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.
Image sourced from http://www.prospect.sa.gov.au/