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Friday, August 24, 2012

56) Water-rat

Hydromys chrysogaster

My university days – four-and-a-half years of them – were spent on the edge of water, more or less.  The spacious grounds of the Australian National University are split by a trickle of polluted water called Sullivans Creek; whether by accident or design, which side of the creek you studied on marked you out, in those days at least, as an Arts student or a Science student.  The creek was disdained by all on campus except those dedicated few who committed themselves to cleaning it up; where the creek ran past the Chemistry Department it wasn’t too much of a stretch to watch the erratic behaviour of a Magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca) on the water’s edge and speculate about mercury poisoning; lead poisoning; some chemical taint in the poor creature’s brain or central nervous system.  One of my biology tutors once told us wide-eyed undergraduates huddled ’round a Bunsen burner horror stories about the mutated micro-organisms found in the creek’s meagre flow.

Scarcely less polluted than Sullivans Creek, but much more celebrated, was the other body of water which partly defined my university career: Lake Burley Griffin.  The Australian National University sits on the northern edge of the lake; on the southern shore, in the old Canberra suburb of Yarralumla, is my parents’ house.  I lived with my parents for the entire course of my degree – who would want to move out of free lodging in the most beautiful suburb in Canberra? – and to get from house to university or from university to house was a twenty-minute bike-ride along shores of the lake.  That’s how long it took via the eastern route, anyway, crossing Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, the greater of two concrete spans that link Canberra’s Southside to its Northside, the Parliamentary Triangle to Civic (or, at the north end of King’s Avenue Bridge, the other of the pair, the Parliamentary Triangle to the suburb of Campbell, the Department of Defence, and the infamous “Bunny Ears”, an enormous statue of a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) given to Canberra as a gift by the USA and scorned by generations of Canberrans as a symbol of American hubris and arrogance.  At least the Americans got the building material right: concrete, the material of choice for civic monuments and grand edifices in Canberra).

It wasn’t unknown for me to ride home the other way, around Lake Burley Griffin’s western basin, if I wasn’t in a hurry: this route takes at least twice as long as the eastern route, though it’s a much more beautiful ride – at least, it was until the Canberra bushfires of 2003 destroyed the pine plantation that protected bike path from the sight of the adjacent Tuggeranong Parkway.  Those pines made descending the numerous corners of that section of the path into a test of bike handling skills and of nerve: sharp bends and a thick carpet of fallen pine needles made for an uncertain surface on which to control the precarious balance of a bicycle.  Now the pine needles are gone, and the path meanders through a landscape as bare and unwelcoming as the scar from any burn.

The hill is still there, though, and at the bottom of that brief descent the bike path crosses over Scrivener Dam.  Charles Scrivener was the Surveyor-General of New South Wales and later the first Director of Commonwealth Lands and Surveys; his surveys and maps of the Canberra region were used as the basis of the competition to design the city.  The foundations (concrete, of course) of the hut from which in 1908 he surveyed the land that became Canberra can be found in an inconspicuous location alongside another bike path and next to a picnic table below State Circle, one of the busiest (a relative term) roads in Canberra.  It’s the oldest federal building in Australia’s national capital.

The dam that bares Charles Scrivener’s name is no less significant: when it was placed across the Molonglo River in 1963 it created Lake Burley Griffin – though the actual filling of the Lake took a while, as Canberra was at the time in the middle of a prolonged drought.  The creation of the Lake was perhaps Canberra’s greatest acknowledgement of Walter Burley Griffin’s original design for the city, the design that won the competition before being half-abandoned – though in typical fashion Canberra’s patriarchs fudged the compliment by misnaming the Lake: Walter Burley Griffin did not have two surnames; “Griffin” was his middle name.

Yes, Lake Burley Griffin was designed, planned, and forced upon the landscape.  It is an entirely human creation (save for the water itself).  Sometimes people refer to it as an “artificial” lake, but that’s not accurate: the Lake is subject to blooms of blue-green algae; it gets sick when the storm-water drains that feed into it deliver pollutants from all over the city after a heavy downpour; it houses untold numbers of Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) and Redfin Perch (Perca fluviatilis) and Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus) and Black Swans (Cygnus atratus) and Pacific Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa); the reed beds along its banks shake in spring and summer with the activities of the aptly named Clamorous Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus stentoreus), which binds its delicate nest high in the reeds, just high enough to be out of reach; just low enough to be out of sight.  Lake Burley Griffin is as real as a body of water can be.

One day, on a sun-speckled whim, I decided to take a minor detour on my ride home along the eastern route: I turned my bike off the path and rode around Lennox Gardens, a small park across the road from the back of the Hyatt Hotel, a low and refined building first opened in 1924, when Canberra was newly born.  The sun played off the small waves of Lake Burley Griffin and I was seduced into riding along the very edge of the water, atop a stone retaining wall about a metre high.  The water beneath was shallow and filled with large rocks; to lose balance and fall into it would have been disastrous.  Yet there’s something about water that the eye can’t look away from.

I rode around the edge of the park often after that, every few days, if the weather was good and my university day had finished early, and then one day I saw it: a splash of movement in the water, a flash of bubbles clinging to dense fur like sequins in a coat; a Water-rat.  I’d seen photos of Water-rats before so I knew the animal instantly from the long white tip of its tail; and from its ease in the water, as it saw me and dived into a pipe.  I glimpsed its webbed feet before it disappeared.

I’d once, years before, thought I’d caught a glimpse of a Water-rat hunched amidst the willow roots near the bay by the Water Police station just down the road from my parents’ house; but it had been dusk then, and the world had been made of silhouettes, and I’d never been quite sure if what I’d seen had been animal or vegetable, just another tree root.  This time, though, there was no mistaking it: in the bright light of day, just below my feet.  The trip around Lennox Gardens suddenly became a daily necessity, something to look forward to, and I saw the Water-rat often two or three times a week.

It never got used to me, it always fled the instant it saw me.  I never got used to it, either: I always stopped and gaped and then glowed for the rest of the ride home.  That ride took me past many wonderful sights, over the years: on some winter mornings the lake disappeared completely behind a thick fog, and Ducks (Anatidae) and Moorhens (Gallinula) quacked and yelped from behind the white curtain; one summer a group of White-winged Trillers (Lalage tricolor) took up holiday residence in a stand of Eucalypts below Stirling Ridge.  Nothing, though, was ever as good as that Water-rat.

Rodents are as unloved in Australia as they are anywhere else in the world, and many Australians aren’t aware of the fact that this continent actually boasts numerous species of native rodents.  The Water-rat – recently renamed Rakali, both to honour Australia’s indigenous people and to distinguish it from better-known European and American species – is surely the grandest: weighing sometimes more than a kilogram, and sporting handsome chestnut-brown fur.  In a country whose wildlife, mammals in particular, is so relentlessly, dazzlingly sui generis, it’s a peculiar comfort to know that there is at least one group of prominent animals that we share with the world.

I graduated from university in 2003; I haven’t seen a Water-rat since.  Until just last week: I started a new job three weeks ago, and to welcome me and another newcomer to the office last Friday my colleagues and I set the afternoon aside and went to have lunch together.  The venue chosen was a pub in an old boathouse on the banks of the Yarra River.  I was chatting to my new co-workers, and more often listening to them chat to each-other, when suddenly one of them – my boss, in fact – pointed to the water and asked “What’s that?”  Everyone else at my table had their backs to the water, and we couldn’t see what he was talking about.  There were Ducks there; leaves, too, and plenty of rubbish.  There was nothing of note.  But – “There it is again!” my boss said, getting more excited, and more confused.  We all assumed he was talking about a fish, until suddenly the creature surface.  Unmistakeable.  A round head, held determinedly above the water.  Whiskers.  A long tail.  A Water-rat; a Rakali.

It disappeared beneath the wharf.  We returned to our conversation.  I’d barely thought about Water-rats in nearly ten years.  The empty chip-packets kept bobbing on the Yarra; on the opposite bank from the pub a sign advertised the services of a water taxi to the nearby Melbourne Cricket Ground.  The Yarra has as turbulent a history as any other body of water when it comes to human use and abuse, yet still it persists.  Birds swim on it; water-rats swim in it.  There is no such thing as artificial water.

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