Updated: Aug 26, 2021
That sunny summer of 2015 we were standing at the home’s back door in Wentworth Falls New South Wales, a village at about 900 metres in the Blue Mountains. The day had been warm, the usual thunderstorm dramatically brewing. An unknown homing pigeon we subsequently named Randolph (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homing_pigeon) landed on my left shoulder, commencing at once to peck at my ear. Later proven to be male, Randolph presented as handsome, deep-chested, communicative, injured, fleeing the coming storm but fearless around humans.
Randolph chose to stay. Over time we became keenly interested in him as a ‘character’ and around the property as a companion. He insisted upon being noticed. Clearly he was hard-wired to know how to locate and live well. He knew always what he wanted which turned out to be no surprise since his species’ origin and probable domestication date from at least 3000 BCE. It is thought that pigeons were probable companions to earlier circa 10,000 BCE Neolithic people. (See: https://www.pigeoncontrolresourcecentre.org/html/about-pigeons.html#about1)
Randy’s daily presence, morning greeting, his call, despite cats and dogs his confident swagger in walking unbidden through the old farmhouse kitchen door – his view of co-existence and after all he was the only one with wings - required attention at more than the cursory ‘pet ‘ level. His qualities forced reluctant inquiry into birds as an evolved species. Their lineage of reptiles and dinosaurs became a matter of more than easy observation and occasional light public museum level entertainment.
Randy led us to much better, informed understanding. Post-Enlightenment Linnean taxonomy (from 1758) became much more than some eccentric offshoot of human intellectual zest: it helped us know Randolph. The association with Randolph helped us know ourselves better, as well. (See: https://www.britannica.com/science/taxonomy/The-Linnaean-system)
Happily and attentively Randolph nested with us for some five years, recovering from injury, being picky about the seed supply, re-growing lost shanks, residing in the garage, strutting. He was never caged or locked up other than when transported for specialist veterinarian check-up, who found him healthy, commenting specifically on the cleanliness of his blood. Over those years he remained healthy, very active and constantly friendly.
Beyond simple enjoyment and pride, it was educational to get to know Randolph, to see him herding sulphur-crested cockatoos that often came for afternoon seed-tea and to see him warily approaching the magpies of the property, offended by their territorial attitude. To see Randy flying his ‘circuit’ at dawn or returning in the evening was to understand differently ‘dawn treader’, and ‘coming home’. On occasion he was absent such as at each mating season but loudly announcing his presence with that unforgettable call always returned when he was ready. He prepared a nest in the garage, to no avail.
In the usual ‘good for the children’ way, as a family we had always included beloved dogs and cats. In recent years we had been involved in Black Angus breeding. As a child and a teenager I had had the delight of being part of our family dairying on the Barrington, riding extensively through the ‘Buckets’ mountains, themselves subject of a 'landscape with magpie' in Ebony's exhibition in August 2021. Luckily we had in general all been comfortable in most natural world situations.
It is acknowledged however that not everyone enjoys such comfort. Some people are frightened of birds and the natural world in general. At times even a few hard-hat contractors proved to be averse to Randolph as to bird-life in general. The origins of such fear are not always admissible.
Of course there are always doubts, always misgivings. Consequently to be invited by Randy to include him unreservedly was a slowly built, initially incomprehensible but eventually welcome revelation; thinking and perceiving altered. New knowledge of the avian world was uncovered despite initial habitual doubts about its importance.
Improved understanding and gathering admiration both gradually arrived. Yeats in Lake Isle of Innisfree wrote “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow…”. Of course he wrote of escaping the ‘pavement’ but as his wider work shows he knew that peace through knowledge also comes ‘dropping slow’. To have Randolph just ‘drop into’ our lives and stay of his own free will ensured increased understanding of the ‘world of birds’, made it possible to do more than glance up dismissively, as though a tourist in the world, in life. Now it became habitual actually to look carefully as those magnificent, highly intelligent, ancient and modern spirited creatures flew by.
For us all, Randy enhanced time as we hope to have enhanced his life by his being integral to ours. We grew into mutual unexpected affection, an unexpected freedom.
When it came time to move business from the mountains we arranged to take Randy with us, discussing with veterinarians all ways and means of ‘settling’ him in our future new home environment. Very close to the time of departure, a matter of just a week, Randolph left. He may have flown on to complete the journey interrupted by that thunderstorm years ago. His nest remained in place, empty until reluctantly but finally the home gate had to be closed for the last time. Memories, photographs and anecdotes will always have to suffice.
We took with us though an improved, grateful recognition of the importance, existential centrality, particular splendour and intelligence of Randy’s avian world.
Eyes had been opened.
As a direct consequence the approach to Ebony Bennett’s current important exhibition Birds and other creatures at Easel Art Space (7 to 29 August 2021 and https://Easel-art-space.com ) has personally been much more considered, fruitful, more perceptive. As the website images show she has caught and disclosed artistically these mainly Australian character-filled birds, creatures, landscape and treescape.
As a direct result, the exhibition makes it possible for the observer to share and absorb Ebony Bennett’s admiration and deep respect for her ‘sitters’. That they are each named individually, are well known, and are so attractive in both ‘personality’ and colour all add to finest brushwork and the intelligent glint in each eye as he, she or they look back.
Had Randolph not been part of our family’s world for those years, this writer certainly would have regarded these portraits and treescapes solely as exceptional decoration, amusement. Any long professional life lived hard creates its own tunnel vision, excludes daily the apparently unnecessary, the inferentially irrelevant. On the contrary then Randolph proved there are crucial unities; he brought to the kitchen door urgent knowledge. Search to know.
Consequently it is argued here that Ebony Bennett’s continuing practice has created fully finished avian ‘portraits’ which are subtle, complete, artistically exquisite but also on a number of levels educational. In a child’s bedroom the decision to hang Whooos there, the Boobook owl, may well influence companionably a child’s perception of the natural world. To lasting advantage. To hang Bella the Barn Owl at the entrance to a residence is to affirm at home the joy of living with colour and avian character. To place in the dining room, professional offices or home study Geoffrey the King Parrot or kin is to improve room, home, office and conversation.
Underlying every image is the larger important foundation: each and all of the exhibition’s birds and creatures have co-habited the world for at least as long as humankind; possibly longer. However in this brief meditation, to bring focus sharply the references (below) centre on the European 18th century onwards. Centuries to date of published literature and scientific records reveal that tangible excitement of European scientists, explorers, commentators and admirers when another portion of the southern hemisphere became accessible, not alone through exploration but also through studies of meaning, of the exquisite, of the formerly unimagined. Philosophy changed course. Knowledge expanded and energised. Mythology diminished. European intellectual life expanded.
Globally now we follow and improve, better informed as we can be, better equipped as we are to continue their search.
The list attached (below) shows the variety of interest across many European countries. The great southern world caused expansion of the Linnean categorisation to take account of a ‘new’ natural world and its animal life. That interest continues. It can still be shared. By avenues such as Ebony Bennett’s artworks young inquiring minds can be given the hint that there is so much to find, so much to revere and enjoy, so much more to add. Insight is not automatic. The individual ‘self’ is not all there is.
There is probably just one summer in a lifetime when a Randolph drops into each life. Ebony Bennett’s Birds and other Creatures reminds us artistically, gently but insistently that we must be ready.
To assist with each painting, please see below some information references provided in the main by internet search.
Unless otherwise indicated the commonly used names of the birds depicted in Ebony Bennett’s exhibition date from after British settlement, Sydney New South Wales, 1770 to 1788.
Barn Owl 1769: First described from specimen in 1769 by the Tyrolean physician and naturalist Giovanni Antonio Scopoli in 1769.
Bar-shouldered Dove 1821: First described from specimen by Coenraad Jacob Temminck in 1821. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coenraad_Jacob_Temminck)
Boobook Owl 1801: First described by British ornithologist John Latham in 1801. He wrote of it in English, before giving it its scientific name taking its epithet from a local Dharug word for the bird. ( See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_boobook)
(The) Bucketts Range, New South Wales, with Magpie : named by English speaking settlers, from the Gathan language anglicised ‘Buccan Buccan’.
Crested Pigeon 1822: First described from specimen by Coenraad Jacob Temminck 1822. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coenraad_Jacob_Temminck)
Crimson Rosella 1605 to 1788: Known well and described variously from 1605 to Johann Friedrich Gmelin 1788. Described and named by British ornithologist John Latham in 1781.(See: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Friedrich_Gmelin and http//wikipedia.org/wiki/John Latham_(ornithologist) )
Dwarf Tree Frog: (Litoria fallax) also known as the eastern sedge-frog. Commonly found on the east coast of Australia from Cairns, Queensland to Ulladulla New South Wales.
Eastern Rosella 1792 : First described by British medical doctor and botanist George Shaw in 1792. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Shaw
Forest Kingfisher 1830: First described by British naturalists in 1830. It was known for many years by its old scientific name of Halcyon macleaya. The specific epithet honours the Scottish entomologist and Colonial Secretary (1826) to New South Wales Alexander Macleay (1767-1848).(See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_kingfisher#cite_note-Jobling-3)
Galah Cockatoo 1840: Presence documented in Tasmania since the 1840s.
King Parrot 1818 : After European settlement (1788) first described by German naturalist Martin Hinrich Lichtenstein in 1818. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hinrich Lichtenstein)
Long-billed Corella 1820: First written description by German naturalist Heinrich Kuhl in 1820. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinrich_Kuhl)
Magpie 1801: First described by British ornithologist John Latham in 1801. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John Latham_(ornithologist)
Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo 1831: First described and given scientific binomial by British scientist Nicholas Aylmer Vigors in 1831. Recognised name Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo for Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell (1792 – 1855). (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Aylward_Vigors)
Possum-eyed Ringtail Possum 1785: Australian mammal, scientifically named by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pieter_Boddaert Dutch naturalist and physician Pieter Boddaert as part of his work on Histoire Naturelle published in Paris.
Rainbow Bee-Easter 1801: It was first described by John Latham in 1801.
( See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Latham_(ornithologist)