ignored it.

‘Every summer, they come. Have been since I’ve had my place. And thousands of years before that, I’d reckon.’

‘Who comes, Jack?’

‘Not who, son. What. The Tern.’

He said those words – The Tern – quietly and calmly, like I should know, without question, what he was referring to.

Jack then turned around and started back along the beach. He surprised me by breaking into a jog.

I ran after him. ‘A Tern, Jack? What is it?’

He stopped on the beach as he took a deep breath.

‘The Arctic Tern,’ he explained as he walked on. ‘It’s a bird. A courageous little bird. It comes right here, to this beach every summer, from the top of the world, from the Arctic Circle. 20,000 miles it flies, to get here. And then later on in the year it flies back again. Same distance. Most people never get to see the bird. Spends most of its life in the air.’

I looked across the ocean to the horizon, and then up at the empty sky. ‘Must be a big bird, Jack, to fly all that way?’

‘Na,’ he scoffed. ‘Wingspan’s maybe a foot across, a bit more. And the bird itself,’ Jack clenched his gnarled fist, ‘not much bigger than this.’

I whistled with admiration. ‘So you’ve seen it then, Jack? The bird?’

He looked at me and softened his face but said nothing more.

As we headed home I occasionally looked over my shoulder to the clear morning sky as I asked him more questions about the bird.

‘From the Arctic Circle, Jack? How do they get here?’

‘They fly,’ he laughed.

‘But how, Jack? How do they know where they’re going?’ I again stared out to the horizon. ‘All that way.’

He stopped and put a hand on my shoulder. I was surprised by the strength of his grip.

‘They remember, son. That’s how. It takes them months to get here. I read it up. Scientists have tracked that bird to every stop along the way.

Same place every year, they stop. They never forget where they’ve been, or where they’re heading. That’s their secret. Never forget. Remember that, son.’

He again gripped my shoulder. ‘And you know what else?’

He waited for an answer from me, but I didn’t have one. ‘What else, Jack?’

His eyes glowed with sheer pleasure.

‘They live a long life, for a bird that is. More than twenty years, some of them. All that flying, you’d think it would wear them out. But it doesn’t. All their strength comes from that flying. And another thing. Over all that time, they mate for life. They fly all over the world to the same place and the same mate, every year. What about that, hey?’

After we had slipped back through the fence following our walk Jack invited me into his garden shed.

‘I’ve got something in here for you,’ he said, winking at me cheekily.

His shed was an exercise in order. A vast supply of nails, screws, and nuts and bolts were arranged in labelled glass jars along the back of a wooden workbench beneath a window looking onto the yard. His garden tools; shovels, rakes and picks of varying sizes stood to attention along one wall, while his saws, hammers and drills hung from brackets above the garden tools.

There was not a power-tool in sight.

Odd lengths of wood, some of them ‘rare finds’ according to Jack, lay on a raised open rack across the back of the shed. And below the collection of wood a second shelf had been neatly stacked with several dozen tins of paints and varnishes.

‘What are we looking for, Jack?’ I wondered aloud, as he rummaged around the shed.

‘My binoculars,’ he answered as he searched through a cardboard box marked ODDS AND ENDS in heavy lead pencil.

When he did not find his binoculars in the box Jack left the shed and returned with a wooden ladder. He rested it against the back wall and directed the end of the ladder to the top shelf, where a kerosene heater, more cardboard boxes and an old suitcase sat.

As he tested the sturdiness of the ladder I offered my services. ‘Can I help, Jack? Let me climb up there for you.’

He waved me away as he put a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder. He climbed up to the shelf and moved one of the cardboard boxes aside as he reached for a second box. As he did so the box cannoned into the suitcase. I jumped back as the case crashed to the floor.

‘Shit,’ Jack whispered to himself as he looked over his shoulder and down at the suitcase.

He searched through several more boxes before lifting a scuffed leather binocular case from one of them. He took the binoculars out of the case. ‘Here they are.’

I stood at the bottom of the ladder as he passed the binoculars down to me. They were in immaculate condition – the dark metal, the chrome, the glass lenses, each surface reflected the sunlight resting against the shed window.

Jack climbed down from the ladder and rested a hand on my shoulder. ‘When he heads back this summer, the Tern, you’ll be ready for him.’

I looked down at the glasses. ‘But what does he look like, Jack? I can’t tell one bird from another.’

Jack answered by handing me a book from a shelf above the workbench – Migratory Birds of the World. As I flicked through the pages he concentrated on the suitcase that had fallen to the floor. He picked it up by the handle and shook the case. I heard something rustling gently inside. I looked at Jack to see if he had heard it also.

He scratched his head. ‘What have we got here?’

He rested the case on the workbench, moved to unbuckle it and then hesitated for a moment before finally opening it. I moved closer to the workbench and looked down at the dazzling sequins sewn into the pure white fabric of what appeared to be a wedding dress.

Jack reached into the case and lifted the dress out. He nursed it in his arms like a newborn baby. ‘This is my wife’s wedding dress,’ he explained. ‘She’s been gone more than ten years now.’

He slowly circled the room, holding the dress to his body, as if he were waltzing with it. When I saw that he had tears in his eyes I walked out into the garden, leaving him alone.

When Jack eventually came out of the shed he invited me into the house. As we sat at a wooden table sipping mugs of sweet tea he talked about their forty-five marriage and his wife’s death after a short but painful illness.

‘All those years on the road, travelling from town to town. I should have been home with her. It was only after I’d lost her that I worked it out. We’d spent more time away from each other, more nights in those years in separate beds than where we should have been, in each others arms.’

I felt I should say something. I wanted to tell Jack that I was sure they had loved each other very much, and that their time together would more than have made up for the nights apart. But I couldn’t say it. I felt that I did not know him well enough to do so. And besides, we were men, so I said what was expected of men on such occasions.

‘You were out there working hard, Jack, for both of you. I’m sure she would have understood.’

He looked into the bottom of his mug as he thought about what I had said.

‘We both understood,’ he finally answered. ‘You might be right. But it changes nothing. Those nights apart add up to years of separation. Wasted years.’

It was early last Spring that I first noticed a change in Jack. I was at the mailbox one morning when he shouted out to me from across the hedge. ‘Ron! Hey Ronnie boy!’

He smiled and waved at me, before quickly looking away. He appeared confused and embarrassed. I walked around the hedge. Jack was scuffing the ground with the toe of his boot as he studied a bare patch of grass in his lawn.

‘Jack. Are you okay?’

He would not look up at me. ‘Yeah. I’m right, son. I was just thinking about something. Don’t you mind me. I’m just an old fool.’

In the following weeks I had to return several of Jack’s tools after he confided in me that he’d misplaced a hammer or saw – ‘I don’t want to be a nuisance but have you one I can borrow for a few days?’

I also noticed that he was slowing down, and walked down to the beach with me less often. When knocked at his door one morning in early summer, there was no answer from Jack. That had not happened before.

I made my way down to the gap in the back fence alone, with the binocular case hanging from a leather strap around my neck. When I reached the ridge above the beach I took the glasses out of the case and scanned the horizon. There were plenty of birds around, seagulls mostly, but no sign of Jack’s Arctic Tern.

Were Jack with me he would have asked, ‘Anything out there today?’

After I’d replied, as I always did, ‘nothing this morning, Jack’, he would have become momentarily disappointed before lifting his spirits. ‘Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.’

After searching the sky I walked down through the sand hills and along the beach to the spot where Jack was certain the bird would eventually return. It was not there. When I turned for home I noticed someone on the beach in the distance, walking away from me. Although I was surprised to spot his wiry frame I was certain it was Jack. I lifted the glasses. He was heading for the surf beach.

As I ran towards him I called out ‘Jack! Jack!’

He did not look around until I was almost alongside of him. He studied me closely, even a little suspiciously. ‘Ronnie? Ronnie?’ He took a step back. ‘Ronnie Boy? Well, I’ll be buggered. Where have you been all this time?’

I offered him an open hand. ‘Sorry, Jack, but I missed you this morning. Must have slept in. Come on. Let’s walk back to the house together.’

He searched along the beach, to where some teenage boys were laying on a grass embankment above the surf beach. With their dark wetsuits glistening in the sun they resembled a colony of seals.

Jack then turned and looked in the direction we had come from. He stared down at the sand, at the impression his footprints had made in the sand just a few minutes earlier. He followed their journey back along the beach as an incoming wave slid gently across the sand and swallowed them.

‘Home?’ He looked bewildered.

‘Yeah. Home, Jack. We should head back now.’

At that moment something fell into place for him. A look of confusion shifted to one of calmness, followed by a slight smile of recognition. He looked down at my open hand as if it were an unintended insult to his independence.

He brushed me aside. ‘Come on, son. I’ve got something to show you.’

Winter is coming and Jack has not walked on the beach with me since that morning. A little over a week ago I was on the track and heading for the beach when a storm hit. As the heavy rain soaked through my woollen jumper and baggy track pants I thought about retreating, or at least returning to the house for a raincoat. I briefly stopped on the track before deciding to go on.

The low sky over the horizon was bruised with heavy weather, while the rain, driven by a southerly gale, stung my face. Although there seemed little point in bothering to remove the binoculars from their case, I took them out anyway and went through the exercise of searching the horizon.

I firstly spotted a cargo ship, overladen with multi-coloured containers. The ship was being thrown around in the white-capped sea like a Lego model. It was not until I lifted the glasses to the sky that I caught a glimpse of a shadow against a cloud, and then the dark smudge of a bird.

Although it was only a brief sighting I immediately convinced myself that I had just seen the Tern. It was in my sights for just a few seconds before disappearing. Perched on the ridge, I scanned the horizon for another half hour or more, but did not see the bird again.

By the time I got back to the house I was wet to the bone and shivering with cold. I threw my clothes in the washer, took a shower and went over the thoughts that had occupied me on the walk home from the beach. After dressing I left the house and ran around the hedge to Jack’s front yard. I knocked at his door several times but he did not answer. I went back to the house and made myself a cup of tea. I then went into the lounge room and flipped through my CD collection until found some writing music – Iron and Wine.

I sat at my desk surrounded by the musty smell of tractor books and the oiled surfaces of metal and wrote the following words to myself:

The Tern has a sharp blood-red beak and wears a black hood with a white cap. When the Tern grazes in the grasslands and low dunes where it prepares its nest its true beauty remains hidden beneath a covering of dull grey feathers. But when it lifts it wings in flight, particularly when gliding, which it does to conserve energy, the bird exposes its translucent mix of rich colouring. The Tern is a bird of strength and beauty.

Portrait of Tony Birch

Related posts