Friday 12 October 2012


Some books just demand to be read when the iron is hot and Nest was one of those books for me. I had been to the fabulous On the Wing session at the Melbourne Writers Festival and was fully primed. I ignored the multiple other books that I should have been reading, and once I'd read the first few pages whilst browsing in the bookshop I was already hooked. I was in. Signed copy in my hand I was ready to go.

Janine Burke is a Melburnian, art historian, biographer and novelist, who begins Nest by proclaiming herself a "very amateur naturalist." Yet she has been observing birds since the 1980s.

We tend to take birds for granted, in the landscape of our neighbourhoods. Yet when they're gone, it's as though there's a hole in the sky, in the air, an abscence of beauty and grace, and vivid chatter or haunting cries are replaced with eerie silence. The presence of birds communicates the health of a place. They are our contact with wild nature. 

The mere word 'nest' itself "conjures fundamental notions of home, family, privacy, shelter and rest. It's a word of embrace, of origins, both visceral and tender". When Janine first experiences a striped honeyeater's nest up close and personal behind the scenes at Melbourne Museum she finds it "An elaborate piece of work, it looked like an exotic purse worthy of an empress, stitched by a Surrealist seamstress". Yes nests really are "flamboyant little miracles of design".

Janine Burke's art historian and curator self is never that far away.

How can we regard nests as 'art' when art is something we traditionally associate with museums and galleries, with quiet, ascetic environments and, most importantly, with humankind? Of course, art is far from fixed and constantly challenges its own boundaries. Particularly since the beginning of the twentieth cenury, attitudes towards what constitutes art have changed radically. 

Nest was a quick and engaging read for me, broad ranging and wonderful. I read it whilst returning from Victoria to NSW and it made the travel miles pass by without my even noticing. Nest is a beautiful book to hold. A lovely hardback edition with 12 colour plates in the middle- essential to illustrate the wonderful nests that she is describing, a picture really is worth a thousand words.

There was a particularly fascinating section on John and Elizabeth Gould. Recognisable names to be sure, but I wasn't aware that they were not only contemporaries of Charles Darwin, but they were invaluable to helping Darwin establish his theories, and find fame. When the Goulds travelled to Australia, they left their three youngest children behind in England, and brought only one of their children with them. Sadly Elizabeth was to die tragically young at 37 soon after their birth of her eighth child.

Picture source

Some random facts that I enjoyed musing over:

Despite being aware of lithographs for some time, I'd never thought about the name, and what that actually meant. Traditionally lithographs were made by drawing on lithographic limestones with grease crayons. Elizabeth Gould made her extraordinary, fine images of birds using big slabs of stone. I still don't quite understand the process to be honest. How did she get such glorious fine detail and colours?

Picture source

About 5 billion birds of 200 species leave Europe to winter in Africa each year. This is only about a tenth of the world's migratory bird population. It's a very dangerous journey, nearly half the adults and most of their young will die.

Janine Burke appears to be as fascinated by the possibility of swallows migrating as I am. She says they can travel up to 300km per day, which seems a more feasible distance than the 965km suggested by Swallow.

The outrageous behaviour of Percy Bysshe Shelley. He was already married when he met the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. They ran off to Italy, only to return with Mary pregnant. Poor Harriet Shelley drowned herself in a river giving Percy and Mary the opportunity to marry. Although even then it wasn't such a happy marriage- forced to live in exile in Italy, "Mary was despondent, owing to the death of three infants and Shelley's proclivity for flirting with women close to her".

Charles Dickens had pet ravens. His raven inspired Edgar Allen Poe to write The Raven. Turns out that Dickens had his pet raven stuffed and you can see it in Philadelphia.

Karen Blixen, whilst skeletally thin and suffering from the ravages of syphilis survived on a diet of oysters, champagne and amphetamines.

No, Nest is not just about nests.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fascinating read Louise ... what an interesting subject. I like the way she's apparently expanded into the metaphorical aspect of he subject.

As for Mary Shelley, well what should she expect. Never fails to amaze me how so many women don't think through the implications of their relationships with philandering men!

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

You always make wonderful choices in your reading selections, Louise. Very intriguing.

Swan Pond said...

Sound like a great book.

I'd guess Elizabeth Gould's pictures were hand coloured after the lithographs were made.

MedicatedMoo said...

What a beautiful book - thanks for sharing it

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) said...

I am always amazed at the distances some birds migrate, especially the swallows. This sounds like a fantastic book. Unfortunately (grumble) it's out of stock at the bookdepository and not available in the US until next spring.

Louise said...

Leslie, it's available through fishpond (free shipping), although the price will probably be cheaper when it's published in the US.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) said...

Thanks for the link. I set up a notification at bookdepository, so they will email me when it's back in stock. I think they usually have the best prices.