Thursday, June 23, 2005


I am a believer in omens. It is a very one-sided belief. I do not believe in bad omens, would not recognise one if it bit me on the arse. Good omens only.

Correction. I know of two bad omens, both from my childhood. One I grew up with, one I came across during it. I'll get to the latter later. The other now. My parents were very superstitious. Spilling the salt meant bad luck so to cancel it out, pick up a pinch of the spilt salt in your right hand & throw it over your left shoulder. That's a third bad omen – maybe I'll have to keep raising the number as I progress. The one I was actually thinking of was their belief that to bring yourself good luck in the coming month you had to go outside at new moon, bow seven times to it & turn over whatever silver coins you had in your pocket. To see the new moon through glass meant bad luck for the coming month. Even now I feel a twinge of dread if this happens to me. Though nothing has ever happened in the subsequent month.

Back to the omens, the good omens. Mainly songs & birds. Rarely specific, though I do remember, as an example, & probably remember because I've used it as an example in the intervening years, when I went back to university to do the degree I'd dropped out of thirty-five years before – though not the same degree; goodbye B.A., hello B.Sc. – coming out of an exam, computing or some such – write this into binary code, translate this paragraph written in hexadecimal - & feeling it could go either way. & as I entered the foyer, I heard a song I liked being piped over the speaker system & I knew I'd passed the exam. Stopped worrying about it. Got a credit. But it's songs in circumstances, not just hearing them. Starting a long journey, turning on the car radio, & the first song you hear is by Aretha Franklin, or a Tamla Motown song, or REM or that track, Cherish, by Madonna that I like so much.

Birds are generally associated with bad things, are harbingers of evil. Have always wanted to write that phrase. Think Hitchcock, think H.P. Lovecraft, think Buffy. The specific mentioned earlier dates from the times I'd go & stay with my sister, ten or so years older, & her family during school holidays. At the time my brother-in-law worked for the Department of Agriculture, posted to the largest town in the centre of the North Island. Memories of hot springs by the southern side of lake Taupo, a church sticking out from lava, the 1937 Chevy he had that went like the proverbial bat out of Hell, a flock of wild goats that would head for a cave the day before rain, timber trucks hauling huge logs over the narrow roads, with often-used safety ramps leading off up the hillside, the old bed of the Wanganui River, the train line that ran alongside it, & alongside that the self-propagated apple & peach trees grown up from years-earlier passengers throwing a core or a seed out the window.

Included in the area he looked after were a number of minimum security prison farms, with lush fields perfect for raising cattle & plenty of labour to look after them. Running through several of them were wonderful trout streams that hardly anybody ever got to because of where they were though Zane Grey is supposed to have fished there & written excitedly about them. One of the prison farms was hidden from the road, set back behind a range of low hills. There was a jagged cut, almost as if somebody had taken to it with an axe, in this range, & this cut was called the place where the taniwha went through. The local Maori believed that if you saw a bird flying in the gap it meant that your death was imminent, no matter how healthy you were. There are verifiable stories of such deaths. The wife of the prison manager told me of one instance she had personally been involved with, could vouch for.

I don't regard birds per se as bad omens. & most of the time not even as good omens. They're just, well, birds. The ones that I look on as good omens, get pleasure from seeing, are not your common varities. I don't regard the sulphur-crested white cockatoos that shriek from the trees outside or the crows or the rainbow lorikeets or the kookaburras or the butcher birds or, or, or, as omens of any kind. They're just things that clutter up the garden most of the time. It's the little kingfishers or the bee-eaters that perch occasionally on a tree-branch before flying on, that flash of colour amongst the dull surrounds, or the pheasant coucal that comes visiting a couple of times a year, bopping its way along the bottom branches of the trees.

& one of the special birds for me is the black cockatoo. It's been years since I’ve seen them in the wild, twenty years at least, when I lived in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, & they'd be there outside the house, tearing small branches from the pine tree, ripping the cones apart. They are here. At the top of Mt Archer there's a tree that the information guides say they quite often gather in, but I've never seen them. L. tells me of seeing them in a particular tree at the university.

But today, sitting on the front verandah having a cigarette, I heard a noise from the sky that sounded like the distant whooping of swans. & when I looked for its source, saw 16 black yellow-tailed cockatoos heading northwest. I went to the other end of the verandah when they became hidden by the roof & saw another four, quiet, heading across to join the others.

That's what I call a good omen.


Michael Parker said...

Fascinating post. I believe birds are good omens. I spent alot of university reading classical Greek texts and taking on their belief in omens, signs of good fortune, and how birds are the messengers. You have me thinking; I might have to write my own post on this topic. Thanks.

shanna said...


the last good omen that visited me was a praying mantis in queens. she was really something.

Greg said...

Well, birds are indeed omens. They are messengers from on high. Good or bad is just some human interpretation. But the numbers are important. 16/4. Very directional, very universal. I'd concentrate on your own translation as to these birds: "tearing small branches from the pine tree, ripping the cones apart." Maybe they're just there to tell you to stop smoking cigarettes.