I have been thinking about immigration. About the immigration of by-the-wind sailors, violet snails and the blue stalked barnacle. They have all been landing on our shores, washed up on Newport Beach, and noted by a friend of mine. By-the-wind sailors (Velella velella), violet snails (Janthina janthina) and blue stalked barnacles (Lepas fascicularis) all live at the surface of the water (the sailors have a sail, set either to port or starboard; the snails keep afloat by ‘secreting a raft of mucus bubbles’; the barnacles manufacture a ‘foamy float’), their fate determined by the wind. The fate of the blue stalked barnacle is also determined by the by-the-wind sailors, on which they feed.
While the wind is blowing snails and barnacles ashore at Newport, other immigrants are spreading through our suburbs. The koel and the channel-billed cuckoo arrived some weeks ago, the koel’s eerie early-morning cry laying a sheen of dread over the backyards and street trees, the channel-billed cuckoo screeching with impunity. They both fly south to Australia for the summer, from New Guinea and Indonesia, and fly back at the beginning of autumn. Their chicks, who have been raised by unhappy host birds, leave a little later but return here in spring.
I watch a pair of magpies attempt to chase an implacable channel-billed cuckoo away from their nest, the whole episode conducted with a clack of beaks and a great deal of flurrying of branches. The cuckoo might be trying to lay an egg, or to feed on the eggs or baby birds already in the nest. Either way, it infuriates me. The grey butcherbird, a bird that lives in Australia all the time, is also described as ‘an aggressive predator’ and will eat smaller birds as well. But its song is my favourite, and even when I see it sitting on the gutter of our building, essentially licking its lips while the noisy miners fuss around their depleted nest, I watch it adoringly and wait for it to sing.
Am I displaying a hard-wired antipathy towards migrants in my favouritism for the butcherbird? If so, why is my day so enriched by talking to the man at the fruit shop who tells me he was born in Cyprus and has lived here since he was seven, how he loves Australia but also goes back to visit family in Cyprus whenever he can. He’s going back for a wedding in January, when there will be snow on the ground. Or the man at the stall where I buy hummus and falafel and beetroot dip who tells me that he came out here from Syria 16 years ago. He didn’t speak English so although he didn’t want to just stay in one area he had to get jobs where he could speak Arabic. Now that he’s selling his dips, which was his profession in Syria, he’s learnt English and he can talk to everyone.
My life is enriched by a picnic yesterday with an Australian woman who is now making her life in France, with a French husband. It’s enriched by the thought that at the end of the year I will see my nephew – whose parents were Australian but who was born in Northern Ireland – marry a woman in a traditional ceremony in Hong Kong in her parents’ village. Their son, born in London, has great-grandparents born in Australia, China and France.
Our borders are porous, for people as well as for violet snails, blue stalked barnacles and koels. There’s no point pretending otherwise.