Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship with Birds, set in rural Australia, in the 1950’s, is a reflection on nature in it’s various expressions -birds, cows, dogs, people. I found it oddly difficult to stay with this book, and took a long time to read it. I’m not sure why, since whenever I did pick it up, I usually found it quite delicious. Perhaps it’s meditative or reflective nature, rather than a driving storyline made it easy to pick up something more compelling – anyway, I did finish it, and I’m glad I did.
The story begins with Harry bringing in his herd to the milking shed.We immediately know that Harry is a careful man, a still-waters-run-deep kind of fellow. We know he is a good man because his cows have names, affectionate names like Fatty, Licker, Stumbles, Wattle Flower. He knows them as individuals and he knows them as a herd. Similarly, Harry has long observed a kookaburra family that share his territory and knows them intimately. They too have names – Mum, Dad, Club-Toe, Tiny, Bub. He knows a great deal about all sorts of natural things – his cows, the birds and the workings of his farm. His relationship to the natural world is deeply pragmatic and deeply loving – his journal of observations is poetic, a meditation on being part of the world.
Running in counterpoint to Harry’s closely observed natural world, is the closely observed world of people. The same rules apply – we live under the same sky, are soaked by the same rains, burned by the same sun, sleep under the same moon and are driven by the same desires – for love, family, belonging. And dinner. Harry has a neighbour, Betty. Betty, a solo mum, has two children to different fathers, created in moments of young lust. It has been hard for Betty – as a girl she was “the bees knees, the cats meow”, her stern father’s favourite. She goes on a date with an older man and wonders “…how people resisted. How was it possible to resist?” It isn’t possible for Betty. She knows straight away it will not end well – “Later, in her bed, Betty remembered the man’s hands on her. She remembered stroking his fingers on the tram and she knew why she had told him the story of the black spaniel. A long-worn ring leaves the same braided indent on the skin after it has been removed as a collar. The mark isn’t visible to the eye, but gives itself up to touch.”
Harry too, has been unfortunate in love. His thinks often of his former wife Edna, who ran off with Alec Gedge, President of the Bird Observers Club of Victoria, a fancier bird than Harry. He and Edna had started out well enough, but “There was no baby, month after month. And then, she didn’t like the farm. She said it wasn’t the farm she didn’t like, it was the shit. They were surrounded by shit. She could see it splattered across the paddocks out of every window of the house.”
Betty and Harry want to be together, but Harry, who knows such a great deal about the workings of all sorts of things, has no idea how to approach Betty. Longing and desire run between them, unnamed and unmet. They dance around each other being kind and helpful for years, building familiarity and a kind of loving. Harry becomes a father figure to Little Hazel and Michael, and Betty is glad of that, especially for Michael. “The pull between man and boy is much like that between man and dog. Soon Michael is at Harry’s most afternoons after school, and on weekends they go fishing together or rabbiting.” …”
Michael is changing as adolescence works it’s magic. Harry notices. When Michael becomes besotted by the buxom Dora, Harry, recalling his own youthful ignorance and young lust, tries to make it easier for Michael by sharing his knowledge of ‘the female sex’, gleaned over the years in the same carefully observant manner as everything else, including (hilariously) from close reading of Edna’s old women’s magazines. Harry isn’t good at expressing himself, and Michael is as awkward as he, so Harry decides it would be easier to write these things in letters to Michael. This thread in the story is lovely, a perfect balance of tenderness and pragmatism, explicit without being prurient: “Don’t go too easy with touch, Michael. Skin thickness will be different in different women. (Some udders are upholstered canvas, others in tissue paper) …. And cut your toenails Michael. When you are prostrate touch isn’t just about the hands. A foot can be used to stroke the lower limbs of the female.” Harry, for all his good-heartedness, does fall short, comparing women to cattle: “What of the rump and bosom?… Think of how we choose a milker at the sales – lean against her and see that she isn’t going to collapse.” – so, no wonder he has trouble with Betty, who isn’t as easy to push around as a cow. Except that in the end, thats exactly what he does, but we’ll get to that.
Through Harry we are given a lot of explicit observations about sex and ‘mating’ . Betty, being a woman in the fifties, has to be more covert about her interest and anyway, she lacks the confidence to be forthright. This, of course, makes it difficult for Harry to decipher what she wants.
When Betty finds one of Harry’s letters to Michael, she is outraged and furious and their relationship is threatened. Harry is distraught and waits and waits for a chance to explain. Eventually, the moment comes and Harry – at last – takes the step that moves their relationship from neighbours to lovers. This is where the story stops – the long and complicated mateship ritual has achieved it’s end, albeit somewhat in somewhat sudden and raw way. We can only hope they carry on and bring their tenderness into the bedroom as well.
There are plenty of secondary themes as well – for example, the capacity of nature to throw up aberrant individuals is captured in the dark character of Mues, the retired slaughterman who attempts to molest Little Hazel, who kills for the sake of it, and who keeps an elderly ewe for nefarious sexual purposes. Perhaps the gist is that behaviour goes awry when basic needs aren’t met.
Tiffany writes in a way that is unsentimental, in fact her language is often stark and visceral and the novel is full of ‘piss’ and ‘shit’ and every other bodily emission you can think of. I kind of see Edna’s point. However, the sweetness of the heart is writ large and does rise above all that base biological stuff.
Tiffany’s writing is a bit like the Australian countryside – sparse and only by setting yourself down in it, can you see the beauty. I very much liked her characters – they are good people, living ordinary, quiet lives, and the myriad observations of the bits and pieces of life make it shimmer. The kindness in them is counterpointed by the brutality of nature – Tiny, the young kookaburra dies; the baby bird at Little Hazels school dies; little Hazel sees a dead bird with a broken leg caught in the daggy wool of a sheep; an owl freezes to death, a cow that fails to calf is fit only for the butcher. And so on. Life in the country is not a pastoral dream, but is comprised of endless cycles of relentless reality – birth, dinner, sex, death, on and on. It’s the kindness in the hearts of people that renders it bearable.