Why we're animal crackers - and what we can do to save them

2021-01-21 23:04:32


THE NATURAL WORLD
Animals Make Us Human
Eds., Leah Kaminsky & Meg Keneally
Penguin, $29.99

Lately, a loud wattlebird has been waking me before dawn with her rhythmic shrieks, as if she has something important to tell me. Trump! Trump! Trump! It’s my own fault – I planted the flowering grevillea by the doorstep for nectar-lovers like her. The townhouses rising up around us with their fake turf and hot concrete offer her no food or shelter. The birds, bees, and butterflies love my messy little suburban patch – and I love them back. During the extended Melbourne lockdown, I needed them to feel present in the world, to feel fully human.

David Lindenmayer had the closest of encounters with a greater glider, a species he has spent decades studying.Credit:Josh Bowell

Animals Make us Human brings together a stellar cast of Australian writers, field ecologists and photographers to share stories of close encounters with animals.

‘‘Why in the dark of night do I smile so deeply when I hear them sigh,’’ writes Bruce Pascoe of his two dogs. His foreword sets the scene for why our relationships with other animals matter. ‘‘We are fellow creatures and at a level deeper than our own ego we recognise the dignity of their life.’’

From there the focus is on Australian native fauna – wonderful and bizarre in its diversity – wombats, koalas, dingoes, Leadbeater’s possums, bush-tailed phascogales, blue-tongue lizards, echidnas, whale sharks, Crabeater seals, spiders, magpies, and more.

These magical moments of interspecies’ meetings can be fleeting but life-defining. Most of us have a story we can relate. Novelist Favel Parrett feels the feathers of lyrebirds lightly scrape across her arm, as she sits silently on a log, flabbergasted that these avian masters of mimicry are dancing so close to her.

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A greater glider volplanes past forest ecologist David Lindenmayer’s head – ‘‘so close that I can feel the animal’s gliding membranes rippling’’. He’s spent decades studying this sentinel species of Victoria’s critically endangered Mountain Ash forests, home to the world’s tallest flowering plants.

For novelist Holly Ringland, Lemon Migrant butterflies taking flight become a symbol of her own liberation from the trauma of a violent relationship. As Victor Hugo wrote: ‘‘ ... torn love letters, that through the skies/ Flutter, and float, and change to Butterflies.’’

Science communicator Jen Martin takes her father on an expedition in search of a tiny grey and yellow frog named after him. When they stumble across Martin’s toadlet, and her dad proudly holds the frog in his hand, it’s a precious scene – ‘‘my son, tenderly holding his grandfather’s hand, has a look of innocence and wonder that still brings tears to my eyes’’.

In a lyrical piece, Ella Loeffler charts her own growth as if a eucalypt tree – ‘‘I move to Australia when I am just a seedling’’ – and as she finds her roots as a young writer and ecologist studying bandicoots. ‘‘In a while I will sprout capsule fruiting bodies, drop them to the earth, leave them to germinate in fire and rain.’’

Ashley Hay’s meditation on the colour blue, the rarest colour in nature, starts with bower birds and ends with bluebottles. ‘‘It’s a colour I crave, a colour I love to possess,’’ she writes, reminiscent of the concept of biophilia, the idea that we have an innate biological affinity for natural features and landscapes.

Natasha Mitchell calls the white-winged Chough 'adolescents of the bush'. Novelist Anne Buist refers to them as 'black monsters'.Credit:

Anne Buist learns to appreciate the ‘‘black monsters’’ that line up menacingly along the powerline above, eyeing off the dainty fairy wrens below. The monsters are white-winged Choughs, which happen to be a favourite bird of mine. Red-eyed and black feathered, they move through the landscape in cheeky, gangly gangs. I call them the ‘‘adolescents of the bush’’.

As Nayuka Gorrie watches her premature twins, Nanwan (meaning mudlark) and Yeerung, cling to life in a neonatal intensive-care unit, nature finds its way to her in the concreted hospital courtyard. ‘‘I would see little birds flitting around, making do. Making a home out of what they could.’’

Placing ourselves in nature not outside it can bring precious clarity to our crowded lives. In nature we soften our gaze and slow down to a pace that feels more biologically compatible with the bodies we evolved to occupy. But rapid land-clearing, urbanisation and climate change are threatening what’s there. Last Summer’s bushfires killed or displaced a staggering 3 billion native animals.

The message in this anthology, with beautiful photos to match, is clear. Do something before it’s too late. Proceeds from the sale of Animals Make Us Human go to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and the Australian Marine Conservation Society. Read it to your children, so they know what once was, or could be.

Natasha Mitchell is presenter of ABC Radio National’s culture and science podcast and program Science Friction .

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