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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now


Monday, July 25, 2011

12) Welcome Swallow

Hirundo neoxena

Two weeks ago I had one of the most magical experiences of my life.  I was walking across Albert Park, in Melbourne’s south, on a windy but clear Sunday afternoon, and I found myself in the midst of a small flock of swallows.  No doubt you’re all familiar with those miniature whirlwinds that pick up from time to time, scattering leaves and dust and plastic bags; in the US they’re called dust devils, but in Australia we call them willy-willies, and when I was a child my schoolmates and I used to love darting towards them, trying to place ourselves in the still eye of the tiny storm.  When I walked into the flock of swallows it was not unlike stepping into a willy-willy: I stood where I was, and grinned in delight as the tiny birds flitted and darted all around me, less than a metre off the ground.

They were Welcome Swallows, and it’s hard to think of a more apt name for a species of animal than that.  There can’t be a person in the world who doesn’t welcome the sight of a swallow – although an encyclopaedia of superstitions that I bought many years ago relates that in Ireland and Scotland they were traditionally associated with the devil, while in other places they could be an omen of death.  Still, even those grim associations are outweighed by the good: the same book lists protection from fire and lightning, the curing of blindness and epilepsy, and good fortune in love as among the swallow’s good omens and beneficial effects.

Those of us of a slightly more rationalist bent can be satisfied with just being happy to see them, though.  The Welcome Swallow is closely related to the Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), which is well-known throughout the world.  As with many Australian animals it’s the most familiar of its kind in this country by virtue of the fact that it’s common on the eastern seaboard, where most Australians live, but the White-backed Swallow (Cheramoeca leucosterna), the Tree Martin (Hirundo nigricans), and Fairy Martin (the beautifully named Hirundo ariel) are all distributed across at least as much of the country.  (Incidentally, although taxonomically there’s no difference between them, birds in the family Hirundinidae are defined as swallows or martins depending on the length of their tales: those with long, forked tails are called swallows, while those with short, squarish tails are called martins.)

Swallows have a long association with humans, and the Welcome Swallow is no different: outside the cities in particular a house in Australia is hardly complete without a Welcome Swallow’s nest tucked up under the eaves.  Many species of swallow nest in excavated holes, but most people if they have an idea of a swallow’s nest at all will picture a beautiful mud nest: a delicate cup, or sometimes a more elaborate shape, made by layer upon layer of mud which the bird painstakingly dabs on with its beak.  You can see each layer clearly, like lines of sediment in a rock, and if you look closely you may even see inside the nest a bed of specially collected feathers, and when swallows nest under the eaves of a house the proximity to our own home of such a carefully built shelter is both cheering and humbling.

There used to be a pair of Welcome Swallows nesting under the eaves above the front door of my parents’ holiday house.  They’d return to that nest every year without fail, and raise another brood of young – sometimes two or even three broods in one season.  Every year we’d look forward to their arrival, and the sight of them flying in and out of that nest so fast, so close to the house, was breathtaking.  We got used to the comfortable progression of the lives of those birds: first the arrival; then the gradual restoration of the nest; then the long period in which the female of the pair laid and then incubated the eggs while her mate flew back and forth to feed her; then, at last, the hatching, and the frantic activity of both parents, and the extravagant begging of their offspring every time one of the adult swallows returned to the nest.

One year, though, one of the hatchlings fell out of the nest.  It died, and whether by coincidence or not the next year the swallows didn’t return.  To the best of my knowledge they never have.  The nest is still there, still tucked securely under the eaves, unoccupied and unused for many years, and it’s heartbreaking to think of the swallows abandoning the nest after the death of one of their offspring.  It’s heartbreaking also to think that by now both the adult swallows must surely be dead: because we shared our life with them for a little while.  Their lives became part of ours.

The presence of animals is not essential to our lives.  We can get by perfectly well without wild birds to admire, or pets to talk to when we’re feeling lonely or light-hearted.  If you want to be very honest about it the only things we really need to keep ourselves alive are shelter and food.  Everything else is extraneous.

What a miserable life it would be, though, if we were to jettison everything that didn’t serve some base physiological purpose in keeping us alive.  How much less our lives would be.  It’s a selfish way to value an animal, considering only how it improves our lives, but like most creatures we humans are fundamentally self-interested and I don’t think we should be ashamed if our first thought upon seeing a an animal such as a swallow is how happy it makes us.  We try very hard to distance ourselves from nature, we imagine ourselves as something apart from our fellow animals, and we learn to identify the animals we see and we classify each one painstakingly as if the whole world was some kind of open-air museum, because it’s in our nature to be both curious and inquisitive.  When swallows choose to build their nests against our own homes we tend to think of it as nature making a welcome intrusion into our lives – but in fact, nature never intrudes.  It’s a constant.  Whether it’s the bacteria in our intestines, the cat (Felis catus) sitting on my lap and purring as I type this, or the Australian native violet which, for the last six months, has been pushing through the walls of my house, we’re so intrinsically connected to an infinite and all-encompassing ecosystem that we barely even notice it.  When it comes to comparing humans to other animals, the ageless question is “What makes humans unique?”  It’s a curious question, though.  Is it so important to be unique?  Is it so important to place ourselves apart from the rest of the natural world?  By doing so, might we not lose a significant part of ourselves?

The swallows that flew about me that Sunday two weeks ago were marvellously indifferent to my presence.  Perhaps it delighted them to fly so close to me, to use me as some station around which to manoeuvre.  I’d like to imagine so.  Of course, a swallow must be as concerned as any other animal with simply surviving each day, and it’s likely that my being there was entirely incidental to them – after all, they had the security of knowing that a creature such as me could never be fast enough to pose a threat to them.  Surely it’s not too much of a stretch, though, to imagine a swallow, well-fed and on a fair day, sometimes just taking wing, and enjoying the sensation of arcing and swerving through the air.


Image by David Cook, sourced from http://www.canberrabirds.org.au/

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

11) Southern Brown Tree Frog

Litoria ewingi

On New Year’s Day 2007, Melbourne’s water supply was turned off.  It wasn’t quite as bad as that, of course, but it felt like it: the fountains stopped flowing, water restrictions were tightened, and almost immediately the city turned brown.  Water still came gushing out of the tap just as it always had done, but a psychological weight fell over the entire city, and suddenly the most urgent civic conversations among the residents of Melbourne were about grey water, and water pipelines, desalination plants.  Signs started appearing everywhere – on garden fences, on the sides of council-employed street-cleaning vehicles – proclaiming that recycled water was being used, and as Melbourne waited for rain the city’s broadsheet daily, the Age, recorded on the front page every day the steadily dropping levels of the reservoirs that keep four million people alive: less than thirty-five percent full; less than thirty percent full; less than twenty-five percent full.

The drought had come abruptly to Melbourne, and late: by the time the tough Stage 3 water restrictions were finally introduced here, most of the country had been suffering for four years under the most severe drought in a century.  It was immediately obvious if you travelled outside the city: if you flew interstate the land below was so dry it looked dead; if you went for a drive into the countryside you’d see that even the Eucalypts, trees that specialise in thriving in the often brutal Australian environment, were dying.

Drought is not like other natural disasters.  It’s not a sudden catastrophe but a slow, grinding weariness; a steadily accumulating despair.  Hope is not extinguished overnight in a drought but is gradually crushed, one cloudless day at a time, one rainless electrical storm at a time.  When I moved from Canberra to Melbourne in the middle of 2004 Canberra had been under drought for some time, and the city I’d grown up in no longer existed: Canberra has always been a particularly green city, heavily planted with both native and exotic trees, but by the autumn of 2004 the trees were brown, and the grass was yellow, and the city seemed exhausted.  If the city hadn’t been so desperately dry it might have been harder for me to leave, but as it was I barely recognised the place any more, and seeing the city die was almost more than I could bear.

Canberra is a small city, though, and because bushland and parkland are an integral part of its design Canberrans have an unusually close connection to the environment.  In a city like Melbourne, by contrast, the severity of a drought can be easy to miss – and it was particularly easy for me to miss seven years ago, new to Melbourne and unfamiliar with the particularities of its climate.  Canberra and Melbourne may appear relatively close on a map of Australia, but to drive from one to the other takes about seven hours, and Melbourne is low-lying and coastal, while Canberra is inland and in the hills.  Something that Canberra and Melbourne have in common is the distinctness of their four season – not always a given in Australia – but those seasons are not alike.  Spring, in particular, differs markedly between the two cities: in Canberra it’s a time of gentle warmth and clear skies; in Melbourne it’s a time of rain, with October – the last month of spring in the southern hemisphere – having the most rainfall of any month.

When I moved to Melbourne, though, the springs were not like that.  They were much closer to the Canberra springs I was accustomed do: dry and warm and comfortable.  It took me some time to realise that in Melbourne this was not something to celebrate, but rather was an indication of something severely wrong with the weather.  I think the first time I really understood that Melbourne was in drought was a few years ago – I can’t remember the exact year, it was probably around 2008 – when summer seemed to last for five months.  For week after week in what should have been autumn the weather was stable: clear, and dry, and warm.  Parched.  In a city whose weather is famously changeable, with precipitous drops in temperature and sudden onrushes of rain common as weather systems from the north and from the south push against each-other, the stability and uniformity of that long period of sunshine was deeply troubling.

When water restrictions were finally introduced in Melbourne, it didn’t take long for people to start getting on edge.  In March 2007 a man had his water supply cut off, reduced to a trickle for forty-eight hours, after a neighbour reported that he was breaching water restrictions.  When one man argued with and killed another while water restrictions were in place, initial reports suggested that the argument had been about water use.  As the water levels in the city’s reservoirs got lower and lower, I started to think of leaving Melbourne if rain didn’t come soon.

When the rain came, it came hard.  In retrospect that shouldn’t have surprised anyone: the Australian environment is not gentle.  When the drought finally began to break late last year the rain fell, and fell, and fell.  Meanwhile I moved house, and I found myself living near Merri Creek, and after the spring and summer rains I’d often walk down to the creek and see it in flood: on several occasions stretches of the bike path that skirts along the creek became submerged.  One time I went down to Yarra Bend, where Merri Creek flows into the Yarra River, to see that Dight’s Falls, a row of low rocks and cascades at, was completely lost under the torrent.

Some time in spring, during a downpour, I opened the French windows in my sitting room and sat at my dining-table and listened to the rain.  It wasn’t too cold and having recently started living by myself I was enjoying the silence in the house, and Melbourne was only just starting to become aware that the drought may be breaking so the sound of rain was still novel.  As the water pattered down I noticed another sound, nestled in between the raindrops, coming from just over the fence, outside my neighbour’s house.  It was a sound I hadn’t heard for a long time – and yet it was a sound I recognised instantly.  It was the sound of a frog calling.  The Southern Brown Tree Frog, specifically, a species found across the southern coast of Victoria, all through Tasmania, and in the far south coast of New South Wales and the eastern edge of South Australia’s coastline.  Hearing its call made me indescribably happy, and the call rang out every time the rain fell subsequently – and only when the rain fell.

As the spring of 2010 grew into summer, what turned out to be a very wet and mild summer, it quickly became apparent – first in excited comments between people chatting in caf├ęs and bars and shops, then increasingly through more official channels in the news media – that the drought had broken.  Rain fell, and frogs sang, and though news soon turned to stories of heartbreak and loss as huge areas of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria were beset by catastrophic floods, it was difficult not to feel some measure of joy, an overwhelming sense of relief.  Melbourne’s reservoirs are now over fifty percent full, and the reservoirs of many other towns and cities around the country are overflowing, and after seven years the drought, at last, is over.


Image sourced from http://www.knox.vic.gov.au/

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

10) House Mouse

Mus musculus

I think there’s a mouse in my kitchen.  I haven’t seen it yet, but every once in a while when I get up in the morning I find small dark pellets that look suspiciously like mouse droppings littered about the oven.

I have a pet cat (Felis catus), but so far she’s shown little inclination to hunt for mice.  I can’t blame her: there’s no insulation in my house, and now in mid-winter the kitchen in particular can get bitterly cold late at night.  In fact in the peculiar manner of so many old houses in Melbourne, it’s frequently colder inside than it is outside, and given that it’s so cold, and that I have a cat, and that I never leave any food lying around in my kitchen, I’m surprised that the mouse wants to be in the house at all.

Short of those creatures that actually parasitise our bodies, there are few animal encounters which feel quite so invasive as the arrival of a mouse inside our home.  Just the sight of mouse droppings anywhere near our food is enough to evoke in us not just the expected disgust such a discovery would normally engender, but an additional level of visceral horror brought on by a long cultural memory of mice as disease vectors.  Mice exist as a duality in our minds: on the one hand they’re the first experience many of us have with the joys of pet ownership; on the other hand, mice and, even more so, rats (Rattus spp.) are a cultural shorthand for any number of unfavourable associations.  Even in Australia, where “bastard” can be a term of endearment and friends will happily insult each-other, to call somebody a rodent is to grievously insult and disparage them.  Images of mice and rats are an easy way of suggesting poverty and extreme lack of sanitation and hygiene.  In the recent Australian television documentary Go Back to Where You Came From, the squalor of refugee dwellings in Malaysia was immediately and efficiently evoked by footage of teeming rodents.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if I have a mouse in my kitchen.  It’s far from being an uncommon situation: the species is, after all, called the House Mouse.  Furthermore, due to unexpectedly high levels of rain and the consequent explosion of plant life, much of Australia is currently enduring a major mouse plague.  Australia is a country in which everything happens on a vast scale, and some mouse plagues here have been recorded as numbering millions of individuals.  Huge areas of Australia are given over to wheat farming, and globally Australia is a significant exporter of wheat, so mouse plagues can be disastrous.

Australia has several native species of mice, but the House Mouse is not one of them.  Like so many problem species in this country the House Mouse was introduced as a consequence of human settlement.  The first animal to be introduced to Australia by humans was the Dingo (Canis lupus dingo), which was brought over from southeast Asia thousands of years ago and which is so closely related to the domestic dog that for much of the twentieth century it was regarded as a member of the same species, Canis familiaris.  More recently, such locally infamous animals as the European Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), and the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus), among many others, have been introduced for various reasons and have wrought significant damage on the Australian environment and on populations of native animals.  Many of these species were introduced deliberately, and as a consequence of the damage they’ve done Australians are now almost irrationally hostile towards introduced animals.

Yet Australia is also heavily dependent upon introduced animals.  Throughout the twentieth century it was said that Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, so important was the wool industry to the nation’s economy.  The north of Australia is famed for the vastness of its cattle stations.  Sheep (Ovis aries) and cows (Bos spp.), though, can be just as disastrous for the Australian environment as the less favoured animals: until Europeans introduced them, the hoofed animals (Ungulates) were completely unknown in Australia, and Australian plants and topsoil do not cope well with the pressure applied to them by hard hooves.  Another hoofed animal, the horse (Equus caballus), has become so accepted in Australian folklore that the feral horses – the brumbies – found throughout the country but most famously in the mountains of south-eastern New South Wales and Victoria are almost considered native animals, yet their impact on the environment is no less marked for that.

Australia is, more than anything else, an island.  A vast island, to be sure, an island continent – but still, an island, and most Australians have an islander’s attitude to their country’s borders and anything or anyone that might attempt to cross them.  Since the British arrived in the late eighteenth century and started creating what would eventually become the country we know now, Australia has never been invaded – and yet fear of infiltration runs deep here.  Which is not to say that the history of this country hasn’t been one of arrival: Australia is a nation of immigrants, and since the separate colonies of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia federated to become the nation of Australia in 1901 the population has increased almost six-fold.

Yet there’s always been unease in Australia about immigration.  Although Afghans and Chinese are two of the oldest ethnic groups in the country, both dating back to the nineteenth century, three-quarters of the twentieth century was marred by the infamous “White Australia Policy”.  In the last decade, debate about immigration has been almost wholly devoted to the question of what to do with “boat people” – so-called “illegal immigrants” who make their way to south-east Asia and from there depart in dangerously fragile boats, headed for Australia’s northern coast.  Australians, being relatively comfortable citizens of an affluent country which has weathered the global financial crisis without too much difficulty and which has never seen warfare on its own shores, have difficulty imagining themselves into the lives of refugees and asylum seekers, and thus are all too willing to condemn – or to allow themselves to be led to condemn – people for whom applying for asylum through the approved channels simply isn’t a possibility.

Australians are as touchy about being accused of racism as anybody else, and to be fair when we meet people whose ethnicity differs from our own I think few of us are actually hostile, we’re usually willing to give somebody a chance – but you can’t meet every asylum seeker, every refugee, every new immigrant, face-to-face, and it’s a lot easier to dismiss people en masse than it is to speak unkindly of individuals.  Some of the concern about new arrivals is justified: Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, and there are only so many people it can sustain.  However, people keep arriving in Australia, and the inescapable fact is that some groups are more welcome here than others.  Despite the great ethnic diversity of modern Australia, the dominant culture here is still Anglo-Celtic and shows no signs of becoming anything else any time soon.  Australia is an English-speaking country, and the English-speaking world has been a peaceful one for some time now.  The countries which have been at war since 1992, when Australia introduced mandatory detention for people arriving in the country without a valid visa, have been countries whose cultures differ greatly from the Australian mainstream.  Few Australians would be willing to say outright that they don’t like Afghans, or Iraqis, or Africans, or Muslims – but it’s much more socially acceptable to say that you don’t like people who try to “sneak in to the country”, who arrive here “illegally”.  The fact that such people are so often Afghanis, or Iraqis, or Africans, or Muslims is rarely commented on, perhaps because to comment on it would be to begin to consider where these people had come from, and what they’re fleeing from, and if you begin to humanise a person it becomes much harder to convince yourself that it’s okay to lock that person up indefinitely, to inflict further trauma upon them, just because they don’t have an entry visa.

I don’t know what to do about this mouse in my kitchen.  A mouse-trap seems far too cruel a punishment: the animal doesn’t deserve to be killed, certainly not in such a brutal manner.  Yet I don’t want it living in my kitchen, foraging in my cupboards, crawling over the benches on which I prepare my meals.  I’m worried about the diseases it might leave behind.  I wonder, though, whether this fear is a little overstated: after all, while I’ve been paralysed by indecision the mouse has been happily living in my kitchen, unseen but active, and I haven’t fallen ill yet.  Prevention, of course, is better than cure, and it’s good to take precautions against illness and misfortune – but I can’t help thinking that even if there is a mouse in my kitchen, even if I am living with this intruder whose presence I didn’t invite, maybe it’s not the end of the world.


Friday, July 8, 2011

9) Pied Currawong

Strepera graculina

I like Currawongs.  I don’t think that’s a very popular position.  They’re easy birds to dislike.  They’re not particularly attractive: they’re large (up to fifty centimetres long) and fairly drab, they don’t have a beautiful song, and in cities such as Canberra and Sydney they’re common as muck.

They’re notorious nest-predators, too, and even worse than that is the fact that one of their favourite species to prey upon is the Superb Fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus), a universally beloved Australian bird and an animal so adorable that even Sir David Attenborough has mentioned it as one of his favourites.  When I was very young, so young that now I can barely remember it, my family used to care for injured native birds, nursing them back to health in a cage until they could be released back into the wild.  When once we were caring for a pair of Magpie-larks (Grallina cyanoleuca), we placed the cage on the balcony outside my parents’ bedroom so that they could hear and call to their wild kin.  Back then there was a large blackwood tree which overhung the balcony and which until the day it was cut down would serve as a sanctuary for all manner of birds.  Pied Currawongs in particular had a fondness for resting in the deep shadows beneath the tree’s thick canopy.  When a group of them saw the two young Magpie-larks in the cage under the blackwood’s overhanging branches, they wasted no time in descending upon the cage and pulling the defenceless birds through the bars, and killing and eating them.  How could anyone like such an animal?

And yet – on another occasion we had a baby Currawong in that cage, and when the wild Currawongs descended they again reached through the bars of the cage – to feed the bird.  They nurtured that bird back to health as much as anybody in my family did.  They recognised it as one of their own, and they looked after it accordingly.

There are three species of Currawong, of which the Pied Currawong is by some distance the most common and the most successfully adapted to urban life.  It’s found down the entire length of Australia’s eastern seaboard, except in Tasmania which is home instead to the Black Currawong (Strepera fuliginosa).  Meanwhile, overlapping both of these species to some degree but also spreading across the south of the continent all the way to the west coast is the Grey Currawong (Strepera versicolor), which though not uncommon is probably the least-seen of the Currawongs due to its more solitary habits and greater reluctance to come out of the forests and into cities.  The Pied Currawong, by contrast, comes into cities readily.  I’ve only very recently started seeing and hearing Pied Currawongs in Melbourne, but in Canberra where I grew up it’s one of the most common birds.

It shouldn’t be quite as common as it is in Canberra or in Sydney, the two cities in which it's most prominent.  Originally the Pied Currawong was a winter visitor to those cities, when it would migrate down from the mountains where it spent summer.  However, Currawongs are nothing if not opportunistic, and humans have ensured that there’s more than enough food year-round to keep them fed.  They’re omnivorous, and in Canberra one of their favourite foods is the berries of the Cottoneaster, an introduced plant which grows freely in Canberra and, crucially for the Currawongs, fruits in winter.

When I was at university there was a push to kill off the Cottoneasters in Canberra, and shortly thereafter I saw one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen: a migration of Currawongs.  I was outside in the evening hanging out some washing, and I heard the calling of a group of Currawongs above me.  I’d heard this many times before – but this was unmistakably different: I looked up and saw Currawong after Currawong, a seemingly endless flock of them, hundreds of them, flying against the dusk sky and all heading in the same direction.  I’ve never saw such a sight since.

Although it can be a solitary bird it’s not unusual to see Currawongs in groups, but the groups are usually small.  In particular they seem to group together in the evening, and one of my fondest memories is of sitting in the down-market Canberra suburb of Woden one evening and hearing the Currawongs call to each other across buildings and roads.  Currawongs have an broad but firmly set repertoire of calls - from one of which derives their wonderfully onomatopoeic name - with slight but noticeable variations between populations in different parts of the country.  If you’re attuned to the calls of the Currawongs in your area it really is impossible to avoid the idea that you’re listening to a vocabulary of some kind, made up of a number of clearly distinct phrases, and hearing the calls change when you go interstate is like hearing a regional accent.

It’s generally accepted now that birds evolved from dinosaurs.  It’s a difficult idea to get your head around, but if you ever get a chance you should take a close look at a bird’s legs: with the scaled, bubbly skin and the long, sharp claws suddenly you can imagine that you’re looking at a creature from millions of years ago.  The legs of a bird are so utterly unlike the rest of the animal that it’s impossible once you’ve taken a good look at them to look at the animal the same way again.  Of all the bird species I’ve seen and watched over the years, there’s not a single one that seems more dinosaur-like to me than the Pied Currawong.  It’s not entirely due to the bird: the film of Jurassic Park was a massive cultural icon of my childhood and with their long, thick beaks, semi-horizontal posture and watchful eyes Currawongs look more than a little like the Velociraptors of that film.

But lest you think that’s too frightening a comparison, let me make another: Currawongs remind me a lot of Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes).  They’ve got the same kind of cleverness, the same watchful cunning.  They’re less afraid of humans than are other birds, and if you live in an area with a lot of Currawongs it’s not uncommon to find yourself face-to-face with one.  If you ever get the chance, look a Currawong right in the eyes: you’ll find in those incredible yellow eyes an animal that’s considering you as closely as you’re considering it, and even if just for a moment you may feel yourself in the presence of another mind, and another intelligence, alien and yet strangely familiar.







Wednesday, July 6, 2011

8) Common Blue-tongue Lizard

Tiliqua scincoides

When I was a kid and I’d go with my parents to their holiday house there was nothing I loved more than trying to catch skinks (Scincidae).  I didn’t have any plans for them beyond simply catching them: though they were plentiful they were also small, and fast, and evasive, and catching them was triumph enough.  At night I could hear the crack of rifles echoing across the valley as people hunted introduced European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus); being a child and thus being almost completely self-absorbed I didn’t equate the two at the time, but of course even though I released every skink I caught almost immediately – usually holding onto it just long enough to uncup my hands and show the small lizard off to my parents – I, too, was hunting.

Most of us don’t actively pursue reptiles.  I grew out of the habit eventually.  If we see a reptile it’s almost always by chance: we might stumble upon a lizard sunning itself on a rock, or catch a glimpse or hear a rustle as one disappears through the grass when it senses our approach.  One of my childhood terrors – borne out of a miscommunication between my parents and me – was of going to the beach and unwittingly stepping on a Common Death Adder (Acanthophis antarcticus) hidden amidst the leaf-litter behind the dunes.

I can still picture the skinks at my parents’ holiday house clearly, but I don’t know what species they are.  There are a lot of skinks: it’s the second-most populous of the lizard families.  Of the skinks, the Common Blue-tongue Lizard is one of the largest species, thirty or more centimetres long and thick-bodied.  Being as common as its name suggests, it’s also probably the lizard most Australians would know best.  It’s as wary of people as most wild animals are, but it’s also happy to make its homes in our midst, and while it may not be a frequent sight in large cities such as Melbourne, in smaller, greener cities like Adelaide or Canberra it can be seen reasonably often.  It’s perhaps the archetypal Australian lizard: if not as iconic as the Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus), then more familiar: so much so that most people don’t even bother applying the term “lizard” when speaking of it (and yes, the Blue-tongue’s tongue really is dark blue, something it will readily show you if it feels threatened).

Reptiles are summer creatures, and my every memory of them is accompanied by bright light and pervasive heat: those skinks at my parents’ holiday house scuttling over dry, brown eucalypt leaves and pale gravel; the Eastern Brown Snake (Pseudonaja textilis) that rose up and hissed in threat or warning at my father and me as we walked along a fire trail cut through the yellow grass of Mulligan’s Flat on the northern edge of Canberra.  The Blue-tongue that crept into the room I was staying in one Christmas holiday at my grandmother’s house in Adelaide, in the latter years of her life, while I watched the cricket on the television and languished in the heat of midsummer South Australia.  It was as surprised to see me as I was to see it.

Up until my grandmother died, going to Adelaide had always been a Christmas-time occasion for my parents and my brother and me.  The Adelaide branch of my family are, geographically, the nearest relatives I have – yet Adelaide is a fourteen hour drive from Canberra, where I grew up, and when I was a child in the years before cheap air-fares I only ever saw my Adelaide relatives at Christmas.  The other side of my family, my mother’s side, are all in the UK, and even to this day I can’t quite comprehend that some people might live in the same city as their grandparents, or their cousins, or their aunts and uncles.  It doesn’t make sense to me because it’s so far outside my own experience.

A couple of summers ago, when I was living in the inner-Melbourne suburb of North Carlton, I decided more or less on a whim to go for a walk through Melbourne General Cemetery.  I was in the area, and though I’d been past the cemetery hundreds of times I’d never been within it, and I was aware of the truism that cemeteries, being quiet and undisturbed areas, are wildlife havens in urban areas and I always like walking somewhere where I might see an interesting animal.  But to my surprise that wasn’t what I found in the cemetery: instead, I found kilometres and kilometres of rocky paths, crumbling stone, heat and light and grave after grave after grave chiselled with Italian names, Italian words, and immigrant photos.

In the years after the Second World War large numbers of Italian migrants arrived in Australia, and most of those who arrived in Melbourne settled in Carlton and North Carlton.  In North Carlton in particular there are still many elderly Italian residents, and when I lived there I used to hear Italian being spoken every day.  Australia today is a very different place to the country it was sixty years ago, when those first Italian migrants arrived – and a large part of that change can be directly attributed to the Italians.  The children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those post-war Italian migrants were born in Australia, grew up in Australia, are part of mainstream Australian society, and the Italian influence on Australia is incalculable.  Australian food, in particular, is dominated by Italian flavours – and from food, a nation builds its entire culture.

When I went for my walk through the cemetery I wasn’t expecting it to be so Italian – but the great majority of Australians can claim some degree of ancestry overseas, and not in the distant past but recently.  Australia’s a long way away from anywhere and it must be particularly difficult for new migrant communities to adjust to life here, and those rows and rows of Italian-inscribed headstones in Melbourne General Cemetery are documents of grief and heartbreak, of course – but in a strange way, I think they’re also testament to the success of the massive migrant influx into Australia in the second half of the twentieth century – Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese, so many others, all contributing to the country and all improving it, making it what it is now.

Because despite the ever-present alarmists and fear-mongers, what Australia is now isn’t any less Australian than what it was before all those migrant communities arrived.  It’s just an enhanced version, an augmented version of what it used to be.  Eventually I got tired of walking through the cemetery.  The eucalypts and elms and acacias and oaks of the city were all in the distance, jumbled up together.  There were probably European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) darting through the air above me.  As I turned a corner towards an exit I noticed an unusual shape in the corner of my eye – and there, sitting on a cracked stone slab in the sun’s full warming glare, looking absolutely at home, was Blue-tongue Lizard.  I admired it for a while then continued on my way, off to get my afternoon coffee, made by a barista using an Italian espresso machine.