Tuesday 24 November 2020

A Very Special Book - Animals Make Us Human


Leah Kaminsky, author of two excellent novels, who I follow on Twitter began tweeting about a forthcoming book Animal Make Us Human that she and fellow author, Meg Keneally were editing.  Comprising a number of essays about animal encounters accompanied by beautiful photographs, the book was conceived to raise money for the Australian Marine Conservation Society and Australian Wildlife Conservancy. 

The plight of Australian wildlife came to prominent attention almost a year when wildfires swept through much of Australia. The loss of 173 human lives was devastating. This shocking number was massively outstripped by the loss of wildlife. An estimated 3 billion mammals, reptiles, birds were decimated. Retiles and amphibians were the hardest hit.

The desire to help raise money for the important work that conservation agencies were doing to help animals injured or orphaned by the fires along side general conservation projects resulted in the idea for the book and the call went out for contributions that soon came pouring in.  

Australia's unique wildlife has been under threat since colonisation. Massive loss of habitat and introduction of non-native species as well as hunting of animals considered to be a threat to farming has wreaked havoc on Australia's fauna for over two centuries. People are increasingly urbanized and dislocated from nature. 

My own knowledge of Australian flora and fauna is limited - something I found quite hard when I first came to live here last year. Although no expert on British wildlife, I could identify a number of trees, wild flowers, birds and butterflies. Arriving in Australia I was surrounded by plants and trees new to me. Staying in a Melbourne AirB&B three years ago, I woke to some exotic birdsong. Internet research told me it was a magpie. So different from the British magpies that rattled away in my North London garden ash tree, I wasn't sure if I could believe the information, but observation soon showed me it was indeed the large Australian magpie.

The first bird I saw in the tiny garden of my new house just over a year ago was a - blackbird. I'm very pleased to hear his beautiful song as he sits in a tree-top and sings his heart out but I confess I was hoping for a uniquely Australian bird. They soon arrived. Not many, but so far the garden has hosted  red wattlebirds, a very noisy little wattlebird, butcherbirds, a pied currawong, (seen and heard only once) annoying little common mynahs (non-natives) and nearby I see and hear beautiful rainbow lorikeets, magpies, magpie-larks, galahs, sulphur crested cockatoos and, once, a sighting of a beautiful blue superb fairy wren. Venturing further with my sister, an expert birder, I saw and learned to identify a number more, although she saw far more than I did!

Back in my garden, skinks and huge woodlice hide beneath stones and golden orb spiders spin webs. A few butterflies flit around (not yet all identified as they will not keep still) and bees visit my lavender. 

Encounters with mammals have been more limited. The lettuce and tomato-seedling eating possums bouncing over my roof at night did not endear themselves to me, but now my tomatoes are flourishing in a cage and my lettuce garden lives in a hanging basket we are on better terms. Sometimes at night we examine each other through my window.

Before lockdown, I met the famous bats/flying foxes of Kew (who now have their own Twitter account after a very nasty local MP suggested exterminating them.) On our walk in Cranborne Gardens, my sister and I encountered a large wallaby, and on our trip on Puffing Billy the train stopped for an echidna to take its time to cross the line. I've encountered an Australian fur-seal having a bask in the sun on a hot day and enjoyed seeing pods of dolphins on a cold grey day while walking the Bay Trail. Now we are able to get out and about I hope my wildlife encounters will significantly increase.

Reading this beautiful book, my knowledge and appreciation of Australia's wildlife is developing rapidly. I've learned of species I'd not been aware of and am learning more about their habitat and nature but this isn't a text book. It's a book of wildlife encounters, some by experts who are studying animal behaviour, others by writers, many of whom have written books I've mentioned on previous blog posts, who have enjoyed unexpected relationships with the animals who live in their gardens or local environment. 

This important book is also a call to help make us all more aware of the plight of Australian wildlife. I for one don't want my granddaughters to read about animals that once lived in the country of their birth but are now extinct.

This is a book to dip in and out of, to savour and to come back to again and again. It's fast becoming one of my precious books.  

Animal Make Us Human, published by Penguin Life 2020 is widely available in bookshops.