Before I moved to Melbourne, on one of my first visits to the city, friends took me to Studley Park. Not knowing the city at the time, I had no conception of where it was, but it felt like miles from anywhere: surrounded by bush, next to the wide Yarra River. In fact it’s in the inner city, just over the river from Collingwood, where one of Melbourne’s oldest football teams was founded, and only a few kilometres from the CBD.
Studley Park is also where one of the last known wild mainland eastern quolls in Victoria survived. An article in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper from 1956 states that: ‘there is an isolated colony in one of the wilder parts of Studley Park; and every now and again the body of one is brought to the [National] Museum after being dazzled and knocked over by a car at night on Studley Park Road, or the Yarra Boulevard’. How long that colony persisted for is difficult to determine, but it’s believed that by the late 1950s the species was extinct in Victoria. Shortly after that eastern quolls—one of four Australian quoll species, and once found throughout south-eastern Australia from Queensland all the way along the coast to South Australia—were declared extinct on the mainland, and continued to survive in the wild only in Tasmania.
Walking around Studley Park now, with the knowledge of what was once there, I feel the absence. I can imagine quolls hunting at night in Studley Park, and returning at dawn to shelter through the day in the hollow logs on the ground, the fallen river red gum branches. But when I look more closely at those logs I notice that they’re overgrown with oxalis, a choking weed that covers the ground at Studley Park like a carpet. When I think about the oxalis the manifold environmental catastrophes now raging across the planet seem encapsulated in this one tiny plant, in this one tiny part of the world. And then when I extrapolate out from that, when I try to imagine the entire continent or even the entire planet, the vastness of the crisis that we’re now in becomes so dizzying that my mind grinds to a halt until I’m left with just one paralysing thought: how do we go on?
A month into a six-week, stage-four lockdown in Melbourne in 2020, imposed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, a wind storm caused such damage to infrastructure that residents of 88 Melbourne suburbs were advised to boil their tap water. A popular meme doing the rounds on social media said: ‘I could really go for some precedented times right now’. But also on social media, I see someone point out in the blur of daily posts that it makes more sense to think of 2020—or any other coming year you care to think of—as not the hottest year in the last one hundred years but the coolest year in the next one hundred years. We’re living in the precedent, right now. Climate change has very quickly gone from being, in our minds, a thing that is going to happen, to being a thing that is happening.
Like many Australians, I donated to numerous crowd-funding campaigns quickly organised by conservation scientists and by small communities in the wake of the 2019–20 bushfires. Even as people donated, we wondered why the government wasn’t spending more money on these or so many other efforts—but we donated anyway. And soon my email inbox began to fill with cautiously hopeful or outright jubilant updates from the campaign organisers, sent to me and an anonymous email list of so many other donors. As long as there’s still something to fight for, we have to fight for it. But government responses were sluggish, and inadequate. And then the pandemic hit.
I don’t know how much the human mind is equipped to deal with. First the fires and then the plague created a whiplash of the unexpected, an emotional fatigue, and though I was forced by government order to stay within the narrow confines of my home—no more than a couple of minutes’ walk from one end of the property to the other—I also found myself relishing the smallness of my world, like a snail retreated into its shell. But I knew also that any comfort I felt in this new way of life was built on the suffering of millions of people all over the world, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands and counting. And I found myself frustrated anew by what seemed like the reactiveness and lack of pre-empting in government responses to the virus: how could they not have got ahead of this? How could they not have had a pandemic plan?
It wasn’t till weeks after the states surrounding Victoria closed their borders on us in response to Melbourne’s second wave of infections that the true and familiar story started to emerge: of inadequate aged care; of workforce casualisation; of crucial roles privatised and contracted out. COVID-19 has tell-tale symptoms but it is also, itself, a symptom of what continues to ail us. Everything unexpected is bedded within the same old problems.
My family hold high the values by which I was raised. That goes without saying. When I tell my mum that one of the subjects I’m writing about is the question of whether to have children or not, she replies that the world of the near future will need people who have been raised to care about the environment, and to care about each other. It’s a compelling argument—and one I’ve made myself—but now it makes me uncomfortable: I’d like to imagine that anyone can come, at any age, to care about things other than themselves; I don’t want any children I may have to be like sandbags, piled high against a rising tide of indifference.
But I wonder, too, if the emphasis on parents instilling values in their own children is itself part of the problem: if it reinforces an atomised society in which every family is its own unit, discreet from all others. The world now is not one that anyone can survive alone, without help—but it’s a symptom of what ails our world that we expect anybody to be able to do so. Even the most ardent survivalists learn what they know from other people. So why should the raising of a child be considered something done only by one or two adults to whom that child is genetically related?
Why, for that matter, should an animal that depends on the intervention of people for its survival not be considered wild? I remember a comment from a birdwatcher in a Facebook group several years ago, about orange-bellied parrots, saying that the species—Australia’s most endangered bird species—could no longer be considered wild, such was the level of human intervention in its life; therefore, seeing it in the wild wasn’t worth celebrating. It’s a stance I disagree with strongly: it seems to encapsulate so much of what’s wrong with how we view wildness, and what it means for human and non-human animals to coexist, and our own place in the greater wild.
In the depths of lockdown, when exercise for everyone in Melbourne had been restricted to only one hour a day and within a strict radius of 5 kilometres from home, I took solace in Merri Creek: only a ten-minute walk from my house the creek is lined with red gums and manna gums, and yellow and red boxes, black wattles and golden wattles, casuarinas, dianella and hop goodenia and correa and tree violet. Small-leaved clematis tumbles over everything, bright green with wide cream-coloured flowers in the coldest months of the year. And all this is new. Thirty years ago Merri Creek was cleared grass monoculture, the trees were willows and poplars. It was a wasteland, before community action brought it slowly back to life. Now there are residents of inner Melbourne, myself included, who’ve never known it as anything other than bushland.
The Australian landscape will never be what it was. Too many species have been killed, each one significant in its own way to the overall environment. Much of the damage is still ongoing, a bitter legacy of colonial and extractive thinking, which can only see the environment as something in the way—but much of the damage, too, is being repaired, like a wound being sewn shut, the scar still visible but the body functioning again. Unlike in the past, there are now many people and communities working to restore what they can. The future is frightening, but perhaps it can also be quietly hopeful: the Australian landscape of the future will be very different from how it is now, and how it was in the past—but perhaps some of those differences will be good, as well as bad.
Living in the present moment can feel like living under a rain of blows—with no hope of them ending any time soon. With the 2019–20 bushfires, then the pandemic, resurgent threats to democracy—whatever else may come next—so many of us are feeling worn down to the nub. In the midst of the pandemic it’s understandable that very many people want to return to normal, post-COVID. Apart from the fact that vast numbers of people have lost income, and security, and naturally want to regain what they’ve lost, normal is comforting because of its familiarity, even if the normal world of pre-2020 was one in which huge numbers of people were miserable and exploited.
And of course that misery and that exploitation hasn’t ended just because the world has changed; the people suffering the most at the hands of the pandemic, and more to the point suffering from the political response to it, are those who were already suffering the most before the pandemic: people who are unemployed or in casual work; the homeless; the poor; the marginalised; people who work in areas not deemed sufficiently ‘productive’.
In the midst of stage-four lockdown in Melbourne, unable under threat of fine to travel more than five kilometres from my home—a home which because I’m only renting I’m liable in a normal year to lose at any time, as I’ve lost other homes before—I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that I was, all the same, one of the lucky ones: my day job, which is full-time and salaried, with all the perks that entails such as paid sick leave and paid holiday time, had continued, I’m a homebody at the best of times and my life had not materially changed very much, and as such I still had the capacity within me to work, and write, while friends and family around me and in my social media feed struggled to do the same.
Yet to feel yourself as part of a community, or even just to want to feel yourself as such, is to willingly feel sorrow and pain and anger for other people; the same is true, I think, if we’re to feel ourselves part of the natural world—but this is a heavy, hard burden to bear, particularly for those people working on the front lines of conservation.
I’m reminded that the word ‘community’ describes not just a network of human connections but non-human connections as well: ‘An ecological community is a naturally occurring group of native plants, animals and other organisms that are interacting in a unique habitat,’ as the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment put it. I’m reminded also of the fact that efforts to bring back species such as quolls are efforts to repair as much as possible communities damaged by centuries of colonialism and extractive capitalism.
The way most of us live now seems so intractable that we forget how new it is. We destroy the environment and along with it our communities because nobody in power in our lifetimes has ever offered another way to be. But it’s seemed apparent to me, too, for a long time, that if there’s a way out of this mess it will come not from the top down but from the bottom up: while national governments drag their heels on climate change, on environmental restoration, on social justice, local communities everywhere are figuring out their own ways forward. Each way is a light for those who want to follow; and each light makes the world brighter.
This is an edited extract from Questions Raised by Quolls: Fatherhood and Conservation in an Uncertain World by Harry Saddler ($32.99), out now with Affirm Press. In Questions Raised by Quolls, Harry Saddler explores efforts to conserve and restore populations of endangered native Australian quolls, while pondering a deeply personal question: can he ethically bring a child into this increasingly uninhabitable world?
Harry Saddler is a Melbourne-based writer. His writing about the interactions between people, animals and the environment has been published in The Lifted Brow,Meanjin and The Guardian, among others. His book The Eastern Curlew was shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards in 2019.