Wandering wombats

I don’t suppose you’ve had much opportunity lately to study the wombat. In general, this comically named and, one has to admit, somewhat comic looking herbivore is rarely seen on the svelte nature strips or along the bland, clinical streets or in the neat gardens of our capital cities’ better suburbs. Or, for that matter, in those engaging backyards you see from trains, where abandoned fridges, eviscerated motorbikes, sloping-roofed chook houses, sagging blow-up swimming pools afloat with leaves, and random clumps of rhubarb all attest to a terrain inimical to the slow, philosophical wombat.

Where I am just now, however, on the verandah of a venerable, slightly staggering cottage looking out over the lush pastures of Bundanon that run down to the Shoalhaven River, the wombat does not exactly rule, but he and she maintain a substantial, unignorable presence. One of them lives under this shack and innumerable others are, at this mid-morning hour, snoozing in their very large burrows.

Your common wombat probably wouldn’t appreciate being described as a ‘lumbering marsupial’ but truth will out. With a body like a beer barrel and a frankly bulbous bum, any pace above a rolling, honest-to-God lumber would have the stewards reaching for the swab.

When they got over their shock on first seeing a wombat, the early settlers called it a badger. But, according to the experts the wombat’s nearest relative in the odd spectrum of Australian marsupials is the koala, another macropod, which means literally, big footed. Personally, however, I think the wombat has much in common with the frog.

When it comes to fashion and good looks, frogs, like wombats, start a long way behind, what with having comically bulging eyes, a broad, down-turned mouth that seems to signal defeat and disappointment, and a great spreading backside. As if that were not enough, frogs have swarthy, seemingly empustuled skin. Here beyond doubt is a creature which, if not quite the forgotten of God, is certainly languishing in the outer suburbs of the Divine awareness. All very well to protest that in their element frogs are magnificent, true. In mid-leap and at full stretch a frog is a slim gleam of plaited sinew. But imagine frogs pleading some case or other in court—gloomy, pop-eyed, swarthy, big-bummed and cold, like a delegation of malfunctioning thyroids.

Wombats, waiting patiently out in the foyer for their turn in front of the judge, would not look much better. On that rotund body, a large, well-eared head and a bland, big-eyed, snub-nosed face suggest a kind of dopiness that might engender patronising attitudes and even insults from the insensitive. Like the frog, but unlike his koala relatives, the wombat—when glimpsed motionless and apparently pondering his next move—seems ill-favoured, not quite how he was meant to end up by his creator. ‘Did he who made the koala make thee?’ as the man more or less said.

But there is something terribly endearing and yet at the same time vulnerable about the wombat’s unfathomable expression, which incidentally rarely changes. Teeth aren’t bared, lips don’t curl, eyes don’t flash: whether racked by lust, tormented by thirst or transported by the sight of a new lush pasture, wombats maintain a Sphinx-like equanimity.

So they ought to, because behind the disguise of that glassy, seemingly brainless stare and that slow, clumsy gait, the wombat has the game sewn up. To begin with, the female wombat’s pouch, wherein of course nestles the latest junior, is reversed so that when the wombat digs with its tough, muscled feet and claws designed for the purpose, it doesn’t fill baby’s bed with sand. Smart and thoughtful. Often with one offspring in utero, one in the pouch and a toddler in tow, the mother wombat produces a different milk for each teat, with different compositions of lipids, carbohydrates and proteins. This Mum is no mug.

Because they are so well equipped for the task, wombats make spacious burrows—as much as 30 metres long. I won’t say I’ve actually seen a wombat manoeuvring a TV and a chaise longue into the burrow, but the way they recline in the warm spring sun at the entrance to their subterranean castles, before descending to sleep the rest of the day away, shows a highly developed capacity for sophisticated self-indulgence. As does their preference for living alone. Wombats welcome visitors—other wombats, that is—but basically are solitary dwellers, kicking offspring out at age two without a tremor of empty nest angst.

When ‘my’ wombat emerges from under the house each evening to graze the grassy slopes, he is setting out on a peripatetic feast that might take him three or four kilometres through the night and involve visits to several burrows, some his own, for a rest and a clean up. Should he break a tooth as he chomps along his nocturnal way, well, no worries. His teeth grow continuously and the broken one simply replaces itself. If wombats ruled, root canals, caps, crowns and bridges and similar barbarities would be things of the past: the entire dental economy would collapse, bringing not a flicker of interest to the wombat’s impassive face.

Had Aesop been able to observe a wombat going about its nightly life, he would have amended his fable to read, ‘Slow and apparently dopey wins the race’. So we take comfort.             

Brian Matthews is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Victoria University



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