Great leap forward

Mention Australia in many places around the world and the first image that’s likely to hop into people’s heads is the kangaroo. It is our most identifiable symbol, but just how much do we really know about this remarkable marsupial? For most of us, I suspect, very little. For us, then, Tim Flannery’s book Country, with its magnificent cover image of boxing kangaroos, will be a great leap forward.

Country is Flannery’s most personal and passionate book yet, a homage to the land, the people, the past and the most famous animal of Australia. It is also a personal odyssey that offers humorous and often intimate insights into the shaping of a controversial scientist whose work has changed profoundly the way we look at life on our continent. And it’s highly readable; Flannery presents a lot of scientific data, but the science never gets in the way of the story.

Director of the South Australian Museum in Adelaide and the author of numerous books including The Future Eaters, Flannery recently described Country as ‘sort of a patriotic book, but patriotism is a word that gets so befouled now … it’s a book about love of country, really. I do feel very intensely that this is my country. The message I wanted to get through was that you don’t have to go to exotic places to have real, amazing adventures.’

Flannery’s own adventure started in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham, where he grew up little more than a stone’s throw from Port Phillip Bay, whose environment fired his imagination for the natural world. He dreamed of thylacines at a time when new kangaroo species were still being discovered just hours away in Gippsland.

In 1975, aged 18 and restless for adventure, he set out on his Moto Guzzi 750 sportster with a friend, Bill Ellis, on a cross-country motorcycle journey that began to open his eyes to the essence of his country. The year before he’d been given a job cleaning kangaroo fossils at the Museum of Victoria by his ‘true friend and mentor’ Tom Rich, and decided to collect the bones of any specimens that he found on his motorcycle trip for the museum.

In the South Australian outback he came across a recently killed male western grey, and got off his bike to take a closer look. Hugging the huge carcass against a rock while separating its neck muscles with a knife to retrieve the skull, he was so preoccupied that he didn’t hear a car approaching.

‘As the car accelerated past,’ he writes, ‘I glimpsed the family inside, horror-struck, mouths agape, staring at the frenzied bikie who was waltzing drunkenly with a disembowelled kangaroo on the side of a lonely country road.’

To this day he recommends overcoming your squeamishness and stopping to take a closer look if you see a fresh kangaroo carcass lying beside the road. ‘There is not an ounce of fat or wasted muscle on their perfectly proportioned frames,’ he writes, ‘and even in death their grace and beauty … is sublime.’
Kangaroos, in Flannery’s opinion, are ‘the most remarkable animals that ever lived, and the truest expression of my country—not because they appear on everything from the coat of arms to the national airline but because they have been made by Australia. They are, in short, the continent’s most successful evolutionary product.’

From hopping—‘as marked a departure from running as the orbital engine is from piston and crankshaft, and every bit as efficient’—to ‘absolutely astonishing’ reproduction, to the ‘worm farm’ that is a large grey or red’s stomach, the kangaroo is so extraordinary that ‘if it did not exist we’d be unable to imagine it’.

Flannery’s particular fascination is for Australia’s giant ice-age kangaroos that became extinct about 50,000 years ago. Unearthing their bones in Victoria’s Western District in 1978 was, he writes, ‘as energising as sex’.

As much as Flannery has learned about kangaroos, and shares with us in Country, there is still much more to discover about them, including the fossil record that links the ancient, extinct species with those 70 or so species that survived to modern times (although about seven of those have become extinct in the past 100 years).

The book ends with an account of attempts to establish a colony of endangered banded hare wallabies on Faure Island off the coast of Western Australia.

‘Those wallabies and their ancestors have been a part of my country for over 10 million years,’ Flannery writes, ‘but now, without human assistance, they might not even see out another decade.’
In the vast sweep of time encompassed by Country, a decade is not very long. But it could be all that we’ve got to make a difference—not just for the banded hare wallaby, but for ourselves as well. 

Country, Tim Flannery. Text, 2004. isbn 1 920 88544 7, rrp $32

Robert Hefner is assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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