In Praise of Mortar Boards and Muttonbirds

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There are few more life-affirming events than the graduation ceremonies at Etihad Stadium. Colourful, brash, bizarre… but that’s enough about my academic gown… the event itself was tumultuous at times, but always joyous, with a touch of the necessary solemnity and dignity.

At the December 2016 event in Melbourne, there was some seriously impressive indigenous dancing, plenty of drumming, and even a rather rollocking rock band. It was on a par with our spectacular Saigon ceremony, although this event was punctuated by a very loud and unexpected bang. At first, we thought it was an almighty firecracker ignited by an exuberant graduand. Alas, it was nothing so bold. More prosaically, it was a massive power outage across the entire of District 9. The bang was impressive though and startled us all. It was rather astonishing to see a grown man leaping  into the arms of his wife. Oh yes, nothing as impressive as a gowned graduation ceremony.

Actually, another impressive sight springs to mind. On Philip Island last Saturday evening, twenty minutes after a tepid sunset over Pinnacle Rocks, I watched a skyfull of Muttonbirds (aka Short Tailed Shearwaters, also known as the Slender Billed Shearwaters, or sometimes the Yolla, or indeed the Moonbird, and even Puffinus Tenuirostris to any ornithological readers who might still be tuned in) circle above me.

If these fine creatures have an identity issue borne of their uncertain name, they certainly don’t show it. Each and every dusk they circle lower and lower, then bomb dive into their sandy burrows. It must be one of the most spectacular natural events on the planet. Who needs cute waddling penguins when you have half a million birds just a few feet over your head performing elegant arabesques punctuated by sandy thuds, as they drill nervelessly into the soft ground.

And as the Muttonbirds circulated wildly overhead, I was reminded of the delirious moment at graduation when several hundred mortar boards are tossed into the air.

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