June 2005

Arts & Letters

‘Birds of Australia’s Top End’ by Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow

By James Bradley

Early on in these pages, Denise Goodfellow marks out some territory. Relating her Aboriginal sister’s reaction to a picture of a cassowary (“What’s this? Different emu?”), she declares: “Rather mischievously I did consider adopting the classificatory methods of my Kunwinjku relatives. But I didn’t think twitchers would approve.”

For the uninitiated, twitchers – an amalgam of “tick” and “watch” – are the sort of birdwatchers for whom neither cost nor distance stands in the way of their ultimate goal of seeing every living bird. They are also, or so the caricature goes, the sort of people who care less about the birds and more about the quest. Goodfellow, by contrast, sees birdwatching as part of a broader environmental awareness, no more or less important than recognising spiders – about which she has also written – or the way the cycle of the seasons interacts with the landscape.

Birds of Australia’s Top End positions itself as a different sort of guidebook. It is grounded in the specialist knowledge of the scientist, in Goodfellow’s own experience and also, intriguingly, in the knowledge of her adopted Aboriginal people, the Kunwinjku, whose names and stories are wound through the more conventional aspects of the text. The result is a book that, despite Goodfellow’s occasionally awkward asides, presents a way of glimpsing not only birds but the landscape itself through different eyes.

James Bradley

James Bradley is an author and a critic. His books include WrackThe ResurrectionistClade and Ghost Species.

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