“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland)

Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin

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19 March 2009

OBITUARY FOR JIM ROBINSON, RAPTOR MAN

NONAMI, THE TARONGA ZOO'S NEWEST WEDGE-TAILED EAGLE. ALL THESE PORTRAITS OF HER ARE BY MARK KOLBE. THE WEDGE-TAIL IS AQUILA AUDAX, OR, IN THE ADNYAMATHANHA, WILDU.


Bird Man Flies
by PHILIP WHITE 13 AUG 03
a version of this story appeared in The Advertiser

Jim Robinson, the Raptor Man, died of cancer last weekend. He was one of the last of our falconers: one of the very special blokes I’ve found on my rounds of the lost edges of the wine industry. He spent his gentle life fixing and rehabilitating birds of prey, or raptors, that had damaged themselves, often by smashing their wings on trellis wires whilst pursuing smaller grape-eating birds through vineyards.

If we had a proper balance of raptors in our vineyards, there’d be much less problem with frustrated grape farmers resorting to bird scarers to deter marauding birds. The imbalance brought our exports close to crisis when government relaxed the laws on shooting native rosellas and parrots in vineyards, which sufficiently disgusted nature-loving wine drinkers in California and London to suddenly drink only French. As if the French were more sympathetic to wee berrudies.

In gastronomy, as in politics, all things are connected to everything else. Mulling over Jim’s life, I had an overwhelming desire to eat pigeons. Cooked with juniper berries, in good red. Raptors eat pigeons, and now, without Jim around to fix them, there’ll be fewer raptors, more pigeons, and more gas guns.

The falcons, eagles, buzzards, kestrels, and hawks exist at the far extreme of the food chain, living on meat that grew up eating everything else, where all the poisons from the dining environment end up, concentrated. They’re the first to go when things go wrong, like during the ’seventies DDT fashion, when their egg shells wouldn’t harden.

These days, we have plastic inflatable raptors flopping around on stupid little poles like fishing rods. They never seem to scare anything, because they never straighten up and fly right, like the rulers of the sky which they dumbly, lifelessly emulate. There’s no evidence at all that their inventors ever looked a raptor in the eye, like I’ve done at Jim Robinson’s.

THIS IS NOT NONAMI'S FOOT. THIS ONE, COMPLETE WITH RADIO TRANSMITTER ON THE JESS, BELONGS ON THE ANKLE OF AN HEBRIDEAN HARRIS HAWK. LOVE THOSE NAILS!

Not too close, mind you. Get too close, touch them for a few seconds too many, especially whilst they’re weak and wounded, and raptors lose the arrogant psychological edge it takes to stoop like lightning through the sky and drive their talons through the flesh of others for a feed. The sky is their restaurant.

But while a brown falcon, for example, can thrash through the leafiest bit of a red gum, in starving pursuit of a smaller bird to eat, it has learned in recent decades to avoid pursuing them through vineyards, because vineyards have something that red gums do not have: those deadly, invisible wires, stretched tight.

There’s a posh, multi-storey, heritage-listed dovecote in the vineyard near the main gate of Chateau Reynella. It houses, without rent, hundreds of pigeons. Jim was one of the few who really knew what that dovecote was for. Pigeons don’t eat grapes. But raptors regard pigeons as aerial chocolate truffles, and they’d sweep through that vineyard to guts themselves on the bits of the pigeon with the most sugar: the pumping heart and the brain. During the chase, they’d frighten all the grape-eating birds away. The grape crop survived, at the expense of the pigeons.

When Gough Whitlam introduced equal pay for women, the old wine families that owned the wine business refused to pay pickers and pruners men’s wages. Most of the pickers and pruners were women. This forced the rapid development of the grape harvesting machine, and the machine-pruning devices. These both worked more efficiently with hedged vinerows. Gradually, one humble fruiting wire became two or three, in pursuit of higher tonnages, and the wires killed the raptors.

Observing Jim mending the wing bones of the broken ones with plastic drinking straw splints, and replacing broken feathers with good ones plucked from his collections of raptors in the deep freeze, was to witness an incredible healing ritual that came from the dawn of time and was all over before anybody knew it, least of all the bird. First of all, if the bird was irreparable, he'd kill it immediately and put it in the fridge. If at any stage his repairs weren't working to his rigorous expectations, he'd kill the bird. If the bird had been handled too much before he got it, he'd kill it. He hated vets, who couldn't resist handling the wounded, to investigate their damages. If a bird had been in the warm hands of a vet, he'd usually kill it.

He’d keep the wounded ones roosting on his bed head with all the blinds drawn, observing them over a day or so, until they’d fall asleep from exhaustion and pain. He’d learn about their ailment by watching, then while the bird was drooping, suddenly grasp their broken bits and feel the damage, so he could then plan a subsequent rapid attack to make the repairs. Then came a long season of retraining: teaching the partly broken bird to be wild again, to fly, hover and stoop to kill. So it could be released.

Hovering was the biggest test. Hovering is very difficult. If you haven't got your wings working evenly, and you can't hover, Jim wouldn't trust you to survive.


Which leads me to the matter of pigeons. If you’re squeamish about dressing your own, you can order them through Angelakis Brothers in the Central Market. Don’t let anyone sell you homeless punks from the street: skyrats that grew up eating cigarette butts taste like ashtrays and take a lot longer to cook. Ensure they’ve come from a cage with plenty of organic corn and hempseed. I dry them with salt and pepper, and stuff them with coarsely-chopped walnuts, smoked bacon fat, black olives and brandy. I wrap them with thinly-sliced Schulz’s or Linke’s bacon, tie them, and brown them in my iron griddle with butter.

Once I’ve put the birds aside, I brown baby beetroot, fresh shiitake mushrooms and little onions in the same griddle with some chopped bacon and fresh herbs. Then I glug in half a bottle of woody shiraz with a cup of chook stock and a dozen juniper berries, and reduce the whole glorious potage by half before putting it in a covered casserole with the pigeons, in an oven already set at 230 degrees C. (Don't put the shiitake in til late.) You can see when your pigeons are done: your nose will tell you. Before serving them in bowls, I take the bacon off them, chop it up, and add it to the hot stock and veg before dousing the birds with it.

A bottle of Mitchell’s delicious screw-capped Clare shiraz 2001, and a stack of mash, and I’m back at the contemplation of dear sweet Jim – a very special, sensitive and clever man who has taken with him all the secrets.




Falco longipennis


What maddened verse gives raptors the rhythm
To thrash through shrubbage and scrub
Risking wings to get at the tucker
And peck the brains from pigeon, parrot, and bat?

I just looked an Australian hobby in the eyes.
She’d done a wing on a vineyard wire,
Humping through the trellis to get the wee birdies
The vigneron erected plastic falcons to scare.

Her falconer had set her up well,
Never holding her down like the dreaded vet,
Keeping her weight up, earning her trust
’Til she up and off, one crook wing tip hanging just

Enough to attract that peregrine that
Drilled a shocked silent hole in the sky,
Smashing all sound of bird into nothing:
A sudden feather-free vacuum of death.

But she came back, that broken one,
Now setting herself on her ground crew’s glove,
Staring black and yellow to my soul, as if to say
“You thought I was fucked then didn’t you”.


Philip White
1 April 2002



Wildu – Aquila audax

Slow to leave the roo somebody’d hit last night,
a wedge-tailed eagle wobbles starving into the up and
lurches to stare from sixty metres off as we draw to a halt.
“There’s another one dead over there” you say.

His gizzards unrolling in the sun, talons locked open.
I pull feathers to freshen my dead brother’s hat.
The highway kills its carrion addicts,
and these wingtips are worn half way through

from years of mothy heaving ’gainst the tarmac to escape.
He’d lost his grasp of air, finally rising so slow
he got splattered with his beak full. Too easy to miss.
Now the female’s twitching to resume her feast.

Can she know? Does she feel it go?
They found the hat in a place like this.


Philip White
24 Sep 07

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi there,I knew Jim.....This is how I found out about his death. A very special man.Priceless. Bless you Jim.

mournful said...

Dear Sweet RaptorMan!

Oscar Turner said...

I Knew jim too, many years ago when I lived in Australia. Special....Good on you Jim X Colin