I believed I was a smart and realistic little kid and so even then, I told myself that the giant bird I saw staring at me from the foot of my bed one night was just a dream. It’s funny, I often thought afterwards about how it hadn’t felt like how dreams normally felt, that there was a solidity, aliveness and detail to the creature’s presence: a being-ness that one feels from other living creatures. It seemed as if it had been watching me all night. I was a little scared but not truly afraid. I only saw the bird once but I thought about it for years afterwards, fixated on it but always told myself that it was just a vivid dream.
Once, at the Auckland zoo, I saw vultures for the first time in real life and they fascinated me even as they gave me the same slightly cold and sickening feeling that I had whenever I contemplated the bones of our first pet dog, Kelly, which were buried under a chestnut tree. I wanted to stare at them for a long time, they had a feeling of unreality and reminded me a bit of my dream bird, though they were not quite the same.
I fixated on birds. At Rotokawa primary school, we were told the story of Hatupatu and Kurangaituku, a dangerous and angry bird woman who chased and imprisoned Hatupatu. When Hatupatu eventually escaped and Kurangaituku gave chase, we were told that he hid in a big boulder that we once stopped at during a school trip, there was a man sized hiding hole in the rock and one of the teacher pointed us to what appeared almost like giant claw marks. I was a skeptical child who had already decided that she did not believe in the Christian God they taught about at primary school but evidence of the Maori myths and legends were all around the place where I grew up, Rotorua, Aotearoa, and so I believed in the truth of these stories. They made sense in the place we were, so directly were they connected to the land. Right next to school was a tiny lake which we were told to be careful near as a Taniwha lived there.
My favourite teacher at Rotokawa primary school was a strange man who played us the War of the Worlds rock opera which blew open my tiny little kid brain, who insisted that when you coloured in, you shouldn’t leave a single spot of white, empty paper and who sung old songs that made me feel big, deep feelings that were so sad yet strangely wonderful to my little kid mind.
“On a wagon bound for market
there’s a calf with a mournful eye.
High above him there’s a swallow,
winging swiftly through the sky.”
The teacher told us all about the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds” and though I never saw the movie, my imagination was filled with haunting, silent images of flocks of staring, threatening birds. I was not disturbed, or at least I enjoyed the sensation of being a little creeped out and unnerved. I didn’t grow up hearing a lot of scary stories nor seeing a lot of horror movies, so the unusual media that our teacher introduced us to stuck with me. In retrospect, I wonder what the adults must have thought of this strange man who taught us things such as this but I adored him. The other kids called me a teacher’s pet but I didn’t realise until years later that this was meant as an insult, I thought it meant I was special. I was always so desperately anxious to please adults that I tried so hard at school and would even snitch on other kids and felt immune to their anger at me. I once wrote an angry letter to TVNZ about how Power Rangers was a bad influence and after the show was taken off the air for unrelated reasons, I gained a reputation for being the kid who got Power Rangers banned from TV. The funny thing is that I secretly loved Power Rangers, I wanted to be the girl one… but I knew the adults didn’t like it and so I felt that I should not either.
There’s a lot of things that I told myself that I shouldn’t like, shouldn’t be and shouldn’t believe. Over the years, I forgot about the bird which appeared at the foot of my bed until one day in my adulthood, I was at a festival and having the sort of psychedelic conversations that take place at such events. The memory of the bird had been coming back to me lately, as well as all my other strong memories of birds and the shirtless, long haired dude I was talking to who was on so much ketamine told me in a voice full of certainty that the bird I saw was my guardian and this is why birds were such an important motif for me. I liked this interpretation so I decided to allow myself to believe it. I was in my early thirties by then and I’d started letting myself think and feel the things I’d never allowed myself to have before.
This painting from a few months back isn’t my guardian. It’s too awkward and comical. I tried to paint her but I couldn’t evoke her and probably cannot. Still, I’ve been painting birds on and off for years now and this helps me feel connected to the past not just of myself but of human stories, animal stories and of the evolution of life on this planet.