Things to do in an Empty Garden

For as long as I can remember, a family of kookaburras have lived in my neighbourhood. Some years, there have only been three kookaburras in the family. Other years, there have been as many as five. This year, there are six of them.

The kookaburras live alongside a family of magpies that are much shyer about revealing their presence. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many of them we’ve had over the years, but the numbers in their family group don’t seem to fluctuate as much as the kookaburras’. This year, I count five among their number.

Last year, when Sydney went into its hard lockdown for what seemed like ages, I started watching the birds in my neighbourhood more closely. I took photos. I like to travel and take photos of exotic places, cataloguing new experiences. But while watching the birds, I learned that there’s something calming — even stabilising – about taking photos in the same place, day after day after day.

Each morning, I’d wake up early. While the others in my family slept, I set up my tripod in the backyard. I’d take photos from a different position every morning, the angle of my photo depending on many factors, including the position of the sun and the general state of the light. Then, with a hot cup of coffee in my hands, I’d wait for the birds to fly through.

Initially, when I started watching and photographing the kookaburras and magpies, I didn’t know much about the birds. I had a vague notion that both kookaburras and magpies were territorial. But beyond that, I didn’t have much knowledge. As I watched the birds, though –day after day — I became fascinated by their behaviour. I started to understand why birdlovers could be so enthralled by these wonderful, beautiful creatures. Animals that had once seemed like a picturesque backdrop to a location – who doesn’t love a kookaburra in a gum tree? – became prominent characters in the scene.

Slowly, bit by bit, day after day, I not only got through the lockdown. I started to get used to the fact that my mother had died.

Who in the World is Snorri Sturluson?

From time to time, I’m asked to name my favourite authors. These days, this question is most often put to me on social media, where list-creating games proliferate. But it can happen in real life, too. I’m normally limited to my top ten. Once, I was even limited to seven. And I groan every time I’m asked. Naming your favourite authors is like naming your favourite children. It can’t done. It shouldn’t be done. It should be considered a mortal sin to try.

Yet I do it. And when I do, without a doubt, close to the top of the list is Snorri Sturluson.

“Who?” I hear you ask.


Most English-speaking people educated in literature have heard the names of Europe’s greatest and most influential early modern and premodern writers. Asked to list them, they might say William Shakespeare, Homer, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer. Pressed not to list but to recognise, they’d probably also know Thomas Malory, Chretien de Troyes, Giovanni Boccaccio. Few have ever heard of Snorri Sturluson.

“And why should they have heard of him?” I hear you say.

It’s a valid question. After all, knowledge is vast. No one can know everything. And certainly, no one can know every important piece of literature ever written, or be familiar with every significant author. Certainly, I’m not, and I have PhD in literature.

But there’s something particularly disturbing about Snorri Sturluson’s invisibility. You see, Snorri Sturluson’s main claim to fame is that he wrote the three books collectively known in English as The Prose Edda. The Prose Edda is not only one of the few sources for Norse mythology available to us today, it’s also the main source. Without it, we couldn’t make much sense of the Poetic Edda, Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, or the mythology contained in the sagas.

This means without Snorri Sturluson, we wouldn’t have Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or Marvel’s Thor.

So if, like me, you’re a fan of the Norse pantheon, what should you know about Snorri Sturluson? You should know that he lived in Iceland in the twelfth century, that he’s one of the few writers we know by name from the saga-writing period, that he wrote The Prose Edda as well as The Heimskringla, and that he was a poet with a keen interest in studying poetics. If you’re more curious about this man, you might also want to know that he was deeply involved in Icelandic politics. He served as Iceland’s law speaker, made overtures towards the Norwegian king, and died dramatically by assassination.

But whatever he was — whoever he was – for me, Snorri Sturluson will always be the man who brought Baldr to life in my mind. As well as Loki. And Odinn. I owe the greatest of debts to him, because it is due to his magnificent writing that I can picture so clearly Ratatoskr — by far my favourite squirrel — running up and down the world tree, Yggdrasill, carrying messages. I’d be empty without these rich images. And so, I’ll always be grateful.

In media res

I’ve been meaning to blog for years. As someone who loves words, loves to write, has an opinion about everything under the sun, and has also been an early adopter of technology, you’d think I would have started a blog back when blogs were first fashionable. But, no. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I’ve dragged my heels when it’s come to blogging. Perhaps the idea of a super public forum froze me. As a medievalist,  I’m used to small audiences, not large ones. Or perhaps life just managed to get in the way. For the last decade or so, I’ve been juggling work with motherhood, and although this would seem like the perfect subject to blog about — hello to all the mummy bloggers out there — I was just never organised enough to blog.

I’m here now, though. And as my age hovers around the mid-life mark, I can say that I’ve truly amassed a significant amount of life experience. I started my professional life as a computer programmer, leapt into writing online when the internet was still known as the World Wide Web, became an Old Norse scholar, and then in the midst of all that, decided I wanted to have a family.

Now, many years later, I have two children, and an itch to return to the world of fiction writing that I abandoned twenty years ago. What this blog will be about, I can hardly be sure. What I do know is that as I enter the second half of my life, I’m entering an era that has largely been unmapped for most women. Where do I go from here? I don’t know. And that’s why this is the most exciting part of my life. It’s going to be an adventure. And this time, I’m going to blog about it.

Starting where I should start: In media res.