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"Not Birdwatching: reflections on noticing animals" available now

Monday, December 31, 2012

63) Eastern Grey Kangaroo

Macropus giganteus

We’re driving to Canberra.  One of my oldest friends, and me.  I don’t drive so I’m keeping her company, letting her talk so she doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel.  It’s a thirty-eight degree day and from Melbourne to Canberra is a nearly seven-hundred kilometre drive.  It’s two days before Christmas; we’re going to our families.

There are Kangaroos everywhere: lying dead and brutalised on the sides of the highway, their bodies sometimes as soft and tranquil as a toy animal but more often their flesh and blood and bones torn and shattered and smeared on the rough bitumen.  Sometimes Australian Ravens (Corvus coronoides) flap listlessly from the corpses but more often the dead animals are alone.  There are so many; too many even for scavengers to make use of.  As my friend and I joke about the numerous kayaks and jet-skis and trailbikes we see being towed up and down the highway we barely mention the marsupial slaughter that constantly confronts us.  They say travel is as much about the journey as the destination but we just want the journey over with.

The Hume Highway is flat and direct, and only Holbrook with its famous submarine is now left unbypassed.  Cars promenade along its main street in both directions; just outside town witches hats mark the starting point of new road works.  Other towns pass as merely names on exit signs, optimistic arrows off the highway: Wodonga; Tarcutta; Thurmoola. When we arrive in Canberra at last we pull over so my friend can take a phone call.  I stare out the passenger-side window, trying not to listen.  In the trees is a shape and it might be a kangaroo or it might be just a pile of sacks and sticks.  If it’s flesh it is so long dead that its form has disappeared into the waving golden grass.  Cars rush past us, their wheels juddering on the small white humps that stud the road, warning of the approach of one of Canberra’s notorious roundabouts.  The shapeless thing in the grass is left abandoned and unnoticed.

On Boxing Day I go with my parents to their holiday house, on the Brogo River near Bega.  With us are two of their oldest friends, visiting from the UK.  They’ve never seen Brogo before; I think at first that they have but I soon learn that I’m wrong.  I spend time with them, and with my parents, but I haven’t been here for months so I spend time alone, too, re-exploring old paths.  Walking up the road from the house to the gate on the morning of the first day I stumble upon a small but healthy group of Kangaroos gathered around an old dam.  On the second night, after everyone’s gone to bed, I hear Boobook Owls (Ninox novaeseelandiae) hooting mo-poke in the full moon and I go searching for them.  I find two; as I approach the first one I disturb an unseen Kangaroo whose thudding footfalls in the scrub panic the owl into flight.  The second owl is not so cautious, and I stare at it for minutes on end.  Its eyes shine dazzlingly bright in the beam of my torch.  As I stare it defecates on the branch below it, a long white spatter, and as a response to my intrusion I can’t fault it.  The next morning I leave the breakfast table when I hear a Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) calling in the gully; I expect it to hear me stumbling towards it and to run shrieking down the hill, but instead it allows me to watch it scratching in the dirt beneath a fig tree.  I almost stop breathing when I see its long, plumed tail trailing behind it.  Usually Lyrebird songs are resonantly loud and accompanied by a dance, the shimmering of that long tail, but this morning, practicing outside the winter breeding season, the bird sings softly to itself as it forages, like somebody whistling while they work.

Our friends from the UK have only a few weeks in Australia so I try to find as many animals as I can for them, but it seems as though every creature I spot is gone by the time I can point it out.  King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis), Spotted Pardalotes (Pardalotus punctatus), Satin Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), all fly away.  The two Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) that have circled the valley in front of the house for years never appear.  After two days, though, our luck changes: it begins in Bermagui, with two enormous Stingrays (Myliobatoidei) that are patrolling the waterfront where a fisherman is throwing freshly caught fish into the water.  Tourists point and laugh as the man’s small dog tiptoes along the wharf and barks excitedly at the pack of Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) and Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) that scrabble for each scrap of flesh.  That evening, driving back to the house well after dark, we stop for an Eastern Grey Kangaroo that is standing in the middle of the left lane of the road, directly in front of us; it lollops unhurriedly into the bush.  Moments later I spy another standing like a ghost just outside the beam of the headlights – “Kangaroo on the left” I say, hoping to alert our friends, but when my father reacts by immediately pressing the car’s brakes I remember all the dead kangaroos on the side of the Hume; I remember that Eastern Grey Kangaroos are the main cause of traffic accidents back in Canberra.  I watch the edges of the road all the way back to the house.

We all drive back to Canberra the next day; the day after that my old friend and I drive back home.  Back to Melbourne.  My brother is with us now, too.  We notice that the road is new; we see, for the first time, that a week earlier we’d been driving on the old tarmac, and that to double the size of the Hume Highway the government has simply laid down two bright new lanes alongside the old ones.  Now the old road that went in two directions only goes in one; now it’s only the old road that goes to Canberra.

The Kangaroos die as readily on the new road as on the old: their corpses punctuate the long drive once more.  Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), too.  We wonder if perhaps there are so many dead animals on the road because there are also, out there in the bush, so many ones that are newly alive.  I recall the scores of Grey Fantails (Rhipidura albiscapa) and other small insectivorous birds I’d seen at Brogo; I recall the recent rain and think, we are in a time of plenty.

We are driving back to Melbourne for the New Year, but we are leaving something behind, too.  It can’t be avoided.  A home is the place that formed you as much as it’s the place you live; leaving Canberra once again, turning away from the dead animals, I’m struck dumb by how unspeakably beautiful the Southern Tablelands are this summer: pale golden grass; distant indigo hills.

Image sourced from

Friday, December 14, 2012

62) Common Carp

Cyprinus carpio

A few weeks ago I found myself, somehow, in a conversation about the Thames.  Somebody disparaged the river, and remembering a particular anecdote from a university lecture over a decade ago I took it upon myself to defend the river’s health: the restoration of the Thames, I explained, had been a major success story, and a visitor to London is now likely to see Swans (Cygnus) and other birdlife inhabiting the waterway.  The river may not be pristine, but life has a way of asserting itself.

Nonetheless, “it still looks as dirty as the Yarra”, as my conversational opposite remarked.  The Yarra River, Melbourne’s river, is notoriously brown and muddy; some of that is just its natural condition, but it’s fair to say that nobody in Melbourne would ever consider swimming in it.  At places where the river’s flow brings the water butting up against hard obstacles – bridges, embankments – the collection of detritus is enough to put anyone off.  Yet birdlife of all sorts can be found along the length of the river, and for birdlife to thrive there need to be not just plants but fish and other animals upon which those birds can feed.  The river’s not perfect; but it’s a long way from dead.

Lake Burley Griffin, in Canberra, is another oft-disregarded body of water which sustains more life than many people credit it with.  Before I moved to Melbourne I’d delight in frequent sightings of Darters (Anhingidae) hunting in the lake’s depths, diving for long periods before emerging, but barely – their bodies below the surface like submarines, and just their thin and spring-loaded necks and heads held serpentine above the water (hence their other name, “Snake-bird”).  Grebes, too, could be seen bobbing on the surface of the lake, tiny like rubber ducks in an enormous bath; in winter they all looked alike, but come spring and summer the males began to moult into their breeding plumage and Hoary-headed Grebes (Poliocephalus poliocephalus) with their striped heads could easily be distinguished from Australasian Grebes (Tachybaptus novaehollandiae) with their yellow facial spot.

Darters and Grebes are both predators, swimming with great agility beneath the surface of the water after fish and smaller animals.  So, too, are cormorants, which are also numerous on Lake Burley Griffin – Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo); Little Black Cormorants (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris); Little Pied Cormorants (Microcarbo melanoleucos).  The very presence of these birds suggests some degree of health and life and vigour beneath the lake’s muddy surface, but speak to the average Canberran and they’ll swear blind that there’s nothing in that lake except Carp.  Bloody Carp.

They must be the most hated fish in Australia.  They’ve driven out the natives; they stir up mud; worst of all, they’re no good for eating (though try telling that to the Chinese-Australians who line Lake Burley Griffin with their fishing rods and baskets all year long).  Once many years ago when walking along a quiet edge of Lake Burley Griffin, around the fence of the Yarralumla Nursery towards Weston Park at whose tip the lake is at its narrowest, I came across a hand-written sign pinned to a tree.  A boast: the sign’s author proclaimed himself the Carp killer, the Carp executioner, the bane of all Carp; he offered a bounty on Carp; he cursed them beyond all bounds of reason.  He could, frankly, have been anybody in Canberra – or in Australia.

His mission to rid the world – or at least the lake – of Carp was destined to be futile.  There are unknowable numbers of them in the depths of those waters.  They must bump against Scrivener Dam and feel their way curiously along the concrete wall that binds their habitat, preventing it from gushing in torrents into the Molonglo River.  One spring I was walking along the lake, again in that same beech-dappled stretch of the bike path that leads from residential Yarralumla where I lived to the grand Yarralumla of Government House, when I was distracted by shallow splashing and sloshing in a willow-ringed pond to my right.  Carp, spawning: somehow I’d lived my entire life in that same small part of Canberra by the lake and never seen such a thing before.  The great fish writhed just beneath the pond’s surface, or occasionally broke it to splash and gulp and twist their pale bellies to the sun.  They chased each-other; they lunged at each-other; it was an ancient and unmistakably carnal ritual.

It was hard not to see it, also, as a kind of declaration of ownership; an ostentatious display of fecundity and vigour in a body of water usually regarded as stagnant and unsalvageable.  Carp can reproduce in phenomenal numbers: according to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, a six kilogram female carp can produce 1.5 million eggs.  Of course the great majority of these will die or be consumed before they even get a start in life, but even so – the potential is staggering.  No wonder the Carp, when I saw them in that small inlet of the lake, seemed to make the water quiver with the solidity of their flesh.

Early on a Saturday morning recently, just the day after that conversation about the Thames, I was riding my bike back home along the Merri Creek here in Melbourne.  Riding slowly beneath the Eastern Freeway, fifty metres or so upstream from where the creek flows into the Yarra, I was distracted by the plopping of water.  I stopped my bike, and leaned against the chain-link fence; there again, a splash sent ripples across the murky surface of the creek.  And again, and again.  I had an inkling what was causing it, but I wanted to see – to make sure.  (As I waited I recalled how, years earlier, I’d heard fish leaping unseen from the surface of a distant and very different river, the Lemmenjoki in the far north of Finland, on a still autumn evening when the last insects of the season had hatched in a great swarm above the water.)

In front of me a couple of people had stopped too, their attention also having been caught by the sound.  “Is it a Platypus?” the woman asked excitedly, perhaps with more hope than expectation.  I didn’t want to disappoint her, and for a moment I even dared to hope that she might be right – unlikely as it might have seemed to see Platypus at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, beneath the Eastern Freeway (yet Platypus, Ornithorhynchus anatinus, are known to live in the Yarra’s catchment, in creeks further out of the city; they may even live in Fairfield and Kew, only a few kilometres from where I and my fellow observers were stopped).

I quickly dismissed thoughts of a Platypus sighting from my mind; but I was quietly hopeful of something else: a Grebe, or a Cormorant, or some kind of swimming bird.  Some unusual Duck (Anatidae) – once, in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve outside Canberra, I thought I’d seen a Platypus, and been scarcely disappointed when the animal turned out to instead be the even rarer Musk Duck (Biziura lobata).

I was hoping for anything, really.  I was aware that November had slipped away from me, and with it another spring, and my annual chance to see the Sacred Kingfishers (Todiramphus sanctus) whose migratory return a few years ago to the Yarra River and its tributaries was hailed as a truly tangible sign of the waterways’ recovery and restored health.  Two years ago, in my first few months of living in this part of Melbourne, I’d seen several Kingfishers – but growing complacent with time I’d neglected to amble along the creek and the river the year after that, or this year.  Now they’ll have dispersed along the river, and begun nesting, and my chance to see them will probably have passed for twelve months.

Whatever was splashing in the water that day under the Eastern Freeway couldn’t have been a Kingfisher, of course, but it had to be something.  Some rare fish – just last week I noticed that the workmen constructing the long-projected fishway at Yarra Bend had finally packed up their construction site and departed – some aquatic mammal or diving bird.  Anything but Carp.

But Carp they were.  I’d known, really, that the creatures fussing the water couldn’t have been anything else.  When they eventually showed themselves they seemed to rise in their dozens, a great chain of them; and yet, to my astonishment and to the astonishment of the couple with whom I was gazing into the water, they were exceptionally beautiful.  There’s something stirring about seeing a creature utterly at home in its environment, and as those great fish turned their bellies to the sun just beneath the green surface of the water and rolled like a line of celebratory streamers downstream to the Yarra they were no less magnificent than any Platypus or Kingfisher.  They moved so languidly that even when one broke the surface it was with infinite grace and elegance.  They twirled and twined around each-other ecstatically; they barely seemed to exert any effort at all; and then, in an instant, they were gone again, sinking into the thick depths of the water.

I had to get home: I was returning from the market and I needed to get my groceries into the fridge.  My fellow observers turned away from the water.  None of us had seen what we had hoped to see; and yet I don’t think any of us, in that moment, wanted to see anything else but Carp.

Image sourced from

Monday, November 5, 2012

61) Domestic Goat

Capra hircus

By the time you write yourself a letter, and carefully fold the aerogramme, and lick the gluey edges so that they seal, and hand it to somebody else who will stick a stamp on it and put it in the post for you – by the time you’ve done all of those things, and then waited two or three days for the letter to arrive, you’ve nearly forgotten that you sent the letter at all; and thus, when you open your letterbox after coming home from work in the near-twilight of a mid-spring evening and see in there the exuberantly patterned aerogramme that was in your possession for ten or fifteen minutes the previous weekend, there is a moment in which you don’t recognise what it is that you’re looking at; you don’t remember having ever seen, let alone touched and marked and addressed, such an envelope before.  Then, just an instant later, you remember, and the surprise and delight is so startling that you can’t help but grin.  You can’t help but be happy.

It’s the same sensation, perhaps, that you would feel if you climbed the stairs of an extravagantly decorated 1920s theatre and found, near the bar, a small goat defecating discreetly on the carpet.  You would probably have been to this theatre before, on an earlier Sunday, and so you would have expected to see a goat, or some other farmyard animal; or if not necessarily expected it, then certainly anticipated it as a possibility; yet seeing the animal, nonetheless, would be such a great joy and surprise that you would be unable to prevent yourself from crying out and touching the goat, stroking its hair, laying your fingers gingerly upon the horns growing out of its head.

There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about a goat.  There’s something about a goat, the look of it, the sound of its bleating, the wiry yet surprisingly soft texture of its coat, that marks the animal somehow as ancient – and indeed the goat is one of the oldest of all domesticated animals.  Starting with the Wild Goat or Bezoar (Capra aegagrus, still found throughout central Asia and the Middle East today), our Neolithic ancestors began herding goats millennia ago, and despite all the unfathomable time that has passed between then and now neither we nor the goats have changed very much.

The earliest evidence of the domestication of goats comes from two sites, in Turkey at the north of the valley of the Euphrates River; and in Kurdish Iran.  Remains of Domestic Goats found in these two sites date back some ten thousand years; a few thousand years later the long stretch of land roughly between these two sites would become the cradle of modern civilisation: Mesopotamia.  It was here that urbanisation began, with the emergence of arguably the world’s first cities; as populations grew and these early cities became larger and more frenetic with activity it became necessary to develop a method of keeping track of trades, finances, debts, and all the other daily negotiations of human society.  People began making marks in clay to serve as aides memoire – people, in short, began writing.

In Mesopotamia, writing began as a means of keeping track of traded goods.  Then as now, a great part of the economy was based on agriculture – and there must have been more than a few goats tabulated in those ancient rudimentary written words.  Then and now goats must have been bought and sold by the hundred: the goat, wild or domestic, has always been a herd animal.  This must have been one of the things that made it attractive to humans in the first place; and perhaps it’s not so fanciful to imagine that our ancient Mesopotamian ancestors recognised in herds of goats some kind of kinship: that animals such as goats group together to feel safer from tangible threats such as predators is not really so different from the way in which more abstract fears – loneliness; isolation; estrangement – lead people to seek out the company of each-other, particularly in cities.

Though we prize our individuality, we want nonetheless to feel that we are part of a community greater than ourselves.  We live cheek-by-jowl with each-other; we cherish good neighbours; we start to feel strange when we haven’t communicated with anybody in a while.  How excited must the originators of those first early written missives have been, to have created a new way to communicate to each-other previously incommunicable thoughts?  We write because we wish, in some way, to share our perception of the world with our fellow humans – to ask if anybody experiences the world the same way we do.  Though we too readily forget it now, we in the Western world have inherited from the ancient Mesopotamians a culture and a sense of community that is based in a fundamental way on the written word.

Yet the written word is useless if it is not read.  It is the reading, the listening, the experiencing of writing by others – whether that writing is mercantile, practical, fanciful, or fictional – that gives the written word its purpose.  Writing is about reaching out, grasping at comprehension across the otherwise unknowable boundary of another human’s individual consciousness; writing ensures that words and stories and experiences can survive beyond the fragile lives of their creators; writing creates communities, and through communities, comfort.

Every month just such a community – loose, shifting, growing, but always unified in spirit – gathers at the Thornbury Theatre, in Melbourne’s north.  The Thornbury Theatre was once the Regent Theatre, a cinema opened on the 8th of August 1925.  Now, after decades of dormancy except as a banquet hall, it hosts live events of all kinds, from music to wrestling.  For the last two years it has also hosted Women of Letters, a literary event in a city full of them but one which almost immediately, and completely organically, acquired the kind of excitement and dedication that people only bestow upon things that they truly love.

If you live in Melbourne you probably know all about Women of Letters already; if you don’t, here are the basics: created and curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, at the end of each month the event draws together, before an invariably sold-out audience, a disparate group of five women – different women each time, though several have by now appeared more than once.  These women will each have been asked to write a letter inspired by a particular theme; they then read the letter out.  Anything beyond that is left to the writer’s discretion, and the letters range from the bawdy to the raw to the wry to the heartbreaking – usually all in one afternoon, frequently all in one letter.  Between the reading of the letters and a brief question-and-answer session, the audience is provided with pens, postcards and aerogrammes, and invited to write a letter to somebody, to be posted by Marieke and Michaela.

That’s what happens in literal terms, but such a description gives no impression at all of what it is that keeps several hundred people coming back to the Thornbury Theatre every month, begging for tickets if necessary and turning up early to queue out onto the street.  There’s a promise of a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment, of course – but entertainment can be found anywhere.  What Women of Letters provides more than anything is a sense of belonging.

A male friend of mine asked me a couple of weeks ago if men were welcome.  It’s true that the great majority of the audience is made up of women, but nobody who attends a Women of Letters event is made to feel out of place.  It’s precisely this warmth and openness that brings people to Women of Letters.  We’re all there to listen, and hearing women – hearing people – recount astonishingly frank and honest stories of their own lives galvanises us into the understanding that community, fellowship, a sense of shared experience, will always be the essential aspect of the experience of being human.  We are social animals; we are the only animals on earth who create anything like a city: a space shared by millions of individuals with no genetic relationship with each-other, no base biological reason to put up with each-other.

We make our communities not just physically, but emotionally as well.  Above all, emotionally.  And in our better moments we try to reach out to others – to our fellow humans, and sometimes – though too rarely – to other animals caught up in the maelstrom of human life.  Besides celebrating the art of letter-writing, Women of Letters was started expressly to support the work of Edgar’s Mission, an animal shelter outside Melbourne dedicated to providing sanctuary to animals from factory-farms.  Factory-farming is the brutal end-point of domestication: a production line of animals bound in servitude to a life and death of the utmost cruelty and despair.  From time to time one of the animals from Edgar’s Mission will be brought to Women of Letters, up the stairs to the upstairs entrance of the Thornbury Theatre, to remind everybody what it’s all about: to remind us all of the consequences and responsibilities of the thousands of years of domestication and animal use and abuse that have been at the heart of human life for longer than we can remember.  From before we had writing; from before we had cities; from before, even, we had communities, we had animals in our lives.  They are there still, every aspect of our life is abundant with them; in their own way they are part of our community – and as we talk to each-other, write to each-other, listen to each-other, we should make the effort to remember them, too.  They have been with us for so long.

Image sourced from

Sunday, October 21, 2012

60) Woolly Mammoth

Mammuthus primigenius

In August this year, an eleven-year-old boy walking along the banks of the Yenisei River in Russia’s far north found the preserved carcass of a Woolly Mammoth.  The body was frozen; the remains were astonishingly well-preserved.  The animal’s fat-hump, like the hump of a Camel (Camelus), was still intact – the first time an adult mammoth had been found with such an appendage.

The Woolly Mammoth was but one of several species of Mammoth, but so ingrained is it in the popular consciousness that for most people – certainly for me – the Woolly Mammoth is the Mammoth.  Though the species went extinct thousands of years ago, it’s not unusual for specimens to be found from time to time; though the end of the ice-age probably doomed the Woolly Mammoth to extinction, those parts of the world where it lived – including modern-day Russia – are still cold enough to have preserved the remains of countless animals, and not as fossils but as organic matter.

The remains found in August will be transported to St Petersburg for study.  That city is already home to perhaps the most famous Woolly Mammoth in the world, the so-called Berezovka Mammoth.  The Berezovka Mammoth is a nearly-complete animal mounted in a glass cabinet in the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Science.  It’s old – it was discovered a century ago – and it has a mothballed appearance: there’s little evidence of the wool that once covered the animal, and half its trunk is missing.

I was lucky enough to visit St Petersburg – and to see the Berezovka Mammoth – in 2003.  Though my primary reason for travelling to St Petersburg had been to visit the Hermitage – I spent two afternoons there, and still sometimes gasp at the memories – a host of secondary attractions piqued my interest, and one of them was the Zoological Museum, and its Mammoth in particular.  Seeing the animal was something of a disappointment, as it happened: it was tattered and shabby. The lighting over the cabinet that enclosed it had a particular dimness that suggested parsimony rather than the need to preserve the specimen from damage.  The display seemed almost deliberately downbeat.

Yet it was there, all the same: stuffed, tattered, faded; but still a Woolly Mammoth.  As iconic a creature as has ever lived.  Like the Mammoth discovered this August, the animal in St Petersburg was found by a river – the Berezovka River, naturally, far away in Siberia.  So much is found by rivers, by bodies of water.  Leaving the Zoological Museum I walked back east across the Dvortsovvy Bridge, across the Neva River towards Nevsky Prospect, the grand boulevard which terminated at the Hermitage.  By the Neva, at a distance, I saw a man with a docile Bear (Ursidae) on a lead beside him: the animal, whose standing height can have been barely taller than its captor, looked forlorn and despairing.

Entirely by chance, I visited St Petersburg in the year of the 300th anniversary of its founding.  To make the city presentable on such an occasion great amounts of money had been spent on cleaning and restoring public areas and historical buildings and monuments.  The money was provided by the Russian government, and it’s surely not a coincidence that Vladimir Putin is a son of “Peter”, as Russians call the city.  When I was there, for only five days, every golden statue glowed; every piece of marble shone.  The Church on Spilled Blood was dazzling, as if some jewel-encrusted cave had been flipped inside-out.

The trams were dirty.  The cars were beaten and run-down; the river had an exhausted look to it.  Beyond the glamour and beauty of Peter the Great’s “Venice of the North”, there was an actual city full of people whose lives were no more or less extraordinary for all the glory of their royal home.  When I visited St. Petersburg it was September, autumn, well outside the mid-summer tourist season.  The skies were grey and hung low and heavy with rain; the hotel where I stayed, though expertly run, was infested with Mosquitoes (Culicidae), a remnant and a reminder of the swamp that the city was built upon.  Their presence made sleep impossible until sheer fatigue at constantly swatting them set in.

My companions in the hostel for the five days I was there were a mix of English, Americans, and particularly Canadians.  One of the Canadians had learned not even the most basic of Russian before his visit to St Petersburg, and when attempting to communicate with the Russians he did so with a rudimentary language of finger pointing and miming.  Yet when interacting with other English-speakers such as myself he was a perfectly hospitable companion, funny and sociable.  There’s an instinctive camaraderie that comes with travelling, and for five days he and his fellow Canadians were the best friends I had in the world.  Each night we’d reconvene at the hostel and recount our experiences of the day – what we’d seen, what had happened to us.  The weather was dispiriting; the city was magnificent but aloof; most of all we relished being able to communicate with one-another in our own language, without thought or effort.

If my Canadian friend’s communication with the Russians seemed strange or even obnoxious, perhaps the people of St Petersburg did not invite upon themselves any great degree of politeness.  When I first arrived in the city I found them pushy, and rude, and after the warmth and openness of my previous two months among the Danes, the Swedes, and even the more reserved Finns, the Russians seemed brusque and unfriendly and even slightly threatening.  Fortunately there was a lifetime of distractions in St Petersburg, and even in the ever-recurring drizzle, walking around the city was a mesmerising experience.  Any perceived rudeness from the city’s populace barely seemed to matter.

Of course, the residents of St Petersburg disregarded me because they had no way of communicating with me; I realise now that I felt the same way towards them, yet had not the grace to acknowledge that the fault lay anywhere but with them.  This attitude began to change when I met a man who tried to sell me books.  He was hawking them on the street; he accosted me as I was leaving a restaurant where I’d been eating dinner.  I didn’t buy anything off him – I didn’t have the money to – but he had a few words of broken English and we chatted for a few moments, bonded by a shared love of literature.  Our conversation amounted to little more than monosyllabic expressions of delight and appreciation – but it was all that was needed.

Subsequent to that encounter I realised that if I could break through the language barrier that was isolating me from the natives of St Petersburg, their character seemed to change completely.  Where once they had seemed pushy and rude, elbowing me out of the way in queues at the metro, they now – those few with whom I was able to communicate – seemed extraordinarily generous – with their time, with their advice, with their sense of common humanity.  A woman working behind the counter in a gift shop talked me out of buying a cup and saucer there, pointing me instead in the direction of another shop with far better, and cheaper, products; at the end of my trip a man went out of his way to lead me to the station from which I had to catch the train back to Finland.  Perhaps it’s the collective memory of long decades of totalitarianism that creates such communal attitudes.  It saddens me to think that many tourists, cowed with fear by the stories of crime and con-artists that attach themselves to any large foreign city, might never experience the generosity and kindness that I came to think of as the authentic Russian character.

The Russians had seemed rude at first because I wasn’t making the effort to see them as anything else.  Likewise the Berezovka Mammoth had seemed underwhelming because I wasn’t taking it on its own terms.  Had I seen it immediately for what it was – the nearly perfect remains of an animal that had been alive perhaps tens of thousands of years ago – maybe I would have been astonished, perhaps I would have overwhelmed.  The Mammoth discovered in August by the Yenisei River will not take the Berezovka Mammoth’s place – despite being nearly intact it’s skin and bone, like the bodies of ancient people dragged from bogs – but it may not be so long before we find another specimen comparable to the Berezovka Mammoth.  Is this something to look forward to, though?  The Yenisei Mammoth may well be “the Mammoth of the century”, but despite the excitement, its discovery is not something that we should be eager to celebrate.  Hidden at the end of the ABC News Online story through which I found out about the Yenisei Mammoth’s discovery, is the following sentence, ominous in its banality:

Global warming has thawed ground in northern Russia that is usually almost permanently frozen, leading to the discoveries of a number of Mammoth remains.

Things are not always what they seem.  We have to make the effort to understand them.  It was global warming that, at least in part, led to the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth.  It’s global warming – this time of our own creation – that is bringing them back to us.

Image of the Berezovka Mammoth sourced from

Sunday, September 30, 2012

59) Dog

Canis lupus familiaris 

We’d followed the news all week, those many of us lucky enough not to be in the terrible centre of it.  With hope slowly withering to horror and sorrow we’d read and discussed each new awful development.  On Friday we awoke to the news that overnight police had found her body.  Even as late as Thursday night we’d been hoping, against hope, for the best.  On Friday morning thunderclouds rumbled over the city, darkening the sky, dimming the early spring light, as if the sun itself could not bear to break over a new day.  On Friday morning, on the train into the city, on our way to work, we barely spoke; and the silence was heavier than silence ever should be.

On Saturday we paused in our sorrow, because that is the great privilege of those many of us who did not know her, and we watched Sydney beat Hawthorn in the AFL grand final.  The last Saturday in September.  A community has its rites.  On Sunday, though, through our hangovers, we remembered once again, with a horror that wouldn’t give way to numbness, and we talked to each-other in voices hushed and bowed, and we gathered in Brunswick at midday beneath a sky that threatened rain.  Thousands of us.  Tens of thousands of us.  Somehow an entire city of us.

As we turned the corner into Sydney Road to begin our sombre march police ushered us into one lane of the street, to allow trams and traffic to pass in the other direction; yet even so no vehicles moved.  No vehicles dared to move.  There were so many of us that crowded into a narrow column we seemed to stretch the entire length of Brunswick, from Moreland Road where we began to Brunswick Road where the trams waited patiently for us to finish our procession.  As we began to walk some of us talked to each other but more of us were silent.  For some of the men in our number it was as close as we had been to women we didn’t know all week: a sense of shamed propriety has fallen upon us, and we’ve been keeping our distance, lowering our eyes.  Now though our very presence is itself a sign of respect, and even contrition: for one of our number had done this awful thing.  It is always one of us.

The march takes us an hour.  All of us, men and women alike, together.  There are so many of us, and we are walking so slowly.  People are people, and so some of them turn slowly to chatting to friends: about life, about daily frustrations.  There are so many of us that friends cannot find each-other, and phone calls are made: the landmarks of the nightly news, the places she stopped on her last awful night, are used as points of reference: “I’ve just passed Bar Etiquette” one man tells somebody on his phone.  He’ll be with his friend soon.

“I think we’re nearly at Hope Street” another man says.  He sounds as if he has momentarily forgotten himself, as if he is touring historical landmarks; but it’s forgivable.  It is, in its way, understandable.  Later, in a pub in the city, a female friend asks me why I had marched.  “I don’t understand the point” she says, and I gasp and stumble for a reply before muttering something about solidarity; but I think perhaps we marched because we needed to see for ourselves something that had hovered all week somewhere between the abstract and the horrifyingly real.  We are human, and only through seeing something of it for ourselves can anything begin to make sense to us.

There are many families marching.  There are women and men, of all ages, and – if one can judge such a thing from appearance alone – of all backgrounds.  Many people have brought their dogs, because in some ways a community is bound together by its dogs.  There are whippets and retrievers and Labradors; mutts and mongrels and purebreds alike.  They are all on leads but they don’t need to be: dogs have a better sense of propriety than most animals; than many humans, for that matter.  A dog can read the mood of an occasion and adapt its own behaviour to suit, and the dogs on the march are silent, their heads down, their pacing as slow and stately as the thousands of humans around them.

Yet they are dogs, and sometimes they can’t contain themselves, and when the path of one dog crosses with another there is a burst of activity: the dogs wag their tails eagerly and sniff each other all over, raising their noses in keen excitement.  Everybody on the march knows that dogs will be dogs, and their small transgressions against the sombre mood of the procession are forgiven; and so the dogs begin for us, in their way, the process of healing; they begin the long task of pulling us through our collective grief.  Each dog in the crowd is a small burning star of happiness and joy and because they are dogs we can forgive them for it, even today, even at the end of this awful week.

By the time we reach Brunswick Road the sun has come out, and people have begun to talk to each-other.  A policeman with a loud but not unkind voice instructs everyone who finishes the march to move off the road, to clear the way for traffic; and so there is no lingering; the crowd disperses as if at some stage in the past hour the march had become a pilgrimage.  On the corner of Sydney Road and Brunswick Road, where we leave each other, is a pub.  It is called Bridie O’Reilly’s.  Its sign proclaims “An Irish tradition”.  We leave each-other, and walk into the sun, into the cold southerly blowing off the bay of our beloved and wounded city, and if we feel a keener sense of sorrow over the murder of Jill Meagher than for any of the other too-many women who have died in our city in similar circumstances, perhaps it is because she was not from here, but had come from Ireland and chosen to make her home among us.  Perhaps we feel that we have failed her.  We cannot now make it up for her, we can never, ever, tell her that we are sorry; but we can tell it to each-other, and together – only together – can we reclaim and rebuild our city.

Image sourced from