Life is Based On a True Story
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Psychedelic Water 26
“Hippies are an endangered species here now,” the feral said through the knotty plaits of his beard.
“Not in Japan!” The slight sunbrowned man with a far neater beard and designer dreads laughed over the flames.
“No – in Japan, many hippie!”
“We hear nothing about it out here, but in Japan there’s a hippie revolution right now,” Ram interrupted.
Ram turned to the Nipponese man. “It’s because that’s where the young people are – all over Asia. In the sixties and seventies the demographic balance was like this;” He steepled his fingers into a pyramid. “Old people…” He indicated the triangle’s pinnacle with a wave of his fingertips. “Young people…” he swept his wrists outward. Then he inverted the pyramid. “Now in the West, it’s like this. Very few young people, and all more tightly constrained.
“But not in Japan.”
“No,” agreed Zen. “In Japan many young people. Many hippie.”
Cameron conceded the point. “Well, there are a lot more Japanese in town this year, and they’re not all like the squeaky cleanskins that used to turn up, it’s true…” The shaman excused himself to water a nearby tree. When he returned Cameron was describing a strange small creature he’d seen nearby. “It’s only about the size of a rabbit – but it’s not a rabbit.”
“Not a rabbit?” The Japanese hippie couple repeated in unison.
“No – about the same size, but different.”
“Not a bandicoot?” Ram asked.
“No – wait – there it is now!” Cameron’s whisper morphed into a gasp. “You hear that?” A strange loud squeak filled the sudden silence.
“You’re right,” Ram whispered, squatting forward on his toes by the small cooking fire. “That’s no bandicoot.”
“Here it comes,” Cameron said as a squat shrub rustled only a few paces away and a small dark form emerged. He flicked on a blue-white LED flashlight and a diminutive rat-like creature was brightly illuminated for a flashing moment before it leapt and darted for the rainforest underbrush beside the creek. “Sorry – I probably shouldn’t have frightened it. But it’s here every night.”
Catalogues of photographs, drawings and paintings riffled through Ram’s mind; reams of images of native and imported animals studied during years of fauna surveying, or witnessed live and firsthand in plains, woodlands and deep forests throughout the eastern half of the great island continent. None of the remembered forms quite matched this tailless, two kilo marsupial with a surprisingly flattened and rounded face. “Another unknown,” he announced. “A little like a bettong, but not a bettong. Not a bandicoot. Not a potoroo. And definitely not a rabbit.”
“Not rabbit?” Zen echoed. The Japanese Wwoofa (a willing worker on organic farms, exchanging work for board as he travelled the country) still peered into the darkness in stupefaction. His beautiful mate Shi clung to his bare arm, patiently awaiting an explanation.
“No,” said Cameron. “Something very rare and unusual.”
“What is ‘bennon’?” Zen asked.
“Bettong.” Cameron corrected. “Like a bilby.” Zen and Shi regarded him with nonplussed expressions.
“A small kangaroo-like creature, only a foot tall – thirty centimetres,” Ram explained.
“Oh! But that not one of them?” Shi’s voice is a gentle purr.
“I can’t work out what it is,” Ram admitted, listening to the creature rustling just out of sight in the darkness. “Around here,” he gestured at the massive tree-clad cliff facing them, “anything is possible. Up there above us is an escarpment - a great flat plateau full of rocky land, forest and caves. Anything could live up there…”
“And now that everything round here is regenerating so well, things’ll be coming down here, too,” Cameron continued.
“What that animal?” Zen enquired.
“Buggered if I know.” Cameron flashed his torch around for a few seconds. “It’s still there, somewhere.”
“You not know?” The young lovers peered into the dark.
“No idea,” Cameron confirmed, glancing at the shaman.
“Speaking from a view gleaned after years of fauna surveys and travelling and camping in remote bush,” he said, inwardly disapproving of the self-aggrandisement implied by his words, “that creature is a small marsupial that may be totally unknown to anyone but the Aborigines.”
“They know?” Shi’s eyes were glittering pools of firelight.
“Maybe,” said Cameron. “Probably.”
“You not see it before?”
“Not even in reference books,” Ram assured Zen. “All the images are spinning through my mind now. It’s not a bandicoot or a bettong… even if the tail’s been gnawed off by a dog. And those white splotches look like the markings on a juvenile koala, but its face is more like… a hamster…”
“But that definitely wasn’t a koala,” Cameron assured the visitors. Two flying foxes circled the Sally wattle they were seated beneath and the Japanese visitors looked up as the macrobats alighted in a nearby quandong tree, screeching and warbling in their complex semi-simian language.
Zen was amazed. “Wooah!”
“This animal unknown?” Shi’s eyes were wide, flickering in the firelight as she blinked up at the stars. It was only the third or fourth time that Ram had heard her shy, self-abnegating voice during the evening’s converse. “Not them –other little one,” she said.
“Well it’s unknown to us,” Cameron clarified. “But it could be completely unknown as well.”
“This country is recovering from a century and a half of logging and rampaging cows.” Ram gestured at the dark, hulking, lightless hills that surrounded them. “But it’s ringed by rugged country that no living white person has thoroughly explored. Between here and the mountains that run down the entire eastern side of the continent is a wild, wild country that’s almost totally uninhabited… by modern humans…”
“Like the Washpool and the upper catchments all along the coast and up on the mountains,” Cameron agreed. “Real wilderness, National Parks and reserves no-one lives in…”
“No human live there?” Zen was surprised.
Cameron bared his teeth in a grin. “Not for hundreds of square miles, in many places.”
The shaman shifted into a sitting position. “Last month all the Oz state governments in the east announced they’re declaring a wilderness sanctuary strip that will stretch from the far north tropics of the continent all the way to the far south, on the edge of the Southern Ocean. They’ve realized that you need at least that much land to preserve all the endangered creatures and forest types when you take climate catastrophe into account. And that last wild strip is the land they say they’re going to reserve.”
“Climate catastrophe?” Zen inquired.
“What they call ‘global warming’.”
“Really?” Cameron was incredulous. “When did this happen? I haven’t heard a thing about it!”
“It was front-page news for a day,” Ram replied. “Hardly anyone noticed, it seems.”
“Wow! Good news for a change! That’s incredible.”
“But true. We should really all be celebrating, but it seems most of the people who spent years getting arrested for saving those ecosystems don’t even know that we’ve won. Tell any feral forest fighters you see!”
“Don’t worry. I will.”
The shaman stared up at the brilliant star that still held Shi’s attention. “On the other hand, it is just an announcement by governments that may not be around for more than a year or two. But we can hope.”
“And there wild animal no-one know there as well?”
“You just reminded me,” Ram slapped his knee. “Less than a year ago eye saw an ‘extinct’ huge black quoll on the roadside… one of those mysterious big cats people occasionally report seeing…”
“The ‘black panthers’ you mean?” Cameron smirked.
“I can see why they’d think so.” The shaman returned his smirk. “If you hadn’t seen a quoll up close you’d have nothing better to mistake it for.”
“A koll?” Zen asked.
“Quoll,” Cameron corrected. “A native marsupial cat, called the spotted-tailed quoll.”
“About the same size, but you wouldn’t cuddle a quoll, mate, it’d tear you to pieces – unless you trained it from a kitten, and maybe not even then. You ever see a Tasmanian Devil?”
“You mean like on cartoon? Bugs Bunny?”
“That’s the one. Like that, but in real life. You don’t try to pat one.”
“You see one of them but black?”
“And big,” Ram agreed. “Almost as tall as the bonnet of the four wheel drive.”
“Aye – hai – completely black, like a panther, but with a couple of major differences, like a tail longer than it’s body, curved up over its back…” Ram swept his hand up into the firelight, “with a plumed, almost bulbous fringe on the end. A prehensile tail…”
“Just like a quoll,” Cameron suggested.
“And standing… well, almost on tip-toes, not like a cat at all – except for the curved arch of its spine when it turned to look at me. And the face was more squashed in than a cat’s – the face of a big sabre-toothed dasyurid marsupial quoll.”
“With pouch?” Zen suggested as Shi clung to his arm.
“With a pouch,” Ram confirmed. “Though it may face backward, not forward as in most other marsupials; some of the carnivores here are like that.”
“Should we tell anyone we see this animal?” Shi whispered.
“If you like,” Cameron said. “Just don’t tell any scientists.”
“Because they come and catch it. Or kill it.” Cameron mimed the act with a chopping motion.
“No!” Shi was appalled. She looked to Zen for assurance that she’d understood the conversation correctly. Her beau translated for her in a rapid barrage of Japanese.
“Yes!” demurred Cameron. “They kill it, for research.”
“Really?” Zen was obviously confused and a little distraught. “If it so rare?”
“Because it’s so rare.” Cameron looked away and began rebuilding the fire.
“There used to be another species of quoll, all through this country,” Ram told them. “A smaller quoll with a more rat-like tail…”
“Not the spotted-tailed quoll, like the one we’ve been talking about,” Cameron explained as he built the pyre higher.
“No, a smaller quoll that became officially extinct a couple of decades ago. It’s not completely extinct – eye’ve seen one on the Carrai Plateau, a few hundred kilometres south of here, in that new wilderness reserve we were talking about.” More bats joined the small family at the nearby quandong tree. A dog began to bark in the far distance while Cameron filled a blackened stainless steel kettle from a large polycarbonate water container. The attention of the Japanese guests was riveted to the spectacle of the broad-winged fruit bats soaring a few metres over their heads.
“So this quoll not extinct?”
“Well… it’s debatable whether there are enough contiguous family groups to allow the species to survive long-term – enough of them to make it - but no-one really knows. You can’t count them by satellite - they usually live in surprisingly remote areas away from imported carnivores like dogs and cats, and the only people who work out there – the loggers – hardly know the place at all. They spend almost all their time in air-conditioned machines and don’t have the time or inclination to go exploring – and they’re not likely to tell anyone if they see any endangered species.”
“They have to pay for their mortgages,” Cameron explained.
“And the double-mortgages on their trucks,” Ram conceded. “Most of the areas we saved from logging in the past decades had never been surveyed before they started cutting them down. That’s why it was so easy for us to save many places. All we had to do was conduct flora and fauna – plant and animal – surveys, and in most of those untouched or barely touched areas we’d find rare and endangered species…”
“…That were about to become a whole lot more endangered,” Cameron filled in as he began rummaging around in the shadows to explore beverage options.
“Exactly. So we had legal grounds to stop the destruction because the workers and surveyors working for the government supposedly never saw a thing – but the first time anyone else looked, there were rare and unique animals there. I’ve seen four higher-order animals - marsupials - that aren’t described in any book. Five if you count whatever this is in the bushes… but we need a closer look to be certain.”
“Well hang around – it’ll be back,” Cameron assured him. “It’s here every night. Tea? Mint tea? Maté tea? Hot chocolate?” Shi climbed daintily to her feet and helped fill the small table with containers of milk, soymilk and honey.
“But back to the eastern quoll,” Ram continued. “When the authorities realized there were hardly any left, the museum in the Emerald City sent a surveyor out to find some. He came back with over sixty pelts…”
“Skins,” Cameron translated.
“…and the pelts were all female.”
“What?” Cameron laughed in shock. “Females?”
“They’re still in the drawer in the museum. You can see them there. They may have been the last sixty females – but as far as the museum knew, they were definitely from the last site where they were known to exist…”
“And they kill them?” Zen and Shi were dumbfounded.
“Of course,” Cameron said. “To prove they exist.”
“So… we not tell anyone then,” Zen decided. Shi nodded enthusiastically and reached for the honeypot. The flying foxes screeched and wheeled, inhabiting their own reality between the starry sky and the domesticated primates who huddled round the flickering fire below.
A true story
By R. Ayana
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