Lyrebird

Trigonometry

You can still drink
in the beauty, and think and
wonder at the meaning of what you see.

Rachel Carson

Lyrebird, one day I watched you undertake
calculations of trigonometry at their most fundamental.

Clearly your legs are strong and agile – I have seen you scratch
and scurry about in your forest undergrowth – but I know your powers of flight
are not so great. How then, might you make vestige across a physical impasse many bounds
wider than your biggest leap? I watched you problem solve, you took assessment of your capabilities
based on the most honest and robust of geometric shapes – the right-angle triangle – then I watched you place your equation into practice. You made an analytical conundrum appear totally natural.

On a twilit evening after bicycling all day, I set up camp on a beach on the outside bend of a riverbank. As the shadows of the remaining day drew long and orange and the ground exhaled the heat of the day, look a lyrebird and you showed yourself across the river. You appeared anxious while surveying your situation but even from my distance I could see you planning to cross.

Was it the first time you’d executed such a manoeuvre from this particular location? Do you go back and forth across the river on a daily basis? Were you merely on your way home to scratch at your mound and perform your song and dance under a soon-to-be-starry sky? I couldn’t tell exactly but you definitely had purpose.

I know you’re usually a shy creature and I sensed you were aware of my presence. But I seemed not to impinge upon your activities, and thus my maths lesson had begun.

You sought out a long-dead but still rooted sheoak, and looking across the river, virtually at me, scampered up the trunk. Some metres up, you perched and craned your head to look across the river again. You punched some numbers into your calculator and then you pressed some of those weird buttons along the top row: ‘sin’, ‘cos’, ‘tan’. I didn’t see your protractor but the triangle you were working with had a right-angle at the base of the tree you were scaling.

Then, unsatisfied with the answer from the calculator in your head, you continued up the trunk to perform more equations. I watched you do this about six times. You’re a very thorough mathematician and I understand why – along with your poor flight I doubt you’re much of a swimmer. And the whistling kite I’d seen soaring overhead might have made a meal of you, should you have found yourself in the water and short of your mark on the opposing riverbank. I know you feel more comfortable with the ground under your feet; you’d prefer to leave the air and water to better adapted birds. You are well-suited to a range of dark gullies and wet eucalypt undergrowth where illusiveness and camouflage are your favourite friends.

A cool breeze blew up the valley as you climbed just about to the top of the sheoak. Any further upwards and the spindly branches, long petrified and devoid of life, might have snapped under your weight. Then what would you have done to accomplish your task?

At this point it seemed the length of the triangle’s hypotenuse between your perch and the bank across the river, and the triangle’s adjacent side from you down to the base of the tree trunk was to your satisfaction. I watched you figure the length of the triangle’s opposite side, from the base of the trunk to where you wanted to land, and equate this to the distance you expected you could fly from the tree-top with the angle of your downward trajectory. You also presumably factored an arc into your proposed flight, because from where I sat – fifty metres across from you – there would surely be fatigue upon your in-the-main unused wings and gravity might have entered your equation. But let’s talk about Newton’s Law some other time.

Please know Lyrebird, I mean this with all due respect, I know you have many talents. But you really lack coordination on the wing. The whistling kite, a graceful glider by anyone’s reckoning, probably watched your display from somewhere above in fits of laughter. Regardless, you launched and flapped over the river and you reached the opposite riverbank as you always knew you would, with about a metre to spare.

Then you scurried backstage under a cloak of bushes – curtains which drew a close to your scene. I was suspended in awe for quite some time afterwards at the lovely thing you just showed me, which still remains one of the memorable highlights of my bicycle trip.

I bet you were laughing at me from somewhere in the surrounding scrub the following morning too, when I emerged from my sleeping bag and stumbled stiff and tired into the day. I concur with you that I was the uncoordinated one then. You can still fly further than me albeit like a character from a slapstick cartoon, but you’re definitely better at mathematics.

About Blair Paterson

Blair grew up and lives in Sydney’s Inner West. He first realised a love of nature and the outdoors during weekends and holidays with his family on the Hawkesbury River. From humble childhood pastimes building billycarts and tree houses to spending large chunks of time in the bush, Blair now embarks on outdoor pursuits whenever and however possible – by foot, kayak, bicycle or other. He has worked in Environmental Management and currently Outdoor Education. Some of his fondest travels to date have been around Australia and through the Indian Himalayas.
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