The-one-who-loves-knowledge, he says: ‘What is writing? What are its places of storage? Compare it to its like, O overflowing one!
— Book of Thoth
From my window, between this building and the next, I’m counting ibis. In the morning over coffee … 1, 2 … at lunch … 4, 5, 6 … at dusk …7, 8, 9. Some flap their wings madly, careening through the air as though flight was a mistake, while others glide elegantly … 10, 11. If I spot one off in the distance I can usually follow it as it passes over the old timber wharfs where wool was once graded and exported, replaced now by cocktails and oysters; over the grey warships docked at the naval base; over a modernist concrete carpark; over the old brick buildings and the new shiny ones made from glue and glass; over a park named Embarkation, commemorating soldiers that departed from there during the First World War and who still depart from there, though less conspicuously; until it passes like a flash (a reminder?) somewhere beyond my sight … 12.
An image I’ve not been able to shake, as I sit here, is of an ibis I once saw at the Brooklyn Museum. This one was over two thousand years old and behind glass. Its body had been carved from one piece of wood and overlaid with gold leaf; its feet and S-shaped neck and head were silver; its eyes were crystals outlined in gold; it wore a beaded necklace and was mounted on a rectangular wooden base in such a way as to suggest that it might leap up and fly off at any moment. There it goes! Or so I imagined. Smashing through the glass, returning home.1 But that’s not all: this ibis had a large cavity in its back, revealing an ibis mummy. An ibis inside an ibis. Like all sarcophagi, a dead truth contained within the object. Mimicry hiding — holding — its once living source. An exquisite thing, but not unique, I learned, since many ibis were bred, sacrificed and embalmed throughout ancient Egypt as a tribute to Thoth, the god of learning, healing, magic, writing and reading. (It’s said that at Saqqara, where the Step Pyramid of Djoser is located, nineteenth century archaeologists found over a million ibis mummies, which makes me wonder how many now live out their death in the cold storage rooms of museums.)
Thoth was the scribe to the gods and a ‘time-reckoner’.2 He determined the seasons, the reign of kings and the length of human lives. In centuries preceding and following the beginning of the Christian era, just before the old gods were banished, the ibis (along with the baboon) was worshipped as Thoth, which is why he’s usually depicted with the head of an ibis and the body of a man (or as a baboon). As the physical manifestation of the god of knowledge, the ibis made up the first letter of the Egyptian alphabet (a hieroglyph of an ibis on a perch, much like the one I’m remembering), and its step is said to be equivalent to one cubit, the earliest standardised measurement.3 I read that some Egyptologists believe this focus on the form of the ibis came about through an association with the moon, for Thoth was the god who allowed time to continue without the sun. Ancient Egyptians were masters of associations, their attention and imaginations porous (if that’s the word?), moving between scales, forms and creatures. Another one I like: the scarab beetle rolling balls of dung along the ground was likened to the solar god Khepri, who rolled the sun across the sky each day and buried it in the horizon. They named the beetle hprr, ‘rising from, come into being itself,’ because they watched other beetles emerge from the balls as if from the life-giving sun, and took it as acts of spontaneous creation. Did the Egyptians see the crescent moon as the upturned beak of the ibis, or was it the other way around? Did they look up at the moon and see a luminous ibis presiding over the still of night, guarding the sky until the sun returned?
I’ve heard a few different stories about the ibis. In a documentary on Taronga Zoo Sydney from 1973, an ornithologist speaks about ‘reducing the barriers’ between animal inhabitants and the public, and the ibis exhibit was a case study, as if conjuring André Malraux, of an ‘enclosure without walls’.4 Here is one origin story for the prevalence of ibis in this city: they flourished after being freed from an Egyptian exhibit at the zoo. The ibis I see flying past my window are very similar to those found in Africa and the Middle East (a ‘species complex’ is what biologists call it). But they are, in fact, a native species that have migrated into the city, from wetlands like the Macquarie Marshes and the Murray-Darling Basin, due to drought, pesticide runoff and loss of habitat.5 Or is it more precise to say the city migrated into them? Or they migrated into each other? They are equally at home in urban design efforts to beautify suburbs with ‘green space’ as they are in the glass and concrete forest of the CBD. For just as pigeons once nested on cliff-faces but now make use of ledges, balconies, rooftops and public art, the ibis has figured out how to live again in another world. Their long, slim, downcurved beaks still probe for worms and bugs in shallow water and mud (where they can find it), but they also use their beaks to pierce plastic bags and pick out bits of food from rubbish bins and stormwater drains, or delicately pry open plastic takeaway containers for leftovers. And it doesn’t take a keen observer to notice that the ibis, with their white football-sized bodies and tuft of black tail feathers, prefer to roost in the canary island date palm, setting up a home in the tough fronds and painting the tree and the ground below a speckled greyish-white with their shit, though this preference presumably had to be tested, learned, passed on; these decorative trees began to show up in the city’s parks and along its streets around one hundred and fifty years ago. Joseph Maiden, an English botanist and the director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens from 1896 to 1924, decided mixed palms would give the city ‘a more semi-tropical aspect.’6 But that’s another story.7
Or is it? ‘It was that kind of confidence’, wrote Raymond Williams in his book about the country imagined in English literature, ‘to make Nature move to an arranged design, that was the real invention of the landlords. And we cannot then separate their decorative from their productive arts; this new self-conscious observer was very specifically the self-conscious owner.’ Maiden, no doubt working in the long tradition of scientifically-minded European men with personal and civic ambitions — ambitions to make the city a place, ignoring the fact that it already was one, to know a place, ignoring the fact that it already was known, and where property and cultivation were coterminous — most likely had an image in his mind, a mosaic of sorts, pieced together from all sorts of references, a bit of this and that: a world ordered by taxonomy, by Divine law and human reason? The tropics or the holy land? The landscapes of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain? Postcards from friends, or maybe a lover, travelling through the Suez Canal? Golden light and quietly flowing streams? Towering straight trees and tranquil, suggestive skies? ‘For what was being done’, wrote Williams about a distant though connected history, ‘by this new class, with new capital, new equipment and new skills for hire, was indeed a disposition of “Nature” to their own point of view.’8
Watching ibis, it’s hard to deny their own disposition, their own decorative and productive sensibilities, their own methods of invention, their own point of view. Is this what draws my eye? In the time of pandemic, I look for them and they seem stranger, allegorical, roaming like shrunken medieval doctors during the plague, pulled along by their beaks worn like masks and announcing their daily arrival and departure with a series of guttural honks. I send photos to friends. I stop counting, glimpsing them on their way to elsewhere, as I hear muffled orders being yelled at sailors through the loudspeakers at the navy yard. Those grey ships like obstructions but also reminders of a not-so-distant, and not-so-past, history. This place needs a reckoning with time, but then that asks too much of the ibis, Thoth or not. For nothing can undo the double standard of what has been called nature. ‘As the exploitation of nature continued, on a vast scale, and especially in the new extractive and industrial processes, the people who drew most profit from it went back, where they could find it (and they were very ingenious) to an unspoilt nature, to the purchased estates and the country retreats.’9 What to do, again and again, about this old game of taking and extracting in one place while romanticising and bemoaning the loss of an innocent nature in another? To make sense, or live within the nonsense, of a permanent metabolic rift?
Like many creatures that spend time putting our rubbish to good use, deciphering what is edible and what isn’t, ibis are often the target of ridicule and even spite. I’ve seen more than one or two people recoil in disgust at the mere mention of them. But like subway rats in New York or rhesus macaque monkeys in the streets of New Delhi, the ibis have found ways not only to survive but to flourish, all the while retaining their independence. Or why not say they are translators of the city — inhabiting and modifying the architecture, monuments, palms, parks and, yes, our rubbish. They express the city in their own language, and if every translation is a transformation, Nature — that complex, contradictory and embattled word — becomes whatever works, a network of remainders and unspoken cooperation that make a certain place habitable — or not. A Nature made new each day as a translation; an irreversible, constant transformation — or not.
If you go walking in the city you’ll quickly encounter an ibis or two in and amongst the pigeons or standing on top of a bin like a living gargoyle, their wrinkled, featherless black heads disappearing for a moment and re-emerging with a morsel, which they devour by craning their snake-like necks towards the sky and swallowing it whole in a series of convulsions. A prayer perhaps not to the god of knowledge but to the god of scraps, or to scraps as knowledge. On record-breaking days, when the air swells and blisters the leaves on the trees and all the bugs and insects go silent with exhaustion, you can see them cooling off by spreading their (usually grubby) white wings to reveal a shock of crimson-red skin which, if you haven’t seen it before, could be mistaken for an open wound. And then there’s the sound of their call. I’ve already described it as a honk, it’s also sometimes compared to the quack of a duck, though to my ear it is more mechanical, like a broken alarm. On some afternoons I occasionally hear them in a passing cacophony of screaming cockatoos, chirping and chittering lorikeets and mynahs, as well as magpies and currawongs, and yet the ibis always seemed somehow separate from the other birdlife, outcasts in their own city. Shunned but enduring; attached but creatively autonomous. And it’s not just that their form conjures the ancient, the cartoon, the theatrical, or that they are much larger than the other birds. Like all birds they remain wary, but they also seem unfazed, indifferent to the attention they receive or don’t receive. Which is maybe why I keep imagining that ancient ibis I saw behind glass taking flight, breaking out of its enclosure and passing my window on its way to who knows where.