… some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth. (470)
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Nothing comes without its world. (27)
Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@
The area to be searched is immense. The whole arid two-thirds of Australia. (48)
Dal Stivens, A Horse of Air
Into everyone’s life a Night Parrot comes in some form.
Rob Nugent, Night Parrot Stories
So often literature provides us with metaphors and allusions to enrich our lives, though sometimes, just ever so occasionally, an event occurs in the outside world that offers up an intriguing analogy to revive a text that has been forgotten. Despite winning the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1970, A Horse of Air and its author, Dal Stivens, have faced an extinction not dissimilar to the object of the novel’s allegorical search: the Night Parrot. The rediscovery of the latter in 2013 in far Western Queensland presents an intriguing analogy for the revitalisation of the former’s important work. Last definitively seen alive in the 1870s, the Night Parrot remained for over one hundred years alluring yet unfindable, akin to a flying thylacine, forever fluttering beyond reach: it was the ‘white whale of the bird-watching world’ (Carvan); the ‘avian nut that refuses to crack’ (Olsen 1). Likewise, although Dal Stivens was once one of Australia’s most visible and prolific (albeit enigmatic) writers, since the 1987 republication of A Horse of Air, and his subsequent death in 1997, both the author and his novel have slowly receded into the obscurity of the remote interior. Despite inspiring writers, poets, filmmakers and naturalists alike, Stivens’s influential depiction of the Night Parrot remains critically and popularly underappreciated. This paper proposes to use the rediscovery of the Night Parrot in 2013 as the impetus to revive Stivens’s finest work by examining his textual encounter with this inscrutable bird figure.
An enigmatic author who began his career as a prolific and widely read short story writer before announcing himself as a novelist with Jimmy Brockett (1951), Stivens was the founding president of the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) and tireless campaigner for Australian writers, a self-trained naturalist and ornithologist, and, in later life, a painter. Once considered among Australia’s most promising young authors (Williamson, ‘Lost’ 20), in 1963, when assessing Dal Stivens’s body of work until that point, critic Brian Elliott declared him to be an author in search of himself, whose work is ‘strangely elusive’ arguing that he never ‘quite grasps’ his object (69). Ironically, by some margin Stivens’s best novel would emerge not by finding a fixed identity as a writer but by centring the search itself, figured through an encounter with the elusive Night Parrot. In the very limited extant criticism, A Horse of Air has been lauded as a groundbreaking Australian novel in many ways: as perhaps the most ecologically accurate novel of Australia’s arid zone ever written (Lynch 82; Haynes, Seeking 244); the only to prominently feature explorer Ernest Giles (Haynes 244); likely the first to mention climate change in Australian literature (Williamson, ‘Dal’ 71); and an early pathfinder for postmodernism (Lever 503). However, this reading prioritises its encounter with the mysterious, assumed extinct creature of the arid zone, the Night Parrot, figuring its emergence in the public and literary consciousness.
Although A Horse of Air was the first notable literary representation of the Night Parrot, it has inspired further representations, fluttering beyond the margins of Stivens’s novel to reappear in prose, film and poetry. The bird fleetingly appears in Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country (1975) and more prominently in recent mystery novels such as John Huxley’s Dead Parrot (2003), and John Grant’s Spinifex: The Curse of the Night Parrot (2022). Rob Nugent’s documentary Night Parrot Stories (2016), directly inspired by reading A Horse of Air, marked the bird’s entry to the world of cinema. However, speaking to Stivens’s obsession with the image, it is in the works of two of Australia’s finest poets, Dorothy Porter and John Kinsella, where the suggestive qualities of this elusive and allusive bird are most deeply explored. Porter’s The Night Parrot (1984) figures the Night Parrot as her elusive anima, totemic of her poetic self that constantly desires to burst out from subconscious depths amidst suburban mundanity. Meanwhile, John Kinsella’s Night Parrots (1989) also derives its title from the bird, delving into its elusive nature as a fringe dweller ‘of the centre’ (30) intertwining it with the myth of Lasseter’s reef. Kinsella, uniquely, returns to the Night Parrot following its rediscovery, in ‘Graphology Heuristics 83: Death by Identification’ (2013) and ‘Night Parrot Privacy (for Tracy)’ (2015), suggesting that the Night Parrot (as foreshadowed by Stivens’s novel), now ‘found’ and husbanded by science, is more vulnerable than ever.
Despite A Horse of Air beginning by foregrounding the qualities of the elusive bird and the journey to the ‘Centre’ in search of the Night Parrot seemingly dominating the narrative, the first half of the novel is preparatory. These sections have been described as a ‘comedy of manners … interrupted with editorials on ecocide and Australian materialism’ (Williamson, ‘Dal’ 71). Nonetheless, they establish the Night Parrot as not only a figure at the centre of the search by Stivens’s protagonist, Harry Craddock – a self-described ‘buffoon’, millionaire, ornithologist and idealist – but also as representative of Australia’s dysfunctional relationship with its natural environment. We encounter the pragmatist and the idealist, the naturalist and the creative writer, historical quotes filtered through subjective impressions, facts and imponderables, in a narrative that undermines its own surety, just as it searches for a bird no one can be certain exists. Although written by Dal Stivens, A Horse of Air is presented as an autobiography by the novel’s protagonist Harry Craddock, who recounts his expedition to Central Australia with a motley assortment of companions in search of the near-mythical parrot. However, the text also contains extracts from the diary of Harry’s ex-wife, Joanna, while the narrative is further destabilised ‘by comments from the psychiatrist who treats him [Harry] and the footnotes of his friend who has edited the manuscript’ (Wilde et al.) and an observation in the novel’s introduction that ‘the truth about anything must be disputable’ (Stivens, A Horse 7–8).
Like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Stivens’s A Horse of Air ostensibly features the pursuit of an elusive animal, as the search becomes deeply allegorical; however, through a storytelling process that diverts freely from its linear line of pursuit (the quest), the novel re-centres the subject/object of the pursuit (the Night Parrot) and its environment (arid Australia) as the story’s central characters and matter(s) of concern. The Night Parrot’s presumed extinction has ensured that it has walked the line between both rare longing and assumed obsolescence, as this quiet ground dweller risked becoming, like the dodo, an ‘epithet of contempt’ (Sax 333). However, our inability to locate the bird for nearly 140 years, and its subsequent rediscovery, is not a story about the bird’s shortcomings, but rather a tale that casts our own into relief, in a hubristic story of our own limitations and abandonment of the arid two-thirds of Australia. Where Melville explores ‘numberless unknown worlds’ underneath the ‘everlasting terra incognita’ of the great southern oceans of the earth (298), Stivens subsumes his text in the (scarcely written-about) arid rangelands of Central Australia, which were once ‘the ancient pre-Cambrian sea of Australia’s Centre’ (A Horse 57), in search of the of the Night Parrot. It is a search that questions the bounds not only of the nation and literature but of the imagination and reality itself. Ultimately, A Horse of Air shows the power that story has to interweave humanity into the threatened worlds of other beings, challenging modernity’s reductionist assumptions, even as the now endangered status of Stivens’s novel ensures that the Night Parrot has come to suggest literature’s own precarity.
Since at least Sturt’s hopeful search for an Inland Sea, and Leichardt’s private declaration of his peculiar objective – ‘This interior, this centre of dark mass is my goal and I will not give up until I reach it’ (qtd. in Finger 98) – seeking what Stivens allusively capitalises as the ‘Centre’ (A Horse 108) has been a preoccupation of Australian culture. Indeed, Nicholas Jose has described ‘centre-seeking’ as a leitmotif of Australian culture, noting that the singular nature of the island continent ensures metaphors of soul, heart and centre proliferate in Australian culture, even as geography (aridity) ensures that the country is, paradoxically, most knowable at its peripheries (314).1 These geographical peculiarities of the Australian continent reconstruct the interior of the continent as a site of longing, amplified by the fact that in Western writing, the desert has not simply been constructed as an environmental other, a place of absence and deficiency, but as ‘the centre of all origins’ for ‘pre-modernity’ and ultimately ‘Oneness’ (Graulund 358). The corollary of such a search, and indeed, desires, is the anticipation of a cultural emergence, famously given voice by A.D. Hope’s expectant wondering, ‘if still from the deserts the prophets come’ (161).2 Setting out into this terrain in search of the elusive Night Parrot – an absence in a region marked by absence – Stivens’s A Horse of Air appears to be both parroting and parodying such desires and expectations.
Concealed by the vast deserts of the interior, the Night Parrot’s story is not only of an elusive parrot, but of the settler-colonial state’s detachment from the ‘arid two-thirds of Australia’ that opens this region to be an open canvas for cultural yearning. As trailblazing female ornithologist, Penny Olsen articulates in Night Parrot: Australia’s Most Elusive Bird (2018):
this elusive parrot of Australia’s vast, heat seared inland has inspired poets and writers of prose … The bird is endlessly alluring, but always out of reach: ‘lost’ in the deep heart of the continent, in the vast ‘empty’ wilderness of the inland. Its ways are a mystery. To join the search is an adventure: romantic, challenging, foolhardy – to pursue the impossible dream … As Stivens’s narrator says: ‘The truth about anything must be disputable … which is the reality and which is the dream?’ It must seem so to many who get close to the Night Parrot, but Craddock’s search is an allegory of sorts. (2)
Stivens’s novel establishes the Night Parrot as intersecting with myths surrounding the inland and continent, along with discourses on the desert, exploration and nomadism, even as it resists being pinned down. Is it a poet or a prophet? A presence or an absence? Although the pursuit of the bird becomes allegorical, like Melville’s whale, we encounter birds as beings of significance, wonder and mystery. At the Centre of the desert that resists mastery (by ‘modern’ Eurocentric means and expectations) resides a bird that resisted being classified and studied, bound or photographed for nearly 140 years after its initial ‘discovery’. If Melville’s white whale spouts its frothy defiance to the skies, then the defiance of the Night Parrot is of a more subtle variety. Somewhere between ground and sky, night and day, Nature and Culture, reality and dream, Stivens’s parrot of the night exists and to enclose it fully would destroy it.
Stivens’s interest in the Night Parrot began following the Adelaide Festival in 1964 when he travelled to Central Australia and the region left its deep imprint on him (Kenross-Smith 239–40). Among Stivens’s research materials held at the National Library is a 1967 newspaper article (see Figure 1) detailing an unsuccessful expedition from Adelaide into the central deserts in search of the Night Parrot. Given the content of this essay, I would propose that Stivens saw in the search for the Night Parrot potential for a narrative intersectional with not only earlier tales of exploration but also the quest and epic mode. In his planning for the novel Stivens jotted down, as early models for Harry, the names ‘Ulysses’ ‘Galahad’, ‘Moses’ and slightly beneath these, with an uncertain slash at the end, ‘Hamlet/’ (‘Notebook: Planning’). I would suggest Ulysses, Galahad and Moses all offer a model of the traditional epic hero; with Ulysses invoking the oceanic, Moses the desert and Promised Land, and Galahad Anglo-Saxon legend, allusive to Harry who leads an expedition through the undulating deserts of the Centre in search for the ‘the Grail-night parrot’ (A Horse 17). Meanwhile, the connection to Hamlet is confirmed when Joanna asks the reader ‘was Hamlet the first modern man revealed in literature?’ (127) and overlays a certain modern angst and unsurety over these more traditional heroic figures.
That Stivens meant to destabilise this traditional narrative form becomes evident in a note he writes to himself: ‘mock heroic account of journey’ (‘Notebook: Loose’). Indeed, Paul Genoni places A Horse of Air at the beginning of a tradition that invokes explorer tropes to subvert imperial ambitions for postmodern and postcolonial audiences (20). Yet, the very object of the search, the figure, surely frames the nature of the pursuit. What does it mean to have the Night Parrot at the Centre mocking us? As an amateur naturalist, Stivens knew that the characteristics of the bird were important, and yet, as a lifelong writer of fiction, he understood its meaning could not be reduced to them.
In describing the bird, Olsen recognises that Stivens was well-informed (3), and he even introduces the Night Parrot to the reader by reproducing the full entry from Neville W. Cayley’s What Bird is That? (Australia’s first and only illustrated bird guide until 1970):
Night Parrot Geospittacus occidentalis
Gē-o-psit’-ta-cus-GK, ge, earth; GK, psittacos, parrot: oc-ci-den-tā’-lis-L., occidentalis, western
DISTRIBUTION. Restricted and scattered localities in Central Australia, Northern South Australia, and inland Western Australia; probably also western Queensland and western New South Wales.
NOTES. Also called the Spinifex Parrot. This extremely rare species inhabits sandstone ranges, spinifex country, and shrubby samphire flats. It is nocturnal, seeking cover in tussocks of spinifex during the day and emerging at dusk to drink and to feed on the seeds of grasses. Only rarely has the bird been kept in captivity: one was studied in the London Zoo for two months in 1867-8. The voice has been described as a ‘double note, loud and harsh’.
Nest. A depression in the ground, usually under spinifex-grass.
EGGS. Four or five; white. Breeding-season: not recorded. (A Horse 14)
An amateur naturalist who wrote numerous natural history articles and even a book, The Incredible Egg (1974), to supplement his income, Stivens presents the Night Parrot as a being of significance, whose unique qualities and ability to elude capture in the heart of the continent carry profound implications and are deeply suggestive.
Drawing on a few specimens caught in the Gawler Ranges in the 1870s and recounting a fleeting sighting at Hermannsburg many years later, Stivens describes the Night Parrot’s inauspicious physical characteristics: it is ‘about ten inches long’, rotund with ‘greenish yellow’ colouring, dark ‘arrow-shaped flecks’ on its breast and wings, and feet ‘short’ legs with ‘stout’ toes adapted to sandy ground that enable it to nest on the ground in tunnels of spinifex or ‘Triodia’ (A Horse 14). Spinifex, described as ‘hateful’ by David Carnegie, was detested by the explorers, not simply because it proliferated in the most arid reaches of the continent but because it also formed a persistent, ‘spiky and formidable’ (Stivens, A Horse 15) barrier to traversal. These qualities not only add to the suggestiveness of the Night Parrot, but also provide an excellent habitat. Dominating a quarter of the continent, spinifex is a unique keystone species with which the Night Parrot and Australian desert fauna has coevolved (Low 225). As Stivens elucidates in supreme ecological detail:
The spinifex grows out from a circular clump; the strands lean over, touch the ground, and take root. The old clumps die off so it grows outward, sometimes making complete circles like fairy mushrooms with clear ground in the centre; more frequently there are half circles. These spinifex crescents and circles … are the fortress homes of colonies of marsupial mice, skinks and insects. And of wallabies … They must also provide the day shelters of the night parrots. (A Horse 125)
Gaston Bachelard has illustrated the ‘extraordinary significance’ human beings attach to nests: they are a refuge, analogous to a home, which stimulates entirely animal feelings (Poetics 91–3). Nestling in spinifex – the explorer’s bane that is constantly marching outward and dying from its centre – the Night Parrot in Stivens’s novel takes on a totemic quality, representing Nature in arid Australia, even as it parodies the search for its Centre. Indeed, part of the paradox of the Night Parrot is that its potential habitat is both ‘remote’ and yet immense: ‘the bird’s range … had been enormous … all through the vast semi-arid interior wherever there was spinifex’ (Stivens, A Horse 48). Collecting windblown sand in circular island hummocks, spinifex offers the concealment and protection of not only a ‘fortress home’, but of geography.
This geography remains an Indigenised space in the novel, the home of the still semi-nomadic Pitjantjatjara people in the 1960s, and all sightings of the parrot in the novel are predicated on Indigenous knowledge. Their presence intertwines with the Night Parrot, to question the possibility of knowing the desert through sedentary Western means. Spinifex has but one flaw as a dwelling: it is ‘perfectly designed for combustion’ (Low 227), yet the firing of spinifex was once intricately managed by Indigenous desert peoples before they were ‘settled’ by the settler-colonial state and the Pitjantjara people’s presence in Stivens’s novel is generally marked by fires in the distance. The Martu of the Western Desert are one group who has notably revived burning practices of spinifex management (Low 228), and it is from a Martu elder Geoffrey Stewart that the most significant publicly shared Indigenous story of the Night Parrot exists. Speaking to filmmaker Nugent, Stewart recounts the story of two ancestral beings who are unable to find the bird, which ‘refused to be seen’, resisting all attempts to flush it:
They threw hailstones.
They made a great storm.
They set fire to the spinifex.
Even these great forces could not flush the bird from hiding. (qtd. in Nugent)
In another version of the story, Stewart explains the two beings wanted to ‘name him, so he could be among the rest of the birds’ (qtd. in Jones). Elusive and unseen, the Night Parrot refuses to join the other beings and the order of things.
A Phantasmic Trickster
Due to their colourful forms, capacity for speech, and representation in art, parrots can be considered not only the jesters, but also the poets in the realm of birds (see Sax 150). Located in the searing deserts of the Centre, Stivens’s poet-prophet of a parrot appears to be toying with expectations. Two unused cover designs for A Horse of Air depict a Night Parrot leaning over a sleeping figure, one evoking an explorer, the other seemingly a detective (see Figure 2.). This ability to elude and confound suggests that the trickster model might be useful for delving into our textual encounter with the Night Parrot. Donna Haraway has productively employed the trickster figure of the coyote from Native American mythology, as a model to rethink Nature. Faced with such a figure, she argues, ‘we give up mastery but keep searching for fidelity, knowing all the while we will be hoodwinked’ (Simians 199). Meanwhile, Joseph Campbell describes the trickster as confounding Western and Christian-derived understandings because it comes in as an ‘upsetting factor’, functioning as ‘both a kind of devil, fool and creator’ who is a ‘disrupter of programmes’ (‘Mythology’). Far from the centres of knowledge production of the settler-colonial state, the Night Parrot suggests the limits of that knowledge, playing into myths even as it subverts them. As a figure at the centre of Stivens’s novel, the Night Parrot disrupts rational ‘reality’ centred on human mastery. Nature, I might playfully suggest, is Night Parrot.
The first signs of this disruption occur when Harry brings the desert into the ballroom at the family residence, Crisholm, in Sydney, to turn it into a habitat for ‘Bourke parrots (Neophema bourki)’ (A Horse 32), whose territory and propensity to drink after dark connects them to the Night Parrot. Whatever the ornithological intent, Harry admits to the reader: ‘I wasn’t observing them with the intellectual part of my brain but in a kind of waking dream. This abstraction is … as near as I will approach to mysticism or the vision of the artist’ (36). For Stivens, this avian wondering evokes the creative process, as he would later compare writing to a ‘kind of a waking dream’ (qtd. in Rainey 233). Nonetheless, for Harry the stimulus reveals itself to be the ‘Bourkes’, who ‘hopped, staccato style … calling excitedly to each other. They live at an emotional level we only approach when we’re drugged, drunk or in love; their metabolism is at least 10°F higher than our own’, going on to suggest that their consciousness might resemble ‘a kind of dream – one that is chaotic, disordered and episodic’ (A Horse 33, 39). Although speculative, Stivens’s parrot musings are naturalistically inspired: avian metabolisms are far higher than our own, ensuring that they are likely to experience reality alternatively (Sax 35). These are not merely anthropomorphic thoughts but a kind of bird becoming, which disrupts the boundary between man and bird, writer and figure, reality and dream. When the manic Harry declares ‘I live intensely’ (A Horse 42), we might well ask, is Harry becoming parrot, or are the parrots becoming Harry?
The bright motley colouring of parrots combined with their ability to play and adopt the role of the fool, makes them something of a jester; indeed, in Australia ‘galah’ has become a colloquial term for a joker. Stivens’s narrator embodies parrot play: although he expresses his obsession with the Night Parrot quest, the reader is also told that the search is ‘a practical joke on a large scale’ (A Horse 81). Continuing to play the fool, Harry even parrots Shakespeare’s famous line – ‘motley’s the only wear’ (158) – as he becomes bird-orientated in his thinking: his sister is compared to a female falcon that is one-third larger than the male (54), while his lover’s ex-partner is described as a ‘rival songbird’ (103). Bird knowledge even intrudes to alienate Harry from great art, as Stivens notes that while the female nightingale (the mythic Philomena) sings in Eliot’s The Waste Land, in fact, it is ‘the male bird [which] is the songbird’ (164). However, arguably the greatest disruption to the barriers between the categories of human and animal occurs when the Bourkes reappear. Harry is humorously discussing the territorial nature of humans, remarking how everyone has their own chair at home, before our narratorial trickster declares to the reader: ‘You may laugh at all this and refuse to admit that territoriality permeates our life to an extraordinary extent. This is probably because you don’t like to think you resemble animals so closely!’ (140-1). Influenced by Harry’s views, Joanna leaves the reader with an open-ended question: ‘How much of our “conversation” consists of amiable noises like the contented chatter of Harry’s Bourke parrots when they are feeding together?’ (158).
In a long-running tradition from Aristotle to Descartes, language has been a signifier of humanity’s exceptionalism, yet parrots challenge that assumption (Sax 135) through their ability to converse with ‘chatter’ (unintelligible to us) and mimic human speech. Despite appearing to be the loners of the parrot world, living alone or in pairs, recent research on the Night Parrot has revealed that they have an extensive vocabulary that they use to communicate with each other prolifically around the hours of dawn and dusk. Indeed, it was our own parroting of their calls that led to the first photograph of the Night Parrot in 2013, as now disgraced amateur naturalist John Young played a recorded call to attract the bird. To ‘parrot’ something, like ‘ape’, means to repeat something mindlessly, (almost paradoxically) mechanically and without understanding (‘Parrot’). This meaning appears to be an attempt to elevate ourselves above a being that has flown too close to our sun of exceptionalism.
Instead, embodying parrot play, let us circulate this word around in our beak a few times, turning it over with our muscular tongue. The ability to repeat is in fact a sign, we must admit, of intelligence. What is a writer but the heteroglossic sum of their collection of various droppings? What is this essay but high-powered parroting (properly cited, of course)? The vaunted concept of understanding appears to be the line of demarcation between parrot and human, and yet any familiarity with parrots suggests they understand more than we would like to admit. Night Parrot researcher Nick Leseberg, for instance, describes one of their calls as their ‘inside voice’, only used when they are in close proximity to each other (qtd. in Jones). Furthermore, the mocking, mimicry and imitation of parrots also happen to be the foundational features of poetics (GoGwilt and Holm 1); perhaps, to draw a comparison with Harry’s Bourkes, our ‘contented chatter’ and ‘amiable noises’ are the reproductions of European literary models, or even Australian ‘centre-seeking’ mythologies. Describing the call of the Night Parrot, Stivens necessarily parrots his sources, recounting ‘that double note, loud and harsh’ (A Horse 205), and yet the Night Parrot suggests not only the repetition of old forms but the flight beyond them.
If the Night Parrot emerges as a figure that disrupts the known, then, in Campbell’s formulation, Stivens’s psychiatrist, Dr S., appears as the figure of the ‘programmer’. He reads and assesses every action through an enclosed framework (psychology), seemingly providing all the answers. Lampooning such certainty, Harry tells the reader how he ‘meticulously’ records all the psychological tests Dr S. provides as ‘evidence of man’s folly. They are toys which delight him … He claims you cannot cheat. Infallibility. Wouldn’t we all like to find it?’ (A Horse 165).
Embodying the disrupter of programs, Harry confirms his unreliability as a narrator by addressing the reader directly, stating, ‘I know what you’re thinking, it’s hard to tell when he is telling the truth … I suspect the trouble with you is you are too literal minded. Wherein lies the greater truth, in reality or the dream?’ (171). To explain the conjunction of both, Stivens employs the material structure of a (very postmodern) feather in a complex metaphor.
The transcendental truth lies probably in the blending of both as the plumage colour of some birds. Thus in many green feathers the outer layers of the barbs contain a yellow pigment that filters some of the short-wave rays out of the incident white light. Below this filter are box cells containing minute air spaces that scatter the remainder of the short-wave rays. Thus the feather appears green. Or peer closely at an olive-green feather. No filter this time of, say, a yellow filter over a layer of box cells with a backing of melanin, but the juxtaposition of tiny spots of black and yellow pigment which create the sensation of olive green. (171)
Do birds of a (postmodern) feather stick together? From a distance, they might appear to, Stivens might suggest, but it is ultimately a question of perspective. To illustrate his analogy in storytelling form, the narrative is broken into three separate streams: Dr S., Harry and an omniscient observer, before Harry declares:
Stand back from the black spots of his version and the yellow pigment of mine and you’d get your olive green. Or would you? You’d soon get tired of having to read all versions simultaneously. It’s better I tell it my own way. (173)
Wings of Flight and Night
The Night Parrot’s emergence as a figure that disrupts the bounds of reality also occurs through more familiar poetic associations. Birds, associated with air and flight in the poetic imagination, embody metamorphosis and transformation, challenging known limits and providing a consistent source of wonder for human beings across time and cultural boundaries. As a desert parrot that flies through the air by night, the Night Parrot is uniquely associated with three imaginative realms that, within Western thought, challenge the bounds of rationally structured reality.
Gaston Bachelard, one of the few notable modern philosophers to discuss birds, argues that the ‘motion of flight produces an immediate overwhelming abstraction, a dynamic image that is perfect, complete, total’ (Air 65–6). Birds and flight are closely intertwined with the element of air, and Bachelard suggests that air, as the most fluid and immaterial form of matter, serves as a conduit for our imagination that does not form, but rather deforms, as ‘movement takes precedence over matter’ (Air 1, 7–8). Bachelard also argues that ‘a psychology of the imagination cannot be developed using static forms’ (Air 21). Flight is therefore suggestive of the dynamic imagination and the poetic image that is an ‘invitation to a journey’ (Bachelard, Air 3). The poetics of air and its connection to the imagination are foregrounded not only through the search for the Night Parrot, but the other central image that gives the novel its title: a ‘horse of air’.
Parroting Stivens’s title, the Night Parrot’s Wikipedia page once proliferated a myth stating that Aboriginal people had used the phrase ‘horse of air’ to describe the low-flying motion of the bird that resembled a galloping horse (Olsen 3), causing it to be propagated by the media (see Kennedy). In fact, the actual origin of the title can be traced back to the seventeenth-century anonymous poem ‘Tom O’Bedlam’, which depicts a journey of madness and vagrancy ‘beyond the wide worlds end’ ‘with a burning spear and a horse of aire’ (qtd. in De Berg). Although Stivens would refuse to rationalise its meaning, the image of ‘a horse of aire’ had ‘obsessed’ him for years (qtd. in Hickman 65), and it clearly intersects with the novel’s search for the lost parrot. I would put forward that while the traditionally ridden horse presents a mirror of its rider or master and implies the submissive and instrumentalised relationship between ‘man’ and Nature, the image of ‘a horse of aire’ suggests, like the Night Parrot, the overthrow of the structure of this reality. This image intertwines with the Night Parrot in Stivens’s novel, infiltrating the reader’s mind like a Trojan horse carried on snaking wisps of air. However, while the Night Parrot can soar, its ‘ragged flight’ (Stivens, A Horse 206) near the novel’s end indicates that its suggestiveness is not solely reliant on flight.
As the only flying parrot on Earth that is nocturnal, and with its habitat proliferating deep in the arid inland, the elusive Night Parrot is uniquely associated with both the dark night and the desert. Having given birth to the three Abrahamic religions, the desert in Western writing is not only a place of spiritual enlightenment, but of dreams and visions, as vast monochromatic skies and extended distances evoke not only expansions of space, but time, which seem to transcend the rational (Haynes, Desert 110, 115). Thus, through its desert abode, the Night Parrot figures certain spiritual and visionary qualities that are amplified by its lucifugous nature. Removed from centres of civilisation and light pollution, the darkness that is the Night Parrot’s great concealer is accentuated; indeed, Stivens details how the desert nights are so dark that you can miss your ‘camp by ten yards’ without a torch (A Horse 181). Birds of the night, such as owls, have long been associated with wisdom, due to not only their oracular vision, but also their connection to the night of dreams, which is inherently visionary.
Illustrating that dreams of flight are as old as human stories, Bachelard connects flight to dreams – which he denotes as oneiric flight – and the reverie, or waking dream, arguing that we soar in our dreams due to our complete enmeshment in the dynamic material imagination (Air 22–4). He goes onto distinguish this from the formal imagination, which is the ‘swapping of picturesque impressions’ (26); or dare I say it, mimicry. Bendik-Keymer notes that dreaming, like the wind, ‘is messy, vague, irrational’: ‘[t]hey do not ask; they decentre’ (131). The unique suggestiveness of Stivens’s bird now more fully reveals itself: it is a ground-dweller that flies great distances, combining both gaudy colours and linguistic abilities of a poet, with speckled black wings of night and prophetic dreams. It not only flies through the air (the most dynamic conductor of the imagination) but is also a parrot of the night (the realm of dreams) and the (visionary) desert. The Night Parrot figures a decentred Centre.
These qualities are further amplified by the Night Parrot’s shadowy nature because its absence creates space for the imagination. Bachelard argues that a poetic image cannot be too specific, as ‘perceiving and imagining are as antithetical as presence and absence’ (Air 3). An intriguing (and humorous) letter from Stivens’s publisher Angus and Robertson (see Figure 3) expresses a similar sentiment, dissuading him from including illustrations in the novel: ‘Most of us who have read the MS. feel that to illustrate it would to some extent detract from its mystery and elusiveness; they think it should remain a parrot of the mind’ (McDonald; emphasis added). Both literal flight and the flight of dreams and reveries suggest overthrowing the coding of reality, for as Bachelard poetically asks, ‘is a dream really a dream if it does not change the boundaries of the world?’ (Air 44). And yet, the Night Parrot’s alteration between ground and sky, day and night, presence and absence suggests that reality, imagination, and dreams are in constant dialogue.
Due to their flight trajectories, expansive wandering and itinerant habits, birds share long associations with stories of migration and nomadic cultures. Previously thought to have diminished flying abilities, a possibility raised by Stivens (A Horse 32), the Night Parrot’s rediscovery has revealed its ‘strong flight capabilities’ (Olsen 9). These capabilities are well utilised in its desert environment, where distances expand, and aridity and climatic variation necessitate ranging. As the Pitjantjatjara of Stivens’s novel, and other Aboriginal peoples of the Western and Central Deserts show, the desert equally enforces human cultures of mobility. In Stivens’s search for the Night Parrot, the bird not only suggests a journey but also compels one, as they search for its sparse presence over vast distances.
A restlessness lies at the heart of A Horse of Air, figured by the desert parrot, as Harry admits he is attracted to the bird precisely because ‘it’s elusive’ (A Horse 92). Boria Sax argues that the transition of birds between nest, flight and migration suggest the ‘dialectic between domesticity and wanderlust’ that permeates human civilisation (97). Drawing on Campbell’s work, Sax further posits that the departure, challenges, and return inherent in human stories, namely myths and epics, closely resemble animal, namely avian, migrations, suggesting that it may even be a pre-human paradigm (98). According to Édouard Glissant, it is one of the great paradoxes that the founding books of communities (civilisation) are tales of ‘exile and errantry’ (15). It is almost as though to be sedentary humans had to sublimate their migratory and/or nomadic instincts, as well as the cyclical nature of the natural and material world, into foundational stories. These vestigial instincts evoked by birds might explain the human tendency to yearn for an imagined past or golden age (Sax 98). Yet, the Night Parrot refuses to settle into these foundations. Recognising his own and our unhealthy obsession with the past, Stivens deploys another avian analogy, as Harry suggests to the reader that perhaps ‘our trouble is that we’re too much like Paul Bunyan’s Goofus bird on the Big Onion River which always flew backwards. “It doesn’t give a darn where it’s going, it only wants to know where it’s been”’ (A Horse 212).
As an elusive creature of the desert, the Night Parrot embodies a figure (and enforces a story) that resists easy sublimation, stratification, or inscription. Glissant highlights how Kant recognised long ago that both nomads and sceptics ‘break the social bonds’, proposing correlations between society, truth, and a settled way of life, on the one hand, and scepticism, chaos, and nomadism, on the other (11). The Night Parrot enforces a journey unfinished and unreturned, unsettled and with truth not finally established. Posthumanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti uses nomadic to describe our negotiation with a modern world where identities are in constant flux (87), leading Sax to postulate that today, migration might not necessarily resemble the ‘archaic epic’, but rather the daily journey through this instability (111). While the Night Parrot enforces a literal physical journey into the desert, Stivens also draws a similar connection as the outward search becomes intertwined with an inward crisis of identity and ultimately mental health, as the story of Stivens’s expedition is refracted and retold through Harry’s subsequent stay in a psychiatric institution. And yet, the Night Parrot, thanks to its unique qualities, suggests an errant figure, as it is the Promised Land, or rather bird, that cannot and should not be attained.
The Night Parrot’s rediscovery in 2013 stands as a cautionary tale about finding that which we might seek, in ways that Stivens’s fictional story prefigures. The questing hero in this real-life tale is now disgraced amateur naturalist John Young, the larrikin bushman who pursued the Night Parrot relentlessly. Described as resembling a cross between Steve Irwin and Crocodile Dundee, sporting a ‘Merv Hughes moustache’ (Carvan), Young’s discovery of the bird created a story that we were seemingly culturally conditioned to believe in, that of, as Olsen describes, a ‘mysterious bird and a heroic bushman’ (qtd. in Carvan). However, Olsen’s study, Night Parrot, exposed concerns about Young’s actions, including suspicions he had injured the wing of the first successfully photographed Night Parrot and faked subsequent nesting evidence. These findings that were later confirmed following an Australian Wildlife Conservancy investigation. Indeed, as Olsen notes, ‘human nature’ might just be the Night Parrot’s ‘worst enemy’ (6).
A Horse of Air, with its dual concerns of Harry’s inward exploration and the outward search, aptly positions the Night Parrot as a totemic representation, showing the human threat – not only to Nature, but to our ourselves. Stivens’s novel successfully anticipates many of the human flaws that clouded the bird’s initial rediscovery. Stivens’s protagonist is ultimately betrayed by his fellow ornithologist Tom Drake, who finds the bird, only to silently kill it and secretly store it in his vehicle’s fridge to steal the glory. When Harry is later confronted with the mounting evidence, he is both mortified and utterly disbelieving, only just pulled back from the brink of madness by a resolution to continue the search.
The expedition ultimately comes to an end when, following a tip from a Pitjantjatjara man, Harry discovers ‘unmistakable tracks leading into a tunnel in a large spinifex clump’ in the ‘Docker Creek area’ (A Horse 201, 203). The Night Parrot is glimpsed, although not decisively: ‘a momentary flash of a sapphire eye and a green glint – was it green?’ (202). Then, a moment later, the spinifex bush ignites: ‘suddenly the whole clump seemed to be spitting flames and heat and pouring out columns of black smoke … We hadn’t a hope’ (202). Martin Heidegger once wrote that ‘[t]he default of God and the divinities is absence’ (229). Having already put forward the bird as prophet, I might mischievously ask, is this Night Parrot as God (or Nature), speaking through the bush, saying ‘I won’t be found’? For Harry, devastation envelopes him, feeling that, ‘[w]ith that cigarette butt or match some of my life died there and then’ (A Horse 201–3). However, eventually emerging from his psychiatric ward, Harry loosens his obsession even as he resolves to continue the search. In the Epilogue, Harry’s editor recounts:
I saw him by chance two months later when my work took me to Adelaide … he said, smiling, that he hadn’t even a feather to show for two months search of the Flinders Ranges, but that there were other places.
I’d never seen him look better. (221)
The novel appears to answer the age-old question: it is not, after all, the destination or (en)closure, it is the journey, and, for Stivens, the journey is the Night Parrot. Forty-six years after the publication of A Horse of Air, yet still seven years before the bird’s official rediscovery, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria echoes aspects of that sentiment:
“Look at that.” Two small green-feathered birds, no bigger than mice, jumped from twig to twig in the nearby grass. Rare birds. Rare find. Night Parrots. The reward was discussed, but no one was interested. (435–36)
The ecological crisis and associated ever-increasing utilitarianism of neo-liberal modernity have thrust literature and culture into a state of crisis; a crisis of not only imagination but also of purpose, as literature and cultural works are undermined through recurrent questioning of what they can ‘do’. Stivens’s textual encounter with the Night Parrot suggests not only how literature can overthrow the programming of this reality, but how literature can at the same time inform and intertwine us into relations with lost and forgotten beings and their worlds. A Horse of Air has served as a source of inspiration for prose writers, poets, filmmakers and ornithologists alike, bringing the elusive bird, which less than a handful of living people have seen, into the public and literary consciousness, directly and indirectly contributing to efforts to save the bird, even as it questions the presumptions of a society that has driven the species to the brink.3 Stivens’s novel establishes the Night Parrot as a being (and figure) of wonder and significance; however, perhaps its ultimate triumph is its combination of unparalleled ecological and scientifically informed detail with the Night Parrot’s ultimate flight beyond them, suggesting that knowledge might inform and even inspire literature, but that it should never contain it.
Ideas subsequently and more prominently represented in Roslynn Hayne’s magisterial work, Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film.↩
The union of these desires with the hoped for emergence of the ‘Great Australian Novel’, and the story of Melville’s whale is articulated in the title of the Bulletin’s review (although it remains unexplored in its content) of A Horse of Air: ‘Moby Dinkum’ (see Ball).↩
Undoubtedly, public awareness of the Night Parrot, stimulated by its entry into the literary and cultural consciousness by Dal Stivens’s portrayal, played a role in the rush to protect the bird’s habitat when it was officially rediscovered in outback Queensland. The Bob Brown-founded Bush Heritage took immediate action to buy the surrounding land from pastoralists. Since then, through knowledge of the Night Parrot’s call, the bird has so far been found to still persist in unknown numbers in the remote inland of the Northern Territory and in the Pilbara and Western Desert of Western Australia.↩