Do you hear the Tui call the Huia in the trees

In the weeks before she died my grandmother saw a Ruru in her room, an owl I believed this was a good omen a messenger.  My grandmother also saw lots of people come to visit her, people that most others didn't see.  But it was the Tuis heard by my sister around our grandmother's house and in the trees that seemed to have the clearest of messages. Waking before dawn still adjusting to a new time zone and re-awkening to an old world I too would hear them call.  Their song a melodic chorus reminded me of their visits to the Kowhai tree which grew outside my childhood home.  An iridescent blue black with a white tuff around its neck it is easy to see why the early european settlers called the Tui the Parson Bird.   The Tui though has much more to offer than religious platitudes.   My grandmother was going blind so hearing their dawn chorus must have been a comfort and a soothing sound to wake to.

The Tui is endemic to New Zealand.  Other native song-birds include the Kokako, the Piopio and the Huia the latter two both now extinct.   The story goes the Huia was the first to sing the dawn chorus.  Once it had called out to the rising sun the other birds would join in.   We can only imagine what the sound must have been like.   Today we hear a fraction of this song and it is the Tui which has taken the role the Huia once claimed.

My grandmother was impatient to die declaring that neither God nor the devil wanted her but she still had things to do and tasks to complete so she lingered longer than anyone imagined.   People from the past and present sought her company knowing that the old woman would soon be travelling on.  Before I returned to New Zealand she came to visit in my dreams.   In one she called out in fear of the dark but was soon comforted by a beautiful light and the arrival of a large ship.  In another we sat in my great grandmother Rongoheikume's wharenui while my grandmother sat reminiscing with my grandfather who had passed many years previously.  In the last she came just before I woke to say goodbye.

My grandmother was superstitious.  Once when we gathered in her dining room upon hearing of the death of a family member a Piwakawaka flew in and circled above us chatting before flitting out.   She didn't like this.  Nor did she like peacock feathers as she believed they brought bad luck.  And as she got older her home became a place of memories of people who had died and she became a little afraid.   Afraid of the dark.

The Tui's call at dawn must have been a heart warming sound for a woman whose world was becoming smaller and darker as her eyesight failed her.   Refusing to move out of her home, she dwelt in a place which must have felt desolate at times but for the blessing of her carer a devoted and loving woman and the visits of family and friends.   My grandmother persevered.

When I visited earlier in the year I could see she was getting ready to travel light.   Letting go of hurts and giving thanks for life my grandmother was ready to die.   Philosophical and with a wicked sense of humour  she had journeyed through a life at times  treacherous and dark but she carried on.   She was tough, her mind and heart ticking over with a steady beat.  Even close to death she requested she be woken if a visitor came to see her.  She loved people and in her last few months she had a steady stream of visitors.  I believe she also found the visits of the Ruru and Tui a blessing but more than anything it was the song of the Huia I hoped and imagined she  would wake to.  The song of a gatekeeper to the seventh heaven the Huia would be the guardian which when the time came would carry my grandmother up through the trees and beyond to a place where she would rest and laugh and be.

On an overcast day we gathered.   The women of the family carried her coffin out of the house and the men carried her into the chapel.    I stood before them as a priest and a grandson.  Family spoke and sang, cousins offered beautiful words and prayers in maori, a poem written by my brother  inspired and an Irish blessing was shared.   And as we lowered the coffin into the grave on the day that was also my birthday I imagined her, glint in eye with a glass of vodka in one hand regaling all with rude stories and naughty jokes and I smiled.

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BEANNACHT (Irish for blessing) by John O'Donohue 

On the day when The weight deadens On your shoulders And you stumble, May the clay dance To balance you. 

And when your eyes Freeze behind The grey window And the ghost of loss Gets into you, May a flock of colours, Indigo, red, greenAnd azure blue, Come to awaken in you A meadow of delight. 

When the canvas frays In the currach of thought And a stain of ocean Blackens beneath you, May there come across the waters A path of yellow moonlight To bring you safely home. 

May the nourishment of the earth be yours, May the clarity of light be yours, May the fluency of the ocean be yours, May the protection of the ancestors be yours. And so may a slow Wind work these words Of love around you, An invisible cloak To mind your life. 

Photo of Lake Taupo by Hana Ransfield.

"Do you hear the Tui call the Huia in the Trees"   Words from the Song "Reconnect" by Maisey Rika.

Wharenui - House

Piwakawaka - Faintail (type of bird)

For the Love of Birds.

Regan O'Callaghan Elijah and the ravens, oil pastel, wadi,"Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all"       

Emily Dickinson


I spent part of my childhood on a farm a few miles out from a little town called Taihape in the North Island of New Zealand.  I have a very clear memory of asking my stepfather if there were any Kiwis in the surrounding countryside.   There were none.   Kiwis are forest dwellers and the forest had been cleared a couple of generations before to make way for sheep and cattle.   The trees that dotted the landscape were mostly introduced species like the plum trees in the orchard where I would spend time climbing and hiding or the big Macrocarpa trees behind the dogs kennels where Magpies roosted and sometimes dive bombed.

I loved birds.  One of my first pets was a Australian cockatiel named Joey.    He lived in a cage but was often let out and eventually when we moved back to Taupo released into a large aviary in our garden.  Around this time I also had a pet magpie who as a young bedraggled sick looking bird wandered onto our property.  I nursed him back to health.  He flew around our neighborhood and would return when I whistled.  One day he just disappeared.    I like to think it was the call of the wild.

I started painting birds at an early age.  Seabirds, parrots and owls all appeared in my work and I was fascinated by the very rare New Zealand birds most people hadn’t seen or even heard about.  The Hioho, Piopio, Huia, Takahe, Hihi and others inspired me and saddened me at the same time.  Some having become extinct.  In Maori culture birds have an important role.  Its not surprising they feature so prominently as Aotearoa was originally a land of birds.  There were no land mammals except for bats.  Birds ruled.  This all changed with the arrival of man and rats, stoats and possums.

Gone but nor forgotten.

On the day my father died I went round to my grandmothers.  A few of us gathered to share our feelings and begin to discuss funeral plans.  As we talked a Pīwakawaka ( a small bird with a fan tail)  flew into the room and flitted around us twittering before darting out.  To some including my superstitious grandmother this was a bad omen.  For me I saw it as a beautiful sign, a sign of hope.

Birds feature in my art often as symbols of hope and as representations of dreams of  fluttering wings and haunting birdsong deep from within forgotten forests.    The story of God promising that ravens would bring food to Elijah is a reminder of something we often choose to forget.  We need birds.  They remind us of the beauty of the world and its mysteries.  Their flight is inspirational their song heart moving.    Without them we are lost.  The now extinct Huia is a case in point.  There is a story that says the Huia was the first bird to sing at the rising of the sun and once it had started singing all the other birds would join in with the dawn chorus filling the land with song.    Today the Huias song has been silenced along with much of the song of creation.   The remaining forests in New Zealand are virtually silent.   Thankfully the conservation movement in New Zealand is working hard to protect what is left.

Gone but not forgotten.

 “Elijah and the ravens”Oil pastel on paper1996.