(This article originally appeared in the Bobby Dazzler Newsletter #10 in May 2004. To subscribe to the free six-times-a-year Newsletter, send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Ogden Nash, in his wonderful poem, Kind of an Ode to Duty, wrote:
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously?
Why art thou clad so abominously?
Why art thou so different from Venus
And why do thou and I have so few interests mutually in common between us?
Why art thou fifty per cent martyr
And fifty-one per cent Tartar?
[Apart from abominously, this poem also includes such wonderful words as albatrossly and forbiddinger. See the full text at https://poetrymehfil.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/ode-to-duty/ ]
I was thinking about eagles when that poem came to mind.
The wedge-tailed eagle (aquila audax, or “wedgie”) is common in the Australian Outback, and is always exciting to see. Fully grown, it has a wing span of about 2.3 metres (over 7 ft), and is one of the largest eagles in the world. It is a dark blackish brown in colour, and has distinctive “trousers” – feathers all the way down its legs.
Since early European settlers cleverly introduced rabbits into Australia, the wedgies have had a convenient and plentiful source of food. But the calici virus (which “escaped” from experimental use in 1995) dramatically reduced the rabbit population, particularly in the Outback. As inevitably seems to be the case when we try to “adjust” nature, there are undesirable side effects. In this instance, eagles had to look elsewhere for food, and it is said that their numbers declined significantly.
The most common place to see wedgies is feeding on road kill – usually kangaroos or emus. Caution is needed, since they sometimes become so engorged that they have trouble lifting off as a vehicle approaches. I’m told that having a wedge-tailed eagle crash through your windscreen and end up on your lap is not a fun experience for either party!
The nesting habits of wedgies are interesting. The nest is usually in a position to give a good view of the surrounding area, although in the desert, this may mean in a low tree. It is built of dead sticks, loosely stacked.
No two nests are usually closer than about 2.5 kms, thus ensuring a sizable “territory” for each pair of birds.
An eagle will use the same nest year after year, usually adding an extra layer of sticks each season. An old nest can be close to two metres wide and up to three metres deep. There are reports of trees collapsing under the weight of a single nest, which can be as much as 400 kgs. (Pictured is an eagle’s nest in the Strzelecki Desert – with glamour provided by Raylene Ogilvy of Lindon Station).
I was thinking of wedgies being “dutiful” – sticking with the same nest (and the same mate) throughout their life, and adding more sticks each year. It almost evokes an image of the suburban couple, working hard to put food on the table, adding a room or two to the cottage as the family grows, and finally ending their days in the same suburban cottage.
Such people can be “salt of the earth” types, and yet some would think of them as “boring”. Attention to duty, a life of routine – these things have come to have a negative connotation for many, in a world where excitement, drama, action, adventure, and the thrill of the new are what it’s all about.
’Twas not always thus. In earlier times, the exigencies of survival occupied pretty much every waking hour. The Christian Church indeed saw such routine as an aid to holiness. John Keble (1792-1866), English clergyman and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, wrote in 1827:
The trivial round, the common task,
Would furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God.
These days, most of us have at least a degree of choice as to how much routine we follow, and how much adventure and unpredictability we “allow” into our lives. To a certain extent, our upbringing and past life will have formed our attitudes to these things. Routine can be a source of security, or it can feel like a prelude to death. Some are hooked on adrenaline, others feel very distressed by unpredictability and change.
And yet, we can never be certain about the future. We might think we have tomorrow mapped out pretty neatly, but a thousand different things can come along to change it completely. A reluctance to break out of a comfortable and familiar routine can be a refusal to embrace the very nature of life itself, and a rejection of the potential inherent in every step into the unknown future.