Dasyurus viverrinus & Sciurus vulgaris
We’d set up camp, had our dinner, and were preparing to go to bed before the dark grew so absolute that our eyes could no longer adjust to it, when we heard a series of curious yaps.
Ours was a small group: my father; an old friend of his; the son of another friend; and me. We were on the last night of a hike of several days’ duration through Tasmania’s small but mesmerisingly beautiful Walls of Jerusalem National Park. We’d entered the Park by following the presumed course of an unmarked and long-lost trail which tracked through delicate sphagnum bogs from Pine Valley in the adjoining Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, and now, three days later, we were leaving via the main trail, picking our way between a long network of rocky tarns through a flat, sparsely vegetated pebble field. It was not comfortable country to sleep in. We were too tired from days of walking to care.
Before sleep, though, an unexpected encounter: by the time we finished eating our dinner it was growing dark enough to ensure that we’d give our dishes only a cursory wash, yet before we had a chance even to do that the dirty dishes, smelling of and scattered with the remnants of our dinner, were discovered by the local wildlife.
Most Australian animals, mammals particularly, are shy, and it’s highly unusual to see one close at hand, let alone have one voluntarily enter the midst of a group of humans. This goes doubly for animals in the deep wild. When finding oneself in such a situation, adding the further implausibility of the animal in question being one which most people, even inveterate bushwalkers and campers, will never see, pushes the whole situation over into the realms of the scarcely believable. That was certainly how we all felt when we raised our eyes above the line of our tents and realised that the source of the strange yapping noise that had got our attention was not one but several Eastern Quolls.
Picture-books of Australia’s ancient and extinct megafauna, such as I sometimes browsed when I was a child, are full of monstrous creatures: carnivorous kangaroos, giant diprotodonts. Animals with short, ugly snouts and vicious fangs. Carnivorous marsupials are relatively rare in Australia now, though: the national consciousness is haunted by the flickering black-and-white ghost of the last Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus), filmed in Hobart Zoo in 1933, which upon its death in 1936 took with it the heartbreakingly lovely form of its entire persecuted species. Nowadays, if one is to mention the words “carnivorous mammal” to an Australian, his or her thoughts will likely turn to introduced pest species: Foxes (Vulpes vulpes), feral Cats (Felis catus). If, however, that hypothetical Australian grew up curious about animals, he or she might also give thought to a group of small and incongruously pretty creatures: the Quolls.
Quolls are carnivorous marsupials whose most characteristic feature, apart from their diet, is their spotted fur: a Quoll’s coat is painted liberally with large white blots, as if the animal has been caught in the spotlights of a hundred eager wildlife-watchers. As if to counter the attractiveness of their markings, the wildlife books of my childhood seemed always to depict Quolls with some unfortunate creature semi-chewed between their jaws: Eastern Rosellas (Platycercus eximius) in the case of the Tiger Quoll; small rodents or large insects for the Eastern Quoll.
The Quolls so depicted were invariably orange-red in colour, though, and until I saw the Eastern Quolls in Tasmania I had no idea that the animals existed in any other colouration. I can’t recall now how many Quolls there were on that night – of course my memory insists that it was ten, twenty, fifty, but it’s likely there were a mere handful. What I recall clearly, though, is that although the first Quoll we saw had the expected russet coat, others had pale sandy-coloured fur; or brown fur so dark as to be almost black. It seemed that each animal that came out of the sparse undergrowth, out of the twilight into the perimeter of our camp, was a different colour. Only the large white spots were uniform and exactly as depicted in those books of my childhood.
Campers the world over are discouraged from feeding wildlife; but what’s to be done when the wildlife helps itself? We were astonished when the Quolls appeared; shocked; and when our shock abated we quickly dashed to recover our pots and pans, plates and knives. It wasn’t out of a concern that we might tame the wild animals: we merely wanted to prevent our possessions from being scattered through the Tasmanian bush. Yet as I recall there was a pause of more than a few moments as we admired the rare and beautiful animals before us: none of us had ever seen an Eastern Quoll, and perhaps none of us had ever expected to. If we felt annoyed that the Quolls had invaded our camp, if we felt chastened that they might grow fat and slothful on our carelessly left foodscraps, we also felt delighted, and perhaps even proud, that we’d managed – even inadvertently – to lure such animals out of hiding.
September 2009: we’re in the Arctic. There is nobody else with us; it’s just my father and me. Every animal is novel to us: no sighting is so mundane that it doesn’t fill us with wonder. We’ve sat on a bus for seven hours travelling northwards through kilometre after kilometre of unchanging birch forest; the land around us barely rises above the horizon, and it’s easy to imagine that the forest never ends. As Australians we’re inclined to imagine that Europe is small, confined; but this landscape is vast. A week later we’ll be on another bus, just to the west, at the same latitude but in a different country, in Sweden, and the bus will be stopped by men on the road, men of the indigenous Sami people, and we’ll wait patiently and watch the unknowable forest until abruptly those short, thickset trees disgorge a great herd of Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus): one-hundred, two-hundred, three-hundred, four-hundred of them, pouring across the road from gaps between trees that scarcely seem to be there at all. The Reindeer will pass, the road will clear, the men will leave, and the bus will continue.
For now, though, we’re in Finland, and we’re passing through ever smaller towns until eventually we get a ride in a school bus which shuttles through various hamlets amid the trees and finally drops us at our destination, Lemmenjoki National Park.
The Lemmenjoki River (a tautology, actually: in Finnish “joki” means “river”) has a history of gold prospecting, and when we shut our eyes gold is all we can see: it’s high autumn, and the yellow birch leaves glow in the clear Arctic air. We’re in the midst of a great forest but in places where the birches dominate there’s almost no green to be seen at all. But then we’ll turn a corner on the track we’re now walking, and some change in the terrain’s aspect will see the birches recede and be replaced by pines, and the world becomes deep and dark with the sombre green of their needles.
Beneath our feet there is no earth, just a shagpile carpet of dwarf berry bushes: blueberries, crowberries, cloudberries . . . Like the birches, these plants are preparing to shed their leaves ahead of the coming winter, and the ground is splashed with red and purple and even black. Through this scene cut rivers and streams that are cold and steely blue. Often the sky above is so clear and cloudless that I’m reminded of the unwarm blue sky of Canberra winters, the sky I grew up with.
There are few animals here, mostly birds; their calls and the sounds of their movement reverberate through the crisp air. Thus do animals give themselves away in this dizzying forest of colour, and when we come upon them their appearance is like a maelstrom of movement and noise in the still, quiet world.
How must we appear to them, then! Two creatures, carrying their lives on their backs, lumbering noisily and breathlessly, slowly and ponderously, making no secret of their presence. Is it any wonder the animals of the forest scatter before us? Is it any wonder we see so few of them during our week amid the trees?
But these animals are not automatons with routines and constrictions; they are beings with lives that are ever subject to disruption and distraction. One day, midway through our time in the National Park and being in no hurry, we make a side-trip up a poorly marked track to a high and pristine lake. Along the path we disturb two Red Squirrels having a violent dispute: perhaps territorial, perhaps amorous; there’s no way for us to tell. We watch as the tiny animals, having given themselves over momentarily to ferocity, run across the path, scale a tree, jump from branch to branch: one pursuing the other, then pursuer becoming pursued, then back again, the chase punctuated by bites and scratches and screeches. The animals move so quickly that they almost trace a red line through the forest. They are wholly absorbed in their fight, they’ve crossed the track right in front of us and have not even noticed our astonished presence. So fast and relentless is their angry movement that they disappear into the forest after only a few moments, taking flight to the tops of the trees and away. Their world is their own and it excludes us, absolutely: we will never see them again, and these two Red Squirrels have not seen us at all. They will never know of us and our existence will never imprint upon theirs.
The Red Squirrel is a small animal, and timid; we continue our walk through the forest, far from our home, and though I can’t say if my father feels the same way, to me it is strange, and yet strangely fitting in that landscape, to be so humbled by such a creature.
Eastern Quoll image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org / Red Squirrel image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org