I didn’t understand why I was screaming. The air outside was clear, purified by the trees of outer Melbourne. The sunlight was pale and softly warm and the only formation I saw when I looked in the sky was pastel eucalyptus leaves. It was a promising day of early spring, relief for cold knuckles. What’s more, I was on borrowed time, it was the school Curriculum Day, a welcome event as year six was growing stale.
I was screaming on my best friend June’s eleventh birthday party. June and I and her other friend had walked in Velcro sneakers across gravel tracks. June’s sister and mother were also there, they had walked a different route.
Perhaps they could hear my screams from far away and wondered about safety, about murder in the bird sanctuary. It was strange of June, I think now, to have chosen a bird sanctuary as a party venue. But she was from a different era of youth, living a sundresses and lace gloves kind of childhood, where every turn held the possibility of magic trees. Nothing could touch her here.
June often made delicate pencil drawings of botanical specimens on the table her family used for breakfast. Her work was clean and neat and pretty. It was far removed from my own art, which had great grey charcoal smudges and impressionistic paint blobs with sticky tears marking all the times I closed my book before it was dry. The natural world was known to her, each line. It was orderly and safe and wondrously beautiful.
I just screamed. It was the birds that had disrupted my sleepy ease. My voice belonged to someone else. As an alto in the school choir, I had never experienced myself as shrill before—nor have I since. This noise, this eerie noise of mine, caused those around me to stare and I felt embarrassed. This noise, this sound of possession, was a visceral reminder of a fact from long ago that I had forgotten: I was afraid of birds.
The birds I frightened and that frightened me had been moving about on the branches of a tree before they flew away. They were rainbow lorikeets. They were not nest-proud magpies that swoop and steal shiny trinkets. They were not sulphur-crested cockatoos that sound like the warning trumpet of Armageddon. The lorikeets are sprightly, flying rainbows. They are absolutely non-threatening. Intellectually I recognise this, but when I get too close to a bird I feel existential terror. I cover my head with my arms and close my eyes. This is what phobia is.
After a few more screaming spells from me, we rejoined June’s mother and sister and headed to a bakery. I felt bad that I basically ruined my friend’s birthday party but given that it was 12 September 2001, my transgression felt relatively minor. The fact that June’s sister was there at all reflected the sombre occasion. She had already started high school and was not privy to the same, conveniently timed, day off as we were. Faced with the daunting prospect of school, she said that she couldn’t possibly get on with circle geometry and adverb circling. It just wouldn’t be right. So she saw some birds and ate a sausage roll instead.
I had felt some small trauma from the events of the night before. I watched it unfold live because my TV-viewing habits at age eleven largely conformed with those of a melancholic, unemployed adult. All Star Squares, Judge Judy, Oprah, literal advertorials and Channel Ten late night news. It was sunny still in New York when Sandra Sully narrated footage of a giant tower collapsing. I remember hating the pilot for stupidly hitting the building. As the second tower fell during the live crossover, I held to my conviction that it was all an idiotic accident. This type of thinking is naive and was totally characteristic of an eleven-year-old nineties child who had never heard of places such as Afghanistan, Sarajevo and Sudan.
Each pixel on my television screen contributed to an emerging impression of the world which involved smoke and rubble and death. Orderliness was never something I was any good at, but now it seemed like it had been an illusion all along. On TV and in my parents’ copies of the Herald Sun I witnessed an intense, monolithic grief that would not lift for months.
Looking back, I realise that there was little space to talk about this new realisation where everything I knew and felt and thought could come to nothing at any second. We were children. I think the adults around us thought that this big thing barely registered in our minds.
This may be a perfect context to develop a phobia. With the stress of a major world tragedy and without avenues to work through it, fear is a likely response. Given that my fear was an unwieldy one—the chaotic nature of the world—it needed to be contained in a particular object for me to get on with my non-bird-related activities. It’s only a small leap to link birds with planes anyway. Jets, after all, were modelled on the peregrine falcon because nature had already perfected flight.1
The links between a traumatic event and the object of fear may be even more tenuous than that. When my cousin was very small, she developed a phobia of a CGI character, ‘The Crazy Frog’, which was prominent on television ads at the time, advertising ringtones. She would have nightmares about this frog and couldn’t watch commercial television. Her fear seemed to emerge at around the time her house flooded. I knew another person who developed a fear of snakes while her parents were going through a divorce. A difficult context, mixed with genetic factors, as well as learned responses (for instance, you’re more likely to be arachnophobic if your parents were too), create these fear associations, or phobias.2
Moreover, I didn’t come to the bird sanctuary with a clean history. My screaming felt more like a reminder than a new discovery, after all. I’ve lived in places where the bush and the city intertwine and swooping season—around September—is to be observed. As a young child, I learned in a video the teachers played at school that birds don’t swoop you if you watch them. So, when you’re riding a bike, it’s a good idea to affix googly eyes on the back of your stack hat to trick them. I had also been swooped myself, while I was playing in a sandpit, at a park that no longer exists because of bushfires. There are plenty of incidents like these, incidents that plant seeds of fear. Bearing witness to the ferocity of birds has also left lasting impressions: the duck that once fashioned itself into an arrow and launched into a group of loud boys, the seagulls that mercilessly hunt for chips at the beach, and so on.
So while birds sublimate my wider existential fears, they aren’t arbitrary objects of the landscape ready for me to project onto. They are agents, fearful of the potential damage of humans, in need of food, protective of their babies. They, like me, confront the problem of survival. Although they, unlike me, need to work at survival.
People with phobias have animalistic reactions to modern situations. While all humans have survival instincts and structures of the brain and body to fight or flee, some humans are more sensitive to potential threats. The brains of humans and animals alike have a ‘better safe than sorry’ mechanism where, if a threat is perceived, running away or fighting it is made possible. It serves us well in the face of predators—a lion or some such—but it works gratuitously in modern times where predators are few and far between. We might react, scream, flood ourselves with stress hormones, and fear things that rationally aren’t to be feared.3 But because our survival depends on our ability to feel fear and escape from threats, it’s a vital part of human anatomy.
My phobia taps into a universal thread, the dread of the unlikely event of demolition, the sudden recognition that we live our lives on a precipice. When birds are there, the potential for destruction comes to light for me and I run away.
When I call the Birds of Prey Experience Centre to confirm that my forthcoming ‘experience’ is still going ahead, I’m told that some predatory birds, particularly owls, don’t fly in the rain. I’m in England so this proves to be a problem. I reschedule. I put the phone down and smile to myself. It is amusing, the thought of a fierce raptor that has evolved over millions of years and can’t stand to get its feathers damp in the steady mist of precipitation characteristic of its own habitat.
This habitat is Oxford, where I’m living for the time being. It is similar to the places I’ve lived in Australia in the ironic constructed unruliness of nature. The plants and the paths are distinct from each other, yet I still manage to ruin a few jumpers by walking too close to blackberry bushes. The paths themselves are steady tracks, until it rains a modest amount and overflows with water from the Thames, or at least a lot of mud. I pass by a fox near my apartment block and I can get close enough to take a blurry photograph. It gets frosty overnight, but the roads are salted. It’s nature as June drew it, pretty and three-quarters of the way contained.
When I finally get to my birds of prey ‘experience’, a half-hour bus ride away, I’m soon reminded of a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Near the end, our protagonists walk through a town of crows that politely shuffle out of their paths. Somehow this scene is more ominous than an earlier one where the crows are breaking down the door and roof of a house in order to murder.
Today I’m greeted by polite hawks, falcons and kestrels. They are eerily calm and they sit, on either a perch or a block, in accordance with their preferences (falcons like blocks because it’s like sitting on a rock, whereas hawks like perches because in the wild they sit on tree branches).
The centre is run by a couple, Anne and Bill. They do ‘experiences’ like these for visitors and presentations for school children. They also meet at one of Oxford’s more eccentric pubs (every surface is decorated with ties that have been cut off the necks of unsuspecting clientele) with other falconers.
Falconry is the practice of keeping tame birds of prey and using them to hunt.4 In the past, falconers would tame wild birds, but such a practice would now contravene British law. For each of their birds, Anne and Bill need to be able to identify the mother and the father—both of which must have been bred in captivity. They show me their peregrine falcon, the fastest animal there is, which can get to speeds above 300 kilometres per hour.5 This falcon, named Chaos, doesn’t fly quite that fast, but it is difficult to take even a blurry photo of her.
Instead of meekly returning to the arm of her falconer, Chaos flies to the corner of the property where she saw magpies several months ago.
‘She just keeps going back, just in case they’re there,’ Anne tells me.
‘She must have a good memory then,’ I say.
‘Oh yes,’ she replies. ‘They never forget.’
Anne explains that other falconers may have given up on Chaos because of her lack of obedience, but not them. ‘She’s a beautiful flyer and still only young.’
We take out a male harris hawk and now it’s my turn to fly a bird. I don a large leather glove on my left hand and hold out some raw chicken.6 After a little hesitation the bird lands on my wrist. I expect a heavy thump but the hawk only gradually presses his weight on me. Everything is smooth. He eats the chicken before flying back to Bill’s outstretched glove. It’s as though we are playing catch with this brown bird, with a white outline on his tail feathers, a yellow beak and something happening behind the eyes.
Anne compliments my steady hand, though I feel I’m straining to keep reaching out.
‘They know when you’re nervous,’ she says. ‘Something about the pulse, they can sense it.’
‘You must love animals,’ she continues.
‘Oh yes,’ I reply. ‘I do.’
I feel a pang of liar’s guilt until I realise that I’m not scared at all. I do flinch when the birds move unexpectedly, or outstretch their wings near my face, but mostly I just notice the brown patterns of their feathers and their intense glances. At the end, the hawk lands on my glove unexpectedly. I have no chicken as a lure. Bill feeds him a dead cockerel from the container in his shed for his initiative.
‘He’s a lovely boy,’ he says. I nod.
I see an owl in its aviary and it puffs up its feathers and stares at me with great, orange eyes. The expression is similar to the condescending look of a cat. There are many parallels between tame birds of prey and cats: they wear little bells, they seem vaguely disdainful, and while they rely on you for food, you never feel that you truly ‘own’ them.
Humans think that they’re the world’s protagonists but the eyes of dignified creatures can make you lose confidence in this idea. Is there a world that exists beyond us? Several varieties of birds have amazing eyesight. They can even sense their prey by following the ultraviolet colours of the urine of roaming mice.7 Barn owls have horrible vision, but they can hear the quiet rustlings of mice in the darkness of night.8
So much happens in the world beyond the limits of human perception. I’m afraid of the content of the unknown reality, the metaphorical rustlings of the darkness and the ultraviolet. As an art and a hobby, and a means of hunting for survival, falconry strikes me as a mode of getting the knowledge of birds onside. It’s a way to be with nature, dealing with its volumes of nameless possibilities, and gaining food and satisfaction in the process. But without ever really understanding it.
This, I think, is a blueprint for dealing with fear. Not forgetting it or mastering it, but finding a way to live with it. For all this time birds have frightened me, but they offer something of a solution too. I learned at age 11 that the unexpected and unimaginable is forever a possibility. It is not a happy truth. Every errant blackberry bush and every glob of paint have become symbols of attempts to confine the world, attempts that inevitably go awry. I don’t control the birds, either, I’m not as powerful as I’d like. But while something fragile emerges from my precariousness, so does something extraordinary. These tiny threats, ruined jumpers, uncoordinated renderings, the flapping of feathers, alert me to the fact that the unimaginable hasn’t happened yet. You don’t need control to be safe and fed.
My phobia is not cured. It’s one thing to have expert falconers on hand with a leather glove and rope while tame birds gently fly towards you for food. It’s another to go out fearlessly in daily life. If anything, my phobia has become more nuanced. As a kestrel rests on my arm, I glance at Anne and Bill’s cage of budgies and my chest seizes with panic at the possibility that I might have to handle them too. On my way home, I cross the road to avoid a white and brown speckled pigeon.
Exposure therapy prescribes going to the thing you fear in order to experience it anew as safe. But what I’ve done isn’t it. Exposure therapy is supposed to be gradual. First, you might look at a picture of a bird until you stop feeling fear, then you might watch a video, and so on until eventually you might go near one. You don’t go from cowering to fine on an afternoon, and I haven’t. While I’m surprised by how calm I was handling birds of prey, phobias are strange and complicated and if I want to address mine I will need to undertake different work.
But I didn’t embark on the ‘experience’ in order to rid myself of fear. Not just because I didn’t think it would work, but also because I wasn’t sure if fear was something I was willing to surrender. In the history of the world, I live in a safe and peaceful time, in a safe and peaceful place. I know that it would only take an instant to destroy all that. I want the birds to remind me to enjoy the fruits of my mortal life for however long this stability lasts.
- When jets move quickly, the air that hits the front of the engine meets resistance, which can stall a plane. Designers noticed the peculiar cone-shaped protrusion in the opening of the peregrine falcon’s nostril, which allows the bird to breathe and allows for a greater movement of air. Jets have a similar structure built into the opening of their engines. See the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog post, ‘The Peregrine and Modern Aviation’, accessed 26 January 2016, <http://blog.biodiversitylibrary.org/2010/09/book-of-week-peregrine-and-modern.html>.
- Many different resources on the topic of phobias are available. Nick Haslam’s ‘Explainer: What are phobias?’ from October 2012, published in the Conversation is an illustrative example. Accessed 26 January 2016, <http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-are-phobias-9667>.
- More information about this brain structure, the amygdala, is available on the McGill University website, accessed 26 January 2016, <http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/d/d_04/d_04_cr/d_04_cr_peu/
- It’s always called falconry, even if the bird of choice isn’t a falcon.
- Biodiversity Heritage Library blog post, ‘The Peregrine and Modern Aviation’.
- Falconers use their left hand for the bird to land on so that their most likely dominant right hand is free. It leads to a lopsided distribution of strength, because holding out your arm with even a light bird on it can be taxing.
- Ultraviolet vision in birds is discussed on the National Wildlife Federation website, accessed 27 January 2016, <http://www.nwf.org/news-and-magazines/national-wildlife/birds/archives/2012/bird-vision.aspx>.
- The BBC Wildlife Magazine has an article on this from March 2012, ‘Barn owl: A deadly hunter’, accessed 27 January 2016, < http://www.discoverwildlife.com/british-wildlife/barn-owl-deadly-hunter>.
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