Double eyed: Finding and feeding the patterns that sustain us
by Clare Murphy
Double eyed: Finding and feeding the patterns that sustain us
She was smaller than a rainbow lorikeet. Her feathers smoother. Her voice sweeter. Eyes more like beacons than warning flares. Beak more like a smile than a hazard, beaming out of the tree hollow at me. It's her face that comes to me as I stroke the reedy arm entwined in tubes upon the blanket.
My daughter, V, has stopped eating, just like the fig-parrot's sister. The one I've read about in books but never seen. The one who flits through my thoughts, asking me to save her. Like some believe we might still do, if only we can find her.
Coxen's double-eyed fig-parrot (Cyclopsitta diophthalma coxeni): "Possibly extinct", is how my field guide puts it.1
"I didn't think I was that bad," is how my daughter puts it before a nasogastric feeding tube plugs up the promise-heavy torrent.
"Have you heard about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment?" Maryanne, the hospital psychiatrist asks us.
We shake our heads and she hands us some stapled paper with words that slide in wobbly greys across it.
"In 1944," she tells us, "thirty-six men participated in an experiment that reduced their nutritional intake by half."
Maryanne pauses to make sure we're following. V nods to avoid the rasping of tube against throat when she speaks.
"The men in the study lost 25 per cent of their body weight in less than six months," Maryanne continues.
"That's fast," I say, meeting her eyes to let her know we're with her.
Maryanne has eyes that hang under their hoods like the eyes of a tawny frogmouth in a torpor, having learnt to blend entirely with its surroundings. Maryanne does not belong in this ward; she is visiting from the in-patient eating disorders program in the adult psychiatric ward we have been warned to avoid, even if we were able to endure the one-month wait for V, who is only sixteen, to get a bed in it. Here in the gastroenterology ward, doctors monitor V's artificial renourishment and nurses — according to the strictures of The Protocol — monitor her heartbeat, her electrolytes, her limited movement, and the precise reasons for her toilet use.
In a tired voice, Maryanne recites an unchanging menu of historical experiment, going on to tell us about the conscientious objectors who signed up to be starved rather than fight in the second World War. How the study hoped to find the best treatment for famine suffered by allies at the end of the fighting. She explains how rapidly the men's behaviour changed. How they each became obsessed with food in different ways. How they all became severely psychologically unstable. That one man, who couldn't explain why, had removed several fingers with an axe. This explains the growing list of fear foods Blu-tacked to our kitchen wall, the rule that food must be intact to be considered edible at all, of the single rice paper roll that had not ripped out my daughter's heart as she sobbed alone in a corner of the kitchen, but simply ripped slightly in her fingers. How this had rendered it poison. How, when you got down to it, nothing was actually intact at all.
"The men in the study," Maryanne says, "turned out to be a proxy for understanding how Anorexia Nervosa works."
I nod enthusiastically. The missing fig-parrot's sister, the one I've actually seen, pokes her face out of the hollow in my mind and smiles. There she is, in the smooth grey belly of a dead tree beside a Daintree waterhole, before my camera, before we visited the dying reef, before V joined the student climate marches, before the fires, before the plague — before, before, before all of this — Macleay's double-eyed fig-parrot (Cyclopsitta diophthalma macleayana). The one that scientists are using as a proxy for understanding how missing fig-parrots work.
As Maryanne speaks, I watch the fig-parrot push her feet against the hollow and launch herself across the flat blue sky. I think about how my daughter is an identical twin, as small as her sister but somehow always the smallest. Bonded eternally to the superlative, she is the twin who always seemed to court danger, suspend my breath, yet always quietly coped, complained little. Kept up her guard so that I could never be sure how well I actually knew her. The way the afternoon sunlight blinds you to half the world. The way an upturned beak looks like a smile set within a colourful mosaic to the eye of another beast.
"Double trouble," strangers would say to the pram, to the shopping trolley, to their pig-tails at the school gate. Double-eyed, double-bodied, double-minded. Double the joy. Double the chance to thrive or not. Double the chance to wonder why one stopped eating when the other did not.
I think about doubles and proxies. I think about how the fig-parrot's sister coxeni foraged in the rare vineforest that once fringed the river where we live in inner-city Meanjin.
And I think about how this daughter might be the coxeni of the pair.
Maryanne slides her eyelids shut then slowly opens them as she recites the words I will hear over and over again until they turn grey and wobbly:
To heal the mind, you must first give the body what it needs.
In the Environmental Protection Agency's Coxen's Fig Parrot Recovery Plan, there are many small reasons that coxeni is hard to find. Small until they accumulate: She forages and flits noiselessly, high in the crowns of voluminous trees like the Moreton Bay Fig. She is stocky but small, the colour of leaves with hints of red, yellow and blue. The splash of blue on her brow that distinguishes her from the other fig-parrots has been painted on so thin it is hard to decipher. She nests in a tree hollow that she tears to the size of a Monte Carlo biscuit with her beak. There are not many places left for her to go. Not as much for her to eat (7-12).
Listening for her, ecologists argue, might be the only way to prove that she has not disappeared entirely. In the recovery plan, finding her is their first objective (EPA 21). To find her, scientists have recorded her sister subspecies C. d. macleayana (a.k.a. the red-browed fig-parrot or Macleay's) as a proxy to develop a call ID. They leave recorders in the places that Coxen's was last seen and wait. Once collected, the recordings are converted to a grey-scale spectrogram, a visual representation of the soundscape, and then to the same red-green-blue false colour used in satellite imagery which highlights the frequency, intensity, duration and pattern of the birds' calls within it, rendering their presence visible. As a tool for pattern detection, the spectrogram values are picked up in the algorithms of call recognisers, which search the hues as they dip and flicker for a pattern that closely matches Macleay's. According to that protocol, this searching is the first thing that must done.
According to the books that Maryanne has recommended, and the treatment protocol we are following, you must also search for the child you are saving from starvation. You must not search for someone or something to blame. You must not feel helpless. You must Be the dolphin guiding your child, one book tells me. Not the jellyfish, swept away by currents of emotion (Treasure, Smith and Crane). You must have the response of a firefighter, another book urges. You must take calm control in a way that reassures your child that the problem is contained, that she is safe and that the problem will be eliminated (Ganci). You must act now and make this your number one priority (Lock and Le Grange).
Maryanne explains that the gold standard in recovery requires that the family focuses on urgent refeeding, the reestablishment of routine, exposure to fear foods, and the restoration of nutritional health.
This is how we must attend to the fire that is ravaging V.
Like a firefighter. Like a dolphin.
Like a scientist listening for what they cannot see.
Looking for what they cannot hear.
In the weeks after hospital, V spends some weeks learning from home. In the weeks after that, I meet her outside school on a bench at morning tea and lunchtime, asking her to notice the silvery-green leaves of the weeping paperbark spinning olive in the breeze, the tonal range of not-quite whites in the underbellies of clouds, her syncopated breath slowing to make the dive for her diaphragm. It rarely works and it never goes smoothly. More often than not, she comes home with me, having been unable to put a morsel to her mouth. But somehow, over the difficult period in which her nutritional intake increases, she progresses to eating with her friends within the school grounds. Most of the time.
"It's hard to eat in front of people when they've already eaten," V offers, not meeting my eyes. "Or on my own."
I am lifting her lunchbox, the insulated pack that mimics a battered old paper bag, out of her school bag and feeling the heft of its uneaten weight in my heart as well as my hands.
"I know you find it hard. Was there anything else?" I ask, using sentences the new psychologist and the books have taught me to use.
The second objective of The Coxen's Fig-Parrot Recovery Plan is to recognise the threats that a loss of habitat have produced because these have triggered a change in the parrot's behaviour (EPA 21).
A change in environment can trigger a response that, at first, might seem bent on preservation but will turn out to be ultimately self-destructive. For instance, narrowing opportunities to forage creates more opportunities for prey to attack the fig-parrot in open spaces where it now needs to flit between feeding zones. This has restricted the fig-parrot's movements, limiting food supply and narrowing the genetic pool (EPA 16).
For a teenage girl, an equivalent response might arise when, in the space of a year, the world that she is told is growing more connected might seem to be contracting around her. And this might trigger a need for control — the kind of control easiest to access, control that seems to reward you and keep you feeling safe — control of the environment you live in: your body.
Just as current research is revealing a genetic basis for whether or not someone might develop an eating disorder, like most living things, the means for our own demise is wired into us, waiting to meet with the requisite conditions in our environment to summon its powers (Bulik 335-339). When you think about it, choking seems like a perfectly natural reaction to an environment that has become hostile to your needs. When you think about it, hiding yourself away from your food to stay safe isn't all that strange: it makes it harder to find you, and to know where to look and listen. It makes it harder to identify your call.
Because the call of Coxen's fig-parrot still hasn't been identified. No one knows for sure exactly what to listen for. There is no one to say, "That's definitely her."
My daughter has left more clues.
In the second phase of recovery from anorexia, the protocol we are following tells us that we must begin to look for the pattern of a healthy self-sustaining identity to emerge and ask what barriers there might be to finding it. We push along a zigzagging road to bump V into the BMI zone that the therapy team has identified as healthy with a buffer, and keep watch for signs of her to appear. Each day, V responds to the six alarms that call her to eat and begins to prepare some of her own meals, with supervision. She comes on walks and starts to lift modest weights. She makes plans to see friends. But on the weeks she has lost weight, the therapy session will not address anything else.
To heal the mind, you must first give the body what it needs.
"I know it's you, not anorexia, who doesn't like nuts," says the psychologist, cocking her head like a curious crow at V.
"But could you try almond meal in a smoothie?"
V scrunches her nose. "I guess so."
A fierce look, a toddler's ire of years gone by, enters her eyes.
"That's definitely me," she tells us. "Not anorexia."
We, the room, all laugh at this small but hopeful sign of a remembered self — the point from which she might contemplate a future pattern to pursue. But in the search for the fig-parrot we have no such memory to call upon. None, at least, that's officially documented. None the scientists can draw on.
It's believed that Coxen's fig-parrot used to follow the ripple of fruiting trees from the higher altitudes in the warmer months down to the lowlands in the cooler months, but it is still not known whether this was a consequence of the lowlands rainforest disappearing. Nobody knows for sure the true or new pattern of their movement, or if there is any (EPA 14). Back in 2001, the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the cryptic nature of the animal would attract $30 000 for a single bird to an illegal wildlife trader (28).
Developing a call ID to find birds for a captive breeding program is the key to being able to meet the third objective of The Coxen's Fig-Parrot Recovery Plan (DES 4-8). But to find the parrot, you need to understand the pattern of her feeding habits. It's a case of fig-parrot and egg. The Protocol for the captive breeding program has been rolled out with Macleay's fig-parrot, again, as a proxy (DES 4, 19). Now, it is just waiting for a captive Coxen's to protect. It has been waiting 20 years.
Meanwhile, in captivity, the Macleay's fig-parrots' already territorial and aggressive behaviour is proving to be amplified. They are known to chew their neighbours' feet to stumps (in lieu of fingers and an axe) and devour their young, sometimes not leaving a trace (Romer 6, 15). Australian parrots' high-sugar diet is renowned for making them argumentative, but what else, I wonder, might a contracting environment do to a parrot's behaviour? Is it these responses that have hindered the Coxen's fig-parrot's ability to survive in their contracting habitat? And if we can't find a way to expand their habitat and return them to healthy patterns, how can we ensure their survival?
In the Protocol, I read that: "Young Double-eyed Fig Parrots reach independence at approximately 2-4 weeks post fledging, although it is recommended to leave young with parents for a period of at least 10 weeks (from hatching), to ensure birds are feeding sufficiently to survive on there [sic] own."
And then I read this: "The young should be monitored closely when removed to ensure they don't stop eating" (Romer 14).2
In the first year of the pandemic, in which all our environments contracted and our patterns were disrupted, the Butterfly Foundation received 57 per cent more contacts about eating disorders in August than it did in January. The foundation's research also indicates that "27 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults have an eating disorder, compared with 16 per cent of non-Indigenous adults, also higher for school students" (Dale).
In the Indigenous-led health model for eating disorders, I read that the self is experienced and expressed through connections to country, culture, ancestors and spirituality, body, mind and emotions, kinship and community (ibid). And as I read, I begin to think that we might all be coming to understand how extractive colonising cultures diminish an environment of self for us all. And I think I might finally be starting to understand what people mean when they say that we are collectively grieving.
For so long it felt that to grieve was to give in. To stop fighting, to stop putting out the fires. Yet, here I find myself: at a point of acceptance, understanding that the grieving began long ago. The connection feels evident, visceral, as ropy and real as the cord that once joined my daughter to me. It makes me wonder if this is how we save a bird. Do we all need to feel her, to know her patterns as the story of ourselves? To understand her call as proxy for our own? And if it is, then what I'm asking is this: how do we heal our environment and share the story, recognise ourselves in the pattern of it, rather than trying to own it?
Is this what it means to give the body what it needs?
The dietician taps out a revised meal plan, smiling with genuine pleasure at our questions, maintaining focus on both us and her task with the mental acuity of a forest kingfisher.
"Keep following the pattern of your alarms and your hunger cues will return," she reassures V.
In the third phase of recovery, she tells us, with hunger cues restored, V should be able to respond to those instead of her alarms. When that happens, my daughter must learn to trust herself again, to follow her own signals and allow them to nourish her. This will free her up to explore more of herself and her world than anorexia has allowed — to leave the tree hollow and know that she can return when she needs to, thrilled at both the predictability and discovery she encounters.
"I felt a bit hungry last night when dinner was late," V offers.
"That's a really good sign," the dietician replies, smiling anew as she taps. "Keep paying attention to that."
I know that no matter how much attention we pay to listening for her signals, Coxen's fig-parrot, if she can be found, will never return to inner-city Meanjin. But there are people who still hold out hope for the Sunshine Coast hinterland where the fig-parrot was last spotted spilling figs on the floors of remnant rainforest.
There, the community has laboured to germinate a network of corridors between habitats, persevering through plantings delayed by scorching droughts and searing heatwaves — pushing through the extreme UV that has blighted seed production, through the weeds that have thrived in the resulting greenhouse and strangled the understory to pose an even greater fire risk amid rising temperatures. These challenges, along with CO2 levels, are changing the pattern of rainforest fruiting and seeding seasons. And to top it off, the unwelcome European Brown Hare Lepus europaeus has found the tender young fig trees the community has planted quite to its taste.
Both money and time have been too short to establish the groundwork needed to outpace the newly emerging climate patterns. It is as if the community has asked what they could actually control and found out it was much less than they thought. But, still, the recovery plan doesn't let the bird go: "[...] recovery will take some time even after threatening processes are mitigated," it promises. The possibly extinct bird must be "resilient" it argues, for there to be "sightings" of it (DES 21). This hopeful wording subtly suggests that perhaps we are simply unable to detect the new cues it is following.
As a proxy for saving their environment and themselves, it seems to be this community's hope, its refusal to stop listening, that remains most resilient. And perhaps, in their way, they are hearing her even if she is gone. Just as that small girl with the avian arms I loved is gone. Like the healthy child she was before that. Sometimes, I think I hear her too, in the young woman she is becoming: in the young woman I find in the kitchen with her sister, preparing a two-egg salad to eat with a leftover slice of pizza. Or in the words of the Neil Young song Only love can break your heart that she listens to just as I did at her age, back when I instinctively understood that it could feel okay to admit that love — for a place, a person, a species, for all that you are part of — could break your heart.
And when I listen, what I hear is the pattern of a young woman searching for herself in an environment she is grieving for and has accepted is changing, but one she's still part of.
She is stumbling and tripping and falling through the tangle of the disappearing vine forest and getting back up again, with her sister beside her, and a small bird with eyes more like beacons than warning flares to guide her.
Photo credit: Macleay's Double-Eyed Fig-Parrot. Kulki (Cape Tribulation) on Eastern Kuku Yalanji Country 2016. Photograph: Clare Murphy.
A Summary of Recovery Effort and Future Direction for Coxen's fig-parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma coxeni. Department of Environment and Science (DES), Queensland Government. 2018.
Bulik Cynthia M. 'Exploring the Gene-Environment Nexus in Eating Disorders.' Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience: JPN, 30(5), 2005, pp. 335-339.
Butterfly Foundation. Urgent Need for Eating Disorder Support Backed by Federal Government. [Press Release]. 6 September. 2020.
Coxen's Fig-Parrot Cyclopsitta Diophthalma Coxeni Recovery Plan 2001-2005. The State of Queensland, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2001, .
Dale, Elizabeth. Reconciliation, Eating Disorders and Aboriginal Health. Butterfly Foundation, 2020.
Dolby, Tim and Rohan Clarke. Finding Australian Birds: A Field Guide to Birding Locations. CSIRO Publishing. 2014, p. 538.
Ganci, Maria. Survive FBT: Skills Manual for Parents Undertaking Family Based Therapy for Child and Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa. LMD Publishing, 2016.
Lock, James and Daniel Le Grange. Help Your Teenager Beat an Eating Disorder. 2nd ed., The Guilford Press, 2015.
Romer, Liz. Fig-Parrot Husbandry Manual: Draft. September. 2000, Australasian Zookeeping (PDF).
Starvation Syndrome. Centre for Clinical Interventions. Western Australia Health. n.d. (PDF).
Treasure Janet et al. Skills-Based Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder: The New Maudsley Method. 2nd ed., Routledge, New York, 2017.
- This view is not the official conservation status at state or federal level; however, it is a commonly debated view offered by one field guide on my shelf (Dolby and Clarke). ↩
- The Protocol referred to here is one compiled by Liz Romer for Currumbin Bird Sanctuary. At the time of writing, the Recovery Team was drawing on this and other protocols to develop a standard (Romer). ↩