Animal encounters: an incomplete (para)tax(is)onomy

As a child:

These above me: mosquitoes, bush flies, flies, March flies, wasps, dragonflies, crickets, grasshoppers aka locusts, cicadas, praying mantises, Emperor gum moths big as dinner plates, moths (anonymous), butterflies, unknown bugs and crawlers; sparrows, swallows, blue wrens, finches, robins, honey eaters, kookaburras, budgerigars, galahs, cockatoos, hawks, eagles, gulls, albatrosses, and others found in What Bird Is That? authored and illustrated by Neville W Cayley published by the Gould League of Bird Lovers NSW a red question mark and Laughing Kookaburra on the cover, but now forgotten; small bats.

These beneath or beside me: worms, silverfish, fleas, centipedes, caterpillars, slaters, earwigs, aphids, ladybirds; Daddy-Long-Legs, white-tails, redbacks, Huntsmen, trapdoor spiders; slugs, snails; skinks, blue tongues, goannas; black-, brown-, and tiger-snakes.

These around and with me: rabbits, hares, cats, foxes, dogs, dingoes; possums, bandicoots, koalas, kangaroos, emus; sheep; dairy cows, beef cattle, Hereford bulls; horses.

These in water: crabs; whales, platypus.

Occasionally: elephants, camels; lions, tigers; monkeys, gorillas.

Particularly: the seven, seventeen, seventy Huntsman spiders on the wall of a room in a house near Lake Corangamite while I tried to sleep when my mother visited there.

Particularly: the pink galah at my grandmother’s house in Perth which once bit my finger.

Particularly: a pair of wedge-tailed eagles circling above the school bus on one of my few days at school—I was a sickly child and rarely there—watching them rise in the air as I think about Marlon Brando in the Young Lions seen on television the night before, shaping my mouth to reproduce his inexplicable German accent, my earliest memory of performing; the conjunction of lions and eagles a portent of (as yet) unfound greatness.

Particularly: two crabs brought home from Johanna beach by my brothers in the tin sandwich box they innocently returned to my mother, she opening the lid and screaming and laughing in the same moment.

Particularly: ‘Boss’, the black sheepdog, my uncle’s; solid and stolid, never allowed in the house (the dog, not the uncle).

Particularly: numerous pigs and cows standing patiently in stalls, pens, paddocks, waiting feeding and watering, sweet smell of shit, and slurping lips.

Particularly: elephants, lions, camels, horses seen through dust and haze, their circus owners walking them on the Nullarbor; later seen, arrived in Perth, off Wellington Street performing under canvas, a dim memory of a lion-tamer with his head in the cat’s mouth.

Particularly: army caterpillars, green and yellow, infesting field and hedges; across whose bodies I ride my trike, a troika of yellow slime behind.

Particularly: a small Hereford calf, corralled against the house fence with a roll of wire; my calf, fed with a milk bottle, and named; Uncle Chas telling me one day soon we’ll eat him; and we did.

Particularly: the rabbits that came, dead, legs tied to sticks carried by men in damp woolen coats, arriving out of mist across wet fields at dusk; the others that ran and jumped briefly, sometimes caroming across dust and grass, before falling still, dead from a .22 fired from a window or roof-top of a ute in the field.

Particularly: the many snakes that lay stretched across the roads to be driven over by cars, or as once happened chased by a man who stopped the school bus to pursue the snake deep into the bush beside the road.

Particularly: the tabby grey, red, bluish wild cats in the woodshed seldom seen except when pan-caked by shifting wood, brought dead and stiff and sometimes stinking into the light, my brothers swinging them like ping-pong bats; and once razoring the uncles and senior cousins who tried to round them up.

Especially: a small bird on Charlie’s Creek Road, our car passing over the top of it, me imagining its head against the underside, looking behind to see nothing there.

Especially: the small white wriggling thing in Grandfather’s palm around which he closed his fingers, ‘See that, it won’t survive on its own’, after he had shot its mother at 50, no a hundred, no two hundred, no three hundred yards – was it? – balancing the .303 on the window of his green Commer van, the kangaroo falling without a sound, so far away; his job to hunt them.

Especially: my grandmother in the yard somewhere in central WA, skinning a kangaroo, probably not the one I mentioned, me not yet three; and later, at Weeaproinah, her teaching my brother to skin a rabbit – flash of knife and flick of wrist, done – and leaving him with me, him lining up the knife and saying, Now, turn out the light, the result unedifying.

More happily: ‘Mr Dillon’, the blue-silver budgerigar that traveled with us across the Nullarbor, west to east, in the back of a white and black Hillman Minx in 1960; no feathers because he was so young; and lived maybe nine years, tho’ that seems too long for so small a bird no matter how much newspaper and cuttlefish, plastic treadmills and small bells.

Unreliably: a memory of a horse with a collar, a man standing behind it working a plough in the paddock around our house at Weeaproinah; this cannot possibly be true but something I have imagined from stories told me.

Though it is true I was once set on the back of a horse and led around a yard, the warmth of its back between my thighs and a strange rhythm in moving.

Particularly, especially, and most unreliably: in the Otways, remote, amongst ferns and rain-forest, late night, my mother still, car stopped, lights off at first sight of the dark solid form crossing the road, stiff tail, heavy hindquarters in slow, odd, movement, massive jaw, striped back, a haunting, brief-glancing eyes electrifying and baffling me still: ‘dog headed pouched one’, thylacinus cynocephalus, fading into the bush with an awkward gait; a misidentification, misunderstanding, fantasy, an image of all that cannot be known.

Later, as a man:

Farm animals continue in my life but more distant now cos I live in a town and mostly see them from cars; speeding past and glimpsed through glass, not close, smelling, sweating, rolling eyes, heaving sides, shit piss slobber, their warmth and weight in the stalls, the suck of mud on hooves, smell of grass. I continue to eat them.

On trips to remote wetlands, I become aware of life in its swarms: ibises at Middle Lake, Kerang; stilts, swans, and geese at Lake Corangamite. Ants of numerous kinds underfoot and over food in forests, backyards, and deserts. Mosquitoes always, and, of course, midgies; along with bushflies, sandflies, March flies, cow flies, dragonflies, and other unidentifiable flying menaces.

Which brings me to:

A black snake that reared from long grass after being stepped on by a friend walking; another that crossed between the feet of my partner ahead of me as she walked a track at Salt Water Creek and the brown snake five minutes later that sat on the edge of the path, reluctant to leave despite the traffic; the snake I never saw that bit my calf as I walked through long grass in a remote camp site on Melbourne Cup day 1976, this before mobile phones and helicopters, me lying still waiting to die, or not, feeling nauseous, whether from anxiety or toxin I don’t know, talking to my doctor later as he examined the puncture marks, yep, that’s a snake bite, you’re lucky; a Tiger snake whose 2 metre body my reptilian brain observed for 3 seconds at least in the long grass (again) near a river and somehow stopped my barefoot hovering inches above it, or did I touch it?, me stepping back calmly saying Snake!, feeling nothing until in my tent later adrenaline surged; the snake, moving too fast to identify, that whipped out of, what was it again? ah yes, long grass, after I stood on it, and tried to bite my leg but struck instead a Gore-tex gaiter and a thick wool sock, leaving a small dribble of venom; a large python that wrapped part of itself around my neck and shoulders while trying to push its head up the sleeve of my shirt, the body strong and muscular but cool with a feeling that there was a gap between it and my skin despite they being so close, me allowing this because I was being trained to handle snakes for a production of Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra where small pythons would act as asps; later, me responsible for the pythons aka asps through some months in Melbourne and on tour around country Victoria, warming them up with a 100 watt globe in their glass cage, keeping them awake enough to perform but not so awake that they’d make a get away; waiting just off-stage one night wondering why the actresses playing Cleopatra and Charmian were taking so long to “die” then arriving onstage to find the bodies, Cleopatra as usual, Margaret playing Charmian lying carefully with the snakes wrapped around her head and through her dreadlocked hair; I’d warmed them up too much, they didn’t want to go back in their box, me later carefully unknotting them from Margaret/Charmian’s head thinking how calm she is, I guess childbirth prepares you for anything; the brown snake thick as my arm stretched diagonally half way across the bike track, tail in, yes, long grass, head on white line, near Craigieburn, me just seeing it in time, flicking my front wheel past its head, feeling rather than seeing it lunge at my departing rear wheel, me later measuring the track at ten feet across, thinking ½ of 10 feet = 5 foot = 1.524 metres, call it 1.5, snake on 45 degree angle, Pythagoras’s theorem, length of hypotenuse = square root of the sum of the squares of the lengths of the right-angled sides, a2 + b2 = c2, 1.52 = 2.25, 2.25 + 2.25 = 4.5, √4.5 ≈ 2.12, that’s c.2.12 metres, which is 6 feet 11½ inches, but wait, this snake was, well, snaking, in a double-S, so call it 2.5 metres, close enough to 100 inches, that’s around 8 feet give or take, that can’t be right surely, but you can’t argue with maths; just as I couldn’t argue at Salt Water Creek as I walked with my partner and small son around a large blowhole, me away from them climbing up a ledge of rocks, my back to the surging waters of the hole, putting my hand in front of my eyes on a ledge to help myself up, and meeting a coiled brown snake at close range, it striking fast fast fast fast fast fast straight out at my head coming straight out at my eyes me seeing its mouth its fangs the little black nostrils as I pulled my neck head shoulders back quicker than ever I could imagine too quick to scream trying to maintain balance looking over my right shoulder into the boiling water below thinking if I fall I will be swept away partner and son will never know what happened to me pulling myself upright looking back the snake is gone partner and son are over there walking around oblivious I am alive; bad, but not as bad as stepping out of my rented Land Cruiser in the Northern Territory nearly onto a 15 foot crocodile sunning itself 20 metres above and 100 metres away from the river. In the long grass.

Which reminds me of:

  • the vivid potter wasp in the corner of a phone booth at Eucla on the edge of the Nullarbor;
  • the wasps I see on the roads and bike paths around Melbourne, dragging benumbed Huntsman spiders back to their lairs to lay their eggs in;
  • pladges of large wispy orange-red wasps that keep my mother’s and my heads beneath the covers in her bedroom on our farm when I am three or four
  • as do small bats never enough to be a cloud but always enough for my mother to imagine them tangled in her hair
  • me thinking of this on my first day after moving to Sydney, coming across a stricken colony of flying foxes in Centennial Park, dozens on the ground at awkward angles wings swaying slightly in the breeze, others in the branches of a giant fig-tree, two or three hanging by a claw from the power lines that killed them, caught in an eternal cartoon-shriek after the electricity hit them, me trying not to take it as an omen, but Sydney never worked for me after that
  • the mice infesting cinemas, theatres, halls, hotels, and the inside of pianos when I toured with a theatre show around the Mallee
  • the mice running in silent streams across the desert floor near the fettlers’ town of Cook on the Nullarbor, Xmas 1972, the train stopping because of a derailment ahead, the screams running along the train as passengers stepped off into the night and onto the mice; the 000s of hawks that hunted and ate these mice, as I discovered in a walk into the desert a few days later, the train sidelined waiting for the line to be repaired, the hawks living in burrows in the side of a cliff in a natural declivity now a quarry in the desert, me standing on the edge looking down on the backs of the birds flying to their homes just beneath my feet
  • and while we’re in the desert, the eagles that come for the carrion left on the road by road-trains and cars, struggling to rise from the road, their bellies full, just getting to about eye level as I see them almost too late from my car approaching at 120 km/hr
  • the horses, donkeys, and mules that stand quietly in the bush or desert during the day but run loud and frequently through the streets and empty house lots of remote Aboriginal communities, me in my hammock outside thinking Will they see me here in the dark?
  • and the camels that ran out of the bush to drum against another Land Cruiser I was driving in WA
  • think, too, of magpies attacking from out of the sky, especially the two near Augusta, WA, who buzzed me repeatedly as I rode into a headwind strong enough to put me in the gear reserved for the steepest hills, hanging on to stay upright and moving, the magpies flying repeatedly across the wind taking pieces of the hair I then had
  • the magpies around Melbourne that attack me and other cyclists with such regularity in spring there is a website, where you can see their whereabouts to avoid them (take particular note of the one on the road west out of Little River)
  • the three Rottweilers that attack me on my bike as I struggle up a steep hill in Melbourne, turning and riding as fast as I could to get away
  • the pariah dogs in Sri Lanka, so many dingo cousins, sleeping in the road, the trucks driving around them, or not, the dogs indifferent to life to death to me and my friend John, the strange too rich white men on bikes, except when they’re not and a gang of them charges down the road towards us but past me, Ah well, I think, they’ll get John and he’s told me you have ten days before you have to get a rabies shot so he won’t be worried
  • the dog at Gowenbrae recently who fastened its teeth in my leg evidently pleasing its cartoon-like singlet wearing white-trash owner later arrested with his friend for continuing deliberate attacks on bike riders with their two murderous dogs
  • and the spiders that jump out from behind car window shades, ventilation louvres, and from underneath seats, drop from ceilings, walk in pairs over the front of my car bonnet, gather in clutters beneath the garden wood red backs gleaming, leap up from sidewalks, crawl out of dressing gowns, walk over the bed clothes, hang across pathways, walk up the side of the tent, and spin a single strand of thread across a railway track five minutes after the train has gone through no visible sign of support for tens and tens of metres either side of the track, what’s all that about?
  • and in West Australia, camped by the side of the road, why did all the black cows cross the paddock quietly in the night to be near my tent waking me with their ruminant chewing and heavy hooves indistinguishable at 4am from the walk of Satan Diabolus Beelzebub the Prince of Darkness me lying in abject manic terror before running screaming from my tent?
  • as well ask, how did it happen, why, and what does it mean that driving in my yellow Volkswagen square-back station wagon, its windscreen smashed the day before by a flying stone and pushed out by me not caring driving now without my windscreen, and caught in a line of cars travelling 100 km/hr along the approach to the Great Ocean Road, and looking ahead and seeing a curious darkening in the sky above the cars ahead and knowing, knowing immediately, what it is, and that it’s coming for me, and that I have to close my eyes and mouth and steer as best as I can because yes I am right it swerves and dips and unerringly, emphatically, ecstatically, yes, it comes for me, a great swarm of bees now raising itself over the cars in front of me and then down down down swiftly through the gap where my windscreen should be and across me around me and into me, 100 km/hr bees blasting into my face and arms my mouth closed and yes they stung but only cos of their speed and me managing to pull off to the side of the road incredulous bees around me on the seat my face bruised but I haven’t swallowed any getting out to appraise, thinking why me, why now, why bees, and walking to the back of the car lifting the tailgate and finding six inches thick of bees dazed by their journey through the car via my face and body to hit the back door lying there and me sweeping them out thinking it means I need a new windscreen.

But anonymous terror is not all. Some are particular and pleasant:

  • the blackbird visiting our lawn each day, observed from the sickbed I inhabit for a year in Grade 5
  • the neighbors’ fat golden Labrador, the first dog I knew without a job

And swarms are not always threatening: camped in a hammock next to a dam in a field in West Australia I am woken by several hundred sheep around dawn as they make their way across many acres towards the water each bleating with their own particular voice—high, low, hoarse, baritone, clear—and forming a sea of sheep. I felt what it must be to be part of a large mass, foaming across prairie or desert. I hear and feel them pass around me, and even brushing under my hammock—some stopping to examine my friend as he lay nearby in his sleeping bag in the grass—I found them reassuring and profound in a way I had never experienced. Usually it’s the carnivores that get the good press—they’re so individual and crafty—but these sheep make me feel how good it could be to belong to the herbivores, to the herd, the tribe. I am sheep, hear me bleat.

And there are some who gain names: the first cat I know is a black-brown Chinchilla-cross, a long-haired kitten, that stays beside me on the bed during much of my sick year; with a cruel lack of imagination my brothers and I call it “Brown”. Despite our good intentions over years we transmogrify it into a vicious, razor-toothed-and-clawed monster whose first response to humans is to snarl, then to sink its fangs into any proffered arm. After we move to another area, we leave it with admiring neighbors and it lives to close to 30, a monstrous, bad-tempered, barely moving, ball of fluff.

But Brown brings me comfort and is the first of a range of cats with whom I have close relationships. Prior to its self-defensive ferocity, it is friendly, playful, and unaccountably loyal. I’m fascinated by all that always fascinate people about cats: its ability to sleep without end; its constant search for comfort; its capacity for seeming cruelty; its love of fire; the pliability of its limbs; the contrast between claws-in and claws-out; its alertness; its indifference; its casual swiftness; its quietness, insistence, aloofness; its ability to appear and disappear at will. But, mostly its eyes: the ambiguous sense I get that there is both fellow-feeling and complete indifference behind them. Both interest, consciousness, intelligence, and empathy; and instinct, emptiness, and hard-wired calculation. With Brown, I feel I’m both fellow-being and meat.

A couple of handfuls of cats I’ve known, a bevy whose names I’ve forgotten, multitudes whose names I never knew; long-haired, short-haired, pedigreed, mongrel: all generate this paradox. I do not insult them by thinking they are like dogs. I learn to ignore them, to look away, so that they may come to me. I do not force myself upon them, nor expect them to love me. Morris, my brother’s Queen-Anne-legged, maniacal black cat who skittered up and over walls and seemingly ceilings like Gary Oldman in Francis Coppola’s Dracula and who was banished to a cat farm after leaping on and tearing into a child’s head; Montgomery, my other brother’s pure-bred grey Chinchilla with amber eyes, so imposing that tradesmen would not come onto the property if he was in the driveway; Elektra, his progeny, who as a kitten disappeared for two weeks, and who I watched in answer to my last calls run back from about a kilometre away, following and then crossing busy train-tracks so eager to return to us; Pussy-Boy, a battered, one-eyed survivor who spent most afternoons in his owners’ van in front of their house, a habit which saw him sometimes mistake other cars for his own and consequently go for long drives around the suburbs—his owners once seeing him sitting in the back window seeming to wave as he processed down the street—journeys from which he would return, or be returned, unaffected and unapologetic, many days or weeks later, until one day, he did not come back; Pushka, the reincarnation of Brown who lives with me now; Klaha, the King cat, laid-back and imperious, who disappears and reappears in front of my eyes and as a consequence has been sat on many dozens of times; Toshi, the most athletic and sensitive animal I’ve known, dying slowly of an undiagnosable degenerative disease that gradually cripples his hind legs, but who maintains an air of constant curiosity, pleasure, and love for me and mine. All of these, together with their anonymous kindred glimpsed in driveways, crossing roads, in alleys, sitting in windows, on top of cars and fences, and once at the MCG during a football match, all of these, have raised in me Montaigne’s question, “When I play with my cat how do I know that she is not playing with me?”

And how do we know if these eruptions of snakes in grass, camels from trees, dogs on streets, bees in cars—how do we know if these are happening outside us or within us, manifestations of the world or of ourselves? We don’t. It’s best perhaps to think they are both these things. As banal as it is to say it, we must say it again, and again, and again, we ourselves, known, unknown, together, individually, named, un-named, we, as Montaigne came to know, we are, in our beginnings and our endings, in our living and our dying, in our terrors and our joys, we, we too, after all, are animals. They are us. In the sky the water the trees, the corners of phone booths, dropping from the sky, in the grass, in our laps, they are us.

Wasp, Nullabor phone booth, 2006
Wasp, Nullabor phone booth, 2006